This article originally appeared on The Drive .
Ten years after its first Supercharger site opened, Tesla is undeniably the gold standard for EV fast charging. Drive up, plug in, then stay only as long as your car suggests to gain another 200-plus miles of range. It’s simple, seamless, and almost universal in the United States.
Drivers from any other EV brand will face a different landscape, as no other automaker has made the same investment in creating a dedicated charging infrastructure for its customers like Tesla. They haven’t done anything to build a significant public charging infrastructure. Instead, they have outsourced that responsibility and created a mess of public charging sites and networks. Most offer slower Level 2 charging, providing eight to 25 miles per charging hour, which won’t get you far on a road trip. Only Electrify America and EVgo offer substantial numbers of DC fast-charging stations–and the reliability of those sites themselves is disturbingly variable.
But, as automakers ramp up to build and sell vastly more electric cars, one has finally started to focus on public charging unreliability–because it understands shoddy networks threaten its plan to build and sell EVs at a profit. There are many public charging grievances. A few will be discussed here. But things don’t look so bad.
For the past year, Ford has acknowledged that poor on-road charging experiences and the resulting social media have been a major obstacle to EV acceptance. Ford has taken several steps to alleviate the frustrations of its EV customers. This includes the tedious task of finding problems in charging networks’ chargers one-by-one and relying on the network to correct them. It remains to be seen if these efforts will make a lasting difference, but it is encouraging to see an automaker from the past finally get serious about solving the problem.
More EV buyers, less familiarity
If you haven’t experienced it yet, charging outside your home’s built-in charger and select areas of California can be quite bleak. Unfortunately, public chargers can be a bit of a mess. My professional life revolves around EVs and public chargers. I also talk to EV drivers about them. I have noticed that newer EVs boast a longer range and are often charged at home overnight. As these longer-range EVs have hit the market, it is possible that people are less familiar with on-road charging.
A Nissan Leaf driver, for example, with 74 or 107 available miles might regularly opt for a few hours of opportunistic public charging while shopping to boost the car’s range. And they would be less likely to undertake a 300-mile road trip in such a low-range EV to start with.
The driver of a newer 300-mile EV, however, might be more confident on a longer road trip, but that trip may be the only time they think about public charging. That’s because 80 percent of households that can afford a new car are able to charge at home, meaning the bulk of EV miles today come from overnight charging in a garage or driveway. These drivers may finally use public charging for that tense, stressful family trip to Grandma’s for holidays. This is not the right time to find out how public charging works in practice.
As things are today, almost every non-Tesla EV driver will sooner or later arrive at a charging station that’s dead, damaged, offline, or providing current at slower-than-advertised rates.
Take a look at a dozen tweets by EV drivers last year, including this author. It’s a glimpse into their collective frustration.
One cable in four won’t work
How serious is the problem? It’s hard to say definitively, as charging networks largely don’t release reliability data, but a new study from the University of California-Berkeley offered one glimpse of the problem. It looked at all 181 non-Tesla DC fast-charging sites in the San Francisco Bay Area, totaling 657 connectors. Overall, just 72.5 percent of those connectors worked, with this defined as being able to charge an EV for two minutes.
According to the study,
Cables failed for many reasons. These included “unresponsive or unavailable screens”, payment system failures and network failures. Though some questions about methodology remain open, a random sample retested 10 days later found no improvement. As the study noted further, drily, “This level of functionality appears to conflict with the 95 to 98 [percent] uptime reported by the EV service providers.”
Another fast-charger reliability study, released in January, showed the best-ranked network, Electrify America, scored only 700 out of 1,000 possible points for reliability, ease of use, and more. Two other networks, Blink and EVconnect, were at or below 500 points.
To be fair, Electrify America gets the bulk of the complaint tweets above because it has the most fast-charging stations aside from Tesla (785 locations with more than 3,250 individual chargers, and more more sites in process). Multiple carmakers, including Audi, Kia and Porsche, offer their customers free access to its network for the first few years. General Motors will similarly offer access to the EVgo network (850-plus stations) for its GMC Hummer EV and further electric models.
But knowing in advance that a DC fast charging station is dead could mean that Grandma has to be changed. Existing EV drivers have quickly learned to rely on station usage info posted by other drivers, usually on the Plugshare app (now owned by the EVgo network but so far run as a separate entity).
