The next frontier of road rage is the parking garage

January 30, 2020, 8:23 PM UTC
Parking spaces for electric vehicles in the Hannover region of Germany in January 2020. Julian Stratenschulte/picture alliance/Getty Images
Julian Stratenschulte—picture alliance/Getty Images

They’re called “ICEholes.” In online conversations between electric vehicle owners, ICE stands for internal combustion engines, making “ICEholes” those gasoline-powered drivers who antagonize their electric counterparts out of negligence or spite.

“The biggest ICEhole regularly blocks the only working charger in the garage,” reads a car-shaming post (with photo!) in a Tesla-focused forum on Reddit. One submission shames a semi truck blocking access to six chargers by parking horizontally. Another shows a Nissan Leaf parked awkwardly on a curb in order to reach a charger blocked by a gas-guzzling Chrysler.

Parking is politics. Just witness any George Costanza-level meltdown over a contested space or encounter the unwritten rules of Bostonians, Chicagoans, or Philadelphians who claim a snowy spot they cleared. With electric vehicle sales on the rise—U.S. sales topped 300,000 last year, according to the Department of Energy, and some predict that total global sales could reach 100 million by the end of the decade—parking angst is sure to deepen as new electric drivers find the chargers they desperately need already in use or blocked by gasoline cars that don’t need them. Fortunately, some drivers, cities, and lawmakers are working on smart ideas to de-escalate the parking wars to come.

Access denied

The simplest way around range anxiety is to charge at home. EV owners who install a dedicated charger in their garage wake up each day to the contented feeling of a full battery. But not all drivers have this option. Consider the many home-renters or apartment-dwellers who’ll drive electric vehicles once they go mainstream but who won’t have the prerogative to install a big piece of electric infrastructure. 

Those EV converts will find themselves at the mercy of the public EV charging hustle, a hodgepodge of confusing and time-consuming options, from “destination chargers” at Whole Foods and hotels to company-specific high-power stations such as Tesla superchargers. Drivers might plug in at a public garage to grab a few electrons while they shop, race to beat others to work so they’re guaranteed a charging stall for the day, or trek to the Tesla supercharger and wait for a space to come free if it’s a busy time of day.

As an electric-vehicle owner, I primarily charge at the office. But I’m lucky. My employer—located in California, it’s worth noting—has deployed dozens of chargers in one of its parking structures, allowing electric drivers to charge during the workday and leave with a full battery. Even so, I fret. Only some of these spaces are officially marked “EV only,” and as the morning progresses, many of the “all parking okay” spaces fill up with gasoline-powered cars. This isn’t malevolence on the part of the other drivers, necessarily—typically anyone who needs a charger has snagged one by then. Still, I feel preemptive anger at the sight of a random fossil fueler parked in front of a charger, dreading the inevitable day when I’ll need immediate access to a plug and won’t get it.

That day is coming soon.

The coming charger crunch

The 2020s promise to be the decade of the electric car. Toyota has 10 all-electric vehicles in the hopper. Jaguar, which beat many legacy competitors to market with its battery-powered i-Pace crossover, has weighed the possibility of the brand going entirely electric. Even Porsche finally took the plunge, revealing its long-awaited electric sedan, the Taycan, in 2019. Within a few years, most new vehicles will likely be hybrids as the floodgates swing open for pure EVs.

An obvious infrastructural crisis looms. The world needs many, many more public charging stations, plus smarter ways to manage the load and ensure more of that power comes from renewable sources. On top of that, a society with hordes of electric drivers demands a new way to think about the precious shared resource of EV parking stalls. 

In some places, the reset is happening by force. The number of Teslas on the road has multiplied with the release of the Model 3 and the automaker has promised a slew of new supercharger stations to meet the added demand. In the meantime, though, lines form at the busiest outposts. To ease the logjam, Tesla automatically asks drivers at full-capacity superchargers to take off when their vehicle’s battery hits 80% (though they can opt to get more energy). The company also introduced “idle fees” to fight space-hogging: Following a five-minute grace period after charging concludes, Tesla begins charging drivers by the minute until they move the car.

Beyond the Tesla ecosystem, new parking laws target bad behavior. Last year, Colorado added fines for blocking EV charging stations. Other states and cities have put laws on the books to fine drivers who park without hooking up to the charging equipment. The primary villain here may not even be ICEholes, but rather indifferent electric owners. According to Green Car Reports, in 2018 the most fines for illegally parking in a charging stall went to EVs that blocked a space while not charging.

Parking police

Thanks to the smartphone revolution, Americans have already internalized the lesson that not all charging is created equal. Say you’re standing at an airport charging station to boost your phone’s battery from 55% to 90% because it happens to be available. Then someone comes along with 2% and asks to cut in. Most people probably would let them.

A few civic-minded electric cars drivers are already trying to reorient our parking culture around this concept. One group attempted to make electric vehicle charging hangers that tell other drivers whether your car is “opportunity charging” (meaning you’re not desperate for the miles) or “necessity charging (you very much are). Displaying the “opportunity” placard gives another driver permission to unplug your sufficiently juiced Nissan Leaf or Chevy Bolt if they’re in danger of their own battery hitting zero. Benevolent chargers can even leave their phone number for the desperation drivers who needs to text them to ask if they can move out of the stall.

These small steps are commendable. But the U.S. is a nation that paves a staggering number of parking spaces and never has enough, with a driving public trained to think of refueling as a five-minute forgettable chore. As cities build more charging stalls and enforce who gets to the park in them, it’s easy to foresee a new tide of road rage over parking—both in battery drivers desperate to get a charger, and in gasoline drivers circling past that one empty space in the lot that’s reserved for electric vehicles only.

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