Nick Bunkley
Nick Bunkley
Staff Reporter - Enterprise

A pesky problem of plug-in priority

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A priest, a Chevy Volt and a Tesla Model S walk into a bar.

Which one gets to use the electric charging station?

Even General Motors concedes that the Tesla should win this battle.

In a list of "EV etiquette" tips put out by GM this week, the company says common practice dictates that when multiple vehicles reach a charger at the same time, a pure electric vehicle gets priority over a plug-in hybrid because the hybrid can use gasoline instead. That means a Volt pulling up alongside a Model S, Nissan Leaf, Ford Focus Electric and Power Wheels Barbie Jammin' Jeep would be fifth in line.

GM assembled the etiquette tips to promote its new Chevy Spark EV, which also would get precedence over the Volt under this protocol.

I have seen a few etiquette lists like this recently, aimed at helping early-adopting EV drivers coexist in a world where public chargers are still few and far between. They generally agree on some things:

• Anyone who parks a Range Rover (or any other non-plug-in vehicle) in a charging spot is literally the worst person on earth. Worse than Miley Cyrus even. The best thing to do in this situation is to leave a note politely explaining that doing so is frowned upon and that's why you slashed the tires.

• Occupy a charging spot only as long as necessary. After the battery is full, move the car so that someone in a hurry can park his Range Rover in that spot instead.

• If you won't be able to move the car as soon as it's done charging, leave a friendly note -- dot the i's with smiley faces for emphasis -- telling other EV drivers when it's OK to unplug the cord so they can charge their own car and to have a really wonderful day saving the planet and aren't Range Rover drivers the worst?

• You should probably put a pen and pad of paper in your car for all the notes you need to leave. Ignore the fact that you're now killing twice as many trees in the name of saving fuel.

But one area where there seems to be considerable friction is the hierarchy of EVs and plug-in hybrids. Most people seem to acknowledge that an EV should get dibs when arriving at the same time as a hybrid, but what if a Model S gets there 10 minutes later, perhaps because its driver was still trying to comprehend Tesla's online financing calculator?

Some EV drivers argue that they should always get priority over hybrids because when their battery runs low the only options to get home are a plug and a tow truck. A heated debate on this topic ensued recently on the Web site PlugInCars.com, after writer Brad Berman offered eight rules of his own.

Berman's Rule #6: "An owner of a pure electric car owner, like a Nissan Leaf, does NOT have the right to unplug a plug-in hybrid, such as a Chevy Volt -- just because that car has a back-up gas engine."

The fact that there's a debate at all about this sort of thing shows a fundamental obstacle for EVs. Drivers have to deal with not only range anxiety but plug anxiety as well.

Automakers aren't helping by using varying external indicators of charging status that can confuse drivers of different models; on some cars a light turns off when the battery is full, while on others a light turns on. In addition, some models, such as the Volt, may sound an alarm if the cord is unplugged while the car is locked.

Falling prices are boosting sales of EVs somewhat, with GM and Nissan stoking demand for their respective plug-ins by cutting sticker prices by at least $5,000 this year.

Yet it will be a long time before driving an EV involves no more planning and anxiety than hopping behind the wheel of any other car. Even if you shop or work where chargers are installed, there's no guarantee one will be available when you get there.

Higher EV sales will lead to more chargers being installed, but more EVs on the roads also mean those chargers are more likely to be occupied, possibly by a Volt or Toyota Prius Plug-in that didn't really need the juice.

Or maybe by a Range Rover with four flat tires.

You can reach Nick Bunkley at nbunkley@crain.com. -- Follow Nick on Twitter

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