A frustrating hassle that holds electric cars back: broken chargers

The federal government is handing out billions of dollars to encourage people to buy electric vehicles. Automakers are building new factories and scouring the world for raw materials. And so many people resent the waiting lists for battery cars going on for months.

The electric vehicle revolution is almost here, but its arrival is being slowed by a fundamental problem: the chargers where people fill up these cars often break down. A recent study found that about a quarter of public charging stations in the San Francisco Bay Area, where electric cars are commonplace, were not working.

A major effort is underway to build hundreds of thousands of public charging stations – the federal government alone is spending $7.5 billion. But electric car drivers and analysts said the companies installing and maintaining the stations need to do more to ensure these new chargers and the more than 120,000 that already exist are reliable.

Many are sitting in parking lots or in front of retail stores where there is often no one to turn to for help if something goes wrong. Problems include broken screens and buggy software. Some stop working halfway through a load, while others never start in the first place.

Some frustrated drivers say the issues have them wondering if they can ditch gas-powered vehicles altogether, especially for longer trips.

“A lot of times these fast chargers have real maintenance issues,” said Ethan Zuckerman, a professor at the University of Massachusetts Amherst who has owned a Chevrolet Bolt for several years. “When they do, you find yourself in a pretty difficult situation very quickly.”

In the winter of 2020, Mr. Zuckerman was traveling about 150 miles each way to get to a job at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Cold winter weather can shorten the range of electric cars, and Mr Zuckerman found himself needing a recharge on the way home.

He checked online and found a station, but when he stopped the machine was down. Another across the street had also come out, he said. In desperation, Mr Zuckerman drove to a nearby gas station and persuaded a worker to plug an extension cord into his car.

“I sat there for two and a half hours in the freezing cold, getting enough charge to limp to the town of Lee, Mass., and then use another charger,” he said. “It was not a good evening.”

The availability and reliability of public chargers remains an issue even now, he said.

Most electric vehicle owners primarily charge at home, so they use public chargers far less than conventional car owners use gas stations. Many also report few issues with public charging or are more than willing to look past the issues. And most battery-powered vehicles on the road today are made by Tesla, which has a proprietary charging network that analysts and drivers say tends to be reliable.

But all of that is changing. Electric vehicle sales are growing rapidly as established automakers launch new models. Some of these cars will be purchased by Americans who cannot refuel at home because they do not have the option of installing a home charger.

Studies show that public charging is a top concern for people when considering buying an electric car. The other big concern is the related question of how far a car can go on a full charge.

Even those who already own an electric car have such worries. About a third said broken chargers were at least a “moderate concern,” according to a survey by Plug In America, a nonprofit that promotes such vehicles.

“If we want to see EV adoption continue to accelerate, as I am doing, we need to address this issue,” said Joel Levin, executive director of Plug In America.

The urgency does not escape the automotive industry.

Ford Motor recently began sending out contractors it calls “charging angels” to test the charging networks it works with to deliver power to people who buy its electric cars and trucks. Unlike Tesla, Ford does not build or operate its own charging stations.

This spring, one member of that team, Nicole Larsen, pulled up in front of a row of chargers at a Long Island mall, plugged in her Mustang Mach-E, and got to work. Ms Larsen watched a laptop record a detailed stream of data exchanged between the charger and the vehicle and began taking her own notes.

The chargers, which were built and operated by Electrify America, a division of Volkswagen, were working well that day. But Ms. Larsen said she had been given an error message the day before. When this happens, Ms. Larsen notifies Ford technicians, who work with the charging company to resolve the problem.

Ms Larsen said the problems are rare in her experience, but they happen enough that she can sometimes identify them on sight. “I can tell you in advance that this one is going to give me an on-screen error,” she said.

There are few rigorous studies of charging stations, but one conducted this year by Cool the Earth, a nonprofit environmental organization in California, and David Rempel, a retired professor of bioengineering at the University of California to Berkeley found that 23% of 657 public charging stations in the Bay Area were broken. The most common issues were that testers couldn’t get chargers to accept payment or initiate a charge. In other cases, screens were blank, unresponsive, or displayed error messages.

“Here we have real data from the ground, and the results, frankly, were very concerning,” said Carleen Cullen, executive director of Cool the Earth.

Charging companies dispute the findings. Electrify America said there were methodological flaws in the study, and EVgo, which operates a charging network, said it could not replicate the study’s findings.

Another top charging company, ChargePoint, had a success rate of just 61%. The company rarely owns and operates the chargers it installs on behalf of commercial companies, although it provides warranty maintenance. This model is plagued with problems, critics said, because it places the onus on owners, who may not have the expertise or commitment to manage the equipment. ChargePoint did not respond to requests for comment.

EVgo and Electrify America say they take reliability seriously and employees monitor their stations from centralized control rooms that can quickly dispatch technicians to fix problems.

“These are in the wild on their own,” said Rob Barrosa, senior director of sales, business development and marketing at Electrify America. “You just can’t set it and forget it.”

But not everything is under their control. As these companies test chargers with various electric vehicles, compatibility issues may require modifications to chargers or cars.

Even stations owned by charging companies like EVgo and Electrify America often go unattended for long periods of time. At most gas stations, a clerk is usually on duty and can see when certain problems arise. With chargers, vandalism or other damage can be harder to track.

“Where there’s a screen, there’s a baseball bat,” said Jonathan Levy, chief commercial officer of EVgo.

It’s a problem reminiscent of the early days of the Internet, when stubborn modems and aging phone lines could make using websites and sending emails a maddening exercise. The automotive and charging industries hope to overcome these problems soon, just as the telecommunications and technology industries have made Internet access much more reliable.

The money also comes with a requirement that chargers must operate 97% of the time and meet technical standards for communication with vehicles. Stations must also have a minimum of four ports that can charge simultaneously and not be limited to a single car brand.

Tesla is also expected to open its chargers to cars from other automakers in the United States, which it has already done in a few European countries. Still, auto experts said Tesla’s network works well in part because its chargers are designed for the company’s cars. There is no guarantee that vehicles made by other automakers will run smoothly from the start with Tesla’s charging equipment.

For now, many car owners say they have little difficulty with public chargers or are so happy with driving their battery-powered vehicles that they would never consider going back to gas-powered models.

Travis Turner is a Google recruiter in the Bay Area who recently traded in his Tesla Model S for a Rivian R1T pickup truck. The truck doesn’t seem to work well with EVgo chargers, he said, and some stations won’t start charging unless he’s closed all of the truck’s doors and trunks.

But Mr Turner said he wasn’t too bothered because he worked through those issues and finds his Rivian truck far better than any other vehicle he’s owned. He is also confident that the problems will soon be resolved.

“It’s really just the beginning,” he said. “It can only get better from here.”

About Robert Pierson

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