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Electric vehicles are a new technology. (OK, technically it is a very old technology dating back more than a hundred years, but to people alive today it is a new technology.) And as with any new technology, people use it in a way that conflicts with others, social norms have to get developed on the fly, and not everyone has the same idea of what is acceptable behavior. Which brings us to a recent Reddit thread in r/ElectricVehicles titled “Don’t be a jerk.”
The poster reported a recent incident in which, about 20 minutes after plugging in his plug-in hybrid car (meaning it has both a gas and electric powertrain), they received a notification that charging had stopped. Upon returning to the car, they found a Tesla parked in front of their car using the plug.
“Don’t do this,” the poster admonished. “Stuff like this is just [sic] makes you a colossal jackhole, not that different than the people that ICE you at a charger,” referring to when an internal combustion engine (ICE) car parks in an EV charging spot, otherwise known as getting “ICE’d.”
The post inspired lots of vitriol, mainly directed towards the Tesla driver. After 351 comments, the normally-civil subreddit had to lock the thread for too many violations of “Rule 3,” which prohibits “personal attacks nor attempts to bait people into uncivil behavior.” A good portion of the thread was specifically about whether Teslas attract a disproportionate number of jerks, with one commenter suggesting they are the BMWs of electric vehicles.
As the comments on the thread illustrate, charging etiquette is a touchy subject, one without clear rules and many nuances because there isn’t a common analog in American life. The closest comparison is whether to empty someone else’s laundry from a shared use machine. It is also something a lot of Americans may soon be learning about as more and more vehicles become electric.
First, it’s important to be clear that electric vehicle owners are virtually unanimous in that it is almost never OK to unplug another car that is charging to charge your own. First come, first serve is the rule, and the potential exceptions that are even entertained for discussion are exceedingly rare. It is also not an issue for the vast majority of fast chargers, which lock into the plug while charging for safety reasons, so only the person who started the charge can stop it. There are typically emergency deactivation measures, but that would prevent the plug-stealer from using it until it was reset.
What we’re really talking about here are Level 2 chargers which take hours to fully charge a vehicle. These will most commonly be found at offices, public parks, municipal buildings, apartments, parking garages, and similar locations. The thread also exhibits yet another difference between U.S. and Europe electric vehicle infrastructure, because plugs which lock into place are much more common in Europe where drivers supply their own cords for Level 2 chargers. In these chargers, the plug locks into place to prevent plug theft.
The ethical dilemma here is these Level 2 chargers are used for a variety of purposes. Some people with plug-in hybrids use them to drive as much on electricity as possible, but will never be stranded if they run out of juice. Due to the smaller batteries, these cars can fully charge in a couple hours, meaning they often sit plugged in but fully charged for extended periods. Some Level 2 chargers have indicator lights or panels that show if the car is still charging, and most seemed to think it was OK to unplug a fully-charged vehicle to plug in your own.
But this is where the Reddit thread started to diverge in opinion. Some thought it was OK to unplug a plug-in hybrid even if it wasn’t fully charged to charge your fully electric vehicle if you’re about to run out of battery, as long as a note of apology is left on the windshield. A few in the minority thought battery electrics should always take precedence over plug-in hybrids. And a few commenters expressed particular animosity towards specific plug-in vehicles that hog office park chargers every day.
Others thought these exceptions were not legitimate. One Tesla owner even said they got towed to the next Supercharger rather than unplug someone else. “If a car is charging, you don’t unplug it. End of story,” another said.
“What is wrong with all of you? The number of people posting that its [sic] ok to unplug PHEVs is truly disappointing,” another wrote. “You’re not the only car out there, you have to share public resources, PHEVs plug in, stop being such children. You don’t get to rank by ‘need’. If you’ve gotten yourself to where you need the mall charger to get home, then wait your turn at it like a civilized person.”
Like most controversial subjects, people feel very strongly that basic human decency is at stake here. Several commenters said they use cards sold on Etsy that function like hotel Do Not Disturb door hangs and provide further nuance to the charging issue. Some EVs are charging because the driver needed the charger and sought it out for that purpose. Others are simply using it because they were going to that destination anyways and the charger happened to be there. The cards indicate whether the charging in question is merely a “convenience charge” and can therefore be taken by someone else or one of necessity and should not be unplugged. The hope is this will clearly signal preferences and alleviate confusing ethical boundaries.
But polite signals won’t stop assholes, who by definition do not respond to polite signals. After all, as the original poster said, the charger he was using at the time had an indicator light to show his car’s charging status. It was at 30 percent.