Experts Discuss Hurdles, Benefits of Electric Vehicles

Duke professors brief media on infrastructure, acceptance of EVs

The Future of Electronic Vehicles
Duke professors Timothy Johnson and Jennifer Weiss

The electric vehicle movement had a moment this week when President Joe Biden took a new, electric Ford F-150 for a highly publicized test drive in touting his plan to invest $174 billion in incentives for that technology.

While electric vehicles are growing in popularity, they still face hurdles as they head toward mainstream acceptance among drivers.

On Wednesday, two Duke scholars discussed the benefits and challenges of electric vehicles during a virtual briefing with journalists.

Watch the briefing on YouTube.

Here are excerpts:


Timothy Johnson, professor of the practice of energy and the environment

“The thing we think about the most would be charging stations for light-duty or private vehicles, the vehicles we use to get around in our daily lives. Building out charging networks. Right now for people who own electric vehicles, and you can argue whether they’re representative of the general population, most charging takes place at home. These are people who tend to live in single-family homes, with garages or at least a charging unit.”

“The other piece of the puzzle getting more and more attention is charging for heavy-duty vehicles. Freight vehicles, emergency fleet vehicles, buses, garbage trucks. We’re really broadening our thinking about the type of infrastructure needed for electric vehicle charging.”


Jennifer Weiss, senior policy associate, Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions

“There’s two different markets and two different pathways. On the light-duty side, the cars and the trucks, what’s most important is focusing on developing that coordinated network between all the different parties interested in investing in electric infrastructure. That could be utilities, that could be state and local governments, that could be third-party providers.”

“Making sure they’re all coordinating and working together to build out a complete network to get the user where they want to go.”

“Build it where the customers are today. Not where they’re going, but where they are today. That can include your house or workplace, but it can also include places like shopping centers and grocery stores and other places people are going. Coordination between all those different groups is going to be paramount.”

“And I should not leave out rural areas. They’re not always on the radar when we’re building out investment because they’re not on the main corridors, the main highways. But it’s so important to build out the infrastructure in our rural areas.”

“On the heavy-duty (vehicles), that takes a lot more power and a lot more infrastructure to power these huge trucks and emergency vehicles. We have to be strategically thinking about and working with utilities to figure out what that means to the grid. How do we back up emergency vehicles either with a microgrid or storage, in the event of a storm, to be able to power those as well.”


Jennifer Weiss

“As a Leaf (electric car) owner, when I first bought my Leaf that was my biggest concern. I stopped using my car when it had about 40 miles left just because I wanted to make sure it was charged.”

“Give the end user the comfort and feeling that they’re going to be able to charge wherever they go, just like going to a gas station today.”

“If they’re going to a workplace every day, make sure there’s a charger there. That’ll reduce the anxiety of getting to work and back. If they’re going to the grocery store, if they’re going to a restaurant or a doctor, just make sure we’re placing it where they are so that while they’re doing the other things they do in their life, they’re able to charge the car back up and get over that range anxiety.”


Jennifer Weiss

“We right now have seen the infrastructure going in on these main corridors, the main highways in North Carolina. But there’s been more talk, especially in tourist areas, of building out infrastructure. So, along our coast in North Carolina, or the mountains. But what we’re not seeing that much of, and what I’d like to see more of, is in the small cities or towns. Until we do that we won’t get the mass acceptance of EVs.”


Jennifer Weiss

“I think it’s huge. When you consider how many people drive the F-150s, you see them every day on the road. To launch a vehicle like that and to start a marketing campaign around it, and to start to transition people to that, is going to be huge for the industry.”

Timothy Johnson

“This is a mainstream, all-American vehicle, the pickup truck. It’s iconic. This wasn’t designed as an electric vehicle. That’ll help for acceptance, just normalizing the idea that this thing can be electric and perform pretty well.”


Timothy Johnson

“There is a lot of interest in electric vehicles on the fleet side. Where would you expect to see electric vehicles replacing their gasoline or diesel counterparts first? You’re starting to see it with fleets – transit buses for instance. Why? They’re more expensive to buy but they’re a whole lot cheaper to operate in the long run. The fuel costs are lower but the maintenance costs are a lot lower. From an economic standpoint there’s growing interest.”

“But electric vehicles are going to get kicked around like masks have been. They are a symbol, unfortunately. My hope is that with EVs, whether they are individuals or fleet managers who become familiar with these things, realize the benefits of buying them, owning them, some of that political baggage will drop.”


