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Making EV Chargers More Reliable Will Require New Partnerships

The lackluster reliability of public charging locations is prompting new partnerships among automakers, even as the technology continues to evolve to enhance the user experience.

An "out of order" sign on an electric charging station with trees in the  background.
The rapid adoption of electric vehicles is ushering in new players in the car-charging arena and the hopes of growing the number of plugs at roadsides, hotels, workplaces, apartment buildings and more.

The expansion of the charging industry comes as drivers and car-makers are calling for a more seamless and reliable public charging experience, prompting automakers to form relationships with the Tesla charging network, generally considered the gold standard when looking at reliability and ease of use.

“Tesla has done a nice job of building out a public fast-charging network across the U.S. today. But, quite simply, there’s not enough chargers today to meet the needs of the vehicles, and there needs to be significant investment over the next three to five-plus years,” said Seth Cutler, COO of EV Connect, a charging software technology company.

“Tesla can’t do it on its own. It’s going to require lots of different players and partners and collaborations in this industry to build out a vast network of charging stations that will be beyond just Tesla’s Supercharging network, but will include the next connector,” he added.

Beyond increasing the number of chargers, the EV landscape will have to evolve with more reliability and a more seamless user experience.

EV Connect is in the process of working toward “plug-and-charge,” which is becoming more common around the world and is becoming part of the National Electric Vehicle Infrastructure (NEVI) program requirements. Simply put, the technology is evolving toward allowing for interoperability between the charging station, the vehicle and the automaker to authenticate the car.

“The vehicle essentially acts as an RFID [radio-frequency identification] card almost, or self identification with the charging cable, and then you’re able to authenticate that driver,” Cutler explained.

“So you … can literally plug, and charge, and walk away,” said Cutler. The enhancements would be a marked improvement from today’s landscape of sifting through multiple charging network apps, and then hoping the reader on the charger recognizes the driver’s digital wallet or credit card.

This brings up issues of reliability and driver confidence that chargers will work the way they are intended.

“Reliability, there’s a lot to do here,” said Jamie Hall, a senior strategist for electric vehicle policy and market development at General Motors.

“And it is a bit of a hot topic,” he added, speaking on a panel at the Forth Roadmap conference in Portland, Ore., in mid-May. The federal government’s NEVI regulations require that chargers funded by the infrastructure program be operational 97 percent of the time, leaving most observers aghast at the idea that it’s okay to have the equipment unavailable for even three percent of the time.

“If you think about this from the customer’s perspective … they don’t care if the charger is ‘technically up,’ or if this is ‘excluded time.’ They care if it works when they try to get a charge; and they want it to work on the first try,” Hall said flatly.

Equipment reliability, said Cutler, is “where the industry as a whole has struggled, not just putting dots on a map so to speak, but also ensuring that those dots on the map are alive and they’re working when you show up, and you have that confidence that they’re going to be there for you in an operable way.”

Other companies like Volta Charging and LNG Electric aim to greatly expand the number of chargers in locations like hotel properties, offices, apartment buildings and retail centers. For these applications, most of the charging being installed is Level 2, the type installed in most home garages, which tend to be the “sweet space” in terms of electric load on the infrastructure, battery architecture and ensuring the car is recharged in a reasonable amount of time, said Taylor Weaver, CEO of LNG Electric.

LNG Electric, a Boston-based company, markets its turnkey charging solution to properties like hotels, which are not generally hugely knowledgeable about what’s involved with EV charging.

“A lot of times with hotel owners, or multifamily housing owners, they’re looking at it as, ‘I’m in the business of running and operating hotels. I’m not in the business of running and operating charging stations,’” said Weaver.
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.