A frustrating annoyance holding electric cars back: broken chargers

The federal government is doling 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 want them that the waiting lists for battery cars are months long.

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

A huge effort is underway to build hundreds of thousands of public chargers: the federal government alone is spending $7.5 billion. But electric car drivers and analysts said the companies that install and maintain the stations need to do more to make sure those new chargers and the more than 120,000 already in existence are reliable.

Many sit in parking lots or in front of retail stores where there is often no one to turn to for help when something goes wrong. Problems include cracked screens and buggy software. Some stop working mid-load, while others never start in the first place.

Some frustrated drivers say the problems make them wonder if they can ditch gasoline vehicles altogether, especially for longer trips.

“Often those 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 quickly find yourself in a pretty desperate situation.”

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 reduce the driving range of electric cars, and Mr. Zuckerman found himself needing a charge on the drive home.

He checked online and found a station, but when he stopped, the machine was broken. Another across the street was also out, she said. Desperate, Mr. Zuckerman went to a nearby gas station and convinced a worker there to connect an extension cord to his car.

“I sat there for two and a half hours in the freezing cold, getting enough charge that I could hobble to the town of Lee, Massachusetts, and then use another charger,” he said. “It wasn’t a great night.”

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

Most electric vehicle owners charge primarily at home, so they use public chargers much less than gas stations used by people with conventional cars. Many also report few problems with public charge or are more than willing to look past the problems. 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 that is changing. Electric vehicle sales are growing rapidly as established automakers launch new models. Some of those cars will be bought by Americans who can’t refuel at home because they don’t have the ability to install a home charger.

Studies show that public charging is one of the top concerns people have when considering buying an electric car. The other big concern is the related issue of how far a car can drive on a full charge.

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

“If we want to see EV adoption continue to increase, as I do, we need to solve this problem,” said Joel Levin, CEO of Plug In America.

The urgency is not lost on the auto industry.

Ford Motor recently began sending contractors it calls “charging angels” to test the charging networks it works with to provide 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, walked up to a line of chargers at a shopping mall on Long Island, plugged in her Mustang Mach-E and got to work. Ms. Larsen watched as a laptop computer recorded a detailed stream of data exchanged between the charger and the vehicle and began taking notes on her behalf.

The chargers, which were built and operated by Electrify America, a division of Volkswagen, were working fine that day. But Larsen said one had given him an error message the day before. When that happens, Ms. Larsen notifies Ford technicians, who work with the freight company to fix the problem.

Ms. Larsen said the problems are rare in her experience, but they come up enough that she can sometimes spot them with the naked eye. “I can tell you ahead of time, this is going to give me an error on the screen,” she said.

There are few rigorous studies of charging stations, but one conducted this year by Cool the Earth, an environmental nonprofit in California, and David Rempel, a retired professor of bioengineering at the University of California, Berkeley, found that 23 percent percent of 657 public charging stations in the Bay Area were broken. The most common issues were testers unable to get shippers to accept payment or initiate a charge. In other cases, the screens went blank, unresponsive, or displayed error messages.

“We have real field data here and the results, frankly, were very concerning,” said Carleen Cullen, executive director of Cool the Earth.

The companies that charge dispute the findings. Electrify America said there were methodological errors in the study, and EVgo, which operates a charging network, said it couldn’t replicate the study’s results.

Another big charging company, ChargePoint, had a success rate of just 61 percent. The company rarely owns and operates the chargers it installs on behalf of commercial companies, although it does provide maintenance under warranty. That model is fraught with problems, critics said, because it places the responsibility on owners, who may not have the experience or commitment to manage the team. ChargePoint did not respond to requests for comment.

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

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

But not everything is under your control. While those companies test chargers with various electric vehicles, compatibility issues may require changes to chargers or cars.

Even stations owned by charging companies like EVgo and Electrify America often sit unattended for long periods. At most gas stations, an employee is usually on duty and can see when problems arise. With chargers, vandalism or other damage can be more difficult to track.

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

It’s a problem reminiscent of the early days of the Internet, when clunky modems and outdated phone lines could make using websites and sending email a nerve-wracking exercise. The auto and cargo industries hope to overcome such problems soon, just as the telecommunications and technology industries made Internet access much more reliable.

The money also comes with a requirement that chargers work 97 percent of the time and meet technical standards to communicate with vehicles. Stations must also have a minimum of four ports that can charge simultaneously and not be limited to any one make of car.

Tesla is also expected to open its chargers to cars from other automakers in the United States, which it has already done in some 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 work flawlessly from the start with Tesla charging equipment.

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

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

But Mr. Turner said he’s not too concerned because he’s fixed those issues and finds his Rivian truck to be much better than any other vehicle he’s ever owned. He, too, is confident that the problems will soon be resolved.

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

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