Find out firsthand what it’s like to be an early adopter of EVs in middle America. BlastPoint’s Tony Cebzanov and Marianne Holohan talk candidly about their experiences owning and driving EVs in Pittsburgh, PA. Their consensus: EVs are great; charging infrastructure, not so much.
There are a lot of first-time EV owners out on the road right now, given that 2021 was an epic year for EV sales. Their experiences have likely varied widely, depending on where they live. As BlastPoint’s new 2022 EV Adoption Outlook makes clear, the US is a patchwork of areas that are ready to adopt (green), will soon be ready (yellow), or experience roadblocks to adoption (red).
Here in Pittsburgh, PA – known colloquially as the Paris of Appalachia – BlastPoint’s Director of Engineering, Tony Cebzanov, and Director of Content, Marianne Holohan, bought their first plug-in electric vehicles. Tony, who owns a home with a garage in the suburban North Hills, bought a used 2019 Kia Niro EV last winter. Marianne, who owns a home with on-street parking in the city, bought a new 2021 Kia Niro PHEV this last fall. Both live in “yellow” neighborhoods on the BlastPoint adoption map, meaning that they are among the first of their neighbors to buy an EV – and that there’s likely not a lot of public charging nearby.
We asked them to share what they love about the experience of driving electric, as well as their hot takes on potential improvements to the experience.
The Pros of Living that EV Life
Fighting climate change
When asked what they like most about their new EVs, both Tony and Marianne put reduced emissions at the top of the list. “I’m very happy that I can get in my car knowing that I’m not contributing to climate change the way I would be if I were driving a gas-powered vehicle,” Tony said. Marianne added, “I have two young children, and putting my money where my mouth is about climate change makes me feel like I’m doing my best to protect their future.”
A fun, powerful, and quiet drive
Being green is all well and good, but what about performance? Tony said his car is “really fun to drive because all of the power goes right to the drive wheels without a transmission in the middle.” Marianne said, “I’m not a ‘car person,’ but I really love my new car. In particular, I like that it’s so quiet when in EV mode.” She noted that she’s startled her neighbor a few times because he didn’t hear her car pull up behind him.
Easy service visits
So far, “service appointments are a breeze,” Tony said. “I can get a state inspection without worrying about emissions testing, and routine maintenance is basically just rotating the tires. No replacing spark plugs, no engine tune-ups, no muffler to be replaced, etc.”
However, he does worry about the availability of mechanics with EV know-how if something were to go wrong. “Pennsylvania isn’t one of the states that has adopted California’s ZEV mandate,” he explained, “so a lot of automakers who sell EVs don’t sell them here, and I’m not sure how many qualified EV techs there are if something happens to my car.”
Refunds & other incentives
Another advantage of EV ownership are the refunds and other incentives offered by federal and state governments, as well as energy providers. Marianne says that she wasn’t expecting to be able to afford an electric vehicle, but once she started shopping for a car, she noticed “there are more and more models by major brands, like Kia, that are roughly equivalent in price to a new gas-fueled vehicle, especially when you factor in the tax breaks and state refunds.” While she said the price tag will remain a major barrier for a lot of Americans, “it seems like a lot of middle-class car buyers like myself don’t think they have EV options, but they actually do.”
Tony and Marianne have the same energy provider, Duquesne Light Company, which offers an EV rebate as well as a special variable rate that lowers the cost of electricity at non-peak hours.
Biggest Pain Point: Charging
Both Tony and Marianne had a lot to say about charging, particularly how it could be improved. Charging is a pain point for both of them, but for different reasons. Tony has the most concern about charging in public on longer trips, while Marianne has more problems with at-home charging.
Charging at Home
Living in the suburbs, Tony does most of his charging from a Level 2 charger he had installed in his garage. This is, essentially, the ideal situation for EVs right now. He said that, when he’s driving locally, he doesn’t need to use public chargers much.
Living in a city neighborhood without private parking, Marianne has a very different experience with at-home charging. In fact, the lack of a garage or driveway on her property is the major reason why she bought a PHEV instead of a fully electric vehicle. She says at-home charging has been tricky and required troubleshooting.
