A man identifying himself as Matt F steered his electric Volvo to a charging plaza in North Platte, Neb. , last month to get a quick battery fill-up.
At first everything was fine. Then something inexplicable happened. When the battery was less than halfway to full, the gusher of electrons dropped to a trickle. The plaza had eight outlets that should have delivered him power, but according to his app, all but two were offline.
Getting to a full battery "was going to take forever," he noted on PlugShare, a site where charging-station users post their experiences but not their full names. So he unplugged and drove to another station 40 miles away.
"Not perfect but 50% faster than this!" he wrote.
This failure, and others like it, are dismayingly common at America’s network of almost 4,400 public fast-charging stations. Scroll through the comments on PlugShare, and one finds reports of stations that stir to life only with multiple plugging attempts, stations that refuse payment, stations that abort mid-session, stations that are disabled by vandals, and stations that are, for whatever reason, just not doing the job that day.
One solution to problems like Matt F’s may come from an actor that had no role in his scenario: Ford Motor Co.
Ford is getting involved because it faces a dilemma that other automakers will also confront in the pivot to electric, a frustrating puzzle that undermines the case for EVs across the country. Its signature electric car, the Mustang Mach-E, is hitting the roads by the thousands each month. But its drivers are expressing annoyance with the charging network, especially the fast, high-voltage ones that are supposed to emulate the experience of a gas station.
Ford is constrained in what it can do; it neither owns the stations nor controls them. So the automaker has assigned itself a new role, as a sort of inspector general.
"There is a high proportion of annoyances, and that’s not acceptable to us," said Matt Stover, Ford’s director of charging and energy services. "Someone needs to take a leadership role."
Ford is sending a fleet of its Mach-Es to misbehaving charging stations around the country. At the wheel are representatives that Ford calls "Charge Angels" who as of late last year were testing the stations with special equipment. Ford will then diagnose the problems and share results with the station owner.
And if the station continues to misbehave, Ford won’t direct its drivers there anymore.
The new effort is the clearest sign yet that the country’s web of charging stations, built piecemeal over a decade and never taken very seriously, are being asked to grow up, and fast.
How fast? In November, Ford CEO Jim Farley said that consumer interest in its EVs would justify a doubling of its production, to a target of 600,000 vehicles by 2023. Meanwhile, Congress approved and President Biden signed the bipartisan infrastructure bill, which provides $7.5 billion in aid to build charging stations. And then there’s the Democrats’ reconciliation bill being considered in the U.S. Senate. Under consideration are billions more in subsidies for EV purchases and to build stations, all with the goal of driving down the tailpipe emissions that worsen climate change.
General Motors Co., America’s largest domestic automaker, is also seeking to improve chargers but with a lower profile. It imposes uptime requirements on the networks that are part of GM’s charging ecosystem and does its own field testing.
The stakes of mediocrity are getting too high.
"We are at a point where the demand for the charging is going to grow considerably," said Nick Nigro, the head of Atlas Public Policy, which keeps data on EVs and charging networks. "If sites have stations down for days, weeks or even months, the more that happens, the more difficult it’s going to be to establish consumer confidence in public charging."
Buggy and bothersome
Ford and others are discovering that America’s web of charging stations, while way better than they used to be, are nowhere near as good as they need to be.
"The industry has come a long way, leaps and bounds from when the first tranche of charging stations were being installed," said Stacy Noblet, who studies transportation electrification at advisory firm ICF.
The pain point for Ford and its Mach-E drivers are the so-called fast-charging stations. These high-voltage towers, unlike the ones drivers install in their home garage, are meant for refills on the road, offering 100 miles or more of range after plugging in for half an hour or less.
They have always been buggy because the companies that made and ran them had little impetus to make them perfect.
After all, the incentive wasn’t profit — the stations mostly lose money — but meeting government rules.. Policymakers wanted to create a market for electric vehicles, and that meant fueling stations. Impetus for the first wave of fast-charging stations came from the 2008 federal stimulus bill, which included $97 million for charging. Other segments of the network came from sanctions. Two of today’s biggest players, EVgo and Electrify America, were born as penalties against companies that ran afoul of the law.
Until recently, the ricketiness of charging stations didn’t matter much. Few people used them, and those who did simply grew to accept the glitches. Drivers like Matt F shrugged at the need to drive 40 extra miles to find fuel.
But Ford is finding that more than 21,000 Americans who have bought the Ford Mach-E are not so patient.
Ford won’t say what percentage of its Mach-E customers have problems at charging sessions, or what problems they encounter most. This fits an industry trend: No public figures exist on the reliability of charging stations. PlugShare, which tracks more station interactions than anyone, declined to make any usage data available for this story.
But Stover of Ford did allow that "some of those annoyances are more annoying than others." They range from the slightly annoying — waiting for the station to authenticate you are who you say you are — to the seriously annoying, such as needing to move to another charger because the one you’re at is kaput.
Most Ford drivers, unlike Matt F, "leave the site with the charge that they want," Stover said. But that doesn’t mean they’re pleased.
"This is a really demanding customer," Stover said, who expects the charging experience "to be innovated and improved."
