The U.S. Is Real Close to Screwing Up Electric Vehicle Charging Forever

Last week, the electric vehicle (EV) startup Rivian, backed by Amazon and Ford among other major investors, announced it will build a network of 3,500 fast chargers at 600 sites by the end of 2023. Only Rivian owners will be able to use them.

This is a rational, if expensive, response to a major problem facing electric vehicles. There are currently two charging networks: Tesla’s and everyone else’s. Tesla’s charging experience is great, one of the major perks of owning their vehicles. Just plug your Tesla into a Supercharger and it starts charging. They are fast and reliable. You’re on your way in no time.

Everyone else’s network is, quite frankly, bad, in almost every sense of the user experience. Just a few years ago, anyone doing a road trip in a non-Tesla EV would need “to carry a wallet full of RFID cards” that allow them to charge their car at various charging stations owned by different companies, recalls Chris Nelder of the Rocky Mountain Institute who has studied EV charging infrastructure for years. Such a road-tripper would also have needed to be a member of a handful of different charging networks, and have signed up for them before beginning the trip because you couldn’t sign up on the spot. Think of it kind of like going on a round-the-world trip and having a global SIM card versus needing to buy a regional one in each place you visit. And this was to say nothing of the different plug types, standards, charging speeds, and the constant frustration of encountering chargers that don’t charge at the advertised speed or simply don’t work at all.

For almost a century, we have taken for granted that any car can stop at any gas station and fill up in a few minutes. But we are getting very close to a world where this simply will not happen for electric cars. Instead, we are resigning ourselves to a complicated patchwork of charging networks, each with its own proprietary software, and maybe even a growing pile of dongles for your car. And this is a headache that could be avoided if an independent authority steps in to encourage an even playing field as is happening in Europe.

Major automakers say they’re getting serious about competing with Tesla. The smart ones realize that means more than just making competitive vehicles. It also means offering a competitive charging experience, something they can’t do with the current patchwork of third-party chargers over which there are few standards and little control over the actual customer experience. Something needs to change.

Rivian’s announcement serves as yet another warning that, rather than EV charging becoming simpler, it is about to get even more complicated. It is quite possible that, in the not-too-distant future, nearly all electric cars will be sold with the same charging ports but will have a dedicated network of preferred chargers for that company’s cars. Instead of trying to fix the interoperability problem, some EV-makers are doubling down, creating the equivalent of gated charging communities for their vehicles. Tesla and Rivian may be the first of many to block other EVs from using their chargers entirely so as to preserve a premium user experience for their own customers.

“I think the proprietary network makes sense from an individual company perspective— providing exclusive amenity access to their customers is part of the value proposition,” said Carnegie Mellon University civil and environmental engineering professor Costa Samaras. “But I don’t think it’s great from a societal perspective or an EV-adoption perspective, this is like having separate unleaded 87 octane gasoline pumps for Fords and Hondas.”

The first few decades of the automobile had a similar problem. A niche industry mostly populated by hobbyists, automobiles used all kinds of different fuels including benzol, kerosene, gasoline, and in some cases grain alcohols. Only once cars became popular did the industry start to set standards for what gasoline actually was. The federal government’s Bureau of Mines contributed to this effort by setting standards for any fuel it procured, nudging the industry towards standardization. Still, in the first half of the 20th century, the automobile and petroleum industry set their own standards for gasoline, and all the gas put into U.S. cars through the beginning of the 1970s was totally unregulated. Only once pollution became linked to vehicle emissions did the federal government step in and set enforceable standards for gasoline quality, which it still does today.

Which is to say, the problems facing EVs are not new. If you don’t know how EV charging in the U.S. works, here is a quick crash course.

Currently, there are three main plugs in use. The most prominent is the Combined Charging System (CCS) used by most automakers and generally regarded as the port the industry will eventually converge upon, in much the same way all Android phones eventually settled on micro-USB (and then USB-C) charging. The second is the Tesla connector, used by Teslas, which is basically the Apple of electric cars, complete with its own proprietary port. And the third is called CHAdeMO; I will not even bother to explain the provenance of that name because it is only used by a few Japanese automakers and they are phasing it out in favor of CCS.

As for speed, there are, broadly speaking, two categories of charging speed for public chargers: Level 2 and Level 3 (otherwise known as Direct Current Fast Charging, or DCFC). Level 2 charging is what you get from an at-home charger, which will charge a car in about five to seven hours depending on the battery size. These Level 2 chargers use a plug called the J1772 standard, which is part of the CCS standard (it is called the “Combined Charging System because it combines J1772 with a DC fast charging addendum). Cars with the CHAdeMO fast-charging standard have an additional port for J1772 plugs. By now, all level 2 charging is basically universal, as Tesla plugs have adapters to use the J1772 if needed.

Yes, electric cars also have dongles. Many of them are for Teslas, which need adapters to use J1772s (free with car, or an extra $95 if you need another) and CHAdeMO ($400) ports. For technical reasons, CHAdeMO to CCS adapters are not really feasible at a reasonable size or price point, although this company sells one that looks like a small generator for $4,000.

Europe’s landscape is slightly simpler. Over there, Tesla’s most popular vehicle, the Model 3, is sold with a CCS plug and new Superchargers have the CCS standard as well. (Other Tesla models come with Tesla-to-CCS adapters, but those same adapters are not available in the U.S.) It’s as if iPhones were sold in Europe with USB-C ports. Something, by the way, the European Commission is also trying to make happen.

All that being said, Tesla still only lets Teslas charge at Superchargers in Europe even though they use the same plugs as everyone else; other EVs are blocked from using their chargers at the software level. Rivian has not said what standard it will use or how it will enforce Rivian-only chargers and declined to clarify that with Motherboard, but most in the industry expect Rivian to do what Tesla is doing in Europe and use the CCS standard but block other EVs from using their chargers through the software.

