Electric Vehicle Charging Station Los Angeles California News Photo 1674488283

California Looks to Make EV Charging Suppliers More Accountable

  • DC fast charging is the gold standard for electric vehicles, but providers of the service – apart from the better-established Tesla network – haven’t quite got the user experience down yet.
  • Even experienced EV drivers find themselves having to use multiple apps to find a charging station, and even then they too often find non-working charging equipment or reduced power levels.
  • In response, the California Energy Commission wants to make charging networks more accountable and responsive to complaints as EVs continue to proliferate.

It’s no secret among electric car drivers that the public DC fast charging experience, Tesla aside, isn’t nearly as reliable as it should be.

Now it appears that California will take the initiative and set rules on how the reliability and availability of public EV charging stations are evaluated. The state’s California Energy Commission plans to open a public feedback process that it expects will lead to a definition of station “uptime” that does not “permit excessive lockouts” of the kind often used by charging networks to evade liability not.

What does “work” actually mean?

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

None of these problems may be visible to the charging network, which thinks its station is working fine because it beeped back. In many cases, user feedback — from angry tweets to comments and ratings on apps like PlugShare or Chargeway — receives a response only 24 to 72 hours later, if at all, usually during standard weekday business hours.

electric vehicle charging station

California Department of Energy

Networks can also exclude from their uptime calculations any times when their cellular connection to a station is lost. Electrify America says it defaults to charging for free when this happens, but not every network follows suit — meaning if the network can’t be paid, the EV driver 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%?

A People’s Assembly’s questions

California’s plans for accountability were highlighted in the tweet below by Loren McDonald, CEO of EV and EV charging analysis and consulting firm EV Adoption. He highlighted a response from the Energy Commission to a letter it received from California State Rep. Phil Ting proposing state legislation on charging reliability.

Broadly speaking, the Commission said it would no longer rely on the networks’ self-reported claims about the uptime and availability of their charging stations. Instead, it will examine multiple data sources and qualitative feedback from the public — which could include, for example, reports of dead charging stations on apps — to determine the reliability and availability of chargers.

Another note: California plans to measure uptime at the individual charging station (cable or pedestal) level, unlike draft standards being developed by the National Electric Vehicle Infrastructure (NEVI) program that may only look at the overall site. If one charging station is operating at a given location, it will be considered a 100 percent count. This is what charging networks prefer because it is easier. But ask yourself this: If you arrived at a gas station that had eight separate hoses and only one provided gasoline, would you give it a 100 percent score?

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Tesla Works; Others may not

The exception to often unreliable public charging sites is Tesla. The company operates its own Supercharger network, open only to Tesla drivers, designed from the ground up as a seamless part of the EVs’ navigation. The company designed and installed its own charging stations, with software tightly integrated into the Tesla ownership experience.

For other brands of EVs, long-distance journeys can be more fraught. Multiple competing EV charging networks have spent five years in a furious arms race to get as many stations in the ground as they can. There are big incentives to do so – mainly increased footprint that they hope will bolster their valuations as the industry anticipates future consolidation. However, there are virtually no incentives to keep the damn thing running once it’s installed.

To be fair, non-Tesla networks have to deal with more difficult integration than Tesla does. Historically, they purchased off-the-shelf DC fast charging hardware, often using multiple vendors within a network. Their software must accommodate dozens of different EV models from automakers that can update the cars’ operating software without retesting at every station operated by every network. 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. None of it is easy.

The list of reasons why a charging station might not work could fill a book, but it’s quickly getting to the point where EV users no longer care what went wrong. Take, for example, the recent bitter cold across much of the United States. Some customers have complained that a new station design, introduced by a major EV charging network, has failed to work in extreme cold. Gas stations generally worked just fine during the same weather.

While glitches were tolerable in the early days of EVs, public DC fast charging has been around for about five years now – but experienced EV drivers still have to check multiple applications to ensure that critical fast charging sites along a planned route are actually functioning .

California’s efforts to get more data on reliability of public charges, and its efforts to introduce some kind of accountability between networks, are long overdue. Let’s hope other states follow his lead.

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