One Company Could Solve America’s Electric Car Charging Woes

There’s no easy way around it: the United States of America is about to be in desperate need of electric vehicle charging stations.

Right now, there are about 46,000 public charging stations scattered across the country. The federal government has announced plans to spend $5 billion over the next five years building many more, but that amounts to a drop in the bucket compared to what we’ll need if EV adoption rates match expectations; by 2030, there may be as many as 35 million EVs on the nation’s roads, which would in turn require somewhere in the realm of 2.3–3.5 million plugs.

Level 2 chargers, which can recharge an EV over the course of several hours, will play an important role in this buildout, but they’re ultimately limited by their speed. To work properly, they need to be in places where people already stay for hours on end. Places like houses, or offices (remember those?), or movie theaters or downtown shopping districts or malls (remember those?) — not the fast-casual restaurants and grocery stores and shops and boutiques where they’re too often found today.

a free electric car charging station

Level 2 chargers at a park in San Francisco.

San Francisco Chronicle/Hearst Newspapers via Getty ImagesGetty Images

No, while the majority of people will (ideally) be able to charge at home or at work in the future, there will always be some chunk of the population for whom that would be an insurmountable obstacle — and if the plan is to make EVs the new default choice for car buyers, the nation needs to make their adoption as seamless, as friction-free as possible. Which means giving people access to a boatload of fast-charging stations.

So far, much of that work has been taken up by companies like EVGo and Chargepoint and Electrify America, the latter of which currently offers the most robust fast-charging network across the country. These chargers, however, are often located at big-box stores — specifically, Walmart and Target — which are ill-suited to the sort of dine-and-dash activities that make up road trip stops. Adding insult to injury, they’re usually shoved well into the back of the parking lot, forcing drivers to make a long (and, in winter, often cold and slippery) walk to reach the store. It’s the parking equivalent of hostile architecture: sure, the features are there, but the people who installed them really don’t seem to want you to use them.

Gas stations, meanwhile, make for poor conversion to EV charging hubs. Not for lack of accessibility or location — after all, there are around 160,000 of them across the U.S. — but rather, for lack of amenities. While filling station convenience stores may have generally grown nicer over time, they’re still designed for quick turnarounds: people pop inside to use the bathroom, grab a Snickers bar, fill up a bucket with soda and head back outside. Very few offer any sort of seating or other features needed to kill time; indeed, they’re largely designed to discourage exactly the sort of loitering that EV charging causes.

Ideally, then a network of American EV chargers would be centered around existing locations that are easy to find for people unfamiliar with the area, ones that offer users an easy, convenient way to while away the time needed to add a couple hundred miles of range to an electric car’s battery. Which leads us to the obvious choice:

mcdonald's sign

EpicsGetty Images

McDonald’s.

McDonald’s has more than 13,000 locations scattered across the United States; it’s as much a staple of the American landscape as elementary schools and post offices. (It’s so omnipresent, people have actually gone to the trouble of finding the farthest you can be from one, just as a goof.) As anyone who’s ever been on a long road trip can vouch for, many of these are conveniently located immediately off major highways, making them ideal for fast-charging on road trips; others tend to be found in or near the center of town, often near less-upscale neighborhoods where drivers may be more likely to rent or live in apartments, and thus have less access to home-charging options.

mcdonald store locations in the usa

Note the caption: each black dot represents five McDonald’s locations or less within a 10-mile radius; each yellow dot represents more than five within that same radius.

Courtesy

And unlike most of the big names in fast food — and here’s where things get interesting — McDonald’s owns a substantial portion of its restaurants. (You may remember this as a plot point from The Founder, the story of the company’s explosive rise starring Michael Keaton.) While franchisees operate around 85 percent of locations, Mickey D’s owns 70 percent of those buildings, and 45 percent of the land.

Which means — at least for those 45 percent of locations — instead of having to wrangle with property owners about convincing them to take on the task of installing these chargers, McDonald’s could, to steal a line from another megalithic company endorsed by Michael Jordan, just do it.

