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Why is it so hard to charge electric vehicles on the road?

Electric car owners are finding out how hard it can be to charge EVs at public charging stations.

The charging port of a BMW i3.
The US is struggling to deploy fast-charging stations as electric cars grow more popular.
Julian Stratenschulte/Picture Alliance via Getty Images
Umair Irfan is a correspondent at Vox writing about climate change, Covid-19, and energy policy. Irfan is also a regular contributor to the radio program Science Friday. Prior to Vox, he was a reporter for ClimateWire at E&E News.

A loud pop echoed through the Walmart parking lot, an alarming sign that something was wrong.

Cass Tippit had plugged his 2017 Chevrolet Bolt into an Electrify America public charging station in Chipley, Florida, and after about 15 minutes, he heard the noise and saw that the screen on the charger had gone dark. “The dashboard of the car lit up like a Christmas tree,” he said.

Tippit unplugged the car, but the Bolt wouldn’t start. It left him stranded for hours and was the start of an ordeal that would last weeks.

Across the country, Anson Wong found himself in an eerily similar predicament. He connected his 2022 Rivian R1T truck to an Electrify America charging station at the Fashion Valley Mall in San Diego. As he and his friend started to head to the mall, “We hear a loud boom, an explosive-type sound,” Wong said. “We look back and see a black cloud of smoke come out” of the power unit next to the charging station.

Wong rushed back to his car and stopped the charging. He tried to remove the plug from the charging port, but it wouldn’t come out. He, too, was stranded for hours and found himself chasing a solution for weeks.

Both Tippit and Wong had fallen into one of the biggest cracks in the United States’ electric vehicle infrastructure. As battery-powered cars and trucks transform from local runabouts to cross-country road-trippers, drivers are becoming increasingly reliant on public charging stations. In many cases, however, they’re pulling up to plugs only to find them inoperable. Even worse, a handful have had their cars bricked. And when something goes wrong, it’s hard to figure out who’s responsible.

According to a 2022 J.D. Power survey, one in five EV drivers didn’t charge their vehicle during a visit to a public charging station last year, mainly due to outages or malfunctions.

“The dirty secret of EV charging is how unreliable public networks can actually be,” said John Lawrence, senior sales manager at SparkCharge, a company developing mobile charging systems.

These gaps are emerging at a critical time for the industry. Electric cars are more popular than ever. Almost 6 percent of cars sold in the US last year were electric, topping 800,000 vehicles.

These vehicles demand more chargers. There are currently more than 148,000 EV charging points across 56,000 stations in the US. The White House wants to nearly triple that number by building a national network of 500,000 EV chargers, and the 2021 Bipartisan Infrastructure Law includes $7.5 billion to fund their construction. Earlier this month, Tesla also announced it would open 7,500 chargers in its proprietary supercharger network to all EVs. This is all a key part of the US strategy for reducing the climate impact from transportation, the largest source of greenhouse gases in the country.

Vice President Kamala Harris plugs a Prince George’s County electric vehicle into a charging station at the Brandywine Maintenance Facility on December 13, 2021 in Brandywine, Maryland.
Vice President Kamala Harris charges up an electric car in Maryland. The White House is aiming to deploy 500,000 EV chargers across the US.
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Meanwhile, EVs have moved beyond the realm of tech-savvy early adopters willing to shell out for new Teslas. Plenty of EVs now have six figures on their odometers and are in the hands of second or third owners. And many of those vehicles depend on public charging because the owners don’t have chargers at home.

It’s these owners who will make or break the transition to cleaner vehicles. Most Americans buy cars secondhand, and they’re not looking for a toy. They need a reliable way to get around. So the experiences of EV drivers now, good or bad, will shape public perception and the pace at which more people switch to cleaner vehicles, regardless of whatever subsidies the government offers. Unreliable chargers threaten to drive the transition off course. According to a 2022 survey by Autolist, the top three reasons people decided against buying an EV were cost, concerns about range, and worries about where to charge them.

The clock is ticking for widespread EV adoption, too. States like California and New York have now set 2035 as the final year to sell new fossil fuel-powered vehicles.

There are solutions, however. Companies are working to bridge the gaps in EV charging infrastructure by increasing availability and lowering installation costs. But red tape, competing charging standards, and inadequate consumer protections mean that regulators will likely have to step in as well to smooth the road ahead.

The emerging divide in EV ownership

While Tippit and Wong saw their charging problems start in similar ways, they played out differently.

Wong spent hours on the phone with Electrify America and Rivian, going through both of their troubleshooting steps. No dice. It was around 8 pm on Saturday. An Electrify America technician finally arrived at midnight. The technician went through the checklist again, then tried to pry out the plug with a crowbar. Nada. Wong called it a night, left the truck at the station, and took a two-hour Uber ride home.

The following Monday, he went back to the mall along with four people from Electrify America and three from Rivian. The Rivian team disassembled the front of the car and disabled the power system, while the Electrify America technicians provided mechanical persuasion to the plug.

Finally, the plug relented. The charge port looked burned, and the plug was discolored. “It looked like one of the [charging] pins was welded,” Wong said.

