February 2nd, 2021 by Jennifer Sensiba
In a recent article, I asked for help finding more information about EV charging infrastructure in China. Specifically, I wasn’t able to find any maps of chargers to see what the situation is like. For most of the world, the Plugshare app gives good information, but China is mostly blank.
Fortunately, several readers came through and helped me find exactly what I was looking for. The most helpful suggestion was to use NIO’s app. Getting the app was a little bit of a challenge, though. I know a little bit of Chinese from college, and spent some time in Taiwan doing volunteer work. Between what little I know, some snippets of English on the NIO Chinese site, and a little luck, I managed to get the site to give me a link to an APK file for my Android phone. Unfortunately, the APK file was only for a Chinese app store of some kind, but from there I was able to install the NIO app.
Unlike Tesla, you don’t need to own a NIO vehicle to use their app. In fact, the app tries to get you to sign up for an account and shows you the various models for sale.
After clicking the car at the bottom, the map was pretty easy to find. After scrolling down a bit, the map marker with lightning was easy enough for even Chinese semi-literate me to find.
What I Found Was Embarrassing For The US
Charging is standardized in China around the GB/T plug, so a charging station for a NIO and a charging station for any other EV is all the same. Only Tesla stations are proprietary and won’t let other cars charge. This means that the stations listed in the NIO map give me a really good idea of what charging is like for Chinese EV owners!
It also shows that the US made a strategic mistake in not standardizing sooner, as we have a fragmented charging infrastructure of Tesla, CCS, and CHAdeMO plugs, but that’s not the most embarrassing thing.
The text at the bottom of the screen is the Chinese version of my location. It says “America, New Mexico State, Do na an na county” and then the street. Every station I looked up, it told me that I was thousands of kilometers away.
The above screenshot shows the charging map of the Beijing region. Don’t let the map fool you, though. Each white number is how many stations are near that point, and could be up to half way to another white number. The map just collapses the points down to one point to keep the map from being too cluttered. When you zoom in, you’ll see dozens of stations for each number, with their own blue number to indicate that it’s showing the actual location of a DCFC station and its stalls.
In other words, the area around Beijing is literally so well covered in charging stations that mapping things the way US charging map apps work would be too cluttered to be readable. We are literally that hilariously and hopelessly behind China for charging infrastructure.
I zoomed in on Shanghai and found the same thing. Zooming in a little closer, I found that even then, the map was quite cluttered with charging points. Each blue circle’s number tells you the number of stalls at each point, and they’re all at least 60 kW, with many 120 or 160 kW chargers available. The grey circles are 7 kW level 2 stations, and there are many, many of them.
The blank areas of the map aren’t actually devoid of chargers. The app can only show a certain number of stations, and shows the closest ones to the black pin in the middle of the map. The rest of the region is covered in charging in much the same way.
Like Beijing, there are so many stations that the map is covered and the app literally can’t show them all to you.
You have to go pretty far west in China to find areas where charging isn’t literally covering the map. This is the area around Xining, the largest city on the Tibetan Plateau. To get there in an EV (assuming you are Chinese or have the proper permits), it wouldn’t even be a problem in a car with the range of my LEAF. The plugs are only 30-50 miles apart at most all the way out to there, and this is the point where the stations are only starting to really thin out on the map and look like a US EV charging map.
Most of the Chinese population lives east of there, so the thinning coverage makes sense. They obviously prioritized travel to the more populated places before they started working on going out to western and far western China.
Looking at different routes, the only places without stations are western Tibet and most of Xinjiang. One could drive the longest range EVs out to Urumqi (which has stations), but EVs with shorter range wouldn’t quite be able to make the trip today. This might sound like a failure, but consider the distances involved and consider that they have any stations at all along the route. It seems likely that more stations are going to go in along those highways, making the area a bit of a frontier for EVs.
Given that air pollution is the biggest problem they’re trying to solve with EVs, it makes sense that they’d try to cover the hell out of the parts of China that have most of the population and everywhere between those. Covering areas that aren’t experiencing so much pollution isn’t a big deal.
The other thing to consider from this screenshot of the region is that there are large areas with basically no human settlement, and thus will probably never see any EV infrastructure outside of a few highways that connect the settlements in the area. Most of the land is too rugged to be of much human use, or in the case of the Taklamakan desert, there are 60-300 foot tall dunes that shift daily, sometimes rolling into settlements and burying people’s houses.
The only thing that would even make sense is covering the highways with basic coverage, and that’s in progress. In sum, only a few remaining edge cases for long range travel aren’t covered in a country with over a billion people, and they’re obviously making progress on the longest routes to their smaller cities that are practically in the middle of nowhere.
The US Should Be Embarrassed
Being the #1 wealthiest country, it’s embarrassing that the #2 country would have such good EV charging coverage while there are many populated and frequently traveled parts of the US that most EVs couldn’t get to. We really should be a lot further along in our infrastructure.
Yes, Tesla vehicles have fairly good coverage, but would be able to use other stations built with available adapters, so the situation in that regard isn’t that different.
There are probably two reasons for the US being so far behind. First, we haven’t experienced the kind of disastrous pollution that China experienced 10-15 years ago for 40-50 years, making the adoption of EVs not seem like such an urgent thing. Also, we have a pretty heavily entrenched oil industry that has a lot of political influence. Despite all of the problems with fossil fuels, we still heavily subsidize it, for example.
The excuse I’ve seen is that there aren’t that many EVs, but that’s a Catch-22. People don’t want to buy EVs that couldn’t make the occasional road trip without infrastructure, so they didn’t buy them, and for that reason the infrastructure isn’t built. The cycle has to be broken. Building more infrastructure is what it takes to get people to buy the EVs that would use it.
Obviously, the US can’t do what China does and force the issue. We have a much more limited government structure that can’t tell people to only drive gas cars on odd or even days. To do that would create a democratic backlash that would result in the rule ending. Even incentives can be politically controversial enough to keep them from happening.
But we don’t need to do that for EVs to succeed. We only need to remove the impediments. Free market solutions, like ending fossil fuel subsidies, would do a lot of that. Tax breaks for EV charging stations would be another way to help without forcing anyone.
The only thing we can’t do is let the status quo prevail. That’s how we got outclassed by China.
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About the Author
Jennifer Sensiba Jennifer Sensiba is a long time efficient vehicle enthusiast, writer, and photographer. She grew up around a transmission shop, and has been experimenting with vehicle efficiency since she was 16 and drove a Pontiac Fiero. She likes to explore the Southwest US with her partner, kids, and animals.
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