Several things make it hard for a company like Ford to meet its customers’ charging expectations. Chief among them is that its principal electric competitor, Tesla Inc., has set the bar so high.
Tesla realized early on that convenient charging was essential to the adoption of its vehicles, and so in 2012 began building its Supercharger network. The company now has almost 1,200 charging plazas and 12,000 fast-charging plugs across the country, exclusively for Tesla drivers, providing an experience that other charging providers have struggled to match.
Until very recently, drivers of non-Tesla EVs have had one main (and laborious) route to figuring out where the chargers are: go to PlugShare and browse around its map.
Tesla drivers had it easier because they simply punched a destination address into the dashboard screen and let Tesla figure it out for them. The onboard screen recommended where to charge, how long the session would need to be to reach the eventual destination and even gave updates on how many stations were available. Tesla can pull this off with relative ease because it designed everything: the car, the chargers and the software that mediates between them.
Calling Dr. Frankenstein
It’s not easy for Ford to emulate that experience, because the cobbled-together network it has to rely on is like something assembled by Dr. Frankenstein in his laboratory.
Seeking to avoid the trouble and expense of building its own network, Ford and other traditional automakers have pinned their hopes on several smaller networks, which they present to their drivers as if it were one. This approach brings a gauntlet of variables. The charging equipment is made by dozens of companies, plugging into cars designed by different automakers, operating on networks that compete with each other, all governed by a set of technical standards that recently hadn’t been widely adopted.
Until two or three years ago, for example, a driver needed a different membership for every charging network.
It "was like we have with grocery stores, these little fobs," Noblet said. Each of the charging networks — EVgo, ChargePoint, Electrify America, Blink — interacted with only its own members, and a road trip meant a stack of membership cards in the glove compartment.
Now the biggest non-Tesla networks have forged roaming agreements, so an app or card with one network will get you into any station.
Those agreements made it possible for Ford’s system, called the Blue Oval Charge Network, to operate across seven systems and plug into more than 6,000 fast-charging stations.
General Motors has taken a somewhat different approach, relying on a constellation of nine networks while also striking an agreement with one leading provider, EVgo, to collaborate on the placement of thousands of charging stalls.
So, in theory, someone who bought a Mach-E this year can have an experience similar to what Tesla drivers have had for years. But Stover admits that it still doesn’t work as seamlessly as Tesla’s.
The challenge, as Stover describes it, is that the charging experience relies on several layers of relationships.
The first is between the charger and the vehicle. The second is the financial handshake between the driver and the charging network, to secure payment. The third — most recently arrived — is the roaming network, which adds a thick extra layer of complexity.
The difficulty starts right at the beginning. Even the seemingly simple act of keeping a station functioning is more complex than it seems.
A common problem is that the charger has tripped offline, or faulted. Fixing that "sounds easy but harder than you think," Stover said. Because software is still in its early stages, the network operator can be unaware that the station has flatlined until a customer calls an 800 number to report it. Then it can be difficult for the operator to diagnose what’s wrong and make a fix.
And an in-person handyman is not always a phone call away. The relationship between the station owner and the repairer can be a tenuous one.
Some sites have great service packages — Stover calls them gold packages — that get service right away. Others save money by going with the bronze package, and that can mean weeks before someone shows up. And charging stations are subject to the same worker shortages that impair the entire economy right now.
There is, Stover said, "so much demand for qualified electrical civil engineers that in some parts of country, the challenge is getting people to do the work."
Moving too fast
Compounding these difficulties is the sheer speed at which the network is growing.
Investment in charging stations is pouring in, as automakers move up their EV production schedules and lawmakers approve federal aid. But that money is flowing in more quickly than problems with hardware, software and standards can be solved.
"Right now, because networks are growing so fast, for competitive and regulatory pressures, everyone is having to do things really fast and under really compressed time frames," Stover said.
Ford’s Charge Angels program is meant to be a highly visible. The vehicles — Ford is not saying how many — are equipped with special diagnostic equipment, and will operate five to six days a week, in every region and every state. The Mach-Es will be wrapped in Charge Angels advertising, and the staffers in their Charge Angels shirts hope to be approached by EV drivers who will share their travails.
The data they gather is sent back to a Ford engineering team, which diagnoses best it can what is wrong with a station, and then shares that information with the station owner and operator.
”The ones we’ve worked with have immediately jumped on the problem." Stover said.
And if that company doesn’t take action, that charger is added to an "exclusion list" and is not visible to drivers using Ford’s charging app until the problem is fixed.
Excellent digital experiences have become a focus at Ford, as the company intends to make more money from its services (Energywire, Nov. 13, 2020).
As Ford grows its stable of EVs, including the F-150 Lightning pickup truck that comes out later this year, it needs to make sure that its customers are happy — or at least less annoyed.
Stover said he thinks the charging network is now where automated teller machines were in the 1970s, or Wi-Fi networks when laptops were new — a network that is struggling to get itself on its feet, and will eventually become equally reliable. He thinks the Charge Angels, inspecting one station at a time, may make the transition occur a little faster.
"We think it’s a really important program," Stover said, "and we think it can contribute to improving the experience for everyone."