Between February 12 and March 7, 20 volunteers tried to charge their electric vehicles (EVs) for two minutes at every non-Tesla fast charger in the Bay Area. The test chargings were part of a study conducted by University of California, Berkeley professors to try and use every single one of the 678 publicly-available fast chargers using the CCS connector at 181 charging stations in the nine Greater Bay Area counties. Many of these chargers likely received public funding from the state which requires at least 95 percent or better “uptime,” a term that is poorly defined in the regulations. How many of them, the study authors wondered, actually worked?
As EVs become more popular, there is a greater focus on the direct current fast chargers (DCFCs) that can supplement home charging setups to provide additional range on the relatively few occasions people drive more than the 200-plus miles most EVs can travel on a single charge. Most prominently, politicians and nonprofits call for a lot more DCFCs, a kind of carpet-bombing approach to solving the relative lack of chargers. But an even bigger problem is the ones that do exist often don’t work, an even bigger frustration for EV owners because they plan journeys that rely on those chargers. A recent California Air Resources Board survey of 1,290 EV drivers found 47 percent have had to call an EV charging company’s customer service line to help with a charge, and 50 percent have experienced technical issues while attempting to charge. Both of these are much higher than the three percent of people who cited lack of charging station availability as an issue, although California has among the best EV charger coverage in the country.
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The study, which has not been peer reviewed and claims to be the first of its kind to systematically test DCFC reliability, confirmed these findings. An incredible 27.6 percent of the 657 chargers tested didn’t work (21 had to be excluded from the study because an internal combustion engine car was parked in front of the charger, a move EV owners refer to as being “ICE’d”). And when a random sampling of 10 percent of the chargers were revisited about a week later, nearly all of them hadn’t been fixed.
There was no one major problem with the chargers, according to the study’s results. Forty-seven chargers experienced a payment system failure even after attempting multiple credit cards. Forty-two simply never started charging. Thirty-two had “station design failures” such as the cord being too short to reach the charging port on Chevy Bolts or spots too small for cars to actually fit in. Twenty-four had error messages on the screen, and 23 had blank or unresponsive screens. SIx connectors were broken and seven had wifi or other connectivity issues.
“The findings of this study suggest that the currently installed DCFC stations do not meet the 97 to 99 percent minimum uptime required by public funding agencies,” the study says.
Teslas and its corresponding Supercharger network were not a part of the study because it is a closed network. As of now, you need a Tesla to use a Supercharger in the U.S., although that may eventually change as it is in Europe. But the prevalence and reliability of Superchargers have long been a major selling point for Teslas. The same CARB survey found only four percent of Tesla owners had experienced issues with a Supercharger.
The same cannot be said for open chargers. The vast majority of the chargers tested in the study (97.3 percent) are owned by three companies: ChargePoint, Electrify America, and EVgo. ChargePoint had the biggest reliability issues with 36.4 percent of its chargers not working. A quarter of EVgo’s chargers didn’t work, mostly due to charge initiation and payment system failures. Electrify America fared best with 19 percent of its chargers not working. But nearly all the short cord issues were at Electrify America stations, which meant 26.1 percent of its stations were not usable.
The discrepancy in short cord issues is likely specific to the study’s methodology. A spokesperson for Electrify America said the study “confirm[s] that Electrify America is the most reliable major public charging network in the Bay Area” but that it has “identified multiple research methodology errors with the pre-publication results.” Specifically, EA’s head of communications Mike Moran told Motherboard that EA units have two CCS connectors to make sure it can reach the charge port on any given car, even though only one connector can be used at a time. The study’s decision to count each CCS connector as a separate charger even though only one can be used at a time resulted in a double-counting error, Moran believes. The study’s lead author, Professor David Rempel, did not respond to a Motherboard request for comment.
A spokesperson representing EVgo said the company is “committed to 98 percent uptime” and its teams “constantly monitor the network and do their best to respond quickly when issues arise.” ChargePoint did not respond to a Motherboard request for comment.
Even if every error was double-counted, that would still mean approximately one in nine charging units were not functional across the Bay Area. While non-EV owners assume they would need to use fast chargers more often than EV owners actually do, there’s no question that dependable chargers are necessary if EVs really are the future. And it would be a waste of time, money, and resources to build out a useful charger network at the current failure rates. The study concluded, “The design of, location and quantity of needed DCFC charging stations, for the build out of a national EV charge infrastructure, should not have to assume that a quarter of the EVSEs will be nonfunctional.”