Until EV charging is fixed, electric cars are stuck in neutral

Until we create more supporting infrastructure to deal with the fuel-to-electric transition, the population will continue to drive fossil fuel-powered vehicles.

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Out-of-service charger pylon at Electrify America, in Boca Raton, FL.

Jason Perlow/ZDNet

Electric vehicles (EVs) are the future, and the technology is terrific. (My weekend driving the Polestar 2 was electrifying.) But until we have more infrastructure to support our fuel-to-electric transition and more affordable vehicle options, most of us will continue to drive fossil fuel vehicles for the next decade or more. 

There is hope, however, on the horizon. This week, the Biden Administration unveiled an ambitious plan -- a follow-up to the recently passed $550 billion bipartisan Infrastructure Deal -- to develop and improve national EV charging infrastructure in the US.

The deal has earmarked $5 billion to invest in EV chargers and over $17 billion to loan to technology companies that manufacture automobile batteries, among billions more for other key areas.

Why the EV transition could have been easier 

We could ease ourselves into the EV transition instead of immediately committing to the required immense factory retooling and charging infrastructure build-out. What we need first are better incentives for purchasing plug-in hybrids because they currently have a considerable advantage over pure EVs; although they still use fuel, they are highly fuel-efficient. 

There's also the issue that, as a nation, we recently threw diesel under the bus because of the unethical behavior of a single company -- Volkswagen. As a result of this very public and international scandal, non-commercial diesel vehicles now have a permanent black mark.

Diesel-electric plug-in hybrids could have been an effective bridge to full EVs. We could have been refining sustainable and renewable biodiesel (and bio aviation fuel) by growing hemp, switchgrass, and other biomass (much of it usable byproduct or waste from other agribusiness activity) at a large scale. When paired with small, four-cylinder diesel generators, plug-in hybrids could have given us 1,000+ mile extended range cars -- with minimal factory retooling and fewer range concerns. But I digress.

EV charging sucks

While I loved driving the Polestar 2, the actual charging experience was not ideal. First, finding the correct type of charging station is problematic; there are Level 1 and Level 2 stations with different speeds, such as 7kWh, 11kWh, 50kWh, 150kWh, etc. Compared to fueling up at the gas station, even the fastest chargers are painfully slow. If you can't charge at work or at home, you'll have to take significant time out of your day. 

Non-Tesla EVs use two types of plugs, CHAdeMO and CCS (although it appears that CCS will win out over CHAdeMO because one of its major proponents, Nissan, is switching over). Android Automotive (not the same as Android Auto) within the Polestar 2 did not give detailed information about the nature of the charger stations in its database, nor did it know if they were in use or suggest routing between charging stations if I was taking a long-range drive. 

I cannot speak from experience about other In-Vehicle Infotainment (IVI) systems used in other electric car brands, but my understanding is that onboard nav systems that integrate charging station data are lacking across the board.

Instead, I had to rely on third-party community charging apps, such as PlugShare (similar to GasBuddy), and apps created by the three third-party charging networks I could access here in South Florida: Electrify America, EVgo, and Chargepoint. Each of these apps has its own signup procedure.

There's no concept of "roaming" between charging networks, as the telecom networks do with cellphone signals. If I were to purchase a non-Tesla EV today, I would need to have accounts on all three networks in South Florida. There's one EVgo and two Electrify Americas in my town of 160,000 people (each charger has maybe three to six spots), and there are additional stations within 12 miles. 

Plugshare is useful for finding public (slow) and pay chargers on the networks, but it's not foolproof in updating charger status. While payment is supported, it also isn't completely reliable when compared with the dedicated apps. And it's not like I can continue cultivating loyalty points with one network and solely use its app, as I might with a gas station brand. We don't have that same critical mass in terms of charging providers yet.

But Tesla is better, right?

There's another issue with Android Automotive on the Polestar: Android Auto and CarPlay aren't supported. I can't load these charging apps onto its built-in IVI stack or hook Google Pay into the system and pay for the charging networks on Google Maps. If I want to pay for charging, I must use the smartphone apps or swipe a credit card at the charging pylon. Physical credit card payment is not as streamlined as it is with gasoline fuel stations; it's much more convenient to be an app member with a payment method stored. If I want to use these third-party networks on a Tesla, I'll also need to use my smartphone because Tesla doesn't support CarPlay or Android Auto either. 

