Skip to main content

Electric car road rage, electric car etiquette, and sharing charging stations

An inconveniently unplugged electric car can leave the owner of that car stranded with an unexpectedly flat battery pack, potentially inciting Hulk-like rage, but following common sense etiquette can avoid a whole world of outrage.

The rise of electric cars will give us new ways to accidentally offend others. An example is a recent incident of an electric car driver, in search of a charging station at which to recharge his car, unplugged another electric car while it was being recharged. The incident may have gone unnoticed with nothing more than an irritated post on a discussion forum, except that the victim was Forbes staffer Todd Woody whose ability to write an entertaining little rant made it into the news stream.

Woody is currently testing a Ford Focus Electric and had driven to Berkeley CA, where the car was plugged into a charging station while he waited at a Cafe. Upon receiving a text message the car had been unplugged unexpectedly, he went back to the parking garage to find a Coda electric sedan next to the Focus Electric, and that the Coda was now plugged into the charging station. The Coda in question was one of the manufacturer demo cars used by Coda of Silicon Valley. This led to some back-and-forth between Woody, and Coda's PR department, who apologized profusely for the incident. What's more important in this case is not the identity of who did what to whom, but the bigger picture status of electric car adoption, electric car recharging infrastructure, and the etiquette of electric car ownership. These sorts of incidents are already happening everywhere electric cars exist, and will happen more frequently as the numbers of electric cars increase.

The San Francisco Bay Area is the home to a lot of electric cars today, but electric car recharging infrastructure deployment is lagging behind other areas. One can see this simply by using smart phone apps like Recargo, and browse around the country looking at the number of charging stations in each metropolitan area. The SF Bay Area clearly has fewer than some other areas. In particular the cities of Berkeley, Albany and El Cerrito, an area whose residents are infamous for environmental sensitivity, have one and only one public recharging station. The one which Todd Woody was using that day.

See Tijuana to British Columbia in a Nissan Leaf in 8 days for another take on the state of electric car recharging infrastructure in California versus Washington State and Oregon.

The electric car recharging station infrastructure has a ways to go before there's enough coverage for even the current electric car owners, much less coming electric car owners. An etiquette for charging station usage will facilitate making the best use of electric car charging resources.

It's not just electric car owners who must learn the etiquette, it is also gasoline car owners. Electric car charging stations are parking spots in which a charging station is involved, and access to these parking spaces are just as important to electric car owners as is handicapped parking important to those with handicaps.

All electric cars should have preference over plug-in hybrid cars: While a plug-in hybrid car can use electric car charging stations, it is the all electric car owners who are absolutely dependent on access to charging stations. The plug-in hybrid car can recharge its battery pack from the gasoline engine. Owning a plug-in hybrid car is laudable, but ask ones self, which car owner has the deepest need for that charging station, the electric car owner, or the plug-in hybrid owner?

Non-plugin cars do not belong in electric car charging spaces and Hybrid cars are not electric cars: A non-plug-in car parked in an electric car charging spot is said to have ICE'd the parking spot (ICE: Internal Combustion Engine). These cars are unable to use the charging station, and block electric car owners from using the station. It seems that hybrid car owners are sometimes proud of owning their hybrid car, and have developed the idea that the phrase "electric cars" includes hybrid cars. While hybrid car ownership is laudable, a hybrid car parked in an electric car charging space blocks electric car owners from using that space. The plug-in hybrid cars (the Chevy Volt and Prius Plug-In) can use charging stations, but normal hybrid cars cannot.

Electric cars should be parked in an EV charging spot only while charging: An electric car owner may think electric car parking is some kind of privilege for electric car owners, but in reality it is a convenience for those who need to recharge their car. Owning an electric car does not give a right to park in an electric car charging spot, instead it is the need to recharge that gives that right.

When your electric car is done charging, move it so other electric cars can use the charging station: To reiterate, the need to recharge ones car gives the right to park an electric car in an electric car charging spot. Charging stations are still a scarce resource, and we must remember how to share.

