Over the weekend, ABB flew me out to Portland, Oregon, for the 2023 Southwire Portland E-Prix race. It was great to again be back on the track (albeit this year in a new location), surrounded by cheering fans and witnessing the new Gen 3 all-electric race car at speeds of 170-plus mph. Formula E is supposed to be a testing ground of innovation, offering a chance to look into the future of road-vehicle electrification. Here is a recap of the race if you’re interested.
ABB is the title sponsor and official charging provider of Formula E, and it’s one of the largest EV charging hardware manufacturers to announce plans to adopt Tesla’s North American Charging Standard (NACS). Through this prism, I wanted to answer the question: Will NACS fix public EV charging reliability and uptime issues? Personally, I think the answer is a mix — it depends and no, not on its own. (If you haven’t been keeping up with everything going on with EV charging in the U.S., check out these two GreenBiz pieces here and here.)
The problem is bigger than NACS vs. CCS1
Let’s get it out of the way: GM, Ford, Rivian and any other automaker’s soon-to-be announcement with Tesla is huge for non-Tesla drivers. The biggest benefit will be access to Tesla’s Supercharger Network through an adapter and then directly via the vehicle in 2025. In its current form, available to only Tesla vehicles aside from some locations where Tesla has opened its network with what they are calling Magic Dock, the Supercharger Network is one of the most reliable fast-charging networks.
In my conversations with some EV industry stakeholders and reading thoughts shared online, I’ve sensed that some are excited about this shift of standardizing NACS across the public EV networks, suggesting this move to NACS will magically fix many driver complaints. But I don’t think it will, unless other parts of the public EV charging experience also change with it.
"I think this [automakers partnering with Tesla on NACS] is a really positive step as far as automakers understanding the need for consumers to be well supported in their charging experience …" said Alexia Melendez Martineau, policy manager at Plug In America. "But it doesn’t necessarily solve all our problems… we still have a public charging network that by and large, doesn’t perform as well as it really could be."
Some in the industry have said the NACS is simply a more efficient "standard" compared with the Combined Charging System 1 (CCS1). To some degree, having a more efficient "standard" could lead to improved charging station reliability and uptime, but the list of reasons why Tesla’s Supercharger Network is considered the gold standard is not limited to NACS. With that said, giving drivers an option to choose between Tesla Superchargers and public charging stations might be the financial incentive needed for public network operators to pick up their game.
The solution: NACS or CCS1 plus everything else
ABB has published key charger reliability and uptime benchmarks necessary to provide reliable EV charging uptime. They include:
Preventive maintenance and corrective service
Availability of spare parts
Bob Stojanovic, ABB’s senior vice president of E-mobility North America, stressed just how important everything beyond the port is to ensure strong reliability. "Like in the data center business, if [EV charging is] going to be a 24/7 and 365 operation, you need a philosophy that supports that," Stojanovic said. "You don’t put in exactly the number of assets and wait for it to break; you need redundancy, whatever that is, and a proactive plan on rotating operations and doing preventive maintenance to keep a sustainable operation running."
Public charging stations have a whole host of reliability and uptime challenges such as broken charging cables, stations not providing the advertised power during charging sessions, software glitches that stop charging and errors during the payment process.
The cherry on top is that when navigating to a public charging station, even if the station may be inoperable, it shows up in a user’s app or car navigation as functioning, giving false signals to the driver that they can actually charge, when in fact they can’t — something Tesla has addressed with their Trip Planner.
One company, Chargetrip, a range prediction and EV routing platform based in Amsterdam, appears to have a solution for vehicles other than Tesla. The cool factor about Chargetrip is that it’s a business-to-business firm and sells its technology directly to fleets and automotive manufacturers for their in-car infotainment systems and EV charging routing. Selling directly to automotive companies stands out to me as a solution to help address a big part of the reliability and uptime problem — arriving at inoperable stations.
Optimized EV routing is needed
In speaking with Pieter Waller, co-founder and chief commercial officer of Chargetrip, two things jumped out:
The software runs on a consumption model that predicts, based on what vehicle you are driving, along with numerous other variables, how much energy the car will consume and then from there, it optimizes a trip based on the appropriate charging stations needed. "Other solutions calculate the traditional fastest route between A and B without considering charging and then look back and add charging stops along the route," Waller said.
The routing software then adds additional weight based on what the customer — in this case, the automotive company — values in regard to recommending certain charging stations over others. Additional weight can be placed on things such as whether the charging location incorporates redundancy (a.k.a. numerous charging stations if one is broken) or the last time the charging station completed a successful charge.
While I have yet to actively test Chargetrip’s routing software in the wild, should the software perform as described, it would help improve EV charging reliability concerns in the U.S., routing drivers to only more reliable stations. It also would help solve an issue that traditional automakers deal with today — horrible software.
Ford’s CEO Jim Farley recently discussed this issue and how typically the software of a vehicle is built by numerous suppliers and vendors, contributing to its poor performance.
However, unlike in the United Kingdom or Europe where Chargetrip has access to real-time dynamic data from charging companies, U.S. charging companies aren’t as open to sharing.
"Getting access to reliable dynamic availability data [from charging stations] was also a problem early on in the Scandinavian markets and the U.K. up to two years ago," Waller said. "So it’s also a signal of a bit of an immature market where players are basically fighting over the crumbs instead of trying to make the cake bigger."
The U.S. is moving in the right direction as its EV market matures. The move with NACS and CCS1 is an example of how the market is identifying what matters the most — the driver.