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Seven things every EV fast-charging network needs

From more chargers to improved reliability and apps, consider this a bill of rights for EV drivers who need to fast charge

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Image Credits: Bryce Durbin

People love their electric vehicles. In survey after survey, the vast majority of EV owners say that their next car will also be electric. EVs score top marks nearly across the board except one: fast charging.

While most people do almost all of their charging at home, fast charging is still a critical piece of EV ownership. For some people, it enables them to buy an EV even if they don’t have access to a charger at home. For others, it’s what makes road trips possible.

Unless you own a Tesla, the fast-charging experience has always been something of a mixed bag. That’s certainly been my experience. In the past, I’ve had reasonable success in finding working chargers that deliver good speeds. But over the long Fourth of July holiday weekend, things weren’t just bad, they were terrible.

It didn’t leave me optimistic about the future of fast charging. I’ve owned an EV since 2015 and can remember when 50 kW was considered “fast” charging. While most of my charging is done at home, I’ve used half a dozen major networks and countless random Level 2 chargers. Last fall, I rented a Tesla in part to experience the Supercharger network. You could say that I’m well versed in the EV experience.

That’s why this past weekend left me appalled with the state of non-Tesla fast charging. Over just 350 miles of round-trip driving, I encountered a laundry list of EV charging snafus.

Before we even started the trip, I ruled out several locations because they were only partially operational. Once on the road, the first charger I tried broke shortly after plugging in. The next one, a slower one, wouldn’t start because it thought I was still charging on the broken one. Yet another location appeared to have two operational plugs, though one of them trickled electrons slower than my at-home equipment.

I called customer service no fewer than three times. They were helpful on one occasion. I had painful experiences at both Electrify America and ChargePoint, two of the country’s “leading” non-Tesla charging networks. Though based on surveys, it probably wouldn’t have been different had I tried to use any of the others.

If the U.S. is going to be prepared for the tidal wave of EVs that’s coming, it had better get its charging infrastructure in order, fast. EV drivers deserve better than what they have today. Here are seven things — a bill of rights, if you will — outlining what’s needed to make fast charging a practical reality for the road-going public.

Article I: Working chargers

You’d think this would be the bare minimum required to operate a charging network, yet here we are. A study of San Francisco Bay Area Combined Charging System (CCS) equipment last year showed that more than a quarter were broken. That figure more or less jibes with a recent survey of EV drivers that showed over a third had encountered broken hardware.

Given my experience over the weekend, I’d wager that those figures are conservative. As more people buy EVs, public charging equipment is getting more use, which adds to wear and tear. Given that maintenance was already abysmal, it’s likely that conditions are worsening. They’re probably at rock bottom along heavily trafficked corridors on holiday weekends, exactly the time the driving public has the least patience for problems.

EV drivers obviously deserve reliability and predictability, same as those who use gas pumps. Thankfully the federal government agrees. The National Electric Vehicle Infrastructure standards require that “each charging port must have an average annual uptime greater than 97 percent” in order to receive federal money. That allows up to 11 days of downtime every year. If charging networks exceed that limit, the feds can claw back funds.

Unfortunately, the 97% uptime requirement applies only to federally funded chargers. But ideally, it would force charging network operators to develop better technology and processes that could be easily extended to their entire operation.

Article II: Responsive repairs

This is similar to Article I, but it’s important enough to be broken out as a separate point. If a key charging location is only inoperable over Labor Day weekend, for example, it might still meet the federal government’s uptime requirement while leaving EV drivers in the lurch during a time when fast charging is needed most.

EV charging networks need repair teams that can respond quickly to broken equipment and bring it back to working order in hours, not weeks.

Article III: Payments

Nearly every charging network has its own app. There are over 30 networks, according to the U.S. Department of Energy. Some require you to add funds to your account, while others just bill per use. Some cars come with free charging. Others don’t. Some cars start charging as soon as you plug in. Others need you to authenticate with your phone. Some charging stalls on those same networks have credit card readers. Others don’t.

It’s absolute madness.

There should be two choices. In a perfect world, all cars should work with the Plug and Charge standard, allowing drivers to link their car with a credit card or debit card so they only have to plug in. As a backup, or for rental cars or people borrowing, all charging posts should have credit card readers. That’s it. No preloading funds, no juggling apps. (The latter is something Tesla needs to do, too, once it starts allowing competing vehicles on its network.)

Here, the U.S. government agrees with me as well, requiring companies that receive federal funds to install chargers that accept credit cards, debit cards, and over the phone or SMS.

Article IV: Better in-car tech

Nobody should have to sift through half a dozen apps to figure out which chargers are working and where. Yet that’s what we had to do on our recent trip. Our car lets us add charging stops to trips planned with the built-in nav, but it doesn’t show us how many are working or whether any working stalls are available.

Apple and Google are both working to incorporate this into their phone-based map apps, which can be cast to an EV’s infotainment display. But to truly work well, they require some amount of coordination with the automaker so the phone can receive critical information like the vehicle’s state of charge.