Wong had purchased his truck new for $100,000 just two months before the incident. Rivian towed the truck to their service center and offered Wong a loaner car as well as ride-hail credits while they investigated. The company ended up replacing the battery and charge port, and Wong had his truck back three weeks later. “I paid not a dime,” he said.

Tippit wasn’t so lucky. After he found that his car wouldn’t budge, other Walmart customers reported seeing sparks and smoke from the nearby power unit, the gray metal boxes near the charging station that take in electricity from the grid. Then the smell wafted over. “You could smell burning electricals. It just smelled like a fried thing,” Tippit said.

Electrify America told him to tow the car at his own expense to the nearest dealer, where it sat for more than a week. He paid $350 to replace a high-voltage fuse in the car just so the dealer could diagnose it. The battery was toast. It would cost more than $20,000 to fix. He’d bought the car used a month earlier with 25,000 miles on the clock for $23,000.

The 2017 Bolt has an eight-year, 100,000-mile warranty, but General Motors, the parent company of Chevrolet, blamed the charging station for the problem. All the while, no one offered a loaner car or travel reimbursements. Electrify America eventually told Tippit that the company would reimburse him if he fronted the cost of the repair. He ended up totaling it out with the insurance company.

Photo of woman in front of Chevrolet Bolt
Sarah Tippit, wife of Cass Tippit, stands in front of their electric Chevrolet Bolt on the day they bought it.
Cass Tippit

While manufacturers love to advertise their new EVs, used electric vehicles are poised to become a larger market. In 2021, there were 1.4 million EVs registered in the US, not including plug-in hybrids. Americans buy about 40 million used cars in a year, compared to about 17 million new cars. The average car in the US stays on the road for 12 years.

But as Tippit found out, used EV owners may be on their own if something goes wrong. That could deter more budget-conscious buyers.

“This isn’t 2010,” he said. “Everyone who has an electric vehicle is not some hedge fund manager who has it because it’s a flashy way to show off some sort of status. We bought this car because it was economical and because it’s the way the future is moving.”

A spokesperson for Electrify America said the company is still investigating its charging problems.

The basics of EV charging, explained

Given the ubiquity of cellphones, laptops, and wireless headphones, it’s easy to overlook the fact that charging a battery is actually a sophisticated operation. On the scale of small devices, it’s as simple as plugging a cord into a wall outlet and letting the small bits of electronics in the power brick handle the job. But when it comes to managing the energy needed to propel a 4,500-pound vehicle, the complexity and risk grows.

The fundamental challenge is that the power grid operates on an alternating current (AC) while almost all battery-powered devices run on direct current (DC). Strictly speaking, the electronics that perform this task compose the charger, and when it comes to public charging stations, there are two types of chargers at play: the ones built directly into the EV and the ones in the stations themselves.

An Electrify America electric vehicle (EV) charging station on display at AutoMobility LA ahead of the Los Angeles Auto Show in Los Angeles, California.
Electrify America currently operates the largest public charging network in the US.
Bing Guan/Bloomberg via Getty Images

The on-board charger faces space and weight restrictions. “That is limited in how much power it can realistically convert,” said Matthias Preindl, an associate professor of electrical engineering at Columbia University.

If you’re on the road and only have a few minutes, you need to be able to inject a lot more power into the battery than the on-board charger can handle. That’s where DC fast chargers, like the systems from Electrify America and the Tesla Supercharger network, come in.

In these systems, the task of converting electricity is offboarded to the charging station. The plugs at the charging stalls are just dispensers. The actual DC chargers are in gray metal utility cabinets nearby, which look similar to the pad-mounted transformers you can find scattered across cities near power lines. They provide a huge amount of power directly to the battery, topping it off in as little as 20 minutes. But DC chargers require sophisticated hardware to connect directly to the grid, adding to their cost.

EVs also have different plug shapes to worry about. There are two main fast charging standards in North America: Tesla and Combined Charging System, or CCS, which is used by just about every other manufacturer. (There’s also CHAdeMO, but no new EVs use this standard.)

For Tesla, the workflow is pretty straightforward. The company makes both the fast chargers and the EVs. This helps keep mishaps to a minimum, and drivers know exactly who to call if something goes wrong. This will soon change as Tesla charging stations accommodate other carmakers.

A driver stops to charge a Tesla vehicle at a Sheetz gas station in Breezewood, Pennsylvania, US, on Thursday, June 16, 2022.
Tesla now plans to open its supercharger network to other automobile marques.
Nate Smallwood/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Electrify America and other public DC chargers, on the other hand, are designed to be able to charge everything from BMW’s tiny i3 to the monstrous Hummer EV. Each manufacturer has different needs, so communication between the car and the charging station is critical. If something is lost in translation, bad things can happen, as Tippit and Wong found out. It can also be difficult to figure out whether the problem was due to the car or the charging station, and thus who is accountable.

Preindl said any number of potential hardware or software issues could have caused their chargers to malfunction, but when dealing with the massive amount of electricity in a DC fast charger, something as trivial as leaving a tiny gap between the plug and the charge port on the car can be dangerous.

