Currently, the best estimates suggest that upwards of 80% of electric vehicle charging happens at home. Which means we’re basically treating our electric cars like any other gadget; we plug them in at night and however long their batteries last the next day, well, that’s how long they last. If we want to see wider adoption of EVs, however, one thing is obvious: We need to make it possible for drivers to charge in places other than their garage. It’s a more complex problem than it might seem, but a series of reports by the New York-based architecture and design studio WXY will at least give urban planners and prospective charging station entrepreneurs a place to start.
The studies, sponsored by the U.S. Department of Energy and the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority, address a major obstacle standing in the way of more ubiquitous charging—namely, that no one knows exactly what ubiquitous charging looks like. And in fairness, that’s because it doesn’t look like any one thing. Whereas gas stations, generally speaking, all follow one template, EV charging can and will take a number of forms in the years to come. Supermarkets will offer charging stations in their lots; offices might let you plug in on parking decks. You could even conceivably juice up while parallel parked on a city street.
There are a number of companies that are eager to piece together this network, but the sheer number of new variables involved makes it a complicated endeavor. "Nobody’s really figured out how to profit off of installing charging stations," says Adam Lubinksy, a managing principal at WXY. But the studio’s work to isolate and identify those variables won’t just be handy for those hopeful companies in the here and now—it will be hugely beneficial to drivers down the line. Without a common design language, it’s easy to imagine how things could get messy quickly. Think about how inconvenient it would be if gas stations weren’t so uniform—if the pumps at Sunoco stations, say, worked differently than the ones at Shell.
To avoid these sorts of complications, WXY dedicated a report specifically to design guidelines for prospective EV sites, a clearly delineated list of things that should be considered as proposals become real sites in the built environment. Essentially, it’s a manual for building an electric-car charging station.
The study identifies 22 design elements in all, divided into three categories: installation, access, and operation. The first looks at the infrastructural nuts and bolts of the site, including factors like physical dimensions of the station and its proximity to the power grid. Access deals with the factors that shape the basic user experience, things like proximity to traffic and building entrances, lighting, and signage. The operation category is concerned with the particulars of the site—the agreement between the host and operating company, say, or the price drivers will be charged for their juice. In subsequent pages, all of these elements get further elaboration—and illustration. WXY includes diagrams that show how an EV charging station might be distinguished from, say, a regular parking spot (a white battery icon on a painted green background, similar to the way handicapped parking spots are designated), and even what the user interface of the station could look like (complete with space for a video advertisement).
With the report, WXY does its best to bring the "how" of electric charging stations into focus. Lubinksy mentioned a different study, conducted in Tokyo, that illuminates the "why." Researchers wanted to see how a spate of new charging stations would affect the behavior of EV drivers in the area. They built them, Lubinksy says, "and usage of electric vehicles just skyrocketed. Even though a lot of people would still charge at home, it helped people deal with that range anxiety, just knowing that they were out there." Those results suggest that as essential as charging stations are for refueling, they provide something else important, too: reassurance.