Until fast charging is ubiquitous and reliable, EV manufacturers should provide real-time status updates for the major fast-charging networks on the built-in nav. It’s what Tesla does today, and it takes a lot of stress out of planning a drive.

Article V: Covered charging

Nearly every gas station has a canopy protecting drivers from rain and snow. Why don’t EV chargers? That question was on the top of my mind last weekend as I wrestled with malfunctioning equipment in a downpour. Canopies would also shield the chargers from the hot sun at least part of the day, potentially preventing them from overheating.

People charging their electric vehicles at a charging station
Is this too much to ask for? Image Credits: Getty Images

Article VI: Amenities

Right now, EV drivers don’t expect much. We’re just happy to use working equipment. Bathroom and snacks? That’s a bonus. Yet unless it’s 2 a.m., those are things that fossil fuel vehicle drivers have come to expect. There’s no reason why EV drivers should miss out.

EV charging stations don’t have to perfectly emulate gas stations. In fact, I’d argue that amenities for EV drivers will probably end up looking different. Charging times are about double or triple gas fill-ups, even with the best tech. But EV drivers don’t have to stay with their vehicle while topping up. Instead, they’re free to spend their time — and money — how they see fit. There’s plenty of room for a new business model that caters to EV drivers as they charge.

Article VII: Better charger diagnostics

Here’s an idea that’ll make life easier for both charger network operators and drivers: better charger diagnostics. Every major EV charging company is basically running a network of computers attached to some high-power electronics. That should allow for some pretty sophisticated monitoring.

In some ways, that monitoring exists. Customer support can check the status of a charger and restart it remotely. But in reality, it’s not nearly as proactive as it should be. Drivers shouldn’t have to call customer service when a charger dies and locks their account into a charging session, which happened to me last weekend. The network should be able to detect the failure and reconcile the account accordingly. The same goes for a DC fast charger that’s delivering only 4 kW of electricity. It’s a simple fault that should be easy to identify remotely so that remote employees can take the plug offline and coordinate the repair process.

Such diagnostic technology would also benefit the networks themselves, giving them more remote diagnostics and helping them more efficiently repair malfunctioning units.

Who gets it, who doesn’t

The two major charging networks I used — ChargePoint and Electrify America — were apologetic when I wrote them. (Most customers probably won’t get that sort of personal response, of course.)

ChargePoint said that its hardware is equipped with sensors and monitoring to help with uptime and diagnosis and that the company works with “a leading network of service partners” to fix broken chargers. “We understand the critical importance of charging network reliability so that everyone who needs a charge gets one,” spokesperson AJ Gosselin told TechCrunch+.

Electrify America acknowledged the problems, saying that it is investing in more technicians and training, upgrading old equipment, and adding new stations. The company also said that supply chain delays remain an issue, and as a result, some chargers are taken offline while others run at reduced wattage. “Electrify America strives to have all drivers be able to charge and that is why we build at least four chargers per station to have redundancy,” spokesperson Octavio Navarro said. “However, the growth of demand has risen dramatically in a very short time and there are wear and tear issues that develop with such high utilization.”

No charging network is perfect, but Tesla is the closest. Its chargers are numerous and generally well maintained. Some busy locations may force drivers to wait on occasion, but for the most part the experience is smooth. To wit: The most pressing issue, reported by just 4% of Tesla drivers surveyed last year, was the fact that fossil fuel vehicles would occasionally block the chargers. (Tesla’s network reliability may suffer in the coming years, though, as hundreds of thousands of EVs gain access to Superchargers.)

Besides Tesla, the other company that seems to understand EV charging’s problems is Ford. In 2021, the company launched a program called “Charge Angels,” which sent employees in specially instrumented Mustang Mach-Es to root out issues at problematic chargers. The goal was to ensure that Ford drivers could successfully charge on the first try.

Charge Angels also brought Ford reams of data about the state of public fast charging, and I’m guessing most of it wasn’t good. In fact, I’d argue that information gathered by the Charge Angels is what spurred Ford to make a deal with Tesla to access its Superchargers. It ended up being the first of many that would upend the industry.

Most charging networks, unfortunately, don’t seem to grasp the depth of their problems — either that or their business models aren’t aligned with customers’ needs. Whatever it is, something needs to change.

It’s possible that the sudden industrywide shift to Tesla’s NACS plug will spur some healthy competition between networks, encouraging laggards to fix the problems.

But I’m doubtful that competition will fix things quickly enough to keep pace with the coming wave of EV sales. It may force companies to shape up or sell out, but that won’t happen overnight. Non-Tesla charging networks might get some helpful revenue from Tesla drivers who will soon be able to use their chargers. But let’s be real, that revenue is more likely to go toward improving profitability than changing operations significantly.

Hope springs eternal, but given my recent experience and the millions of EVs that are on the way, I suspect things will only get worse for everyone. Drivers with CCS EVs may have to deal with waning support for their plug type, while Tesla owners will have to contend with more traffic at Superchargers. To those Tesla drivers foraying beyond the Supercharger network, let me apologize in advance: I’m sorry, it was like that when I got here.

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