Charging Stations of the Future

Update: and they've arrived.... courtesy of Tesla Motors.

The average stop at a modern day gas station takes around five minutes. These stops are designed to be brief. The design of the modern gas station reflects a need for brevity and efficiency. You have to admire people who work in these uninhabitable places, because they're not typically pretty spots. Many gas stations smell awful. They're sparse, hard, and unwelcoming, choked with mechanics' bays, walls of tools, king-sized candy bars, corn nuts, bicycle locks, bags of sunflower seeds and pine scented car tschotchkes. Underneath it all, of course, is a toxic ocean of treated gasoline. In short, a gas station is the antithesis of a communal space. With the advent of electrical vehicles, though, we may enter a brief period of time when all that changes.

As we pass from gas reliance to all-electric vehicles, the concept of the gas station may simply evaporate like a splash of ethanol on hot asphalt. As long as electric vehicles must travel long distances away from home, and until the technology exists for vehicles to charge as they travel, remote charging stations may be necessary stops. These stops will take longer than five minutes. What does that say about how these places should be designed?

While most current charging stations now inhabit parking spaces in random stores and in front of Courthouses and Police stations, no city looks poised to map out a consistent or feasible solution for accommodating the glut of electric vehicles set to flood the market before 2020. No city has placed itself as a leader toward encouraging full charge stops for drivers just passing through. The technology isn't in place. The infrastructure isn't in place, either.

Converting existing gas facilities to reliable charging facilities may be a useful endeavor. It will allow for for consistent, reliably mapped way-points for long distance electric travelers to entertain themselves while their energy-depleted cars recharge.

Right now, a standard recharge on an all-electric vehicle (like the Leaf, or the Tesla S) takes anywhere between 2 and 7 hours, and a full three to four hundred mile supercharge may take, at bare minimum, 45 minutes. Civic planners take note: if these are places meant for more than just quick fifteen minute bathroom breaks, why not beautify them like you do rest areas? Why not make them into well developed rest areas, where people can do more than sit on benches and use the bathroom, for sake of the longer amounts of time travelers must spend there? Sure, some people may choose to sit in their cars and watch movies on their PEDs, or listen to music while their batteries juice up, but I find that idea - long lines of locked, inhabited cars silently charging - a bit ominous. The advent of electric vehicle culture is an opportunity to make public spaces more communal, as least for as long as electric vehicles are not advanced enough to be self-perpetuating or draw power from some remote source.

The transition to electric will happen slowly at first. It may begin with the appearance of charging plugs alongside standard pumps. Then, after a time, there might be more plugs than pumps. Then, at last, until the need for grounded plugs becomes obsolete, these 'Charge N Go' stations might be interesting places to inhabit.

Current car dealerships, oil change shops, mechanics and tire companies already have interior spaces like waiting rooms, where a single wall mounted television plays soap operas and cable news. There is usually a coffee carafe, with an accompanying tower of Styrofoam cups. Seats are hard plastic, and magazines are months out of date. Gas pumps are blocky, ugly things, stained and cracked and saturated in gasoline.

We can do better.

Charging an electric vehicle, so long as charging stations are necessary, will be a constant, familiar activity; even more so than having a car serviced, oil changed, or tires rotated. It's going to be a reality for travelers, until electric vehicles can self-perpetuate. So, for those far from home who must spend at least 45 minutes charging, it should be an attractive place to dwell. It should transcend those hard plastic seats and sterile interiors. It can be more than just a waiting room. Why not lay down sod and grass and trees? And how about plenty of shade? Make them like the nation's best rest areas - minus the serial killers. Strip out the ugly pumps and replace them with faux flora so you can plug your car into trees that also provide shade.

It may sound preposterous to you, but these sorts of radical reconstruction ideas can transform how we interact with our environment and with each other. It can change how we perceive everyday activities, such as charging the car. Don't merely consider the utility of what they're doing, but also consider their experience.

So imagine:

It's a hot, dusty day in New Mexico. You're about fifty miles from the Texas border and your old, beat up Leaf V5.0 is telling you, rather insistently, that it's time to find a plug. You're thousands of miles from home. Then you see it: an oasis of trees with a small, ranch-style building that looks crafted from adobe. You guide your tires onto a meshy path that winds through thick grass, and park in a shady spot near the center. You get out, and walk toward one of the trees, and reach into a knot on its trunk, and pull out the plug. Serene music plays overhead, but you hate that sort of music, so you push a button on the plug and the sound of wind chimes commences instead.

You leave your car locked and charging and glance at your watch. It will be about an hour before your battery is fully charged. You could stay in your car and keep the windows rolled down and read a book, but it's the middle of the day and the place is packed with others routinely waiting. There are many other cars in the large grove of faux trees, all silently charging, and the other drivers are gathered in and around the building. Some of them talk, others reading or browse their tablets. There's a small arcade and a shop inside, like any other gas station, but what separates this experience from the gas stations of old is that there's a common understanding that people here all must wait and show patience. They're not here to, as they once did, pump gas in a few minutes and scramble out.

Of course, the cars that self-charge are already beginning to appear on the road. Those drivers never stop for anyone. They don't have to. During the transition from gas to electric, though, the plodding fits and starts have taught some of us to slow down again, even if just for a while, and appreciate each other's company, and the land we inhabit.


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