Difficulty Finding Electric Charging Stations

Range anxiety is bad enough. But even when they find a station, drivers often have to deal with broken equipment.

MATT HIRSCH HAS long loved the idea of electric vehicles and first leased his Hyundai Ioniq in 2020. He even installed a charger right next to the driveway of his suburban Boston home, where he does most of his topping up. But lately the relationship has started to fizzle.

Sometimes he takes longer trips, forcing him to use multiple apps and websites to meticulously plot out the charging stations on his journey, so he doesn’t get caught without a charge. One frequent drive, to a brother’s home in New York, often takes him by a station run by Electrify America in the Massachusetts town of Chicopee—where he often finds some if not all of the four available plugs broken.

It’s a vexing situation for Hirsch, and he worries about the effects that broken and slow chargers will have on the nation’s wider electrification project. “It’s hard to convince someone to change their behavior unless [the alternative] is much easier and much cheaper,” he says. Right now, that’s not always true for electric cars. Range anxiety, the fear of being stuck somewhere without a charge, has prevented some Americans from seriously considering electric cars as a viable option. They worry a charging blunder will leave them stranded on the side of the road.

“I do think those experiences can really make a negative mark and discourage someone from buying an electric vehicle.”

DAN WOODWARD, LEGWORK LOCAL DELIVERY

More than a quarter of US greenhouse gas emissions stem from the transportation industry. Policymakers argue that mass adoption of electric cars will be vital to combating climate change. Last summer, the Biden administration made it a national goal to have electric vehicles account for 40 percent of all car sales by 2030. But if the US is to pull off a transition to electric vehicles—and other greener transportation alternatives—it’s going to need a lot more charging stations. The vast majority of electric vehicle drivers today do their charging at home, and the country has nearly 46,500 public fast chargers, which can typically charge a battery in 20 to 30 minutes, to fill in the gaps. But it will need 180,000 of them by 2030 to cover more of the US, predicts the International Council on Clean Transportation. Plus 856,000 more “level 2” chargers, which are cheaper to install but take longer to charge up a car.

US governments—states, municipalities, and above all, the feds—seem willing to spend a whole bunch of money to get there. California, whose governor has pledged to phase out gas-powered vehicles sales by 2035, has poured hundreds of millions of dollars into building out its charger network. New York has pledged almost a billion dollars to the effort. A federal infrastructure bill, passed last year, dedicated $5 billion to a network of half a million chargers along interstate highways.

But based on their track record, it’s not clear whether any of those new chargers will work for as long as they need to. It’s hard to find definitive data on public electric vehicle charger maintenance, or how today’s chargers are performing in the wild. Companies that build chargers tend to say they have a 95 to 98 percent nationwide “uptime,” an industry term meaning the tech is charging or ready to charge. But talk to an electric vehicle owner for a while, and you’re likely to hear complaints about slow or broken chargers.

A recent survey of 181 San Francisco Bay Area public charging stations, partially funded by the nonprofit Cool the Earth, suggests that 23 percent of them might be “nonfunctioning” at any given time, stymied by broken screens, shoddy credit card or payment systems, network connection failures, or damaged plugs. Only half of the functional chargers tested by the research team successfully completed a payment transaction with just one swipe of a credit card. “A 50 percent success rate in any other retail transaction would not be considered acceptable, and it shouldn’t here,” said Patty Monahan, a commissioner of the California Energy Commission, in an industry meeting earlier this month. A survey of EV drivers by one California agency found that more than a third of them, and nearly 60 percent of those who said they used public chargers, had encountered nonfunctioning ones. Sixteen percent had run into payment problems. Nearly half had needed to call customer service for a charger-related issue.

While the people who build and maintain electric vehicle chargers say issues aren’t as widespread as the anecdotes suggest, some acknowledge that slip-ups come with any new technology. Charger problems are a “first-generation thing that was industrywide,” says Michael Farkas, the CEO of Blink Charging, which owns and operates charging equipment. “I don’t think it’s as prevalent today.”

