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Innovation Will Follow the National EV Network, but Not Overnight

The infrastructure law that’s helping to build out thousands of chargers will likely usher in the changes needed for a seamless experience regardless of the car or charger it’s plugged into. But this won't be immediate, experts warn.

Two EVs parked and plugged into a charger.
Perhaps one of the biggest innovations to come from the national infrastructure modernization and build-out happening now is the seamless flow of data that promises to make charging a smooth thoughtless experience.

Enabling a completely seamless, plug-and-play EV charging evolution will require a range of behind-the-scenes technologies to support interoperability. This tech will need to support charger-to-EV, charger-to-charger, charging network-to-charging network communication, among other data transactions, said Brenda Cucci, a senior partner with IBM’s Sustainability and Responsible Business Division.

“If you think about that for a minute and what is gong to be entailed to collect that data, where that data is going to be housed, who’s going to have access to the data; it’s a huge feat that needs to be taken on,” said Cucci, during a webinar panel to discuss electric vehicle charging, the technological hurdles, and cybersecurity and the interoperability of all of these systems.

The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act is helping to fund a massive build-out of high-speed charging across the country. Beyond simply developing charging stations alongside interstate highways, the project will have to include a number of aspects related to digital technology — like data-sharing, operational reporting, account billing, road taxes and security measures for both the data and equipment.

Industry observers anticipate that the National Electric Vehicle Infrastructure Formula Program (NEVI) will serve as the sort of necessary catalyst to grow EV charging from today’s nascent conglomeration of individual charging companies — and their related apps — to a federalized system with the numerous charging providers working seamlessly to provide a single charging experience for the driver.

David Knight, CEO of Terbine, a software company that brings together data synchronization across the EV landscape, compares today’s charging environment to the early days of ATMs, where consumers could only use an ATM that belonged to the cardholder’s bank.

“It was really a pain when you went anywhere where your bank didn’t have ATMs,” said Knight, during the discussion.

Eventually, all of the banks became interconnected, making it possible to use an ATM card at any bank.

“You can imagine how extremely complicated that was, and many of them probably didn’t want to do it,” said Knight, adding integrating EV charging “is actually a lot more complicated than that.”

Today, the non-Tesla EV driver has some six to seven apps on their smartphone related to various charging networks, making it cumbersome for drivers and an obstacle to EV adoption.

“It’s really nuts. If you can imagine, try to do that with a gas station, where you pull up the X-brand station, and it says, 'sorry, you don’t have a credit account with us,'” Knight remarked. “I think that has got to go away. It’s got to get better. And NEVI does prepare a real shot.”

Part of the power of NEVI is its national reach — both in terms of the placement of thousands of chargers along high-traveled corridors, but also the technology requirements, which have the ability of moving the entire charging-provider industry in a particular direction.

“The fact that this program is requiring this data exchange, and requiring this interoperability, and interconnectedness, potentially can contribute to helping to fix this problem,” said Roger Lanctot, director of automotive connected mobility in the global automotive practice at TechInsights, a Canada-based tech company. “And there may be new solution providers that emerge as a result."

EVs are still in the “early adopter” phase, and only make up 5.8 percent of the new-car market. Only 20 percent of these drivers “charge in the wild,” as Lanctot colorfully described it.

And in order for more drivers to make the transition to an electric car, the charging experience will have to mature to one that drivers don’t need to think about. In short, it should look a lot like the Tesla network, said Knight, calling it, “the gold standard.”

“But only if you have a Tesla,” he added.

“Just like what happened with ATM machines, ‘roaming’ cellphones, we believe gradually, it will start to happen,” Knight remarked, recalling past technologies that matured and became mainstream. “But it’s going to take a while, so this isn’t an overnight thing.”
Skip Descant writes about smart cities, the Internet of Things, transportation and other areas. He spent more than 12 years reporting for daily newspapers in Mississippi, Arkansas, Louisiana and California. He lives in downtown Yreka, Calif.