This piece of advice might be easy to follow if you're at work, and can easily go outside to move your car. But what about an electric car parked in long term parking at an airport while the owner is away on a long trip? The car may be fully charged 3 hours after the owner leaves, and will occupy the charging station until the owner returns. There's not much we, an electric car owner taking an airplane trip, can do about this, instead it is up to the airport to provide enough charging outlets. Long term parking is one example of a perfect situation for slow speed 120 volt charging, and the extreme low price of 120 volt power outlets makes it easy to install dozens of these power outlets.

Place a notice placard in your electric car window: As a courtesy to other electric car owners, leaving a note in your car window giving your phone number can let them get ahold of you if there are concerns or problems. The EV Charger News placard is a good example:

Look at indicator lights to see if a car is still charging before unplugging it: All the electric cars have lights indicating how fully recharged the car is. Unfortunately each automaker has its own idea of the best way to indicate how fully recharged a car is. Unfortunately in some cases the lights turn themselves off, making harder to determine if the car is recharging or if the lights are just off for some reason. In any case, the idea is to, before unplugging a car that's charging, to have an idea if the car is fully recharged yet. Unplugging a fully charged car is at most a minor annoyance.

Placing notes on cars who ICE an electric car charging space: Electric car owners sometimes get irate when a charging station is ICED. We sometimes wish to turn into the Incredible Hulk and start smashing things. An angry note left on a car might give a momentary rush of power, but will that nastygram help with relationships between gasoline and electric car owners? No.

Safety first: Be careful with how you run the charging cord, taking care to run the cord in a way to avoid others from tripping over it.

The legal status of any limits or control over electric car charging station usage is spotty at best. The etiquette over handicapped parking usage is well understood everywhere, with fairly uniform laws across the country. While California has a law concerning electric car charging station usage, most locations do not.

With this sort of etiquette we can share the electric car recharging stations until such time as the powers that be install enough stations.


Jenn (not verified)    June 19, 2012 - 11:07AM

I heard that the BMW Active E does not have a way for others to tell if it is done charging or not, confounding other EV owners who might want to use their plug. :(

George B (not verified)    January 4, 2013 - 4:38PM

In reply to by Jenn (not verified)

The ActiveE has a blue LED light, which is mounted under the rearview mirror. When charging, this light is blinking regularly and slowly. If there is an error, the light blinks very rapidly, and pauses regularly. When the car is done charging, there is no light to be seen, it goes dark. I hope this helps.

Nicolas Zart    June 19, 2012 - 12:01PM

Couldn't have said it better: "Non-plugin cars do not belong in electric car charging spaces and Hybrid cars are not electric cars" I'd add plug-in hybrids are not EVs either :)

I wonder how long it will take to install locks on chargers.

Anonymous (not verified)    June 19, 2012 - 12:51PM

In reply to by Nicolas Zart

I'll admit to being guilty of parking without charging. When I parked in one of the Mall of America parking spots, I had serious sticker shock over the $2.49 an hour rate and didn't want to take the time to move my car at that point. The neighboring EV spot was empty and no signs mandated charging, so I just ignored the charger. Seriously, are we EV owners valued shoppers or just being taken as suckers?

JP White (not verified)    June 21, 2012 - 6:29AM

In reply to by Anonymous (not verified)

I think the charge rates show a lack of understanding of the low costs of running EV's generally. Property owners mots likely have never owned or even seen an EV when planning the installation at a property. If you ask a gasoline driver is $2.50 a reasonable cost for fuel they will say it's a bargain and call any EV owner a cheep skate when he points out the charge is too high.

EV' owners, unless desperate for a charge, will simply pass up the EVSE's that charge these rates. I imagine property managers will be both disappointed and bemused at the lack of use their equipment will get.

For a large mall, offering free charges will attract business. Charging a fee will not.

The only EVSE's that should attract a fee are Level 3 chargers.

Anonymous (not verified)    June 20, 2012 - 2:24AM

In reply to by Nicolas Zart

I disagree with you on that Plugins are NOT EVs... That might be the case for Prius Plugin where it doesn't really operate as pure EVs in the sense it can NOT stay in EV mode when driven hard. But the Volt is different. It certainly acts as an EV as long as the battery is charged. I haven't used a drop of gas in the last 600 miles in my Volt and I regularly cruise at 75mph+. How is that NOT an EV?

