Best Buy parking lots are ideal for EV charging. (Flickr/NCReedplayer)
For electric vehicle (EV) advocates, it's a no-brainer: Big-box stores have huge parking lots, and it's in their interest to keep you shopping as long as possible. Given that, why wouldn't they be friendly to installing EV charging in their lots? And, hell, won't they just make it free (a $2 to $4 value) so they'll have an advantage over the competition?
For some reason, however, the usually publicity-friendly big boxes are curiously unwilling to say much about the idea.
The beauty of big box plug-ins, the thinking goes, is that fast-charging an EV (with 480 volts, which big boxes will have but you won't) will take 15 to 20 minutes, and those consumers aren't going to sit in their cars and watch the juice flow. They'll go into the store!
Jonathan Read, CEO of fast-moving charging company ECOtality, offers a vision of consumers holding swipable "charge cards" (get it?) and for 60 cents or $1 getting topped off with electric power as they sip their Starbucks latte. "We think charging will be stimulated by the government, but ultimately it will be offered by the private sector," he said. "Soon the charging will be ubiquitous in the retail landscape, and companies will be at a competitive disadvantage if they don't offer it."
There are complications, of course. My colleague Matthew DeBord of Slate's "Shifting Gears" blog agrees that Wal-Mart, Target, Home Depot, Best Buy and the others "have the lot space," but unless they offer charging at every spot (probably cost-prohibitive) congestion could occur. "It isn't hard to imagine charge lines' forming, or the need to employ service personnel to act almost as valets, if people are going to shop while charging. It's also unclear whether fast-charge stations would need to be carefully attended during the charging process, to prevent vehicles from staying hooked up to the chargers once they're fully re-juiced."
One way of avoiding the need for EV valets is a charging solution proposed by a new company called Evatran, which starting late this year will offer hands-free electric fill-ups. Using the concept of inductive charging, cars will drive into a parking space and draw the front of their vehicles over the concrete barrier at the end of the space. A charger embedded in the barrier will connect with a "vehicle adapter" on the car, and the charge can jump a half-inch gap (without presenting a shock hazard, they say).
I was hoping to talk about this with the retailers themselves, but most didn't reply to repeated queries. From Target's Amy Reilly: "I understand you called Target seeking information about electric car chargers in our parking lots. We've got nothing specific to share regarding this topic."
She told me my story wasn't "specific to Target," whereupon I offered to make it so. "I'm sorry, but no," she said.
Paula Baldwin at Best Buy, which is already selling electric Brammo motorcycles, was a bit more forthcoming. "Thanks for tapping us re: the EV charging station story you're working on," she emailed. "Best Buy is testing a number of options in the e-vehicle space, but has no definitive plans around EV charging at this time."
They directed me to the Best Buy EV Website, where the following video about their work with plug-in Brammo motorcycles resides:
No official response from Home Depot, though I did talk to a sympathetic publicist who thought EV parking lot charging was a great idea.
Rebecca Hough, a spokeswoman for Evatran, has a possible explanation for the relative silence. "We're in a trial year for electric vehicles," she said, "and a lot of big-box retailers are very hesitant to jump on board right now. When the Chevy Volt, Coda sedan and Nissan Leaf come out, it will be something they'll jump on.
Hough said she'd worked with an Atlanta-based shopping center developer who said it cost approximately $1.50 to get a customer in the door. "They saw a business case in offering EV charging," she said.
I do too. My impression is that large retailers like to control the publicity flow, and they're afraid, at this early stage, of saying something that will come back to haunt them. But I just want to talk about concepts, not commitments. I won't bite.
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