Even though Level 2 charging has become more or less standardized, dongles notwithstanding, fast charging in the U.S. is still a headache. This is a big deal because fast charging is what most people imagine when they think of public chargers. Nobody’s about to sit at a Level 2 charger for five hours to make it to the next stop. Fast charging, in theory, can get a car up to 80 percent charge in around half an hour. The more fast chargers installed, the thinking goes, the more likely people will feel comfortable buying an EV, because they allow for longer road trips and offer an experience more similar to going to a traditional gas station.

Evangelists often make the comparison, as Rivian did in its blog post announcing its network, of charging an EV to plugging in your phone every night. It is not entirely off base, for reasons that are both good and bad. Many EV owners do charge their cars mostly at home, rarely relying on public chargers. And, like phones, EVs are, after an early era of lots of proprietary plugs, practically down to two plug types, one used by dozens of manufacturers and the other by one stubborn yet major outlier.

Paradoxically, it is simultaneously true that EVs can accommodate the vast majority of U.S. daily car trips and that people probably won’t buy EVs in huge numbers until they’re confident a reliable, accessible public fast-charging network exists. As a result, there is widespread consensus the public charging network needs to get bigger and better. The Biden administration said it wants to build 500,000 EV chargers over the next decade, up from the approximately 100,000 available today. But most of those existing chargers are not fast chargers and therefore do little to assuage range anxiety. To put these numbers in perspective, according to Atlas EV Hub, there are 9,707 Tesla Supercharger ports in the U.S. and 7,947 non-Tesla fast chargers, meaning 55 percent of all fast chargers in the U.S. are for Teslas only.

This is why referring to “the” EV charging network, as if there is only one, is wrong. Despite much improvement over the last five years, the EV charging landscape is still fractured and confusing. And, federal subsidies or not, nearly all industry observers anticipate a boom in charger installations over the next several years.

The big question facing the EV industry, which will have huge ramifications for EV users in the next decade and beyond, is whether the end result will be an open access charging landscape or a series of walled gardens. Will you be able to pull into any EV charging station and “fill up” in a reasonable amount of time for a reasonable price? Or will more chargers than not be closed off unless you’re driving a specific car brand?

The best example of this today is, of course, Tesla Superchargers. As far as charging is concerned, Teslas have a huge advantage, because the fast charging network available to Tesla owners is roughly double the size of every other EV’s. This is because Teslas can use most EV chargers if they have the right adapter, but owners of, say, the Chevy Bolt can’t use Tesla’s Superchargers under any circumstances (Tesla also has a network of Level 2 “destination chargers”; you can, in theory, charge non-Teslas at those if you really want to; I said the EV charging landscape was fractured and confusing and I meant it). This limits the network effect of the U.S. charging landscape. Unless, of course, you have a Tesla.

None of this is to rag on Superchargers, which Tesla was building back when automakers were still dismissing EVs as gimmicks. Quite the opposite; the Supercharger network is one of the least appreciated infrastructure innovations of the 21st Century. A major reason for why Teslas account for about three out of every four EVs sold in the U.S. right now is because it promises an easy, seamless, fast charging experience across most of the country.

“Tesla kind of got into that situation, because they were building cars that needed faster chargers than anybody else was building,” said Nelder. “And, you know, if they wanted those faster chargers to exist, they just basically had to go build them themselves. They did it out of necessity, not because they necessarily wanted to run a proprietary network.”

To be sure, third-party charging networks like Electrify America and EVGo are making progress. For example, the two companies, which are the largest third-party fast chargers in the country, have an interoperability agreement that allows members of one network to use the other without creating an additional account or charged extra fees. An emerging standard called Plug and Charge gets membership and payment information directly from the car itself when plugged into the charger, dispensing of the need for a separate card and membership agreement. Should this become widespread, it would get other EVs a lot closer to the Tesla experience. Currently, this standard is only available for the Ford Mach E and Porsche Taycan in the U.S. with Electrify America chargers, but more are sure to follow.

Still, they have a long way to go to offer the experience Superchargers do, not only with the “plug and play” experience that doesn’t require lengthy registration or authentication menus, but also with consistency. Talk to any non-Tesla EV owner and they will tell you even so-called “fast chargers” rarely deliver the promised speeds if they work at all. Reilly Brennan, a partner at Trucks Venture Capital that is involved in the electric vehicle and charging industry, thinks non-Tesla EV manufacturers are going to have to come to terms with something Tesla knew a decade ago: the charging experience is part of EV ownership. If it sucks to charge that brand’s car, people are not going to buy it or they will tell all their family and friends not to buy it

“The experiences on the EV on the charging side are actually so poor right now that they’re going to drive people back to dedicated network vehicles,” Brennan said. One obvious path, he added, is for automakers to turn dealerships into charging hubs.

Looking across the Atlantic Ocean, the EU government is reviewing standards and compatibility requirements in the Alternative Fuel Infrastructure Directive, said Philippe Vangeel of The European Association for Electromobility, which could force even “private” chargers to reserve some plugs for public use or prevent discriminatory pricing.

The question facing policymakers in the U.S., especially as they consider a massive infrastructure bill that potentially has money for EV chargers, is whether there should be any rules for chargers that are built with public money.

Currently, there are various tax incentives for installing EV chargers, even if on private property. For his part, Nelder thinks if an EV charger is paid for in part with tax dollars, then the public has a right to be able to use it. But, “there’s nobody that can tell you that you can’t build a charging station with your own money, and do whatever the hell you want to with it. Right?” he added. “This is America.”

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