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General Motors believes a robust public fast-charging network is vital before consumers will consider an electric vehicle such as the Chevy Bolt as their primary vehicle. (GM)

GM underway with plan to build U.S. electric-vehicle charging infrastructure

Tesla has its coveted Supercharger network of high-voltage fast chargers for its electric vehicles (EVs), but despite a widely-discussed goal of contributing to a future with zero vehicle emissions, Mike Abelson, General Motors’ vice president of EV infrastructure, admitted at the 2019 CAR Management Briefing Seminars (MBS) conference that his company doesn’t “wish to spend our capital to build (DC) fast chargers—we wish to spend our capital to build more electric vehicles.”

Abelson said an extensive and robust public EV charging network—one presumably populated mostly with high-voltage, direct-current fast chargers—is “the key to convince people the EV really can be their primary vehicle.” The company’s VP of EV infrastructure (a relatively new position at GM, incidentally) said the nation still doesn’t have nearly enough so-called “en-route” charging, citing the conference’s northern-Michigan locale as an example. Abelson showed a map of the state’s uppermost region that indicated not a single DC fast-charger to accommodate the company’s Chevy Bolt, the only EV currently sold by GM.

Although home charging is projected to remain the dominant mode of recharging for most current and future EV owners and workplace chargers playing a role, Abelson said only convenient and reliable en-route DC fast charging will cause consumers to forget range-anxiety and truly consider an EV purchase. The problem, he admitted, is that building “thousands and thousands” of new chargers, even with a handful of private and collaborative initiatives already doing so, is going to be expensive and time-consuming.

“It’s been a long time since [automakers] had to worry about infrastructure,” he said. With EVs, it appears to be time to start worrying again.

Partnering to expand fast-charging
To accelerate the EV infrastructure expansion, Abelson said GM is collaborating with Virginia-based multinational construction and engineering giant Bechtel to begin building DC fast-charging stations in an open network. And, crucially, in locations where they’re most in demand, some of that information gleaned from GM’s OnStar telematics service.

Abelson added that GM intends to explore outside investment options to pay for the charging network, saying the model should be akin to other infrastructure-funding projects. He said he is confident there will be investor interest.

He said GM sought Bechtel’s input because the construction firm has vast experience with the land-acquisition and construction-permitting processes that typically slow infrastructure projects. “They’ve been a great company to work with,” Abelson said.

The GM executive did not provide a timeline for when the charging-station installations will begin, but added, “I don’t think [DC fast-charging] will follow the [liquid] fuel infrastructure model.” Instead, he said, he envisions fast-charging being in “places that people go to” and intend to stay for a time, as opposed to the dedicated stations of today’s liquid refueling network.  

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