|By David R Baker
In a nondescript office park in San Jose, California, ChargePoint Holdings Inc. runs a torture lab of sorts. It’s here that the operator of the US’s largest network of electric vehicle chargers subjects its products to extreme temperatures and rain, and puts them through simulated dust storms and earthquakes. Pulley systems tug on charging cords, mimicking years of use, and one device slams a steel ball against chargers to see if they’ll crack.
“You take this thing that’s expensive, and you basically burn it up,” said Pasquale Romano, ChargePoint’s chief executive officer, as a row of machines nearby simulated plugging and unplugging the chargers.
ChargePoint’s process is geared at fixing one of the EV transition’s most pressing problems: public charging stations that often don’t work. Parts break, information screens freeze, payment systems malfunction. Copper thieves steal the cords. Vandals damage plugs or, in one infamous instance, stuff them with ground meat. In the US, nascent networks mean that if the machines at one station aren’t running, there may not be another nearby.
A decade ago, early EV adopters were willing to put up with unreliable public chargers. Now, US President Joe Biden wants every American driver to go electric. It’s a leap of faith many won’t make if they don’t trust that public chargers will work.
“We’re really at the point right now where we have to address these issues before we get further along in EV adoption,” said Brent Gruber, executive director of global automotive research for J.D. Power, which regularly surveys EV drivers in the US about their charging experiences. Two years ago, 14.5% of respondents said they’d been unable to charge at a public station. Now it’s 21.4%.
It’s not just a US problem. Zapmap Ltd., whose app tracks data from about 70% of public chargers in the UK, found last year that 6% were out of service at any given moment. A Boston Consulting Group survey released this year identified reliability as the main criteria drivers in China use when choosing a charging station, above speed, ease of use and price.
A connector cycling station at ChargePoint’s facility in San Jose. Photographer: Loren Elliott/Bloomberg
There isn’t a single reason for EV charger failures. Some of the problems can be chalked up to a new technology going through the usual learning curve, all while outside and exposed. There have been cycles of needed upgrades, such as replacing modems to deal with 5G wireless internet service. The myriad networks, retail outlets and garage owners who own the machines don’t always stay on top of maintenance. And chargers must communicate with a rapidly expanding array of cars.
To that end, the precise scope of the problem isn’t known. EV drivers face a complex landscape of competing charging companies, each with its own stations and app. One widely cited 2022 study of fast-charging stations in the San Francisco Bay Area (excluding Tesla Inc.’s Superchargers), found that about 25% of the 657 plugs weren’t working. While J.D. Power doesn’t disclose reliability rankings, Gruber said the worst-performing charging company leaves drivers unable to plug in about 39% of the time.
“With public charging, it’s a bit of the wild, wild West,” he said.
Tesla proved that reliable charging is possible. The all-electric automaker runs a global network of 45,000 Superchargers, which can add up to 200 miles of range in just 15 minutes. Its drivers report charger downtime of just 3%. But Tesla has the advantage of keeping everything in-house, and owns its Supercharger network. Many public chargers are owned by whoever owns the parking lot where they’re located. Such property owners, Gruber said, don’t have as strong an incentive to maintain their machines.
As charging networks expand, companies that deploy public chargers insist they are getting better. Property owners who buy chargers from companies like Blink Charging Co. and ChargePoint often sign long-term service contracts. Charging companies are also designing machines with individual components that can be swapped out.
“These chargers aren’t like a phone where you’re going to replace it every couple of years because the technology moves,” Pasquale said. “These chargers are going to last the better part of a decade, if not more.”
Engineers monitor a vibration and seismic shock station at ChargePoint’s facility in San Jose. Photographer: Loren Elliott/Bloomberg
Charging companies also acknowledge that the first few waves of public chargers weren’t as dependable as they needed to be. “Everyone’s first-generation equipment was just that — first generation,” said Michael Farkas, founder of Blink, one of the largest charging companies in the US. “People didn’t really understand all the impacts that being out in the elements would have.”
As EV adoption picks up in the US, the majority of charging will take place at home, a convenience that’s one of the chief selling points for electric driving. But even with the US EV range approaching a 300-mile average, public charging will still be needed for longer trips and garage-less drivers. That’s why the Biden administration this spring established a set of rules aimed squarely at broken chargers. Among them: Any federally funded charger must be functional more than 97% of the time.
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