Obama Caps Off His EV Legacy by Electrifying American Highways

Upon taking office in 2009, President Obama seized on electric vehicles as a tool for rebuilding American’s crumbling auto industry and curing an ailing planet. He has now spent two terms promoting the technology, investing in R&D, and providing rebates to push automakers and consumers closer to the age of electricity.

With just a few months before a new regime sweeps in, Obama’s Department of Transportation announced one of its final moves in that eight-year effort. It is funding a network of “electric vehicle charging corridors”—25,000 miles and 35 states of highway where EV drivers will reliably find places to plug in, every 50 miles or fewer.

In July, the DOT announced $4.5 billion in guaranteed loans for folks willing to build the powerful fast chargers that can charge a car like a Nissan Leaf up to 80 percent in about 30 minutes. And this week, the Federal Highway Administration officially christened these stretches of highway as the national “Alternative Fuel and Electric Charging” network. It even drew up a new kind of highway sign that reads “Alternative Fuels Corridor.”

“We have a duty to help drivers identify routes that will help them refuel and recharge those vehicles, and designating these corridors on our highways is a first step,” US Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx said in a statement.

Those highway signs—blocky, all-caps white print on a blue background—are not the move you expect from a president and administration in full legacy mode. But they represent the serious progress electric vehicles have made in the United States, and open up the way forward.

Since the Chevy Volt and Nissan Leaf hit the road a year into Obama’s first term, they’ve been joined by nearly two dozen fully electric and plug-in hybrid models. Prices are dropping and range is climbing—GM’s about to start offering the $30,000 Bolt with 238 miles of juice, Tesla plans to follow with its Model 3 next year. By 2022, it should be cheaper to buy and drive an EV than a gas-powered ride, even sans subsidies.

Yes, EVs still make up one percent or less of US car sales, but they’re slowly crawling beyond their beachhead of coastal cities. They’re just about ready for life on the highway.

But even a car with 300 miles of range or more flunks if it can’t tap into the chargers to keep it going beyond that distance, even if the average driver doesn’t do that more than once a year.

“If you want to make it an every day car, a no compromises car, that’s the next step,” says Tony Posawatz, the engineer who led the development of the Chevrolet Volt, briefly led Fisker Automotive, and is now an industry consultant.

“You can’t only own an EV unless you can drive anywhere reliably,” says Pasquale Romano, CEO of ChargePoint, the nation’s largest charging provider. Highway chargers will never outnumber the less potent plugs in public and private garages, he says, but they’re key to convincing potential customers that they can really go anywhere.

And those signs, bleh as they may be, can play an advertising role. The people who already own an electric car will know where they can charge up without the DOT’s help. But if someone’s been considering the change starts seeing the signs on their commute, or on that occasional long haul drive to granny’s, they might finally get it: Electric power could work for her, too.

Romano says these signs could be more valuable than a Super Bowl ad. “Generic advertising doesn’t solve problem of giving people confidence for their use case of the car.” Knowing they drive on an EV corridor just might.

Pushing electric cars and their owners farther than ever—not a bad legacy.

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