March 17, 2013

News & Features

Plug-in protocol: etiquette for EV charging stations

Special to NWautos

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Chevrolet Volt owners charge their vehicles at a dealership in September. (General Motors)

As more electric vehicles and plug-in hybrids hit the streets — and with at least a dozen new models poised to enter showrooms this year — the competition to "fill up" at the more than 300 public charging stations in Washington state could send sparks flying and tempers flaring.

While there haven't yet been any reports of fisticuffs, nobody seems sure about the proper protocol. When two vehicles arrive at once, who should defer to the other? When one car has finished charging and its owner is not present, is it kosher for the next driver to unplug it so that he or she can charge up? What can an EV driver do if an ICE (internal-combustion engine) vehicle is using a charging station for a parking spot?

For Steven Lough, a Seattle resident who is the president of the Seattle Electric Vehicle Association, charging-station etiquette is simply a matter of common sense.

When he recently drove his new all-electric Mitsubishi i-MiEV to Issaquah, he decided to "top off" his battery at one of the two public charging stations there. At the first, two Nissan Leafs were plugged in. So he drove to the second station, located at a Walgreens drugstore.

There he encountered a Chevrolet Volt, a plug-in hybrid. Unlike i-MiEVs, Volts aren't as locked to the power grid because their gasoline-powered engines kick in when the electric battery runs low. Lough says that some Volt drivers pride themselves on using the electric motor as much as possible; its electric-only range is estimated at 38 miles.

In this case, the owner of the Volt happened to be in her car where it was parked in the charging area. After chatting with Lough, she agreed to pull out so that he could plug in. They determined that he took precedence because his car relied solely on electricity for power.

Lough says that since most electric vehicles on the road have a range of between 50 and 250 miles, most urban drivers don't need to charge during the day. They usually have enough electricity to scurry around town, waiting to recharge until they get home.

He believes the biggest problem is "cross-country driving, when somebody wants to go from, say, Seattle to Portland and the Centralia charging station is blocked." A conflict here might mean unnecessary delays, frustration and raised blood pressure.

As it stands now, Washington's public charging stations are concentrated mostly on the east side of the Puget Sound, where most electric-vehicle owners live. Parking spaces are reserved for vehicles to use those charging stations, with signage indicating that. But there are no laws — city, state or federal — enforcing who can park there.

Lough says other members of the Seattle EV club, the second-largest such group in the nation, often report that drivers of gas-powered vehicles commandeer those spaces. In fact, club members have an expression for it: "We call it icing, as in 'I've been iced,' " Lough says. "That's when an internal-combustion-engine car has taken one of our charging spots."

Lough and other EV advocates are pushing for legislation that would restrict who can park in charging-station spaces: only drivers of electrics and plug-in hybrids actively recharging. Anyone else could be ticketed and/or towed, as is the case with handicapped parking spaces.

In the future, it seems certain that drivers can expect tougher rules governing charging-station use. But in the meantime, friendly chats and sensible behavior will have to suffice. Just got iced? Be nice.

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