A Frustrating Hassle Holding Electric Cars Back: Broken Chargers

The federal government is committing 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 waiting lists for battery cars are months long.

The electric vehicle revolution is almost here, but its arrival is being delayed by a major problem: the chargers where people charge 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, are not working.

A major 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 ensure that these new chargers and the more than 120,000 that already exist are reliable.

Many sit in parking lots or outside stores, often with no one to turn to for help when something goes wrong. Problems include broken screens and buggy software. Some stop working in the middle of loading, while others never start again.

Some frustrated drivers say the problems have them wondering if they can abandon gas vehicles altogether, especially for longer trips.

“Often 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 dire situation very quickly.”

In the winter of 2020, Mr. Zuckerman commuted about 150 miles each way to work at MIT. Cold winter weather can reduce the range of electric cars, and Mr Zuckerman found himself needing a charge on the way home.

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

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

The availability and reliability of public chargers remains a problem even now, he said.

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

But all that is changing. Sales of electric vehicles are growing rapidly as established automakers launch new models. Some of these cars will be purchased by Americans who can’t refuel at home because they don’t have the ability to install a home charger.

Surveys show that public charging is a top concern for people when considering an electric car purchase. 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 similar concerns. About a third say broken chargers are at least a “moderate concern,” according to a survey by Turn on Americaa non-profit organization that promotes these vehicles.

“If we want to see EV adoption continue to grow, 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 started sending contractors it calls “charge angels.” test the charging networks which it works with to provide energy to the people who buy its electric cars and trucks. Unlike Tesla, Ford does not build and operate its own charging stations.

This spring, a member of that team, Nicole Larsen, pulled up to a row of chargers at a Long Island mall, turned on her Mustang Mach-E and got to work. Ms. Larsen watched as a laptop recorded a detailed stream of data exchanged between the charger and the car and began taking notes.

The chargers, which are manufactured and operated by Electrify America, a division of Volkswagen, worked well that day. But Ms Larsen said one of them had given her an error message the day before. When this happens, Ms. Larsen notifies Ford technicians, who work with the charging company to fix the problem.

Ms. Larsen said the problems are uncommon in her experience, but they occur enough that she can sometimes identify them by sight. “I can tell you in advance, it’s 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, a California environmental nonprofit, and David Rempel, a retired professor of bioengineering at UC Berkeley, found that 23 percent of 657 public charging stations in the Bay Area were damaged. The most common problems were that testers could not get the chargers to accept payment or initiate charging. In other cases, screens went blank, unresponsive, or displayed error messages.

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

Billing 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 results.

Another major 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 businesses, although it does provide warranty support. That model is fraught with problems, critics said, because it puts the onus on property owners, who may not have the experience or commitment to manage the equipment. ChargePoint did not respond to requests for comment.

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

“They’re in the wild on their own,” said Rob Barossa, 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. While these companies are testing chargers with various electric vehicles, compatibility issues may require changes to the chargers or cars.

Even stations that are owned by charging companies like EVgo and Electrify America are often left unattended for long stretches. Most gas stations usually have an attendant on duty who can see when 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, EVgo’s chief commercial officer.

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

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

Tesla is also expected to open up its chargers to cars from other automakers in the United States, which it has already done in several 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 smoothly from the start with Tesla’s charging equipment.

So far, many car owners say they have little difficulty with public chargers or are so happy with how their battery-powered vehicles drive that they would never consider switching back to petrol 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 closes all the truck’s doors and trunks.

But Mr Turner said he wasn’t too worried because he had resolved those issues and found his Rivian truck far superior to any other vehicle he had owned. He is also confident that the kinks will be ironed out soon.

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