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Driving Change

Public charging: The Achilles’ heel for EVs

Will automotive companies and public EV charging providers ever catch up to Tesla’s Supercharger experience?

3 vehicles parked at a Tesla Supercharger station at the Tesla Design Center in Hawthorne, California

Tesla’s Supercharger network, which is vertically integrated, is widely regarded as the gold standard in EV charging. Image via Shutterstock/Steve Cukrov

This edition of Transport Weekly officially closes the book on my three-part 2023 Consumer Electronics Show (CES) experience. By now, what happened at CES has been extensively discussed. Thus, I will use the event as a jumping-off point to, once again, ring the bell for improving public EV charging reliability, uptime and the overall user experience.

If you need some inspiration, this part is for you.

The transition to a sustainable and net-zero future is challenging. Critics cloud the transition by calling it a pipe dream filled with one impossible challenge after another. However, when has something challenging ever stopped humanity?

Let’s just look at a few examples for fun. Was it too challenging and impossible to …

  • land the first humans on the moon — let alone now, have a private company plan to send the first humans to Mars using reusable rockets that already launch and land back on Earth by themselves?
  • fight for equal freedoms and equality across gender and race during periods in U.S. history clouded by the opposite — let alone now, while more work needs to be done, have more women and people of color in leadership roles across government and companies than ever before in history?
  • create a way for people to connect and carry modern-day computers in the palm of their hands — let alone now, have smartphones that far exceed the computing power used by NASA to send those very same humans to the moon?

Just look out your window — humans have created so many things that we take for granted that were once challenging but are now possible

So why do I say all this? 

  • It’s to inspire those reading to feel empowered that no matter what they are doing in life, everything is truly possible to some degree. 
  • I hope to specifically catch the attention of those leaders tirelessly working in the EV charging space and say — yes, I, along with so many others, in 2023, can no longer accept the answer that public EV fast-charging can’t exactly emulate Tesla’s Supercharger experience because it’s too challenging. 

Reliable public fast-charging is challenging but possible

CES had no shortage of EV charging companies and flashy announcements. By now, you must have heard that Mercedes announced the company is building its own EV fast-charging "network." While the network will be open to the public, Mercedes drivers will have additional features and benefits, including the ability to reserve charging stations ahead of arrival.

This is a big deal. I believe it points, in some parts, to the topic of today’s discussion. Automotive companies are catching on: They can no longer just focus on building the vehicle and have to think seriously about the charging experience. But it’s not just automotive companies. California has had enough of spotty public charging experiences as well.

As discussed in a Car and Driver article, California’s Energy Commission is planning to open a public feedback process that will lead to a definition of EV charging station "uptime" to stop EV charging companies from evading accountability for having working stations.

It’s comedic that we even have to redefine what "working" or "operating" means in the world of EV charging where the core business model is — a charger providing power to an EV at the kW speed advertised. The Car and Driver article points to a list of examples of just the opposite in the industry. GreenBiz and other outlets have covered this issue extensively.

At the end of the day, a challenge is only something that someone hasn’t found a solution to yet.

Tesla hasn’t had to deal with public EV charging companies on a wide scale but as the industry matures, the company is taking a calculated approach in how it works with other charging providers. In December, it was reported that Tesla is considering allowing public EV fast-charging companies to list their stations on Tesla’s in-car navigation system in Europe. However, EV charging companies would need to meet some strict conditions, one of which includes an average charge success rate of 90 percent or higher.

It may seem as if EV charging companies aren’t doing anything about this issue. Take this VICE article from almost two years ago. It could have been written today as the same issues persist. Interestingly, it’s not as if companies aren’t aware of these issues. However, they commonly shrug off reliability and user experience issues when compared with Tesla’s Supercharger experience, attributing Tesla’s success to the fact that its experience is vertically integrated. The vertical integration allows Tesla’s charging station to easily connect with the vehicle, decreasing the likelihood of any issues.

The world for non-Tesla vehicles and EV charging companies is very different. EV charging companies have to accommodate dozens of different EV models and operating software. While I can understand that anything outside of a vertically integrated network poses more challenges, I can’t accept that it is too difficult and impossible, which is what some in the public EV charging space seem to argue.

At the end of the day, a challenge is only something that someone hasn’t found a solution to yet.

While at CES, I spoke with Bob Stojanovic, senior vice president for E-Mobility North America at ABB. ABB was at CES displaying the company's new home charging station, but he and I quickly dived into discussions about public EV charging infrastructure as ABB is one of Electrify America’s hardware providers. "When you have unmanned stations, public infrastructure, service is the key to success so it’s really a reflection of what’s your service strategy," Stojanovic said. "... There are a lot of systems that are interlinked between the back office, payment terminal and the vehicle, and most issues that occur, let’s say, are in that realm so it’s not as simple as saying the hardware is bad."

Stojanovic is pointing to what the Car and Driver article says. There are numerous different pieces and parties all interacting together to provide a successful charging experience, so it’s quite complex. However, when I brought up how Tesla has managed to avoid all these complexities, Stojanovic didn’t disagree and even mentioned news about Tesla’s North American Charging Standard, the Supercharger connector Tesla announced should officially replace CCS, the current industry standard. "I mean, that’s the goal. I don’t disagree with that [Tesla’s supercharging reliability and user-experience success rate]. I just think if you start with controlling the entire experience, you can get to that level of performance a lot faster," Stojanovic said. On the topic of the North American Charging Standard, Stojanovic said, "If that’s what the market wants, we’re looking into… we’ve had requests from our customers to implement it, so we’re trying to figure out a way to get it into our offering."

Automotive companies are catching on: They can no longer just focus on building the vehicle and have to think seriously about the charging experience.

I also spoke with Arcady Sosinov, CEO of FreeWire Technologies, another rising EV charging provider, which uses integrated batteries in the charger to help provide more charging power and less strain on the grid. Sosinov touched on service as well when discussing the current state of public EV charging. "I’m reading the same things you’re reading, and quality and reliability is the biggest problem in the industry right now," Sosinov said. "Part of the problem is around who owns and operates and then maintains the stations because in some cases there is not a clear relationship between the owner-operator and who’s providing the service, and that is a business model problem."

FreeWire Technologies aims to solve that by both selling the stations and also being the operation and maintenance service provider for the stations with field service technicians in key markets, theoretically ensuring strong reliability and uptime. However, when I asked him what FreeWire’s uptime percentage is, Sosinov said that’s not something the company shares publicly. But that may soon change for FreeWire and other companies that wish to both operate in California and also abide by federal standards for receiving National Electric Vehicle Infrastructure funding.

Earlier collaboration in the supply chain and vehicle assembly is key

If Tesla’s Supercharger network is the gold standard in terms of reliability and user experience, then the buck stops with two key parties to ensure public charging works — EV charging companies and automotive companies. In addition to providing strong service as discussed above, better collaboration and earlier exchanges are needed to ensure any vehicles rolling off the line are already communicating as close to vertically integrated as possible with the major EV charging brands that exist. When you chalk it up, there really are only a handful of EV charging providers for automotive companies to have early conversations with. If the free market can’t self-regulate, then increased government intervention and oversight may be needed.

EVs are the future of the automotive industry. But not all futures manifest into reality and sometimes are unnecessarily delayed. In the current state of the automotive world, the Achilles’ heel for EV adoption is the lack of reliable public EV charging. Let's make sure EVs don’t turn out like Achilles himself.

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