The US Interstate Highway System Shows Us The Future of EV Charging

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On my recent cross-country trip, I realized just how weird the US highway system is. Numbers can be inconsistent, construction practices differ (sometimes in important ways), and at times the system just isn’t really complete. One great example of incompleteness was US Highway 70 between Raleigh, North Carolina, and the coast, now also known as “Future Interstate 42.”

The biggest annoyance was that the road kept switching between freeway and surface street, often with no real warning other than a speed limit decrease and maybe some flashing lights. For people paying attention, it isn’t a problem at all, but we know how that goes. One semi-truck driver almost rear-ended me when I was stopped at the first light in a town, and there were several times that a person would randomly nail the brakes in front of me because they lifted their heads from a phone stupor and suddenly noticed a traffic light (but didn’t quite get as far as realizing that it was green before they slammed the wide pedal just in case).

Incomplete & Unfinished Highways

Once they upgrade or bypass these sections of road and turn the whole thing into a coherent Interstate standard highway, things will be a lot safer and easier, but for now, it’s a weird hodgepodge that annoys those paying attention and traps those who aren’t.

The experience reminded me of some things my grandfather told me about the Interstates decades ago. I grew up with I-25, I-10, and I-40 all being a continuous four-lane stretch all the way through New Mexico, but there was a time where only one side was completed along several stretches, and for years there was an Interstate with only 2 lanes near Truth or Consequences.

Not all stretches of freeway have been as lucky, though. Some never got completed at all, often due to local opposition, funding issues, or a combination of the two. If you’ve driven much in Los Angeles, you’ve probably noticed the weird way La Cienega Blvd. turns into a freeway in the Baldwin Hills, but then turns right back into a regular street on the other side. It turns out that this was supposed to be part of a whole Laurel Canyon Freeway, but opposition to it, especially in its namesake canyon, doomed the project to becoming just a weird little stub.

Whole books could be written about these incomplete freeways, but you can read all about them here on Wikipedia.

Gaps & Failures To Meet Standards

Another weird thing you’ll notice if you start looking around at maps are gaps in the Interstate highway system. Some of the gaps exist because there’s a plan to eventually bridge them, so the states building them gave them the same number. Some of these gaps, especially for Interstate 69, are enormous, and nobody knows when (or if) the states between the segments will ever complete them.

In other cases, there are actually duplicate Interstate numbers for highways there is no plan of ever connecting. The standards body that picks Interstate numbers figures that these duplicate numbered highways are so far from each other that they won’t cause confusion, and they didn’t want states to keep using N, S, E, or W as suffixes for Interstate numbers.

For a variety of reasons, there are permanent sections of Interstate highway that just don’t meet standards. Interstate 19 (America’s only metric freeway) turns into a regular surface street for the last bit where it connects with a border crossing with Mexico. It made sense to keep the I-19 signs so people wouldn’t get lost and could easily find the freeway. There’s also the famous section of highway in Breezewood, Pennsylvania, where an Interstate freeway had to end before it could connect to a tollway for legal reasons. It’s known for the tight packing of chain restaurants and gas stations.

For practical reasons, there are also a few places where an Interstate highway has an “at-grade” intersection with another road, or in other words, there’s a meetup with a road without an exit and under- or overpasses. In most cases, it’s because the highway needs to connect with a rarely used road or a single home or business, and it just doesn’t make financial sense to spend millions building a true exit setup for the few vehicles that would enter or exit the highway there.

There are also a number of inconsistencies in the Interstate Highway System’s numbering system. For example, there’s no I-50 or I-60 because those numbers might conflict with the US highways system (which has higher numbers as it goes south, the opposite of what Interstates do). There are also “child” routes that never connect with their parent Interstate for various reasons, and even a whole Interstate in California with no parent at all (I-238), which was simply given the original state highway number.

What All This Can Teach Us About The Future of EV Charging Stations

Networks of charging stations are going through similar growing pains as the early Interstate Highway System, and until very recently in some cases, were roughly equivalent to the original “auto trails” that existed before the Interstate and US highway systems. The first people to cross the United States in cars had a difficult run of it, including a military expedition that included a young Dwight D. Eisenhower, who later became a big proponent of the system.

Until Electrify America’s stations sprang up along major Interstates, crossing the country in something like a Nissan LEAF could be a huge pain. Brian Kent’s Negative Carbon Roadtrip took far longer than most sane people would consider (on the order of months, but taking a complicated route), and even shorter jaunts in my 2018 LEAF were still a huge pain. Early Tesla owners, who took these sorts of road trips before the Supercharger network grew, experienced similar trials.

Even Tesla’s well-developed Supercharger network doesn’t satisfy every need. Sure, it’s way ahead of what you’d get with a CHAdeMO or CCS car, but there are still major gaps, and Tesla has thrown a lot of money at the problem. Biden says he wants to build 500,000 charging stations, which would certainly help with the issue if such a thing can get through the Senate, but once again, that’s another money toss, and would definitely still leave gaps in the system that make it hard to switch.

The big point here is that throwing money at a problem doesn’t guarantee it will be perfect, even if we throw money at it for decades. The Interstate Highway System still has gaps, inconsistencies, and still plays catch-up as rural areas grow and sprout cities. Cities that were small when the system was new are becoming major players, requiring even more roads and expansions, so it’s an ongoing process that won’t every truly be caught up. Anyone who promises to fix everything is selling a lie, even if they’re doing it for good reasons.

I’m not saying we shouldn’t keep trying, as it’s an important thing to get as right as we possibly can. However, we need to keep our expectations realistic. No big investment or government spending spree will create a truly perfect EV charging network. Getting 90-95% of the way there is probably good enough.

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Jennifer Sensiba

Jennifer Sensiba is a long time efficient vehicle enthusiast, writer, and photographer. She grew up around a transmission shop, and has been experimenting with vehicle efficiency since she was 16 and drove a Pontiac Fiero. She likes to get off the beaten path in her "Bolt EAV" and any other EVs she can get behind the wheel or handlebars of with her wife and kids. You can find her on Twitter here, Facebook here, and YouTube here.

Jennifer Sensiba has 1953 posts and counting. See all posts by Jennifer Sensiba