Jennifer Weiss

“Over the last 10 years we’ve seen a shift in an understanding of how much economic development the electric vehicles can bring. Especially in here in the Southeast we’ve seen a lot of auto manufacturers start to either switch over entire plants to have electric vehicles or at least partially switch over. And then you have the auto suppliers come along with it. From a political perspective … that’s really important. We want to be building that, we want to have the economic development. At the same time, we want to be training our workers to work with electric vehicles. The jobs are going to be increasing in that area.”


Timothy Johnson

“Owners of filling stations or gasoline stations are surely interested in what this means for their business. They make most of their money from selling whatever you sell in a convenience store, whether it be snacks or other things, other than gasoline. So I think there’s a lot of innovative thinking about how you attract people there. Hopefully you make it fun. Most public charging … workplace charging is sort of utilitarian. Where you may see more of an opportunity for fun is with fast charging. You’re trying to attract EV owners who are traveling a far distance and need a fast charge to get back on the road. But it may still take 45 minutes to an hour to get back on the road. So the restaurant pairing with an EV charger makes sense there.”


Jennifer Weiss

“It depends on where you charge. A lot of our local governments and some states have put in free chargers. For the user, that’s not going to cost them anything. If you’re charging at home, it will be whatever your electricity rate is.”

Timothy Johnson

“It is a hard question to answer. … If you are charging at home, it really is whatever the electricity rate your utility is charging you. With publicly accessible charging, the owners of that infrastructure need to recover their fixed costs. It’s not cheap to put in a charger in a public location.”

“It can really increase the cost of public charging, so if you’re trying to recover your cost as a business, it can go up.”

“It’s going to be lower than gasoline. Gasoline prices would have to be very cheap or electricity prices would have to be very high before, on a per-mile basis, it’s going to cost you more to charge an electric vehicle than to tank up a gasoline vehicle.”


Timothy Johnson

“Electric vehicles don’t have a tailpipe. You don’t have combustion emissions at the point of use. There are other emissions associated with vehicles. Tires wear down; brake pads wear.”

“So you do have particulate emissions from tire wear and brake pad wear. An electric vehicle, the particulate emissions are still significant. They’re about half that of a gasoline vehicle … but they’re still there. The question all turns on where does the power come from? The electricity is being generated somewhere. That depends on a number of things. If you were to plug into a solar panel – we don’t do it that way – but then you’d have emissions-free power.”

“It’s a complicated question. If you plug an electrical vehicle in to charge it, someplace, there is a power plant that’s going to ramp up its output a little bit to meet that load. You have to ask, what is that plant? Is it a fossil fuel plant? Are we absorbing extra renewable energy? What will it be? And it depends on the time of day. It depends on the local grid and the mix of power plants on that grid.”  

“It also depends on how you’re charging. If you are charging off a level 1 or level 2 charger and you need to fill your battery, you’re going to do it overnight. It will take several hours at a fairly low power level. The impact on the grid isn’t that significant. If you were to charge off a fast charger, to top off your battery … you’re doing it over a far shorter amount of time so the power demand increases. That will show up on the grid in a different way.”

“It really depends on what happens behind the scenes when you plug in your vehicle.”


Jennifer Weiss

“It’s customer knowledge of the benefits. We have a huge hurdle right now getting people to test drive and trying things out and realizing they can do what they do on a daily basis with an electric vehicle.”

“Dealerships right now don’t have a lot of electric vehicles on the lots. It’s the chicken and the egg. Until we see a lot more of the electric vehicles actually on the lots so people can test drive them and compare them to a traditional fuel vehicle, I think we have a little bit more of an uphill climb.”

Timothy Johnson

“Cost is another (challenge). Electric vehicles still are more expensive to purchase, although the total cost of ownership … is lower. For an individual owner, getting over that cost premium hurdle is significant. And for someone who is lower income, that purchase price … becomes significant. And if you’re buying a used car, there are fewer used electric vehicles out there as well.”

Faculty Participants:

Timothy Johnson
Timothy Johnson is a professor of the practice of energy and the environment in the Nicholas School of the Environment. He studies energy systems planning, with a focus on environmental quality and energy consumption.

Jennifer Weiss
Jennifer Weiss is a senior policy associate at the Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions. She authored the North Carolina Energy Efficiency Roadmap, a guide developed in partnership with the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality to help the state remove barriers and achieve its energy efficiency potential.