If the automotive industry transition is to work, major improvements in electric vehicle charging will need to be made soon

A charging port on a Mercedes Benz EQC 400 4Matic electric vehicle is seen at the Canadian International AutoShow in Toronto, Ontario, Canada, February 13, 2019.

Mark Blinch | Reuters

There is a looming problem with the auto industry's major electrical plans.

Automakers are spending huge sums to bring a range of new electric vehicles to market over the next few years. Ford engine alone expects to spend more than $50 billion by 2026 to boost electric vehicle production worldwide. General Motors said it will spend $35 billion by 2025, and Volkswagen said it expects to spend nearly $200 billion on electric vehicles and related software by 2028.

But Americans are still hesitant to embrace it, largely because of concerns about fees.

Survey after survey has shown that concerns about charging – especially public charging – are deterring electric vehicle buyers.

A June study from Cox Automotive found that 32% of consumers considering an electric vehicle cited a “lack of charging stations in my area” as a barrier to purchase. An April Consumer Reports study found that “loading logistics” and “purchase price” were the two biggest factors holding consumers back. And an April poll by the Energy Policy Institute at the University of Chicago and the Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research found that 47% of U.S. adults said they were unlikely to buy an electric vehicle as their next car , while almost 80% said a factor was the lack of charging stations.

Despite the United Auto Workers' concerns about Detroit's transition to electric vehicles and the union's ongoing strike, a wave is building to expand and improve the charging landscape across the United States. President Joe Biden has pushed the issue and worked with Congress to provide key incentives to improve public charging. and rival automakers have struck rare partnerships to establish a unified charging standard and ease problems for electric vehicle drivers.

But the question remains, how long – and how much – will charging hinder the electric vehicle revolution, just as it finally takes off?

How and where do I charge my electric vehicle?

Public charging stations are not quite comparable to gas stations, as many electric vehicle owners only use them occasionally. Most electric vehicle owners charge the majority of their charge at home, using a Level 2 home charger provided by the car manufacturer or a third-party provider.

Of course, this won't work for everyone. And even owners of electric vehicles who charge at home occasionally use public chargers.

Some electric car drivers charge at work. Chargers are often available in workplaces where there are employee parking spaces, as are a growing number of hotels, malls and other places where people might park an electric vehicle for a few hours.

Often referred to as “destination chargers,” these chargers charge at rates similar to home chargers and provide a range of approximately 35 miles per hour. To use them, you may need an app from a charging company, but the process is mostly painless – assuming the chargers are working.

Target chargers can be a great way to increase range if you plan on being parked for a while. But on a road trip, you need a fast charger.

A guide to charging your electric vehicle at home

The vast majority of electric vehicle owners — about 83%, according to a March study by JD Power — charge the majority of their charge at home. Home chargers that can fully charge your electric vehicle overnight are inexpensive and not difficult to set up. Here's what you need to know:

First, get familiar with your chargers: Most electric vehicle manufacturers and several third-party manufacturers offer so-called “Level 2” chargers that plug into 240-volt outlets. A level 1 charger plugs into a standard 110-volt household outlet and is actually only suitable for emergencies.

Next, know your needs: A Level 2 portable charger that you can install yourself provides a range of about 20 miles per hour and is good for overnight charging at home. A special 240-volt Level 2 home charging station installed by an electrician in your garage or other covered area will give you a range of about 35 miles per hour.

Third, Know Your Price: A Level 2 portable charger costs between $300 and $700, while a professionally installed 240-volt Level 2 charger can cost over $1,000.

Modern fast chargers deliver much more power to your car's battery than the chargers most EV drivers use at home or at work, enough to charge your car to 80% in about half an hour, give or take.

While the cost of fast charging varies depending on the time of day and location, it is typically cheaper than filling up a tank.

And although Tesla Drivers have a relatively easy time finding a charger that works with other electric vehicles on the go – and especially finding one that works – can be a frustrating experience.

Why do Teslas have it so much easier?

According to the U.S. Department of Energy, nearly 21,000 of the approximately 33,000 public fast chargers currently in operation in the U.S. are Tesla Superchargers. These chargers, like Tesla's own Target chargers, use a unique plug design called NACS, short for North American Charging Standard.

Tesla originally built its Supercharger network to address potential buyers' concerns about charging on road trips when there were few fast chargers in the country.

The scale and reliability of the network became an important part of Tesla's early selling points to customers hesitant to make the move to an all-electric vehicle, and it continued to play an important role in its success.

A view of Tesla Supercharger on February 15, 2023 in San Rafael, California.

Justin Sullivan | Getty Images

The charging option for most others – called Combined Charging System (CCS) – is harder to come by and often unreliable.

The shortcomings of CCS are a growing concern for global automakers — and Detroit companies in particular — as they spend billions on new electric vehicles. In short, America's patchwork of CCS chargers offers spotty coverage, difficult-to-use devices and, all too often, defective chargers.

CCS charging operators like ChargePoint And EVgo have recently started taking big steps to improve the “up time” of their chargers, or the percentage of time the charger is available for use.