Plugshare users often record charging sessions and how they worked. They also add photos and directions to help drivers locate chargers. For example, “Go past the drive thru window, turn right at fence, and park near the dumpster.” The station is on the back of the building.” Similar apps include A Better Route Planner and Chargeway. Although there are many benefits to owning an electric vehicle and searching for a charger that works, it is not sustainable. Crowdsourcing a functional charger is not something that the average buyer will find cute or unusual. It will be seen as inconvenient and not reason to purchase an electric vehicle.
Tough problems: Seamlessness and reliability
Then there are the problems of seamlessness, reliability and public DC fast charging.
This first address the mess of mobile apps, membership cards, and phone calls that EV drivers need to use today to activate charging stations. It is not as simple as pulling up to a charging station, plugging in the car and then using your credit card at a gas station. Most customers have to go through a lot of songs and dances.
The answer to this is what’s called the Plug and Charge protocol, which is available to all EV makers. This system identifies your vehicle and authorizes the charging station for electricity to begin. After looking up a payment method or free-charging plan, it will bill you. The driver needs to plug the car in. It’s just like Tesla.
To date, we’ve experienced functional Plug and Charge through the Electrify America network in a Ford Mustang Mach-E, a Mercedes-Benz EQS, and a Porsche Taycan. It worked fine in all cases, taking 30 to 60 seconds to start charging once the driver plugged in. There is no need for a fob, credit card or validation.
However, Plug and Charge charges carmakers a fee to use the software. Not all makers are over that hurdle yet. A disappointment with the otherwise very good 2022 Hyundai Ioniq 5 electric crossover is that it doesn’t have Plug and Charge built in; executives were noncommittal about whether it ever will. Ditto the 2022 Kia EV6. Plug and Charge should be available in more cars and charging networks over the next few years. You should familiarize yourself with the phone apps of each network, as you might need them while driving.
A tougher problem: Does it work?
But reliability is the most difficult thing to crack in charging stations. Distributors of Coke vending machines can probably tell you in great and gory detail about all the stupid, destructive things the public can do to an electromechanical device left in the open for anyone, leaving behind something damaged and unusable.
The reason for these problems is cost. EV charging profitability in the U.S. is obscured because all the networks are privately owned, but if BP chargers over in the UK–where EV use is soaring–don’t expect to be profitable until 2025, it should give us a pretty good idea of the situation here. Charging companies are in a race to make as much profit as possible, often at the cost of basic maintenance.
In December, Kameale C. Terry–the CEO of ChargerHelp, which repairs charging stations for networks–tweeted about speaking to a major EV charging utility program manager and being told they had millions of dollars to build new chargers, but no money to fix the existing ones.
Reliability problems in charging stations are many, and they can interact unpredictably. An unconnected charging station can cause it to stop validating a user that plugs in. In such cases, Electricity America will default its stations to free vending. Its software could be broken. Many of us have seen freeze-charge-station screens that displayed Windows code. Unpredictably, the charge time may increase if the power supply to a site or station is cut off. The pedestal could also have an internal fault, either mechanically or software-related, that prevents certain EVs from being charged under certain conditions.
In a nutshell, charging your EV with public chargers can still be a pain.
It’s not surprising that non-Tesla carmakers don’t want charging networks. Over a century ago, the industry outsourced gasoline production and distribution. It has remained loyal to that system ever since. The general sentiment is that “we build cars, but we don’t sell electricity.”
But Ford quietly has become the most proactive automaker in monitoring EV charging stations and relying on networks to improve reliability. Ford realized that it needed to investigate every Mustang Mach-E driver who attempted unsuccessful charges. “When we tracked them, we realized that we weren’t there we wanted to,” Darren Palmer (Ford’s general manager for battery-electric vehicles) said in an interview with .
The problems were almost interminable. Was the car’s software unable to communicate with a charging station properly? The Plug and Charge function of Mach-E failed to verify a payment. Or was it something else on the network end? A machine that looked live to the operator, but couldn’t charge? It was it a blocking device that cut off electrical service to the charging station. Oder a site that provided unacceptablely slow charging rates
One example: Ford soon noticed that its EV was experiencing frequent charging problems at one type of charging station. This particular network is used by Mach-E. (Palmer declined details.) Ford reached out to the network to troubleshoot and determined the stations needed a software upda