California Wants to Make EV Charging Suppliers More Accountable

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  • DC fast charging is the gold standard for electric vehicles, but the service provider—other than Tesla’s more established network—has not compromised the user experience.
  • Even experienced EV drivers find they have to use multiple apps to find a charging station, and even more often they find charging equipment malfunctioning or reduced power levels.
  • In response, the California Energy Commission is working to make the charging network more accountable and responsive to complaints as EVs continue to proliferate.

It’s no secret among electric car drivers that the public’s DC fast charging experience, Tesla aside, is nowhere near as reliable as it should be.

It now appears that California will take the initiative and set the rules for how the reliability and availability of public EV charging stations is evaluated. The state’s California Energy Commission plans to open a public feedback process that it hopes will lead to definitions of “uptime” of stations that do not “allow over-exemption” as charging networks often use to avoid accountability.

What Does “Work” Really Mean?

Currently, for example, an EV charging network may define a charger as “working” only if it receives a response after pinging the station from the remote control center. But cellular connectivity with a charging station is far from a guarantee that it can actually charge the EV at the appropriate power level. Its payment validation software may be disabled; credit card readers may jam; station software may have been bombed (showing only Windows code on screen); the site may receive a reduced power level, and so on.

Neither of these issues was apparent to the charging network, which assumed the station was operating properly because it pinged again. In many cases, user feedback—ranging from angry tweets to comments and ratings on apps like PlugShare or Chargeway—receives a response only 24 to 72 hours later, if any, generally during the standard business day hours.

electric vehicle charging station

California Department of Energy

Networks can also exclude from their uptime calculation any time their cellular connection to a station is lost. Electrify America says it defaults to free charging when this happens, but not all networks follow suit—meaning if the network can’t be paid, EV drivers can’t recharge, period.

If you arrived at a gas station that had eight separate hoses and only one provided gas, would you rate it 100%?

Assemblyman Questions

The California accountability plan is tagged in the tweet below by Loren McDonald, CEO of EV and EV charging analytics and consulting firm EV Adoption. He highlighted the Energy Commission’s response to a letter it received from California State Assemblyman Phil Ting, who had proposed a state bill on reliability of charging.

In general, the Commission said it would no longer rely on self-reported claims by networks about their uptime and charging station availability. Instead, it will survey multiple sources of data and qualitative feedback from the public — which could include, say, reports of charging stations shutting down on apps — to assess the reliability and availability of chargers.

One further note: California plans to measure uptime at the individual charging station (cable or pedestal) level, as opposed to design standards developed by the National Electric Vehicle Infrastructure (NEVI) program that may only be seen at the entire site. If one charging station works in a certain location, it will be considered as a 100 percent score. That’s what the charging grid prefers, because it’s easier. But ask yourself: If you arrived at a gas station that had eight separate hoses and only one provided gas, would you give it a 100 percent score?

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Tesla’s work; Others Maybe Not

The exception to the often unreliable public charging sites is Tesla. The company operates its own Supercharger network, open to Tesla drivers only, designed from the start as a seamless part of EV navigation. The company designs and installs its own charging stations, with software tightly integrated into the Tesla proprietary experience.

For other EV brands, long-distance travel can be more strenuous. Several competing EV charging networks have spent five years in a fierce arms race to get as many stations into the ground as possible. There is a huge incentive to do so—especially the increased footprint they hope will improve their valuation as the industry anticipates future consolidation. However, there’s almost no incentive to keep the damn stuff working once it’s installed.

To be fair, non-Tesla networks will have to cope with tighter integration than Tesla. Historically, they have purchased off-the-shelf DC fast charging hardware, often using multiple vendors on a single network. Their software should accommodate dozens of different EV models from automakers that can update a car’s operating software without retesting at every station each network operates. They should offer multiple payment options, from credit cards to RFID fobs to phone apps, with membership plans and variable pricing from state to state. All that is not easy.

The list of reasons a charging station might not work could fill a book, but it quickly gets to the point where EV users no longer care what went wrong. Take, for example, the recent biting cold weather over much of the United States. Some customers have complained about the new station design, which the large EV charging network launched failed to work in the very cold. Gas stations, as a rule, do well during the same weather.

While glitches may have been tolerable in EV’s early days, public DC fast charging has been around for about five years now—but experienced EV drivers should still check a few apps to make sure important fast-charge sites along planned routes are actually working. .

California’s efforts to get more data on the reliability of public charging, and its efforts to institute some sort of accountability between networks, are long overdue. Let’s hope other countries follow in his footsteps.

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