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In late 2023, Mercedes-Benz opened the brand’s first Charging Hub in North America at a location near Atlanta, Georgia. The hubs are meant to provide a “premium” charging experience for drivers of any EV brand. (Mercedes-Benz)

Putting a new ‘charge’ in EV recharging

Automakers and charging companies are scrambling to inject new levels of reliability and availability into the U.S.’s beleaguered EV charging infrastructure.

Automakers and EV charging services know time is running out on reversing widespread cynicism regarding the state of EV public-charging infrastructure. Despite billions of dollars of already dedicated and planned investment, the spottiness of the nation’s charging ecosystem consistently is cited as the chief reason for flagging EV sales and consumer consideration.

Although there is contentious debate about whether sales of light-duty EVs are declining rather than just growing more slowly, there a few who will argue that the current state of the EV charging network is far from ideal. According to J.D. Power data from the third quarter of 2023, nearly 20% of public-charging attempts failed. “What we’ve learned is that the infrastructure is at the top of reasons for rejection of EVs,” Steve Kosowski, manager of strategy at Kia America, told the Los Angeles Times in a story about California’s EV infrastructure issues.

The infrastructure’s macro problems largely are now understood and acknowledged, said panelists speaking in the “Enhancing the Light-Duty EV Charging Experience” session at SAE International’s 2024 Government/Industry Meeting in Washington, DC in January 2024 — and there’s an emergent blueprint centered on closer industry collaborations and other initiatives to hasten improvement. Almost all the session’s speakers agreed that EV charging access — and equally important, reliability — has to improve.

Niels Bohn, head of powertrain and electromobility at BMW of North America, said the company has been assessing the “end-to-end” charging experience with cross-country test drives. It also uses data gleaned from vehicle onboard systems to monitor charging sessions and quality, among other analyses. As with other speakers, he said BMW recognizes an immediate need for the infrastructure is ubiquitous “plug-and-charge” functionality to eliminate the chaos — and related charging-session failures — common in today’s complex payment environment. Some automakers and charging providers are underway with plug-and-charge arrangements and Bohn said BMW has initiated plug-and-charge starting with its new i5 EV.

Erika Myers, executive director, Charging Interface Initiative North America for the CharIN consortium, said there is an “evolution in the sophistication of communications between EVs and chargers. Nonetheless, she said that only about 30% of current EVs support plug-and-charge capability. She did not provide a figure for plug-and-charge compliant charging networks.

Sarah Hipel, program manager, standards and reliability, at the Joint Office of Energy and Transportation, acknowledged that the current matrix of charging apps often required for a long EV trip isn’t ideal – and suggested that enhancing the reach of plug-and-charge technology may address some of the problem – but probably not all. She said there are “convening areas” of market implementation that must be explored to expedite the payment process.

“We want the charging experience to be better than the gas-station experience,” asserted Emily Durham, VP, Legal and Government Affairs for charging giant Electrify America.

Expanding collaborations
To achieve the reliability and interoperability that replicates the liquid-fueling infrastructure, the auto and charging industries have embarked on a variety of collaborations, but the session’s speakers said more – and more cohesiveness – is necessary. Hipel said increased collaborative effectiveness is the goal of the Joint Office’s National Charging Experience Consortium, or ChargeX in shorthand. Launched in May, 2023, ChargeX is led by U.S. Dept. of Energy National Laboratories and its expanding membership numbers some 75 entities that include the Detroit Three automakers, BMW, Tesla and numerous charging companies, including Chargepoint, Electrify America and EVgo.

The ChargeX Consortium, Hipel said, continues to frame its work on improving the charging infrastructure in three problematic aspects of the charging experience:

  • payment processing and user interface
  • vehicle-charger communication
  • diagnostic data sharing

“Our standard is ‘charge first time, every time,’” Hipel stressed. The Joint Office also is in charge of the often-referenced National Electric Vehicle Infrastructure (NEVI) program charged with spending $5 billion between 2022 and 2027 to install 500,000 public EV chargers. The first NEVI-funded charging station, a public DC fast-charging facility in central Ohio, became operational in December, 2023.

The NEVI program, Hipel said, includes $100 million for routine maintenance and repair, a vital component of assuring high levels of charger uptime and delivering the “first time, every time” experience. Low uptime is frequently noted as a pain point for the existing infrastructure.

There currently is a complex patchwork of sometimes overlapping automaker-guided charging initiatives. Tesla in 2023 made arrangements with multiple automakers to grant those brands’ EV customers access to the coveted – and highly reliable – Supercharger network, but BMW General Motors, Honda, Hyundai, Kia, Mercedes-Benz and Stellantis joined for an announced $1-billion collaboration to install some 30,000 public chargers. Mercedes-Benz, however, also said it plans to invest more than $1 billion in a joint venture with MN8 Energy to install a total of 2,500 chargers at some 400 charging hubs across North America by the end of the decade.

Electrify America’s Durham said the service is the only current plug-and-charge compatible charging network and its 900-plus stations and more than 4000 chargers are seeing increased usage. She said the network averages 250,000 weekly charging sessions, but asked rhetorically, “Where do we go now that chargers are in the ground and vehicles are on the road?”

Although there have been questions about the continuing consumer uptake of EVs, BMW’s Bohn said at the conference that the robustness of the charging network is the key to achieving consumer acceptance. “We are not concerned about EV adoption,” he said. “Once we improve the reliability of the EV charging network, we will see the increase in adoption.”

The Joint Office’s Hipel said there’s no obfuscating that the charging experience must improve if consumers are expected to embrace EV technology. “We have [charging infrastructure] reliability challenges. The strategy is to demonstrate that we can do this – we need to prove it. We have a lot of work to do.”

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