How Ford is trying to fix public EV charging

Betty

This article was originally featured on The Drive.

Ten years after its first Supercharger site opened, Tesla is undeniably the gold standard for EV fast charging. Drive up, plug in, then stay only as long as your car suggests to gain another 200-plus miles of range. It’s easy, seamless, and now all but ubiquitous in the United States.

Drivers of any other EV brand face a very different landscape because no other automaker has invested in building a dedicated charging infrastructure network for its customers as Tesla has. They’ve done nothing to install significant public charging infrastructure; instead, they outsourced that responsibility to a mishmash of public charging networks and sites. Most offer slower Level 2 charging, providing eight to 25 miles per charging hour, which won’t get you far on a road trip. Only Electrify America and EVgo offer substantial numbers of DC fast-charging stations—and the reliability of those sites themselves is disturbingly variable

But, as automakers ramp up to build and sell vastly more electric cars, one has finally started to focus on public charging unreliability—because it understands shoddy networks threaten its plan to build and sell EVs at a profit. The public charging grievances number far and wide—a few of which will be examined here—but things aren’t completely hopeless. 

Over the last year, Ford has publicly recognized that bad on-road charging experiences (and the resulting social media) are a significant headwind to EV acceptance among the public at large. It’s made several aggressive moves to address the frustration of its EV buyers, including the painstaking task of locating problems in a charging network’s chargers one by one and leaning hard on the network to fix them. Whether its efforts will permanently improve things remains to be seen, but it’s good to see a legacy automaker finally step up and focus on the real problem.

More EV buyers, less familiarity

If you haven’t yet experienced it, charging anywhere outside of your home’s built-in charger or select parts of California can be pretty bleak. Public chargers are still hit-or-miss. I spend a good part of my professional life around EVs, public chargers, and talking to EV drivers about both, and I’ve noticed the problem seems to be exacerbated by newer EVs that boast longer range and whose drivers largely charge at home overnight. Paradoxically, unfamiliarity with on-road charging may have worsened as these longer-range EVs hit the market. 

Nissan Leaf driver, for example, with 74 or 107 available miles might regularly opt for a few hours of opportunistic public charging while shopping to boost the car’s range. And they would be less likely to undertake a 300-mile road trip in such a low-range EV to start with.

The driver of a newer 300-mile EV, however, might be more confident on a longer road trip, but that trip may be the only time they think about public charging. That’s because 80 percent of households that can afford a new car are able to charge at home, meaning the bulk of EV miles today come from overnight charging in a garage or driveway. So when these drivers finally do use public charging, it may be for that tense, time-critical family road trip to Grandma’s for the holidays. And that is absolutely not the time to learn how public charging works in the real world. 

As things are today, almost every non-Tesla EV driver will sooner or later arrive at a charging station that’s dead, damaged, offline, or providing current at slower-than-advertised rates. 

Consider a dozen tweets from EV drivers, including this author, throughout last year as a window into the collective frustration. 

As of March 27, the problem is still not fixed.

One cable in four won’t work

How bad is the problem? It’s hard to say definitively, as charging networks largely don’t release reliability data, but a new study from the University of California-Berkeley offered one glimpse of the problem. It looked at all 181 non-Tesla DC fast-charging sites in the San Francisco Bay Area, totaling 657 connectors. Overall, just 72.5 percent of those connectors worked, with this defined as being able to charge an EV for two minutes.

Cables didn’t work for a wide variety of reasons, including “unresponsive or unavailable screens, payment system failures, charge initiation failures, network failures, or broken connectors,” according to the study. Though some questions about methodology remain open, a random sample retested 10 days later found no improvement. As the study noted further, drily, “This level of functionality appears to conflict with the 95 to 98 [percent] uptime reported by the EV service providers.”

Another fast-charger reliability study, released in January, showed the best-ranked network, Electrify America, scored only 700 out of 1,000 possible points for reliability, ease of use, and more. Two other networks, Blink and EVconnect, were at or below 500 points.

To be fair, Electrify America gets the bulk of the complaint tweets above because it has the most fast-charging stations aside from Tesla (785 locations with more than 3,250 individual chargers, and more more sites in process). And multiple carmakers—Audi, Kia, Porsche, and Volkswagen—offer their EV buyers free use of its network during the first few years of EV ownership. General Motors will similarly offer access to the EVgo network (850-plus stations) for its GMC Hummer EV and further electric models.

But knowing ahead of time that a DC fast-charging station is dead may mean changing the route to Grandma’s. Existing EV drivers have quickly learned to rely on station usage info posted by other drivers, usually on the Plugshare app (now owned by the EVgo network but so far run as a separate entity). 