JP White (not verified)    June 21, 2012 - 6:32AM

In reply to by Rob (not verified)

Agreed, but a plug-in hybrid should be allowed to use public facilities with equal access.

Disabled people do not grade their need for a parking space, neither should we. The car either plug's in to a J1772 outlet or it doesn't.

John G (not verified)    June 23, 2012 - 4:33PM

In reply to by Rob (not verified)

As a Volt Owner, I agree that Plug-in Hybrids should defer to all electric, but Plug-in Electrics have every right to use the stations. As for the Volt, it is all in how you use the car... "Its not a Hybrid if you never use gas", and I, as many Volt owners, go for 1000s of miles gas free.

We have a station at our work. One day I was first to plug in my Volt. My co-worker Leaf owner came in pleading that his wife forgot to charge last night and he was on the verge of running out of even his "Turtle mode". With the Volt's flexibility, I happily gave him the charger.

David Herron    June 20, 2012 - 10:51AM

In reply to by Anonymous (not verified)

There's a grey area. We used to say "It's not electric if you can't plug it in" which was great so long as the "hybrids" were all vehicles like the Prius where you couldn't plug them in. Every mile on a regular hybrid is derived from gasoline. Plug-in hybrids are different, and I keep going back and forth over whether to call the Volt a plug-in hybrid or an electric car. However on the EPA sticker it says "Plug-in Hybrid", never mind what GM's marketing wants us to call it.

Chris C. (not verified)    June 19, 2012 - 1:26PM

I own a Chevy Volt and have been keenly aware of EV charging etiquette issues for a long time. I just wanted to say that this is the best writeup I've ever seen on this subject! In particular, kudos for linking to the Charge Protocol Card PDF, which I've been using since I got my Volt a year and a half ago. I also have a card for my dashboard that encourages people to call me if they just have questions about the Volt or EVs in general.

The only thing I might add is that you need to make sure your car does not ALARM when unplugged (while locked). The original 2011 Chevy Volt did this, but you could get the dealer to change the setting. Starting with the 2012 Volt, that setting (alarm or don't alarm) is available on the console for the driver to change. I don't know about other EVs but I imagine that either have the same control or just don't alarm at all.

Again, great job. I've got a half dozen links that I tell new EV owners about, and this just joined them.

David Murray (not verified)    June 19, 2012 - 1:51PM

We have so few charging stations in the Ft.Worth area that I'd love to have the problems described in this article. Having those problems means that we would actually have charging stations to fight over. Right now I think there are maybe 3 of them. Dallas has a lot more, but I rarely go to that part of town.

Anonymous (not verified)    June 20, 2012 - 2:47PM

"Electric cars should be parked in an EV charging spot only while charging: " An employer or car charging group who is providing EV charging to multiple spots might want the EVs to be tethered even if they are fully charged under some V2G scenarios. Also there is a lot of value in slow Level 1 charging that is not popularly discussed. As the model for EV charging is no longer conveniece stations but destination or loction charging like work or home or transit lots the need for fast charging vanishes.

Kristian (not verified)    June 26, 2012 - 7:52PM

Airport fast-charging?

While the suggestion for airports to provide sufficient slow-charging outlets in long-term car-parking is one possible solution, it neglects to acknowledge the cost to the airport operator versus the relatively low potential return. Even if a dedicated slow-charger could be installed for $3k, it makes for a poor business case if the revenue limit is maybe $5/day before operating costs are factored in (note that this is in addition to the costs/revenues of an ICE parking spot). It also fails to take into account the opportunity costs of having dedicated EV parking that may be underutilised.

A 50 kW fast-charger can provide around 30 miles of range in 15 min, be managed thru an on-line reservation system, occupies the equivalent land area as maybe 3 normal parking-bays at most while being able to service 3 users per hour, and enables a premium to be charged for the service ($10 for 15mins?). The capital costs may be significantly higher but grants and equipment cost reductions are making it viable for high traffic locations such as airports, and less land area is required.

