Videos of long lines at Tesla Supercharger stations around Thanksgiving revealed a big hurdle that companies like Tesla and Volkswagen need to clear before more people will buy EVs

A line at a Tesla Supercharger station in San Luis Obispo, California.

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A line at a Tesla Supercharger station in San Luis Obispo, California.
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YouTube/StevenMConroy

Companies like Tesla, ChargePoint, and Electrify America (started by Volkswagen) are expanding the availability of electric-vehicle charging stations, but there is still work ahead of them.

Videos and photos of full Tesla Supercharger stations around Thanksgiving this year illustrated the enormous challenges faced by electric-vehicle makers and charging-station companies.

“Spent more time charging than driving,” one Twitter user wrote on Sunday.

Tesla did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

People have cited the speed and availability of charging stations as two of their biggest concerns about electric vehicles. Owners can do the vast majority of their charging at home or work, but on rare occasions demand spikes, said Karl Brauer, the executive publisher of Autotrader and Kelley Blue Book, making the economics of building charging stations difficult.

“Ninety-plus percent of the time you need far less charging infrastructure than you do for the other 10%,” he said.

Charging speeds compound the difficulty faced by companies building electric vehicles or charging stations. While electric-vehicle charging times are decreasing, they’re still longer than refueling at a gas station.

If you wanted to swap every gas-powered vehicle for an electric one, you would need more charging stalls than gas pumps to avoid long wait times – at current charging speeds – during the rare moments when demand is at its highest, Brauer said.

There are far fewer electric-vehicle charging stations than gas stations (the number of electric vehicles on the road is also much lower than the number of gas-powered vehicles), though the availability of charging stations has increased significantly in the past five years, Brauer said.

Anticipating peak demand for a charging station is difficult

Tesla has taken a more proactive approach to building charging stations than any other automaker, and its consistent sales growth suggests that prospective customers have not been scared off by the existing charging infrastructure.

But photos and videos like those posted on Twitter and YouTube last week showing long lines and broken chargers during one of the busiest times for travel indicate that the electric-car maker will need to continue expanding its charging network and improve its reliability while receiving more help from other companies.

That other Tesla owners said they did not have to wait for a charging stall last week highlights the difficulty of anticipating the peak demand a given station will experience. Tesla showed one possible solution to this issue by sending a mobile charging unit powered by its industrial-sized battery pack to at least one station, but it’s unclear how viable such a strategy would be on a larger scale.

Spurred by government regulations, automakers are planning to roll out more electric vehicles in a greater variety of body styles in the coming years. More work on the infrastructure supporting those vehicles will be needed before some people feel comfortable buying them.

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