Once those are in, convincing the owners of the rest of the locations to go along would likely be comparatively easy. You like having us as a dependable tenant? Well, you’d better let us install this EV charger. Otherwise, people are liable to keep on going down the road to the next McD’s, where there is a charger. Hey, we’re footing the bill; all you have to do is say okay.

Admittedly, installing Level 3 chargers isn’t cheap; plopping one in the ground can take around $100,000 when you factor in everything from purchase to installation to labor. But McDonald’s raked in more than $23 billion globally last year, including $7.5 billion in profits alone. Their market cap of $192 billion is more than Ford and General Motors put together. Even spending $13 billion to install a Level 3 charger at every McDonald’s location in America amounts to Ronald McDonald’s pocket change — particularly when you consider it would be spaced out across several years.

And especially when you stop to consider the opportunity it’ll create. Having electric vehicle chargers means EV owners have an enormous incentive to stop at your restaurant versus another. The 15–30 minutes it takes to sock enough electrons aboard isn’t enough time for a proper table service meal, but it’s plenty to hit the head, order a couple hamburger meals, and – depending on your personal dining preference — wolf them down in the booth or eat in the car.

Having McDonald’s take ownership of the chargers also means a guaranteed level of attention above what most fast chargers currently have. There are plenty of slights that can be aimed at the Golden Arches, but a lack of consistency and quality control isn’t one of them; McDonald’s prides itself on doing the few things it does with assembly-line precision. If the charger isn’t working for some reason, there are actual humans nearby affiliate with it to speak to — and while the average fast-food employee may not be a paragon of customer service, they’re certainly capable of, say, flipping a reset switch for a charger. And having employees right by the charger at all times means there’s someone invested in calling in problems as soon as they manifest, which could help make repairs come more quickly.

By cornering the market now, Mickey D’s will offer a built-in incentive for the growing legions of EV buyers to choose their restaurants over any of their competitors. (You may want a Baconator Deluxe from Wendy’s, but your F-150 Lightning needs those electrons.)

But the window of opportunity won’t stay open forever. The more electric vehicles hit the streets, the more other companies will see the need for places for people to charge — and realize what a captive market they represent.

Staying ahead of demand is the key to establishing a network of EV plugs; just ask Tesla, whose Supercharger network is arguably one of the biggest draws of its cars. While buyers of non-Tesla EVs are forced to cobble together itineraries based on a range of independent (and often undependable) third-party charging networks, drivers who buy from The House of Musk can count on a seamless, wide-ranging web of fast plugs wherever they go. McDonald’s could be that, but for everyone.

Speaking of Tesla, you might be asking: say, Elon Musk has talked about opening that giant Supercharger network up to other carmakers. Why shouldn’t he be the one to solve this problem? Well, let’s face it: Tesla doesn’t exactly have the best reputation when it comes to taking on new projects. Sure, their S3XY cars are tech-laden and seamless to operate, but the company’s past and present are rife with deferred dreams and probable vaporware: the Cybertruck, the second-gen Roadster packing compressed air thrusters and hover capabilities, and fully autonomous driving, just to name a few. Besides, the plethora of Tesla vehicles on the road (and the many more to come) means the carmaker already has its hands full maintaining and expanding its in-house charging network just to keep those customers happy — let alone become responsible for keeping millions more cars and trucks charged.

business leaders converge in sun valley, idaho for allen and company annual meeting

Tesla’s public relations department, issuing a formal response to a request for comment.

Scott OlsonGetty Images

Supporting an all-electric vehicle future (or even simply a majority-EV one) is going to require buy-in from all sorts of partners — the feds, state and local governments, automakers, utilities, and basically any business that has a vested interest in keeping Americans on the roads. Like it or not, fast food restaurants are a major part of that realm, and none are quite as influential as McDonald’s. The Golden Arches have the resources, the ambition, and the market share to bring EV fast-charging to the masses the same way they did the Big Mac; all they need is the will to do it.

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