The long lines conjured memories of the 1970s oil crisis. But instead of gas guzzlers, the blackout fiasco that began in California last month involved some of the most future-minded cars on the road.
Owners of electric vehicles flocked to charging stations when Pacific Gas & Electric announced it would institute blackouts in an attempt to avert wildfires during an expected windstorm. Millions of customers lost their juice, among them plenty of EV enthusiasts who suddenly worried about how they'd charge with no electricity.
It seemed a scenario the utility company and state officials had not considered. In this case, the only consequence was frustrated drivers waiting in lines that stretched a dozen cars deep at some charging stations.
But what if motorists had not merely endured a blackout, but needed to flee a natural disaster that presented imminent, life-threatening dangers? That's a scenario for which some are starting to develop contingency plans.
In Florida, where hurricanes force evacuations on a regular basis, it can be challenging enough for motorists driving cars with internal combustion engines to escape on crowded highways. Now, lawmakers are considering the state's role in ensuring EV owners can maintain a charge and escape storm paths.
"We have to be thinking about this today," says Jeff Brandes, a Republican state senator who represents the Pinellas County area. "We need to be strategically placing charging stations, fast-charging stations, in key corridors so that people can evacuate quickly. We have to do that at scale and think about how that will ultimately play out."
For now, EVs remain less than 1 percent of the national fleet. But Brandes imagines the magnitude and complexity of the challenge would grow should EV penetration rates reach 5 or 10 percent over the next decade, as many transportation and industry experts predict.
Tesla may be at the forefront of finding some solutions. As Floridians prepared to escape Hurricane Irma in 2017, the company sent an over-the-air update to cars containing 60- and 70-kilowatt-hour batteries. It allowed them to harness the full power of their batteries and extend their range 30 to 40 miles.
As the California blackouts began, CEO Elon Musk said all Tesla's Superchargers in the region would get Tesla Powerpacks, special battery storage systems, within a matter of weeks.
Planning for emergencies and evacuations during natural disasters is one more wrinkle that consumers and transportation officials alike must consider, not just in an era of widespread EV usage, but perhaps one involving other aspects of mobility. If there's a shift in which riders eschew personally owned cars in favor of on-demand transportation from ride-hailing networks, that's potentially problematic.
"That would take surge pricing to a whole new level," Brandes said. "Literally, the water is surging, so get me out of here. This is a really interesting space, and we've got some work to do."