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USA; Electric Vehicles’ Role in Meeting New Efficiency Rules

One man’s test of the electric vehicle charging infrastructure along the West Coast highlights the hurdles ahead for states and localities in meeting the Obama administration’s new fuel efficiency rules.

Tony Williams had a wedding to go to last summer. Airfare was too expensive for the trip from Southern California to Washington state, so he decided to drive. “I bet I could do it in an electric car,” he told himself. “It would just take me longer.” So began a one-man test of the electric vehicle (EV) charging infrastructure along what has been dubbed the West Coast Electric Highway.

The 1,400-mile border-to-border route from Mexico to Canada on Interstate 5 is well traveled, except that nobody has driven it in an all-electric vehicle with an estimated range of 70-90 miles. Do the math. It’s a long trip for a short-range vehicle. Still, just because it hadn’t been done didn’t mean that it couldn’t be done.

Williams’ adventure may seem a bit whimsical, but figuring out how we can travel long distances without burning up a lot of carbon is serious business. In August, the Obama administration issued new rules requiring automakers to manufacture vehicles by 2025 that have an average fuel efficiency of 54.5 mpg. Electric power will be a factor in achieving that goal, with states and localities playing a prominent role in marshaling the rules, regulations and resources that will put in place charging stations for the next generation of vehicles to travel from point A to point B without getting stranded.

Williams’ trailblazing drive proved it could be done. “I’m no Lindy,” says Williams, an unemployed pilot and electric vehicle enthusiast, referring to aviator Charles Lindbergh’s transatlantic flight. “But in terms of an adventure, it was pretty high because there were a lot of unknowns.” He didn’t know, for example, whether charging stations would be available. Then he found out that Oregon and Washington planned to place charging stations on their portion of I-5. In fact, 15 new fast-charging stations were lit up along the north-south corridor across the two states just 16 days before Williams headed north. The nascent charging infrastructure is a curious mix of established players, including a public-private partnership involving two state DOTs, a host of startups and even Williams’ own nonprofit charging service in San Diego.
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