Any thoughts?...

JP White (not verified)    June 27, 2012 - 6:42AM

In reply to by Kristian (not verified)

I question your $3k number to provide basically a weatherproof 120v outlet. It should be possible to add 120v outlets at the base of lighting poles at long term parking for very little money. Let's be generous and say $200 each.

It may take 20 hours to recharge a LEAF from a 120v outlet, but that's the whole point, if you leave it overnight in long term parking where's the problem with that? A Tesla S may take multiple days from a 120v outlet, once again, so what?

Fast charging would only be appropriate in short term or kerb side pickup locations. Judging by the L3 charger at Nissan Headquarters in Frankiln TN, exactly one parking space is required to accommodate the vehicle and charger.

Kristian (not verified)    June 27, 2012 - 7:07AM

In reply to by JP White (not verified)

You might be right JP, but I don't envisage airports continuing to give away electricity for free or picking up the public accident liabilities associated with a conventional power cable - my figure is for a safe, user-pays L2 charging station. I'm of the view that L1 low-cost trickle-charging is only suited to off-street charging in the home.
It could be argued that free public charging is what's needed at this stage of the market development, but the conversation seems to be looking forwards to arrangements that support many more vehicles (i.e. transitioning into mainstream market adoption, which must be a user-pays model).

JohnVolt (not verified)    July 31, 2012 - 1:53AM

I am going to offer a different perspective on a few of the points in this article in doing so I will probably rile some. My intent is not anger but to encourage a look from a different angle. Some of what is presented here seems a bit self-serving to the all electric crowd.
I will start with the idea that all-electric cars should have preference over plug-in hybrid cars. I had a choice, as did all-electric owners, when I bought my Volt. I bought an EV for all the same advantages that all electric owners bought their cars for. But I chose to have a car with a range extender so that I would have greater flexibility and not be stranded or delayed if a charge station was not available. It seems a bit odd that someone that made the other choice would see himself as more entitled. It is as if I went on a camping trip but did not pack enough food because I planned to catch fish for my dinner. Then after several hours of not catching anything I wondered into a nearby camp where the campers had packed some dried food as a back up and expected that they should turn over the fish they had caught to me and settle for their dry rations. Why should I have to bare the added cost of burning gas because you came less prepared? People should work together to share charging stations but it should not be assumed that if I have a range extender I should just get out of the way. If an all-electric driver has enough range to get home there is no more need than anyone else and should not ask another driver to un-plug until fully charged. If you need the charge to make your destination and if it is a charge point station, or similar, and you failed to make a reservation you have zero entitlement and should be embarrassed to ask another driver to un-plug.
I also disagree that EV’s should only park in EV charging spaces only when charging. There are several reasons to provide these spaces. Among them are to entice EV drivers to a business and to encourage EV use within a city or area. California law provides means for both allowing and prohibiting parking without charging. If the former is the case there should be no guilt for a person parking without charging. Courtesy would however dictate that a person should yield the spot to someone needing to charge as long as that person is not unduly inconvenienced. An example is a few downtown spaces in my home down. One of the perks of these spaces is that parking fees are waved. One driver should not expect another to yield the space and pay for parking because they want to charge. An HEV driver is just as entitled to the free parking perk as the pure EV driver.

John Shalamskas (not verified)    October 13, 2014 - 5:29PM

Everyone should be able to see that public charging infrastructure is a very scarce resource, and should be shared. Plainly, some people don't like to share. I drive a LEAF and don't feel like I am entitled to kick off a plug-in hybrid. If I arrive at a charger about the same time as another person, I am willing to give them precedence if their need is greater than mine. So, if I can make it home without additional power, I'm likely to just give the spot to someone with an empty battery, even if they can use gasoline to make it home. The problem on the horizon is that there will be hordes of plug-in hybrids that are always looking for a top-off thanks to those small battery packs, so all the available chargers will be busy and the pure EVs will get squeezed out. The solution is to provide lots of L1 and L2 EVSE ports at useful places like malls, movie theaters, grocery stores, workplace, municipal parking structures, truckstops, etc.