In a state working to lure more people into electric cars, the idea seems like a no-brainer: Add EV charging-station logos to the food, fuel, and lodging services advertised on the ubiquitous blue signs along Massachusetts highways.
But what may seem logical is also, apparently, impossible under current Federal Highway Administration rules — and new regulations under consideration in D.C. could make it even more difficult.
Bob Armstrong, a longtime green policy advocate in Western Massachusetts, has written to every federal and state agency and politician he can think of with this idea, but antiquated federal highway regulations aren’t easy to change.
“We have signage for fuel, food, and lodging without a single sign that there are chargers already there and ready for use,” he said in an interview. “We need to immediately dispel the belief that there are no chargers out there.”
Whereas today the signs carry logos of gas stations such as Mobil and Gulf, a rule change would allow them to include the logos of electric charging station operators such as Electrify America, EVgo, and Tesla. The specific logos are important, as not every EV can charge at every kind of station.
The state now has 147 high-speed charging stations (with a total of 639 plugs) that EV drivers can find using apps in their cars or on their phones, at least, and more are being added every month. But, for the much larger driving public still in gas-powered vehicles, the lack of signage helps fuel a narrative of inadequate charging options and worries about being stranded if an EV’s batteries run out, also known as “range anxiety.” And it’s a missed opportunity to raise awareness.
“It’s the non-EV owners that could be affected most by this,” said John Paul Helveston, a professor at George Washington University who studies the electric vehicle transition. “When gas car drivers constantly see EV charging signs on their trips, they might start to realize that the infrastructure is here, and they may start considering an EV for their next car.”
To meet its carbon reduction goals, Massachusetts aims to have 200,000 electric vehicles on the road by 2025 and 900,000 by 2030. But at the end of 2022, there were only about 66,000.
Armstrong, a retired computer engineer who worked at Digital Equipment, drives a Chevy Bolt and has long been trying to convince people to dump their gas guzzlers for EVs. The former Conway Select Board member has also helped expand broadband and solar power projects in his part of the state. (A Sierra Club staffer called him a “super climate champ” for his efforts.)
“Too many people kept telling me they would consider an EV once there was some charging infrastructure built out,” he said. “And when I would tell them about chargers at the various Mass. Pike exits and at many of the Nissan dealers along Route 3, they would be shocked.”
Recently, Armstrong brought his concerns to the state’s new panel charged with addressing EV charging issues, the Electric Vehicle Infrastructure Coordinating Council, at a hearing at Holyoke Community College. Headed by Michael Judge, state undersecretary for energy, and including representatives of other state agencies and departments, the council is holding a series of public hearings as it prepares an initial assessment of the charging ecosystem for the Legislature.
“I want Harry and Marge who are driving down the Mass. Pike to go by and say, ‘Did you know there was a charger right at this exit?’” Armstrong told the council. “And the only way people are going to know that is if you have something else other than Exxon and Mobil.”
“We’ll definitely look into it,” Judge responded at the meeting. A spokesperson for Judge declined to comment further.
The problem really started to bother Armstrong after Massachusetts shut down six unreliable public EV chargers at rest stops along the turnpike this year and at times posted signs alerting motorists that the chargers were gone. (Tesla still operates proprietary stations at the Charlton rest stops.)
But no mention was made of the privately owned fast charging stations run by Electrify America, EVgo, and other companies just off the turnpike.
Whether motorists can be alerted to those locations is the purview of the Massachusetts Department of Transportation, which oversees the blue exit services signs and is bound by federal rules contained in an 864-page document called the Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices. MUTCD, as it is known, governs everything from how to stripe roads to proper railroad crossing signals and has not had a major overhaul since 2009.
The rules limit logos to the businesses of “gas, food, and lodging” — not fuel, food, and lodging. Typically, each category of service is on its own sign. To be included on a “gas” sign, the regulations require that a station must provide oil, tire repairs, and restrooms — requirements EV charging stations don’t meet.
Reached for comment, MassDOT said that under MUTCD, a charging company could ask that a generic graphic of an EV charging terminal be put not on the “gas” signs, but on a sign for “other services” or one of the state’s rest stops signs. But most exits don’t have an “other services” sign, and the generic logo, while somewhat helpful, wouldn’t tell EV drivers which brand of station was available.
“MassDOT supports the installation of the EV charging station signs on interstates and freeways to provide guidance as to where there are charging facilities for public use provided within a 3-mile distance from the exit,” the agency said in a statement to the Globe.
Some recently proposed changes to MUTCD would make EV signage even harder to add. In December 2020, the Federal Highway Administration issued hundreds of proposed changes to the document for public comment. The agency received more than 26,000 comments and has yet to issue a final, binding revision of the MUTCD.
Under one proposed change, gas stations could add an “EV” tag on their logos if they also offered EV charging, while logos from any kind of fueling station that didn’t provide gasoline, such as electric charging or hydrogen pump stations, could not be on the signs at all. And hotels and restaurants would not be allowed to add an EV charging tag to their logos even if they offered that service.
The Biden administration, which took office after the changes were proposed, could go in another direction in the final regulations and promote EV signage more aggressively. “We have been working diligently towards [issuing a final rule] while committed to ensuring all comments submitted through the public docket were considered,” the Federal Highway Administration said in a statement to the Globe. “The next edition will be comprehensive, responsive and forward-looking in improving the mobility and safety of all road users.”
A consortium of eight states including Massachusetts working on EV adoption objected to the language in the 2020 proposal.
“As more Americans make the switch to driving electric, the number of charging stations in highway corridors is expected to grow exponentially,” the Northeast States for Coordinated Air Use Management wrote in a May 2021 letter. “Adequate signage will be especially important in a transitional phase before charging stations become as common as gasoline and diesel stations. A driver who misses a station when low on charge could become stranded on the roadway, a safety risk particularly in rural areas with limited cellular service.”
Charging companies Electrify America, EVgo, ChargePoint, EV Connect, and Greenlots, along with ABB, which makes charging equipment but doesn’t run its own stations, also filed a comment objecting to the proposal.
Another challenge is that the state charges companies to be listed on the exit services signs. The fee is $1,200 per year for gas stations listed on an existing sign. But if a service operator wants to post a logo at an exit that doesn’t already have a sign, it would also have to pay for the erection of the blue sign, which can cost more than $10,000.
For EV charging stations, the signs “ought to be free,” Armstrong said. “I mean, at least until we are starting to reach these kinds of numbers we need to reach. We need to sell more electric cars.”