But when it comes to charging equipment, a lot can go wrong—and a lot of different people, institutions, or companies might be responsible. First, the power electronics have to function, and utility companies have to get the electricity to the charging station. The station then has to maintain a stable internet and cell-phone connection, so the charging company’s software can monitor what’s going on. And automakers have to make sure their cars’ software can “speak” to each kind of charger on the market. Charging companies like Electrify America and EVGo run their own test labs, so that car manufacturers can ensure their vehicles work with their charging equipment. But sometimes bugs slip through the cracks, says Rob Barrosa, the senior director of sales, business development, and marketing at Electrify America. He says the issue comes up less often than it did two or three years ago.

Even when charging points work, there can be payment issues, which car owners say can be the most frustrating part of the whole experience. Credit card machines break, or the screens become illegible under strong sunlight. Many companies require drivers to create a login to use their stations and encourage drivers to use tap-enabled membership cards or download proprietary apps to smooth the transaction. But these can also fail to connect.

Sometimes, drivers themselves make mistakes, because they don’t know how their new cars work and can cause occasional physical damage to plugs by pulling or shoving too hard if they don’t have the right adapter. Others arrive at chargers to find they’re incompatible with their vehicles. Tesla’s Supercharger network is one of the most thorough in the US, for example, but its stations are compatible only with Teslas. Even if stations are serviced regularly, nature occasionally interferes: A charger repair technician working for the company ChargerHelp recently found a wasp’s nest snuggled into a charger’s electronic guts, the company’s cofounder said at a recent industry event.

Dan Woodward runs Legwork Local Delivery, a small, all-electric delivery company in Portland, Oregon. The business is, above all, mission-driven, motivated by Woodward’s “ton of anxiety about climate change,” he says. But his work has been stymied by shoddy Level 2 public chargers, including ones that were marked as operational on online maps but didn’t hook up when his team arrived, and others that were vandalized, their connectors severed. Getting stuck without a charge “can be not just frustrating but kind of scary,” he says. So the company has invested in building out its own mini charging network around the city: One at its HQ, one at Woodward’s own home, and another, he admits with a laugh, at his parents’ house. Running into broken chargers is “so discouraging,” he says, “because if somebody who is driving an EV for the first time has trouble charging, I do think those experiences can really make a negative mark and discourage someone from buying an electric vehicle.”

Getting a broken charger diagnosed can be its own challenge. For one thing, it can be difficult for charging companies to determine from afar whether a charger is broken or whether it’s just not being used that often—a not-uncommon predicament as Americans slowly adapt to the new tech.

What’s more, not all early US charging station projects set aside funding for regular check-ins or maintenance, said Thomas Ashley, vice president of policy and market development at Shell Recharge Solutions, in an email to WIRED. Some early projects did not require the companies installing or managing the chargers to maintain a certain level of reliability or uptime, he says. Even in today’s charging infrastructure contracts, “where uptime or reliability requirements exist, they’re generally not strong enough to meet driver expectations and are not granted sufficient budget for longer-term maintenance needs,” Ashley says.

Some state governments are trying to get smarter about building chargers that work. The California Energy Commission, which oversees charging-related policy in the state, now requires companies to track and hand over information about how often their equipment is offline. California is also working with other states to come up with nationwide maintenance standards, though the process has just begun. The US Departments of Transportation and Energy are working together to hammer out standards for federal infrastructure funding—that $5 billion dedicated to building out electric vehicle chargers—a Federal Highway Administration spokesperson said.

Fixing a charger is its own issue. More than half of charger problems can be resolved with a remote reset, says Lance Sabo, the Americas’ senior vice president of service at ABB, a Swedish–Swiss firm that builds and operates charger networks. But other problems need to be looked at in person. Charging companies say they are still building out their networks of employees and subcontractors who know how to diagnose and fix chargers, and that many more workers will be needed. “Part of the challenge here is that it’s a really young industry,” Sabo says. His company has been in the space only for about a decade, he points out. But if anyone wants to meet climate goals, charging will have to grow up fast.

[SOURCE: https://www.wired.com/story/ev-charger-broken-us-electric-cars/]

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