It’s not often that the world’s media descends on the Cracker Barrel in Lebanon, Tenn., off Interstate 40, but that’s what happened this week when the company announced that it had installed its first fast charger there.

 

Well, maybe all of the media didn’t show up, since Kim Kardashian is getting divorced, but it was big for Lebanon. Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) was there, after all, and Sandy Cochran, president and CEO of Cracker Barrel. A 480-volt DC fast charger is capable of getting a Nissan Leaf (or other fine electric vehicle) from zero to 80 percent full in about half an hour, which is still a lot longer than most people spend at gas stations — but it’s getting closer.

 

As you may recall, I wrote a story late last year when this estimable 42-year-old restaurant chain (they promised me a free “Country Dinner” if I say nice things about ‘em) announced that it would plug in 24 of its Interstate-based stores in a Tennessee triangle that includes Nashville, Knoxville and Chattanooga (half of those will have fast charging). According to Julia Davis, a spokeswoman for Cracker Barrel, the first 12 240-volt Level II chargers are now in place, and the first of a dozen ECOtality Blink fast chargers has been installed in Lebanon.

 

“People are using them now, and plugging in is free,” said Davis. It’s unclear how many Nissan Leafs are in Tennessee now, but the state (home to the Leaf factory) is in the initial rollout plans.

 

Tennessee chargers, including Cracker Barrel’s, are subsidized by a $115 million in two federal grants to ECOtality. The first Leaf in Tennessee was delivered to Jeff Heeren of Nashville, the owner of NumberGarage.com, late last year.

 

Some think that fast charging is key to the success of the whole EV thing. It may well be, but we’re demonstrating a strange way of getting it off the ground and plugging in cars. The Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE) is in charge of creating a standard for 480-volt charging, and it’s taken its sweet time of it. The result is that chargers like those at Cracker Barrel use a Japanese standard, Tokyo Electric Power’s CHAdeMO, that is the only actual option right now.

 

SAE finally showed a prototype version of its AC/DC “combo” charger plug, capable of connecting to both home and 480-volt public charging, but it will take a few years to actually be available for cars — the final standard isn’t even due until early in 2012. So some retrofitting seems inevitable.

 

How will fast charging work? Half an hour is a long time to be twiddling your thumbs at a gas station, which is why 480 volts DC makes more sense at restaurants like Cracker Barrel, movie theaters and big-box stores — where you’re going to be occupied for a while. Heck, even Starbucks would probably make a lot of sense, since waiting for your grande mocha latte can take 20 minutes at least.

 

Mark Perry of Nissan told me to think of fast charging (at left) as a quick way to “top off” your electric tank. You may end up plugging in for just 10 minutes, which would be enough for more than 30 miles of range.

 

EV charging is one big experiment. We don’t have much reliable data on how much usage public stations will get. The early evidence is anecdotal. Scott Nedbeck, manager of the InterPark Government Center garage in Chicago’s Loop district, said back in April that a couple of its 11 stations have seen occasional use. “They haven’t been used much yet, but we are hoping,” he said. “We’ve only had them a few months.” Costco cited light use as a reason to tear out the outmoded chargers it had in its California stores, but that’s not much of a real-world test.

 

Automakers think that 80 percent of EV charging will happen at home, so the public network is probably less important than it seems. The 100-mile range scares people, but once users find they can generally make it home they’ll use public chargers (which will cost more, once the “free” grace period is over) less. But chargers along Interstates are a very good idea to cure range anxiety.

 

There’s an interesting history with the Cracker Barrel chargers. Founder Dan Evins was a Shell Oil “jobber” whose initial impulse was selling more gasoline by including home cookin’ as part of the deal. So the first stores had gas pumps out front. People shook their fists at gas station lines during the early '70s Arab Oil Embargo, so maybe that’s why they took the fueling stations out then. Now they’re back.

 

“In a sense, Cracker Barrel is going back to its roots,” said Cochran. “We are participating in the EV project because it’s a way of keeping the Cracker Barrel brand relevant in changing times, and it’s a way for us to be part of the solution when it comes to the country’s energy concerns.”

 

When the chargers are fully installed by the end of November, it should be possible to drive across the state, stopping only at Cracker Barrels for both human and car refueling. Davis has offered to pilot me around the route in a Leaf, which should be fun. I’ll probably gain a few pounds, but I’m the guy who takes the tough assignments.

 

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