Fortunately, EVs equipped with CarPlay and Android Auto (obviously, not Tesla or Polestar) support Electrify America, EVgo, and ChargePoint. So I guess we should bypass IVIs altogether? 

It's also worth noting that I encountered a significant number of broken or out-of-service charger stations belonging to EVgo and Electrify America during my three days with the Polestar 2. The service status on several of these was not reported correctly by the apps or to PlugShare; even the UX on both networks at the chargers was unnecessarily complicated.

At one station in Nordstrom's parking lot in Boca Raton, for example, four of the six pylons weren't usable. At the local Coral Springs EVgo at the mall, the entire station went down only a day after I used it.

If I owned a Tesla, however, I would have more stations to choose from; the logistics, route-planning, and payments (at "superchargers") are handled transparently on the car's IVI system itself. The company will soon open up charging to third-party vehicles in other countries. But service prioritization for non-Tesla customers and any plans to do this in the US haven't been announced. 

Even if you are a Tesla owner, parts of the country are "no drive" areas due to the sheer lack of Tesla or third-party charging networks. You would be limited to slow charging using an adapter and an AC extension cord, which could potentially leave you stranded for hours at a time -- assuming you are near an outlet when your battery runs critically low. My colleague, Jason Cipriani, told me about his experiences with some of these "no drive" areas in our last Jason Squared podcast. In short, he went on a road trip through the Kansas/Missouri region and had to take his SUV because his Tesla didn't have enough range (700 miles required) to pass through those areas.

What needs to change in charging 

If we are to realize an electric vehicle revolution in the US, we will need vast improvements in electrical charging infrastructure. We'll need at least a ten-fold increase in charger stations if every major automotive brand transitions to electrical -- let alone introducing new brands such as Rivian or Polestar.

We shouldn't need three (or more) apps when new charging companies come into play. We shouldn't have to use traditional credit cards with app intervention. There needs to be some concept of payment peering/roaming between network apps. And the IVI stacks need to just plain work with charging providers and payment systems, period. If it turns out CarPlay and Android Auto integration is more realistic, then smartphone companies like Apple, Google, and Samsung need to implement a charging service database and facilitate payment between the companies. 

There needs to be thought put into how charging or parking at retail shopping locations works in an EV world; no construction should be permitted in any city without a requirement for a certain number of high-speed and medium-speed charger stations. And these stations should be accessible to all extant plug types and auto brands.

Instead of being a chore used to abate range anxiety, consumers could combine charging with dining or entertainment. Movie theaters, which are seeing a significant drop in business due to COVID-19, could transform their parking lots into massive charging stations. Medium-power chargers would perfectly correspond with the two-hour timing of a feature film. Every Starbucks location could be equipped with chargers, as could McDonald's, Dunkin Donuts, KFC, and other fast-casual and fast-food brands. Customers could exchange loyalty points from buying meals for electricity and vice-versa.

Residential and regional charging infrastructure concerns

There's also the problem that many multi-dwelling residences are not equipped to handle electric charging. Where I live in South Florida, I know of several high-rise condominiums with ample indoor and outdoor lots but no electric charging options.

Just as the telecoms had to come in and break up the streets to bring in fiber, they would have to jackhammer the parking lots and bring in electricity to allow for charging. And that process will undoubtedly face enormous pushback from HOAs and residential management organizations -- unless there are mandates in place by the federal government to prevent them from obstructing it, as they do today for residential solar panel installs.

I should also add my general concern about Florida and other states on the entire Gulf coast, which are seasonally threatened by hurricanes. Should a catastrophic storm interrupt our grid and damage our infrastructure, it would make charging difficult or impossible for weeks or months without solar build-outs or more resiliency in the grid. So diesel-hybrid ownership in these areas (that are also potential biodiesel producers) is more realistic.

EVs are wonderful. But because of these serious infrastructure-related issues, we have a long way to go before making them the norm.

Are you looking to purchase an EV but are concerned about the charging infrastructure in your area? Talk Back and Let Me Know.

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