- DC fast charging is the gold standard for electric vehicles, but providers of the service — with the exception of the more established Tesla network — have yet to quite catch up with the user experience.
- Even experienced EV drivers find that they have to use multiple apps to find a charging station, and even then all too often they find non-working chargers or reduced power levels.
- In response, the California Energy Commission is trying to make charging networks more accountable and responsive to complaints as electric vehicles continue to proliferate.
It’s no secret among EV drivers that, aside from Tesla, the public DC fast charging experience is nowhere near as reliable as it should be.
Now California appears to be taking the initiative and setting rules on how the reliability and availability of public electric vehicle charging stations will be assessed. The California State Energy Commission plans to open a public feedback process that it expects will result in a definition of station “uptime” that doesn’t allow for “excessive exclusions” like those often used by charging networks to to evade accountability.
What does “work” actually mean?
Today, for example, an EV charging network can simply define a charger as “working” if it receives a response after pinging the station from a remote control center. However, cellular connection to a charging station is by no means a guarantee that it can actually charge an electric vehicle at the appropriate power level. Payment validation software may not be available; the credit card reader may be blocked; Station software may have been bombed (only shows Windows code on screen); the site may receive reduced power levels, and so on.
None of these issues may be visible to the charging network, which thinks its station is working fine because it pinged back. In many cases, user feedback — from angry tweets to comments and reviews on apps like PlugShare or Chargeway — doesn’t get a response for 24 to 72 hours, if at all, typically during normal weekday business hours.
Networks can also exclude times when their cellular connection to a station is lost from their uptime calculations. Electrify America says it will charge for free by default in this case, but not every network follows suit — meaning if the network can’t be paid for, the EV driver can’t charge, period.
Questions from a Member of Parliament
California’s accountability plans were highlighted in the following tweet from Loren McDonald, CEO of EV Adoption analytics and consulting firm for electric vehicles and EV charging. He highlighted a response from the Energy Commission to a letter it received from California Rep. Phil Ting proposing state legislation on charging reliability.
Broadly speaking, the commission said it would no longer rely on networks’ self-reported claims about the uptime and availability of their charging stations. Instead, multiple data sources and qualitative public feedback – which could include reports of dead chargers in apps, for example – are examined to assess charger reliability and availability.
Another note: California plans to measure uptime at the individual charging station (cable or socket) level, as opposed to draft standards being developed by the National Electric Vehicle Infrastructure (NEVI) program, which may only look at the entire site. If a charging station works at a specific location, that would count as a 100 percent score. That’s what charging networks prefer because it’s easier. But ask yourself this: If you arrived at a gas station that had eight separate hoses and only one delivering gas, would you give it a 100 percent score?
Tesla Works; Others maybe not
The exception to the often unreliable public charging stations is Tesla. The company operates its own Supercharger network, open only to Tesla drivers, and was designed from the start to be a seamless part of EV navigation. The company has designed and installed its own charging stations, with the software tightly integrated with Tesla ownership.
For EVs from other brands, long-distance driving can be more strenuous. Several competing EV charging networks have spent five years in a furious arms race to get as many stations underground as possible. There are strong incentives to do so — primarily a larger presence, which they hope will boost their valuations as the industry anticipates future consolidation. However, there’s virtually no incentive to keep the damn things running once they’re installed.
To be fair, non-Tesla networks have to deal with a tougher integration than Tesla. In the past they have bought off the shelf DC fast charging hardware and often used multiple providers within one network. Their software must support dozens of different EV models from automakers that can update the cars’ operating software without retesting it at every station operated by every network. They must offer multiple payment options, from credit cards to RFID tags to phone apps, with membership plans and variable pricing from state to state. None of this is easy.
The list of reasons why a charging station might not work could fill a book, but it’s getting to the point where EV users no longer care what went wrong. Take, for example, the recent bitter cold snap across much of the United States. Some customers complained about a new station design launched by a large EV charging network didn’t work in extremely cold. On the whole, petrol stations functioned flawlessly in the same weather.
While disruption may have been tolerable in the early days of EVs, public DC fast charging has been around for about five years – but experienced EV drivers still need to check multiple apps to ensure critical fast charging stations along a planned route are actually working.
California’s efforts to get more data on the reliability of public charging and its efforts to introduce some form of accountability between networks are long overdue. Let’s hope other states follow suit.
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