How charging infrastructure plays a critical role in the success of EVs

Introducing "Drivers of Change," a new column from GreenBiz, VERGE and Rocky Mountain Institute focused on the intersection of cities, transportation and innovative technologies.

Electric vehicle charging stations are the wallflowers of the car-fueling dance. Traditional gas stations take center stage; they’re in your face and more or less everywhere. Meanwhile, most EV charging stations do not attract a great deal of attention; they’re subtle. Whether mounted to a wall in a dimly lit parking garage or perched discreetly on a sidewalk outside a shopping mall, they very easily blend into their environment.

Of course, some manufacturers have sought to change that, but for the most part, charging stations resemble utility or electrical service equipment, and that’s exactly what they are -- a technology that delivers electrons to electric vehicle batteries.

Nevertheless, the charging station industry has grown considerably in the past couple years. Alongside it, so has an array of supporters -- cities, automakers, nonprofits and champions of electric vehicle technology -- who are banking on its importance for the success of the EV market. That is because, to many, a charging station is much more than simply charging technology; it's also a billboard advertisement.

EV charging infrastructure is utilitarian, but it’s also a key lever that has the potential to dramatically impact the market for electric vehicles. In the coming weeks, I'll address a host of related questions. Here’s a preview:

If you build it, will they charge?

Over the past three years, cities, states, and the federal government have poured millions of dollars into the deployment of electric vehicle charging infrastructure, some of which was installed in areas that had yet to see any of the actual cars. On the face of it, this if-you-build-it model makes sense. Most drivers know very little about the experience of owning, driving, and charging an EV, so by providing opportunities for the vehicles to charge in visible locations, you introduce the public to the technology. But in this chicken-vs.-egg scenario, which is the driving force? Do public charging stations prompt greater EV adoption, or does greater EV adoption require more public charging stations?

Next page: Locating charging stations and footing the bill