The Level 1 “trickle charger” that came with her car, which plugs into a regular outlet, didn’t have a long enough cord to reach from her street parking spot to the outlet on her porch. “I had to do research on whether I could use an extension cord without catching something on fire,” she says, since the instructions from the manufacturer say not to use an extension cord. “Ultimately I wound up on a Reddit thread, where I found advice about what cord to use.” The extension cord has to cross the sidewalk, and Marianne worries that someone will trip on it. “I’m not sure about the feasibility of installing a Level 2 charger on the sidewalk, though.”
Lack of Access to Public Charging
Tony depends on publicly available chargers, particularly Level 3 fast chargers, for longer trips. At this point, he said, “availability is such that it requires doing some homework when planning a trip to ensure that a charger will be available when I need one.” While various apps can help with that, Tony experiences some range anxiety on longer trips. “You don’t realize how many gas stations there are out there until you pull up a DC Fast Charging map for upstate New York or central Michigan.”
Because Marianne drives a PHEV, she typically switches to HEV mode when taking longer trips, which significantly lessens her range anxiety. However, when driving in EV mode around town, she has some complaints about public charging availability. “A lot of chargers are in parking garages and not in public parking lots, which are most convenient and accessible for my daily errands,” she said. Lots owned by the City of Pittsburgh, which she uses most frequently, are not equipped with any chargers yet.
Marianne does have some go-to charging spots around the city. “My family has a zoo membership, and there’s a free charger in a prime location near the entrance,” she said. Another go-to spot is Bakery Square, a rehabbed old bakery complex turned shopping center and tech hub, which has numerous ChargePoint chargers and where parking is free for 2 hours on weekdays. She says she can almost fully charge her car for free there.
Charging App Fatigue
Juggling multiple charging apps is also an annoyance. “For non-Tesla vehicles, the charging infrastructure is fragmented, leading to a proliferation of smartphone apps and accounts you need to keep straight in order to plan a trip,” Tony said. Marianne added, “Once I couldn’t charge because the charging app wasn’t working and no one answered when I called the help hotline.”
Tony says that upgrades like Plug & Charge “could go a long way in minimizing the hassle of connecting to different charging networks.” However, he’s concerned it won’t be available to him. “It requires support in the cars themselves, and I don’t know if older models will get updated to be able to use it.”
And speaking of Tesla, Marianne complained that there are too many locations with Tesla-only chargers, and that those chargers are not often in use: “There’s a whole line of Tesla chargers at a local grocery store, and I’ve only ever seen one car charging there.” She sees this as a missed opportunity for the store: “I would go there more often if I could charge my Kia while grocery shopping.”
What EV Stakeholders Should Know
Based on Tony and Marianne’s experiences, there are a few key takeaways for stakeholders in the EV space, particularly utilities, automotive companies, municipalities, and retail brands.
Improving charging accessibility is key.
In order for EVs to truly become mainstream, the intentional planning of expanded charging infrastructure will have to be a top priority. Currently, charging distribution is patchy at best and won’t support widespread adoption.
Make affordable EV models more widely available.
Both Tony and Marianne had to travel to neighboring Ohio to buy their cars, despite living in a major metropolitan area. “When I searched Kia’s database for Niro PHEVs, there weren’t any in PA,” Marianne said. “The closest was Cleveland, which is where I wound up going.” Tony bought his car in Akron. “Most people will not be willing to travel that far for an EV. Car dealers are going to have to get smarter about where to have EVs on the lots,” Marianne added.
Realize that not all potential EV owners are alike.
Consumers in all sorts of living situations are interested in EVs, including renters. According to the recent SECC report, Understanding the Needs and Wants of Renters, a significant percentage of renters surveyed were thinking about buying an EV within the next few years. Providing incentives for landlords to install charging for MFUs, for example, will be needed to support this effort.
Understanding and operationalizing data is the best starting point for growing EV adoption across the US. As BlastPoint CTO & Co-Founder Tomer Borenstein told Utility Dive recently, “The types of people that we expect will buy vehicles in the next few years are going to drastically change.”
Download BlastPoint’s 2022 EV Adoption Outlook to see where EVs will take off next.