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How Reliable are Public EVSE Charging Stations? Report Shows Many EV Drivers Have Issues

How Reliable are Public EVSE Charging Stations? Report Shows Many EV Drivers Have Issues

James Cobb believes there are a lot of perks to driving an electric vehicle, but public charging is not one of them. “(The infrastructure) is just too sparse and unreliable,” said Cobb, 44 of Owasso, Oklahoma, who started driving a Volkswagen ID.4 last year to reduce his carbon footprint.

While home charging makes most trips a breeze, Cobb said it's the longer rides that can be a headache, like the recent 150-mile trip to the University of Oklahoma for his daughter’s graduation. He typically stops at a public charging station in Moore, Oklahoma, on the way to the university to refuel.

But during his last visit, he said one of the four chargers wasn't working and another was delivering a limited number of kilowatts. He fell in line behind three other cars, making what is typically a 30-minute stop drag on more than an hour. He ran into another line at the public charging station on the way back.

Cobb has found other trips are impossible to make with his EV because of a lack of charging infrastructure. He plans to borrow or rent an internal combustion engine car to make an upcoming trip to Dallas. “Honestly, (public charging) has got a long way to go. It's far from as reliable as it needs to be,” he said. The public charging infrastructure has been an issue for EV drivers across the country, especially those who can't yet rely on Tesla's expansive Supercharger network.

(Starting next year, EVs from General Motors and Ford will be able to charge at many of Tesla’s charging stations when Tesla is set to open a portion of its U.S. electric vehicle charging network to rival brands.)

According to a recent report from data analytics company J.D. Power, 20.8% of EV drivers using public charging stations through the end of the first quarter experienced charging failures or equipment malfunctions that left them unable to charge their vehicles. It's a slight improvement from the fourth quarter of 2022 but up from 14.5% two years prior.

“Public charging is by far the least satisfying aspect of owning an electric vehicle,” said Brent Gruber, executive director of global automotive research for J.D. Power. Are EV sales declining? Electrifying the car market may be getting harder. Here's why

How Reliable are Public EVSE Chargers?

There's a long list of circumstances that can make a public charging station nonfunctional. The chargers may have broken screens, plugs or cords because of vandalism, theft or sitting outside and enduring the elements for years. Some have issues with their payment systems or experience network connection failures. Others have problems communicating with certain car brands, especially as more automakers enter the EV manufacturing space. Then there are user errors, as more newcomers figure out public charging.

"Over time, you've had the output and the type of stations increase and dramatically change," said Brendan Jones, CEO of EV charging company Blink. "With that, there's been more complexity. And more complexity brings in more points of failure."

J.D. Power found charging issues have been pronounced in western states like California, which spearheaded EV adoption in the U.S. but now grapple with an aging infrastructure. Gruber said the percentage of respondents unable to use a public charger in the Pacific region was "considerably higher" than the rest of the country at just over 25% compared to less than 21% nationally. Another 2022 report found about a quarter of public fast chargers were broken in the San Francisco Bay Area.

"In any nascent industry, there's a technology learning curve," said Ken Tennyson, charging company Electrify America's senior director of quality and conformance. But "we're rapidly transitioning over to hardware that has capitalized on everything we've learned over the last five-plus years."

Electrify America plans to replace 600 aging fast chargers with newer models by the end of the year. Other charging companies say they are also focused on improving reliability: EVgo launched a new initiative to bolster reliability and plans to replace, upgrade or retire hundreds of its stations, and Blink is also swapping out its first-generation chargers.

Spokespeople for ChargePoint and Volta Charging, two other charging companies, declined to comment. "The whole industry has to step up," said Jonathan Levy, chief commercial officer of EV charger company EVgo. "Some of that starts with the equipment. Some of its networking. Some of it is vehicles and some of it is consumer education. And I think all of that needs to be tied together to make a great charging experience."

A 'Wake Up Call for the Industry'

A lack of maintenance has also spurred reliability issues with chargers, according to J.D. Power's Gruber. He noted that some public charging companies do not own and operate their chargers, but instead sell them to site hosts that own the property where the station is built. Charging station providers tend to cover maintenance or replacement costs for a set period under warranty, but once that window closes, Gruber said some property owners have little incentive to pay for upkeep.

“If they don't want to pay for that maintenance, then the maintenance doesn't occur,” Gruber said. “They fall into a state of disrepair.” Blink has adjusted its contracts with site hosts to address this issue, according to Jones. Now, if Blink sells a piece of equipment and network services to a site host who fails to maintain the product, the company will shut down the charger, so it doesn’t appear on online public charger maps. “We're taking that aggressive step on a move-forward basis, so customers don't go to broken chargers,” Jones said.

Problems Growing Amid a Push for EVs

Charging problems have become more pronounced as more electric cars hit the road. The number of EVs in the U.S. jumped from about 22,000 to a little over 2 million between 2011 and 2021, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Accounting and consulting giant PwC says the market could require up to 235,000 fast-charge points by 2030, up from about 47,000 today.

“EVs are here. So now it’s about perfecting the model,” Jones said. “Negative (feedback) is an opportunity for improvement.” Meanwhile, the Biden administration is pushing for a more expansive and reliable public charging infrastructure. The bipartisan infrastructure bill passed in 2021 allocates $7.5 billion to improving the EV-charging infrastructure. Federally funded chargers must have an average annual uptime (the percentage of time a charger is operational) greater than 97%.

Public Charging Tips for EV Drivers

Gruber suggests EV drivers who want to avoid broken-down chargers plan of road trips. He notes that there are plenty of apps available that map out operational chargers. “The more you can plan those stops, the more satisfactory that charging experience is,” he said. Just “prepare for the unexpected.”

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