Teacher-student collaboration fuels recommendations to boost electric vehicle popularity

A map showing the location of public electric vehicle charging stations in the United States; see the interactive map below. Source: U.S. Department of Energy

January 20, 2016 – “Range anxiety” – a problem experienced by electric car owners who fear they will be unable to find charging stations – may be a major deterrent to the growth of electric automobile sales. Now a Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health researcher and student have teamed up to publish a paper with a series of recommendations that they believe will alleviate the fear of being unable to power up when needed – and boost consumer willingness to purchase environmentally friendly electric vehicles (EV).

The two Vermont natives who share a common interest in sustainability—Anne Lusk, a Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health research scientist in the Department of Nutrition, and Henry Bonges, a former master’s degree student at Harvard Extension School—have published their work in the January 2016 issue of Transportation Research.

The authors cited a Union of Concerned Scientists (2013) poll and a Canadian study that found that a key issue for consumers who are considering buying an EV is “range anxiety” — concern about how far the car will go before needing a charge and not knowing where the charging stations are located, if the charging units will be compatible (there are at least six types), and whether or not the units will be in use by other drivers when a charge is needed.

Among the strategies Lusk and Bonges outlined in the paper for reducing range anxiety:

  • Relocating parking lot charging stations to a more central location where the charger may reach numerous vehicles
  • Adding “octopus” type chargers to enable multiple EVs to be charged
  • Eliminate free charging and parking to encourage users to turn over the spot more quickly
  • Legislation to clarify when drivers can unplug other peoples’ vehicles, including the use of etiquette cards
  • Increasing the number of charging stations — there are just 6,883 public charging stations in the U.S., compared to 157,393 gas stations
  • Standardizing charger design so drivers worry less about finding a compatible plug

The collaboration between Lusk and Bonges grew from a course taught in 2013 by Lusk at Harvard Extension School entitled Transportation, the Environment, and Health.” Students were to propose and defend changes to transportation policies that would improve the environment and health.

Henry Bonges

Bonges, a master’s degree capstone student in sustainability and an EV owner and enthusiast, wrote one of his papers on issues related to lackluster EV sales in the U.S. In reviewing data from academic journals and trade publications, he found that only about 0.08% of cars in the U.S. are electric. He read about consumer’s issues with EVs and drove to charging stations in Vermont to talk with drivers about their thoughts on the vehicles.

The paper piqued Lusk’s interest because her research focuses on bicycle environments. “Bicyclists along the road are exposed to air pollution from cars and trucks. With more EVs, the exposure could be greatly reduced,” she said. She suggested to Bonges that they revise the paper and submit it to a journal for publication.

Anne Lusk
Anne Lusk

The idea fit well with Bonges’ interest in sustainability. “The impetus of this work was my love of driving an EV, through which I experienced what I considered a poorly planned and executed [EV] charging environment,” said Bonges, an IBM engineer from Milton, VT. He chairs his town’s energy committee and said he has worked to bring a number of the concepts discussed in the class to Milton, including solar power, bike paths, and improvements in areas like landscaping, lighting, and traffic patterns.

The collaboration paid off. After months of work, the paper was published. Working with Lusk was “fantastic,” Bonges said. “I’m happy that she recognized the paper had merit, and was willing to work with me to get it accepted at a peer-reviewed academic journal. It was a great experience.”

Read the paper and check out the interactive map below, which shows the location of public charging stations in the U.S.

Use the filter below the map to see stations in your state.
Source: U.S. Department of Energy


One idea in the paper came from a conversation Lusk had with Vincent Borelli, a Harvard Chan School security guard who also is a car mechanic. He suggested the idea of having parking kiosks — used by drivers to pay for parking in public lots — print out a sticker to be left in the car that indicates the time paid and an optional note, “Yes, may unplug,” or “No, may not unplug.”

Bonges is optimistic that EVs will increase in popularity with drivers, particularly as manufacturers work on developing stronger batteries. “There’s a lot of working going on in labs. This will happen,” he said. “EVs are coming. Let’s be prepared.”

Marge Dwyer

Note: This article was updated at 3p.m.ET on January 21, 2016