America’s charging network is the biggest hurdle electric vehicles face
Most EV drivers charge their vehicles at home. But as Americans buy EVs — to the tune of 7 percent of all new vehicle registrations in January — more and more people are finding that the public charging system is unreliable, inconvenient and simply confusing.
“I’ve seen people wait because there are only four chargers and two of them are out of service,” said Bill Ferro, the founder of EVSession, a software firm that tracks charger reliability. “Everything that I’ve seen shows that it’s driving away current and potential EV owners.”
Drivers might show up at a DC-fast charging station — which can fill a vehicle’s battery by 80 percent in about 20 minutes — to find that most of the chargers are broken. Or one might work, but only if the driver installs a particular app on their phone, creates an account and loads money onto it.
Last year, in a study conducted by researchers at the University of California at Berkeley and the climate advocacy group Cool the Earth, researchers tested every single fast charging station in the San Francisco Bay Area.
They found that more than a quarter of the 657 charging points didn’t function during a two-minute charging test. Sometimes the charging cable couldn’t reach the vehicle’s charging port; other times the payment system wouldn’t work; sometimes the charger’s screen was broken or the network was down.
Some of the chargers had the option to pay by an 800 number — but Carleen Cullen, the executive director of Cool the Earth and one of the authors of the study, said that is not a good solution. “If we want mass market adoption, people are going to want to pay and move along and charge their vehicles,” she said.
Another survey, from J.D. Power, found that 1 in 5 EV owners who had recently visited a station were unable to charge — largely due to a system malfunction.
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Tesla’s proprietary charging network usually gets the highest ratings from users. But the vast majority of stations are open to only Tesla drivers. The company has agreed to open a small fraction of its stations to non-Tesla drivers by 2024, beginning with a few select locations around the country.
Ferro, who drives an EV, frequently has to take road trips of about 300 miles. He ended up buying a Tesla Model 3 largely to make use of the reliable charging network. “On any other network, I wouldn’t have trusted it,” he explained.
But there’s more to the problem than that.
The decentralized nature of American charging is also confusing early adopters and could turn off potential EV drivers. Public charging is managed by a hodgepodge of private companies, utilities, government spending and automakers. There are private companies — such as Electrify America, EVgo, or ChargePoint — and each has its own machines and ways of paying for charging. (A typical EV driver may have as many as eight phone apps and several radio frequency identification cards to manage all the possible chargers on the road.)
Then there are automakers, such as Tesla or Rivian, that establish their own networks tailor-made for those who buy their products. Utilities are also trying to get into the game, building up their own fast charging networks in states like Minnesota. The result is a mess for drivers who simply want to plug in — and a logistical nightmare for regulators.
“There are so many different players in this, and they all need to be singing the same song,” Cullen said.
There have been attempts to regulate chargers’ “uptime,” or the amount of time that they are functioning properly.
The Biden administration has established rules for the $5 billion in funding for public chargers in the infrastructure bill, ordering that they have at least a 97 percent uptime and are accessible via a single payment method. But the federal rules also allow networks to self-report how often their chargers work — a decision that Ferro said he finds troubling.
“It’s letting the fox in the henhouse,” he said.
And that’s only for the chargers that will receive federal funding; the vast majority of stations will not.
Unless the United States sorts out its public charging infrastructure, it’s hard to imagine EV sales growing as quickly as the Biden administration wants. The strictest version of the rules the Environmental Protection Agency proposed Wednesday would require a whopping two-thirds of all new passenger vehicle sales to be electric by 2032.
New federal subsidies, offered under the Inflation Reduction Act, are making EVs more accessible to Americans. More EV drivers means more pressure on the existing malfunctioning stations, as well as more drivers who live in apartments or don’t have easy access to home charging.
While early adopters and EV enthusiasts might be happy to build in multiple contingency plans, mainstream EV adoption is going to require a more streamlined system.
U.S. public charging also lags far behind other countries: According to S&P Global, China has 1.2 million charging points, Europe has 400,000 — and the United States has only 140,000.
“We’re not yet to the mass market phase,” Ferro said. “And if the infrastructure isn’t there, it will put a damper on everybody’s plans.”