Lauren Goode

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Electric-Vehicle Owners Get Charged Up Over Charging-Station Manners

Dimitrios Papadogonas, a vice president of marketing at Silicon Valley-based ChargePoint, was sitting in the governor’s office not long ago, when he received an alert on his mobile phone.

It was from his company’s own app, letting him know that a stranger had unplugged Papadogonas’s electric vehicle, parked two blocks away in a public garage.

OkaytoUnplug

“I was unplugged for no reason whatsoever. No reason. They didn’t plug in their car — they just unplugged me,” Papadogonas said. “No note!”

Call it next-level first-world problems, but some electric-vehicle owners are bristling at what they see as poor etiquette at the charging station — something that wouldn’t have even existed just two or three years ago. As of September, there were roughly 11,500 plug-in electric vehicles in the San Francisco Bay Area. They come with standard owner manuals, but no Emily Post books on “EV Etiquette.”

One perceived offense is being unplugged without notice or warning, or having to unplug other idle, fully charged cars that have been parked for hours. Others complain about non-EV owners being in parking spots designated for EVs, and some even think it’s wrong when hybrid EVs — which also run on gas — are parked in prime charging spots.

“Please don’t park your MS in an EVSE parking spot unless you need to charge,” a online commenter pleaded in a Tesla-related forum last month, referring to Tesla’s Model S. “On several occasions I’ve seen an MS taking up an EVSE parking spot without charging. I even informed a MS owner that it was discourteous. … [H]is response was, ‘but these are the best parking spots.’”

Compounding the problem, industry insiders say, is a lack of standardization when it comes to the indicator lights that let people know the car doesn’t need any more juice.

Forrest North, a former Tesla engineer and the chief operating officer of EV-software company Recargo, said he often hears stories like these — or experiences them himself.

“I’ve been to this exact station and seen a brand-new Leaf, and on another day a brand-new Volt, parked in this spot and not plugged in,” he said, gesturing to an electric charging station in a parking garage on California Avenue in Palo Alto, Calif.

“That would be like parking in front of a gas station that’s completely full, and you just park there and go inside to get some jerky or a sandwich, while there’s a line of people waiting to use it.” North adds that he has witnessed people getting tickets for parking for an extended period of time in EV spots.

Papadogonas of ChargePoint says there are more than 2,000 stations across the Bay Area, and that the year-over-year growth rate is around 70 percent.

Some are public stations, such as the one North referenced. Others are technically private, like the ones sponsored by local tech companies, meant to attract and retain employees. There are countless other charging options at private residences, with some people even opening up their houses to the general EV public by listing their address on sites like Recargo’s PlugShare.com.

Most are free to use, and even if you’re getting charged to charge, the cost is usually nominal compared with filling up a gas tank: A recent report from the Santa Clara County Department of Planning and Development estimates that charging a purely electric vehicle enough for a 100-mile trip would cost $3.74, compared with $13.36 for the same trip made by a gas-fueled compact sedan.

EV charging

So it’s often not the cost, but the time it takes to charge, that lends itself to potentially impolite behavior. Charging stations consist of Level 1 chargers (110- to 120-volt outlets), slightly more powerful Level 2 chargers, or Level 3 “fast” chargers.

Depending on the vehicle’s range and the type of charger the owner plugs in to, charging up an EV can take as little as 15 minutes or as long as several hours, which means it can be hard to know when it’s okay to unplug someone else and when it’s not.

Issues like these have spurred EV bloggers to post etiquette tips online. Brad Berman, a writer and researcher at Recargo-owned Plugincars.com, offered some tips this past summer in a comprehensive post, including: “Charge only when necessary,” “Don’t unplug plug-in hybrids” and “No nasty notes.”

Marc Geller, a writer and advocate alongside Berman at PluginCars.com who focuses mostly on policy around EVs, said he has never encountered any overtly bad behavior. Still, Geller carries with him a green laminated sign that displays his full phone number underneath text that reads: “Okay to Unplug.” He leaves this sign on the dashboard in his car when it is, in fact, okay to unplug.

Others have no qualms in being the “unplugger” themselves. Robert Olson, an Oakland, Calif., resident who drives a relatively rare Honda Fit EV, said that before he unplugs a stranger’s car, he usually looks to see if there are hybrids he could unplug first, or whether the cars are fully charged.

“Most people don’t mind [if you unplug], because they understand that charging stations are limited,” Olson insists.

Plus, EV owners have one option that gas guzzlers don’t: They can charge up at home, which the majority of them do.

Recargo, along with PlugInsights, just released survey results that show the overwhelming majority of EV charging (more than 80 percent) takes place at home, with only 10 percent of EV drivers using public charging on a monthly basis. Tesla Model S drivers are especially likely to charge at home.

But the PlugInsights report also notes that as availability of Level 3 fast chargers in public places expands, the amount of public charging is expected grow, too.

Assuming that public charging does grow, EV drivers and non-EV drivers alike might want to keep in mind the age-old saying: Mind your manners.

A version of this article originally appeared in Stanford University’s Peninsula Press.


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