“If a plug doesn’t make good contact, locally it creates high current and acts effectively like a welder,” Preindl said. “It welds the receiver and the plug together.”

But it’s important to put these public charging stations into context with their competition. Conventional gas stations come with their own risks but rarely get national news coverage. Every year, there are about 4,000 fires at gas stations across the US, leading to as many as 43 injuries, three deaths, and $30 million in damages, according to the National Fire Protection Association.

The road ahead for EV charging

Of course, gas stations have their benefits, too. Since they’re so common, if one pump is out at a gas station, a working pump is usually not too far away. Drivers can also shop around for the cheapest fuel.

EV drivers, on the other hand, have to plan carefully and keep close track of which public fast chargers are operating and have open slots. Otherwise, they could end up waiting a while to recharge or, worse, stranded. They may also need separate apps or accounts with every charging provider, making the process more tedious than it needs to be.

Electrify America currently operates the largest public EV charging network, with more than 800 stations hosting 3,500 individual chargers. The company was formed by Volkswagen in 2016 as part of its punishment for cheating on emissions tests. Drivers have complained of poor maintenance and a high rate of outages across the network. The stations also seem to struggle in the cold.

Other public networks, like ChargePoint and EVgo, have experienced similar reliability issues.

So beyond safety, a nationwide EV charging network — particularly one that offers fast charging — needs to be abundant, reliable, accessible, and cheap in order to compete with gasoline and diesel. Right now there’s progress on all of these fronts: Thousands more charging stations are in the works; new designs are bringing down costs and installation timelines, and plugging in gaps with new types of charging systems. Still, there are some annoying problems that the government will have to step in to resolve as well.

Secretary of Energy Jennifer Granholm speaks during an event to discuss investments in the U.S. electric vehicle charging network, outside Department of Transportation headquarters on February 10, 2022 in Washington, DC.
Flanked by two electric Ford Mustangs, US Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm announces new US investments in EV charging infrastructure.
Drew Angerer/Getty Images

So what comes first, the electric cars or the charging stations?

“What we’ve seen is that there’s a lot of interest to deploy infrastructure ahead of the market as a sort of way to hold real estate on the expectation that EVs will come,” said Scott Shepard, research director at the consulting firm Guidehouse, studying vehicle electrification.

Electrify America is planning to expand to 1,800 stations with 10,000 individual chargers in the US and Canada by 2026. Oil companies like BP are even starting to invest in EV charging. They already own the gas stations, and many are sitting on record profits and looking for places to stash their cash.

DC fast chargers, however, have to climb over additional hurdles. They require specialized equipment to connect since they use so much electricity at once. In particular, they often need medium-voltage transformers that step down voltage from the power grid to a level cars can use. There’s a shortage of these devices that could take up to two years to resolve, according to Shepard. Fast charging stations also require special permits, which can add three to six months to their construction timeline. The building costs can easily amount to millions of dollars.

FreeWire is a company trying to get around this problem by integrating energy storage into fast charging stations. That allows the station to dispatch much more power while charging than it actually draws from the grid at any given moment.

“Our golden ratio is 10 to 1, so we have a 200-kilowatt charger but we use 20 kilowatts of input power, and the battery just acts as a buffer,” said Arcady Sosinov, CEO of FreeWire. “It works just like the hot water tank in your home.”

Electric car charger charging two cars.
FreeWire’s fast charging stations integrate energy storage, which allows them to deploy faster and cheaper.
FreeWire

This speeds up the deployment time. Sosinov said his company deployed 30 fast charging sites in British Columbia in 30 days in December.

Mobile charging is another way to close gaps, according to Lawrence at SparkCharge. Rather than driving to a charging station, EV owners can request electricity to be delivered to them while they eat at a restaurant or go to a concert, “almost like the UberEats of EV charging,” Lawrence said. Essentially giant portable batteries, mobile charging sites can serve as waypoints to extend the range of EVs, even when there’s no connection to the grid.

Regulators can also pave over some of the potholes in EV charging. The government could force the charging networks to be interoperable so users don’t have to register separately for each station.

They could also make manufacturers stick to a narrow set of plug standards. While Tesla and CSS represent the two main types of charging ports, CCS is more of a set of guidelines than a binding rulebook. (“It’s super loosey-goosey,” according to Sosinov.)

Regulators could impose tighter standards to make charging more consistent across different cars and charging networks. The government could also establish clear rules about who is liable if a car ends up damaged or bricked at a charging station.

These are important issues to resolve not just for safety reasons, but to ensure that drivers remain confident in electric cars and trucks. The goal is not to prevent every possible problem, but to make sure that a negative experience won’t put an owner off EVs forever.

Wong said he comes from a family of EV owners and his R1T truck was the second EV he’s personally owned. His ordeal at the charging station hasn’t dissuaded him at all.

Tippit’s Bolt was his first EV. He grew to appreciate its convenience and fuel savings. But getting his car bricked and totaled made him more skeptical of public charging stations. He replaced it with a used Tesla Model 3, granting him access to the Tesla supercharger network. “So far, so good,” he said.

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