Charging my test electric vehicle, a Volvo XC40 Recharge SUV, at the side of a poorly lit Canadian Tire store on Welland Ave. in St. Catharines, Ont., one night, my eyes dart back and forth, scouring the empty parking lot.
My heart beats faster when a vehicle drives by not once, but three times. I can’t help but wonder – are they scoping me out to steal my vehicle or rob me?
I’m an easy target. I’m alone in a dark, uninhabited area and sitting in an expensive SUV that is physically connected by a cord to the wall, which doesn’t exactly make it easy to flee the scene in the face of danger.
It’s a scenario that plays out often – not only at this particular charging station, but other secluded EV stations around the province.
Early EV adopter Kathy Buckworth, host of Go-To Grandma on Zoomer Radio, is particularly concerned when charging her 2015 BMW i3, especially in underground parking lots. “Often they’re not close to the stairwell, the elevator or places where it would be convenient; once you’re charging up, especially as a woman at night, it feels unsafe.”
“A lot of underground parking lots were built well before they had to anticipate electric car chargers. But just jamming them into a dark corner doesn’t do anyone any good,” Buckworth said.
Charging an EV is more complicated and time consuming than pulling up to a well-lit service station with cameras and attendants nearby and refuelling in mere minutes. It takes at least 20 minutes to charge, if you’re lucky enough to find a DC fast charger that can charge at the speeds promised by auto makers. If you can only find a Level 2 charger, you could be at the station for hours.
Maybe I’m on high alert these days because of the recent rash of carjackings in Toronto. One recent victim was Toronto Maple Leafs superstar Mitch Marner, whose black Range Rover was stolen at gunpoint. That was the 60th carjacking in Toronto this year, compared with 59 in all of 2021.
“Suspects target high-value vehicles that are nearly always sold for profit,” said Inspector Richard Harris of the Toronto Police Service.
It’s a crime of opportunity that’s rising in other Canadian cities as well. In Montreal, there were 36 carjackings in 2021 and 16 in the first four months of 2022.
In the United States, there have been reports of car robberies at EV stations dating back to 2015. According to a California police report, officers arrived at an EV charging station outside a Barstow restaurant after a 911 call from the victim, who reported he was robbed at gunpoint by two men. The victim said the suspects approached him while he was charging his vehicle and forced him out of his car at gunpoint. After taking his jewellery, credit cards and other property, they drove off in his 2014 Tesla, which the police described as a “high-end electric car.”
On Sept. 4, 2021, a Tesla Model 3 owner posted on the Tesla Owners Online forum: “Last night, charging in Oakland, [Calif.], I narrowly avoided being robbed. At charging stations during the night time, Tesla drivers are sitting ducks.”
But Tesla owners aren’t the only EV drivers who sometimes feel unsafe when recharging their vehicles away from home. So all charging networks have a responsibility to do more to protect their users.
Electrify Canada has plans to expand its charging network to more than 100 charging stations with 500 individual ultrafast chargers across Canada by 2026 from 30 stations and 120 chargers today. “Safety is a key consideration when we’re thinking about selecting locations for charging stations,” said Mike Buff, senior manager of product and programs at Electrify Canada, a partnership between Electrify America and Volkswagen Group Canada that’s designed to promote the adoption of zero-emission vehicles by offering ultrafast charging facilities.
When scouting new locations, Electrify Canada has someone assess the appropriateness of the site in person, gauging the location of utilities and amenities, safety issues and lighting, Buff says.
Travis Allan, vice-president of public affairs and general counsel at the charging network Flo, says that, in many places, charging stations have been deployed “based on where the electrical infrastructure is in a parking lot. And that’s not always in a place that has the best lighting.
“We look carefully at how we locate the hub of charging, particularly at night, and make sure there are a number of different considerations like lighting and visibility to make sure the stations are visible from different angles,” he added.
Asked about the locations of current stations, the representatives of Electrify Canada and Flo focused on the improvements they are making to future locations.
Canadian Tire agreed that the location of the charger I used that night could have been better situated. “This EV charging infrastructure was installed prior to developing our corporate EV strategy and subsequent EV partnerships and network,” said Jessica Sims, associate vice-president of corporate communications at Canadian Tire Corp.
“While the infrastructure at this location doesn’t currently align with our EV strategy, the technology does function, and the site is being looked at as part of our phase two development plan of existing EV assets.”
But what’s the solution? On-site guards? More security cameras? Additional lighting? Wireless charging? Or better locations with on-site amenities, including bathrooms and restaurants, such as Tesla chief executive officer Elon Musk is planning to build with his first diner and drive-in theatre at a Tesla Supercharger station in Los Angeles – a smart plan that brings extra cash and adds an element of safety and security while charging.
Both Electrify Canada and Flo say they are looking at many such solutions.
Earlier this year, Canadian Tire partnered with Flo, its parent company AddÉnergie Technologies Inc., and National Resources Canada to install 54 fast chargers and 31 Level 2 chargers at 33 Canadian Tire locations in five provinces: Ontario, Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Alberta and British Columbia. These new stations will have better lighting and be located near conveniences such as restaurants and restrooms. By the end of 2022, that number will expand to more than 140 sites, including 20 at ONroute rest stop locations along the 400-series highways in Ontario. It’s a step in the right direction.
Kathy Buckworth, the Go-To Grandma, has other suggestions, including building better apps to show exactly where charging spots are located – not just their general location – as well as how many chargers are on site, and whether they’re available.
“If you want to encourage more people to buy electric cars, a lot of people already have range anxiety, let alone can I charge it anywhere? Can I charge where it’s safe? It’s just an extra barrier [to EV adoption],” Buckworth said.
In the meantime, when charging at night, Toronto Police Inspector Richard Harris says there are things you can do to help ensure your safety. Be aware of your surroundings and keep valuables out of sight. Keep your doors locked and, if you feel threatened, sound your car alarm or call 911, he said. Above all, if someone attempts to steal your vehicle, give it up, he advises: “Do not argue or fight. Your safety is worth more than a car.”