But the issue of reliability remains a big problem. In one study Last year, researchers at the University of California at Berkeley checked 675 CCS fast chargers in the Bay Area and found that nearly a quarter of them were inoperable. More recently, in August 2023 study of JD Power has found that customer satisfaction with public CCS chargers – both destination chargers and fast chargers – has declined sharply in recent years, with reliability seen as a key issue.

“Public charger reliability continues to be an issue,” said Brent Gruber, who leads JD Power’s EV practice. “The situation remains at a level where one in five visits ends without charges being charged, with most of these being due to station failures.”

Notably, the JD Power study also found that customer satisfaction with Tesla's proprietary fast charging network is much higher than with the CCS alternatives.

Not to mention, there are fewer than 12,000 CCS fast chargers in the US today.

How about a uniform charging standard?

Tesla has started to include its competitors.

The electric vehicle leader and Ford surprised the automotive world in May when they announced they had reached an agreement Ford electric vehicle owners will have access to more than 12,000 Tesla Superchargers in the US and Canada starting in early 2024.

Ford also said it will make the NACS charging port standard on its electric vehicles starting in 2025. (Owners of older Ford electric vehicles can use the Tesla chargers with an adapter.)

It may seem strange that one of the world's oldest automakers is partnering with electric vehicle maker Tesla instead of building its own charging network. But as Ford CFO John Lawler explained at a conference in June, the collaboration makes sense for Ford and its customers.

“We’re going to build things where we think we can differentiate ourselves,” Lawler said. “We will work together where it is really good for our customers and where we can scale quickly. Opening up the Tesla charging network to our customers is our priority, and that scales very quickly for them. Your options are much greater.”

In the weeks that followed, numerous similar deals were announced between Tesla and other electric vehicle manufacturers, including GM, Volvo Cars, Polestar and Rivian.

“We are deeply honored that Ford, GM, Mercedes and many others [automakers] “We signed up to use our connector and gain access to our charging network,” Tesla CEO Elon Musk said during the company’s latest earnings call. “We strongly believe in helping other automakers accelerate the EV revolution and are just trying to do the right thing in general.

Jim Farley, Ford CEO: Electric vehicle adoption depends on charging infrastructure

The widespread adoption of Tesla's charging technology is generally good news.

The company's network consistently performs well in terms of reliability. Its NACS plugs are also significantly smaller and lighter than CCS fast-charging plugs, which can be inconvenient for older or disabled drivers.

Additionally, Tesla's chargers all work the same way, while competitor CCS chargers may have very different processes. And unlike most CCS fast chargers, Tesla's billing is simple and seamless: owners simply plug in the device, charge and drive, without the need for special apps or credit cards.

While it's not yet clear how the process will work for drivers of other electric vehicles, it's expected to be similarly painless once the driver (or car) is signed up with Tesla.

Meanwhile, progress is being made toward formalizing the NACS connector design as an industry standard. SAE International, which sets important technical standards for the automotive industry, said announced on June 27 that official performance and safety standards for NACS charging plugs are in the works and are expected to be issued within six months.

Charging networks and charger manufacturers are also reacting. EVgo announced in June that it would begin deploying NACS ports to high-speed chargers on its U.S. network later this year. ABB, a Swiss manufacturer of industrial equipment including commercial chargers for electric vehicles, said on June 9 that it will offer NACS connectors as an option for its chargers once testing and validation of the new connector is complete, likely in a few months.

And ChargePoint, which installs and manages chargers for other companies, said its customers can now order new chargers with NACS connectors and that it can also retrofit its existing chargers with the Tesla-developed connectors.

A long road lies ahead of us

Tesla's decision to open its network to other automakers – and the companies' willingness to accept the invitation – will give drivers of non-Tesla electric vehicles many more options for charging on the go.

However, most experts agree that the U.S. will need many more fast-charging stations as the transition to electric vehicles continues.

A provision in the bipartisan infrastructure bill passed in 2021 provides $5 billion in subsidies to states between 2022 and 2026 for electric vehicle charging stations and related infrastructure. The stated goal is to accelerate the installation of 500,000 new electric vehicle chargers across the United States by 2030. with at least one station every 50 miles along major highways.

The states, in turn, have distributed these funds to companies that build charging stations – with a few catches:

  • Companies should build chargers that are practical, affordable and accessible to as many people as possible.
  • States must ensure that some charging stations are built in less densely populated areas, such as rural and tribal areas.
  • Charging companies must inform their customers in real time whether the charging station is occupied or out of service.
  • There must be at least four 150 kilowatt CCS fast charging ports per station.
  • Charging operators cannot require drivers to sign up for a membership to gain access to chargers.
  • Chargers must have ports that can be used by “the largest possible number of vehicle owners.” Specifically, proprietary charging stations that can only be accessed by a company's vehicles are excluded from funding.

This final provision largely explains why Tesla decided to open its charging network to other automakers, marking a major step forward for electric vehicles of all kinds.

And while the UAW is currently concerned about the industry's plans to transition to electric vehicles – not least because electric vehicles have fewer parts and require fewer workers to build than internal combustion engine vehicles – it is likely that those concerns will be addressed. Expect electric vehicle adoption to accelerate over the next few years as dozens of new electric vehicle models hit U.S. dealerships.

But while many more electric vehicles are on the way, the development of charging infrastructure is still at an early stage. It will be a few years before fast chargers are available and practical across the country.

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