Plugshare users record their charging sessions, how the station worked, and often add photos and directions to help drivers find chargers by writing things like: “Go past the drive-thru window, turn right at the fence, and park by the dumpster. The station is on the back of the building.” Similar apps include A Better Route Planner and Chargeway. There’s good community-building in owning an EV and looking for a functional charger, but that’s hardly a sustainable business plan if we’re truly doing this mass-EV adoption thing for real. The average buyer won’t find the act of crowdsourcing a working charger cute or quirky. They’ll see it as inconvenient, and a reason not to buy an EV.

Tough problems: Seamlessness and reliability

Then there are the two problems of seamlessness and reliability for public DC fast charging.

The first addresses the chaos of mobile apps, network fobs, membership cards, or phone calls EV drivers must use today in order to activate charging stations. It’s not a matter of merely pulling up to a charger, plugging the car in, and dipping a credit card as you would at a gas station. Most of the time, there’s a whole song and dance customers must go through.

The answer to this is what’s called the Plug and Charge protocol, which is available to all EV makers. It’s a system that identifies a vehicle, authorizes the charging station to start dispensing electricity, and bills you after looking up a payment method (or free-charging plan). All the driver has to do is plug in the car. Y’know, just like Tesla.

To date, we’ve experienced functional Plug and Charge through the Electrify America network in a Ford Mustang Mach-E, a Mercedes-Benz EQS, and a Porsche Taycan. It worked fine in all cases, taking 30 to 60 seconds to start charging once the driver plugged in. No validation, credit card, or fob required. 

However, Plug and Charge requires the carmaker to pay a fee for using the software, and not every maker is over that hump yet. A disappointment with the otherwise very good 2022 Hyundai Ioniq 5 electric crossover is that it doesn’t have Plug and Charge built in; executives were noncommittal about whether it ever will. Ditto the 2022 Kia EV6. Over the next few years, Plug and Charge ought to make its way into more cars and charge networks. Until then, you’d best get familiar with each network’s phone app, because you may need them on the road.

A tougher problem: Does it work?

But the toughest nut to crack in charging stations is plain old reliability. Distributors of Coke vending machines can probably tell you in great and gory detail about all the stupid, destructive things the public can do to an electromechanical device left in the open for anyone, leaving behind something damaged and unusable.

The reason for these pain points comes down to cost. EV charging profitability in the U.S. is obscured because all the networks are privately owned, but if BP chargers over in the UK—where EV use is soaring—don’t expect to be profitable until 2025, it should give us a pretty good idea of the situation here. In this scramble for profit, charging companies are all in a land rush, racing to get as many stations in the ground as possible—often at the expense of basic maintenance. 

In December, Kameale C. Terry—the CEO of ChargerHelp, which repairs charging stations for networks—tweeted about speaking to a major EV charging utility program manager and being told they had millions of dollars to build new chargers, but no money to fix the existing ones.

Reliability problems in charging stations are many, and they can interact unpredictably. A charging station may lose connectivity, meaning it can’t validate a user who plugs in. (Electrify America defaults its stations to free vending in that case.) Or, its software may have a glitch in it; many of us have seen frozen charge-station screens showing Windows code. The power supply to a station or site may be derated for some reason, thus unpredictably increasing the charge time. Or, the pedestal may have an internal fault—whether mechanical or in the software—that prevents charging certain EVs under a certain mix of conditions. 

So, in a word, trying to charge your EV on public chargers can still suck. 

Enter… Ford

It’s probably not surprising, then, that non-Tesla automakers don’t want to build out charging networks. The industry outsourced the production and distribution of gasoline more than a century ago and has been sticking with that system ever since. “We build cars, we don’t sell energy,” is the general feeling. 

But Ford has quietly become the most aggressive among automakers by far in monitoring EV charging sites and leaning on networks to improve reliability. It realized it had to investigate every unsuccessful charging attempt experienced by a Mustang Mach-E driver. “When we tracked it, we realized we weren’t where we wanted to be,” Darren Palmer, Ford’s general manager of battery-electric vehicles, said in an interview with The Drive.

The problems were almost endless: Was the car’s software not communicating properly with a charging station? Had the Mach-E’s Plug and Charge function failed to validate a payment? Or was it something on the network end: a machine that appeared live to the operator but wasn’t able to charge? Was it throttled electrical service to a charging station? Or a site that delivered unacceptably slow charging rates? 

One example: Soon after the Mach-E launch, Ford noticed its EV had frequent charging failures at one brand of charging station used by one specific network. (Palmer declined to provide specifics.) Ford reached out to the network to troubleshoot and determined the stations needed a software update—which, the network said, was a problem. The stations didn’t have the capacity for over-the-air updates, so a technician had to visit each one, which took months. Worse, those particular stations were inherited from a predecessor network, so the company didn’t actually know where all of them were located.

