The US Interstate Highway network shows us the future of electric vehicle charging
On my recent trip across the country, I realized how strange America’s road network is. The numbers can be inconsistent, construction practices differ (sometimes significantly), and sometimes the system just isn’t really complete. US Highway 70 between Raleigh, North Carolina, and the coast, now also known as “Future Interstate 42,” is a prime example of incompleteness.
The biggest downside was that the road continued to switch between the freeway and the surface street, often without any real warning other than a lowering of the speed limit and maybe a few flashing lights. For attentive people, this is not at all a problem, but we know how it goes. A tractor-trailer driver almost hit me from behind when I was pulled over at the first traffic light in a town, and there have been several times that someone randomly nailed the brakes in front of me because they lifted his head in telephone stupor and suddenly noticed a traffic light (but didn’t quite realize it was green before slamming the pedal off just in case).
Incomplete and unfinished highways
Once they’ve improved or bypassed those sections of road and turned it all into a cohesive interstate standard highway, things will be a lot safer and easier, but for now it’s a weird mishmash that’s annoying. those who pay attention and trap those who are not. .
The experience reminded me of some things my grandfather told me about the freeways decades ago. I grew up with I-25, I-10, and I-40, all of which were a continuous four-lane stretch through New Mexico, but there was a time when only one side was terminated on several stretches, and for years there was a freeway with only 2 lanes near Truth or Consequences.
However, not all sections of the highway have been so fortunate. Some were never completed at all, often due to local opposition, funding issues, or a combination of the two. If you’ve driven a lot in Los Angeles, you’ve probably noticed the odd way La Cienega Blvd. turns into a freeway in the Baldwin Hills, but then reverts to a normal street on the other side. Turns out it was meant to be part of a Laurel Canyon freeway, but opposition to it, especially in its namesake canyon, has doomed the project to become just a weird little bit.
Entire books could be written on these incomplete highways, but you can read all about them here on Wikipedia.
Gaps and non-compliance with standards
Another strange thing that you will notice if you start looking at the maps is the gaps in the Interstate freeway system. Some of the gaps exist because there is a plan to eventually fill them, so the states that built them have given them the same number. Some of these gaps, especially for Interstate 69, are huge, and no one knows when (or if) the states between segments will ever fill them.
In other cases, there are actually duplicate Interstate numbers for the freeways, there is no connection plan. The standards body that chooses Interstate numbers believes that these duplicate numbered highways are so far apart that they won’t cause confusion, and they didn’t want states to continue using N, S, E or W as suffixes for Interstate numbers.
For a variety of reasons, there are permanent sections of the Interstate freeway that just don’t meet standards. Interstate 19 (America’s only metric highway) turns into a regular surface street for the last bit where it connects to a border crossing with Mexico. It made sense to keep the I-19 signs so people didn’t get lost and could easily find the freeway. There is also the famous section of freeway in Breezewood, Pa. Where an Interstate freeway had to end before it could connect to a toll freeway for legal reasons. It is known for the tight packing of restaurant chains and gas stations.
For convenience, there are also a few places where an Interstate freeway has an “on-grade” intersection with another road, or in other words, there is an encounter with a no-exit road and underpasses or overpasses. In most cases, this is because the freeway has to be connected to a rarely used road or to a single home or business, and it just doesn’t make financial sense to spend millions to build a real setup. exit for the few vehicles that would enter or exit the freeway over there.
There are also a number of inconsistencies in the Interstate Highway System numbering system. For example, there is no I-50 or I-60 freeway as those numbers could conflict with the US road system (which has higher numbers when heading south, to the opposite of what highways do). There are also “child” roads that never connect with their parent freeway for a variety of reasons, and even an entire freeway in California without any parents (I-238), which was simply given the state freeway number of. ‘origin.
What all of this can tell us about the future of EV charging stations
Charging station networks are experiencing growth difficulties similar to those of the first interstate highway system and, until very recently, in some cases were roughly equivalent to the original “automatic tracks” that existed before the interstate and US highway systems. The first people to drive across the United States had a rough time, including a military expedition that included a young Dwight D. Eisenhower, who later became a big supporter of the system.
Until Electrify America stations popped up along major highways, driving across the country in something like a Nissan LEAF could be a huge pain. Brian Kent’s Negative Carbon Roadtrip took a lot longer than most in their right mind realized (on the order of a few months, but taking a complicated route), and even shorter jaunts in my LEAF 2018 were still tremendous pain. The early Tesla owners, who took these kinds of road trips before the Supercharger network grew, have seen similar trials.
Even Tesla’s well-developed network of superchargers does not meet all needs. Sure, that’s way ahead of what you’d get with a CHAdeMO or CCS car, but there are still significant gaps, and Tesla has spent a lot of money on the problem. Biden says he wants to build 500,000 charging stations, which would certainly help solve the problem if such a thing could go through the Senate, but again, this is another shot of money, and it would certainly leave still loopholes in the system that make it difficult to change it.
The big point here is that throwing money at a problem doesn’t guarantee that it will be perfect, even if we have been spending money on it for decades. The Interstate Highway System still has gaps, inconsistencies and continues to catch up as rural areas expand and cities push. Cities that were small when the system was new are becoming major players, requiring even more roads and expansions, so it’s an ongoing process that won’t really catch up. Anyone who promises to fix everything is selling a lie, even if they are doing it for good reasons.
I’m not saying that we shouldn’t keep trying, because it’s an important thing to have the best possible result. However, we must keep our expectations realistic. No big investment or government spending spree will create a truly perfect EV charging network. Getting 90-95% of the way is probably enough.
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