Electric vehicles date all the way back to the 1800s, but EVs and plug-in hybrids really burst onto the scene in 2010 when the Nissan Leaf and Chevrolet Volt hit the road, making battery-powered driving easily accessible to the average driver and leading a plug-in explosion. Today, I count over 30 BEV and PHEV models available new or used in dealerships across America.
Despite plug-in cars being more widespread, we're still figuring out the the actual "plugging it in" part. It's simple enough for those who have charging stations at home, but can get frustrating when using public charging stations. Charging points are often in short supply, electrified cars often take hours to charge and people aren't always as considerate of each other as we could be -- all of these factors combine to muddy the rules and etiquette of public charging.
Is it ever okay to unplug someone's car that's done charging? Do pure electrics get priority over plug-in hybrids? Questions such as these often lack clear answers. With that in mind, I've attempted to define some simple rules of thumb for charging your electric car in public.
If you're not charging, don't block the charger
The first rule of public charging is the simplest one. If you're not charging an electric car, don't park in front of the plug-in charger. Parking a gasoline-powered vehicle at an EV charging station is known as ICEing (because of the internal combustion engine) and is frowned upon as a jerk move. Plus, it's illegal in some states and municipalities and could result in your car being towed.
ICEing a plug-in spot is bad, but blocking a charging station with an EV that you're not charging is worse. If you're not plugging in, park somewhere else, even if it's just for a few minutes. And under no circumstances should you block more than one charging point with terrible over-the-line parking. Don't be that guy.
Be smart with your charging time
Even in the most EV-friendly cities, I've noticed that there often simply aren't enough charging stations to go around. I think that we can all agree that access to chargers should be first come, first serve, but when you're done charging, move. When your EV's app lets you know that you're done charging (most of them have remote monitoring apps), move your car and let someone else have a go.
So, don't be the jerk occupying a charger for 8 hours with your Volt that only takes about 4 hours for a full charge. (And no, I'm not saying "don't charge your PHEV," because you're just as entitled to juice your battery as a BEV driver. I'm just saying that a bit of consideration goes a long way.) Share the charger; you'd want your fellow electric drivers to do the same.
Sometimes, sharing the charger means realizing that you don't always need to charge. If there's only one charging station in the lot and your Nissan Leaf has an 80 percent charge remaining (about 66 miles) for your 20-mile commute home or you're just around the corner from home in your PHEV, consider leaving the charger free for someone who may need it more.
The only exception to this rule is the airport. Here the chargers are still first-come first-serve, but there are often few of them and owners can't be expected to reasonably unplug their Tesla at the Oakland airport if they're in San Antonio overnight. All bets are off in airport parking.
Leave the charging station as nice as you found it (or better)
This is about as common-sense as it comes, but my mother told me that, "Sense ain't always that common," so here we go. Put the charger and its cables back where you found them when you're done using them. Don't just leave the cable flopped on the ground; wrap it up neatly and leave the station looking as good or better than you found it.
Aside from tidiness, the most important concern here is your own safety -- and I'm not talking about someone tripping over a loose cable. Leaving high-voltage power cables lying about to be repeatedly run over by cars could result in the insulating jacket becoming frayed and a risk of electrocution the next time someone goes to use it.
Don't unplug another car. No, not even hybrids...
Don't be a jerk. Do not unplug a charging car without the owner's consent. Don't unplug a PHEV because you feel like your EV needs the electricity more. Charging is offered on a first-come, first-serve basis and part of being an adult is sharing things and waiting your turn.
Don't think you can get away with it, either. As I said, most EVs come with some sort of remote monitoring app that will notify the owner when the car has been unplugged. Trust me, you don't want that sort of awkwardness all up in your day. I'm sure the average VW e-Golf driver isn't as aggressive as the pickup truck bros that I grew up with, but I know that I wouldn't want to be caught red-handed messing with someone else's ride.
...unless it's a real emergency
If your battery is about to die and you're absolutely, 100-percent sure that the car occupying the charging spot is done charging, it's generally understandable if you need to unplug another car to get an emergency boost home. If it comes to this, always leave a kind and courteous note on the unplugged car politely apologizing and explaining that you noticed they were done charging and that you really needed some emergency juice to get home.
Consider leaving a phone number, email address, Snapchat or whatever contact info you're comfortable with in case the other driver wants to contact you. Above all, be nice; you're technically breaking Rule 4 here.
Consider leaving a note on your own car
If you live in an area with very few public charging stations or you only need a few minutes of charging, consider leaving a note in your window that lets other EV drivers know when you expect to be done charging and if it's okay to unplug your car once it's done charging. Something along the lines of "If the light's green, you can unplug me" with whatever contact info you're comfortable leaving.
Many drivers aren't comfortable with this extra step and that's understandable, but a simple note could mean the difference between returning to a fully charged car and having some jerk prematurely unplugging your ride. In areas where chargers are rare, getting to know your fellow electric drivers and learning to share or schedule charging stations with them could be a very good thing.
In more crowded areas, some charging-station services will let you communicate with other drivers through their apps and others, such as PlugShare, will let drivers create virtual waiting lists for stations that send notifications when the charger becomes available. However you do it, try to communicate with your fellow EV drivers as best you can.
Ask before plugging into someone's private outlet
Say you're visiting a friend's or relative's home and you notice they've got a free 110-volt outlet in their driveway or garage. Before you drag that charging cable out of your trunk, ask the owner if it's okay to plug in your car.
Sure, a full charge on most EVs doesn't cost much, but electricity isn't free and plugging in at someone's house is costing them money. And because a car is so big, it certainly looks like a huge power draw that's costing them money. So, before grandma sees you plugging that big ol' sedan in and starts shouting about "running up her light bill," ask her for permission and explain about how long and how much you think it'll cost to charge. If it's a friend's house consider offering to Venmo them a few bucks for the trouble.
Better yet, don't wait until you get there; ask before you leave. That way, if you get denied (or there is no outlet available) and you're concerned about your EV's range, you can make other transportation arrangements.
Those are just a few common-sense rules. Share your own rules of etiquette and your experiences with public charging in the comments below.