Palmer’s team brainstormed. Using image-recognition software, they scanned all photos in the Plugshare app of that unnamed network’s hardware to identify the shape and markings of the faulty chargers in order to locate them all. Then Palmer called the network back: “You need to get them fixed, or we’re pulling them out of our app and our EVs’ navigation entirely,” he told them. 

The unreliable charging stations were fixed. By last autumn, Palmer said, Ford had reduced the percentage of failed charge attempts by as much as 75 percent. 

But Ford hasn’t stopped at merely scanning its vehicle data. Last year, it set up a team of what it calls Charge Angels: EV drivers who simply travel from site to site to test every charging station for proper operation. “It’s how you find that last small percentage,” Palmer said. “The online systems simply aren’t good enough, so let’s get on with it.” 

The Charge Angels do not publicly name and shame networks or sites that don’t work properly, according to Palmer. But they provide more ammunition Ford can use to encourage networks to take upkeep more seriously. Their first focus was the northeast U.S., a region with consistent charger reliability issues.

Ford’s latest effort adds the ability to report a non-working charging station to the FordPass app that its EV drivers use for navigation, to plan routes, and make charging stops. Matt Stover, Ford’s director of charging and energy services, demonstrated the new function for The Drive in early May. No other maker offers that capability in their apps.

And Ford isn’t done. Based on user feedback, that button will be moved higher up in the app to make it more visible. Those driver reports aren’t being kept inside Ford, either. The FordPass app feeds them into Plugshare, so all EV drivers can benefit from the latest updates. In effect, Ford EV drivers have been deputized to contribute to Plugshare via Ford—which will then lean on the networks on their behalf.

Networks: ‘We’re getting better’

Giovanni Palazzo, president and CEO of Electrify America, has conveyed a consistently upbeat tone during a series of interviews over more than a year. He notes EA uses hardware like liquid-cooled charging cables that are less susceptible to heat problems at high rates of power, but right at the bleeding edge of technology.

But some of the challenges he detailed from carmakers—from not bringing cars to test for charging compatibility at EA’s testing center, to over-the-air software changes made to EVs at the last minute that EA is unaware of until the updated car fails to charge—hinge on a lack of continual collaboration between automakers and charging companies. Carmakers may not want to supply energy, but despite continual software updates, they will have to ensure their cars can still connect to those third-party charging stations every single time.

But Palazzo said EA’s reliability has consistently improved over the past year. After one of the company’s four types of DC fast-charging stations failed to maintain even minimal standards of reliability, it made the painful and costly decision to swap all of them out. At the same time, it spent 2021 updating stations to accept the Plug and Charge protocol while also continuing to build new sites. This was all happening while the company also worked to comply with the terms of the 10-year, $2 billion penalty that both the EPA and the California Air Resources Board levied on its owner, VW Group, for the Dieselgate emission scandal.

Yet, to date, no charging station network will provide data on its reliability. EVgo quotes a 98-percent  “uptime” rate, but that’s a reference to the percent of time its central computers can communicate with a charging station, whether or not that station remains capable of actually charging an EV. The data from the UC-Berkeley study of Bay Area charging stations doesn’t break out EVgo’s stations, but the January fast-charging benchmark report from Umlaut scores EVgo at just 578 out of a possible 1,000 points.

EV drivers should have high expectations

While it’s still early days for EVs, the car-buying public has every right to expect on-road fast charging to be at least as reliable as buying gasoline. It has to be if the EV revolution is to take off in earnest. Electric car pioneers who are willing to put up with the inconvenience do not accurately represent mainstream sentiments when it comes to car buying. Let’s face it, when was the last time you arrived at the sole gas station within 25 miles to find it completely shut down, with no working pumps at all? The answer is likely “never” or perhaps “once in my lifetime.” It’s a standard that everyone who drives a car is used to.

Today’s gas stations almost all have overhead shelter, good lighting, and an attached convenience store with a bathroom and snacks. These are luxuries not afforded to a driver stranded late at night at a remote, unsheltered charging site in a Walmart parking lot, in bad weather, trying to follow the instructions of a customer service rep over the phone to get a charge for their EV that may or may not happen.

So other carmakers need to step it up. They could do worse than follow Ford’s lead: Diagnose every failed charging attempt, deputize drivers to report dead stations, and start their own “Charge Angels” (or partner with others to do so). Because it doesn’t matter that a broken charging station isn’t their fault. Their brand is on the nose of that EV. And customer acceptance can be as fleeting as one or two bad charging experiences.

Otherwise, we’ll continue to see more tweets like the list of a dozen above.

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