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A Frustrating Hassle Holding Electric Cars Back: Broken Chargers

The federal government is handing out billions of dollars to encourage people to buy electric vehicles. Car manufacturers are building new factories and scouring the world for raw materials. And so many people want them that the waiting lists for battery powered cars are months long.

The electric vehicle revolution is almost here, but its arrival is being delayed by a fundamental problem: the chargers where people refuel these cars are often broken. A recent survey found that about a quarter of public charging stations in the San Francisco Bay Area, where electric cars are common, were out of order.

A major effort is being made to build hundreds of thousands of public chargers – the federal government alone spends $7.5 billion. But electric car drivers and analysts said the companies that install and maintain the stations need to do more to make sure those new chargers, and the more than 120,000 already out there, are reliable.

Many sit in parking lots or in front of shops where there is often no one to ask for help if something goes wrong. Problems include broken screens and buggy software. Some stop working halfway through, while others never start.

Some frustrated drivers say the issues are making them question their ability to completely abandon gas vehicles, especially for longer journeys.

“Often those fast chargers have real maintenance issues,” said Ethan Zuckerman, a professor at the University of Massachusetts Amherst who has owned a Chevrolet Bolt for several years. “If they do that, you’re going to be in a pretty tough situation very quickly.”

In the winter of 2020, Mr. Zuckerman traveled approximately 150 miles one way to a job at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The cold winter weather can reduce the range of electric cars, and Mr. Zuckerman found himself needing to be charged on the way home.

He checked online and found a station but when he stopped there the machine was broken. Another across the street was also outside, he said. In desperation, Mr. Zuckerman went to a nearby gas station and persuaded a worker there to run an extension cord to his car.

“I sat there in the freezing cold for two and a half hours and got enough charge that I could stumble into the town of Lee, Massachusetts, and then use another charger,” he said. “It wasn’t a great night.”

The availability and reliability of public chargers remains an issue even now, he said.

Most electric vehicle owners mainly charge at home, so they use far fewer public chargers than people with conventional cars at gas stations. Many also report few problems with public charging or are more than willing to review past issues. And most battery-powered vehicles on the road today are made by Tesla, which has its own charging network that analysts and drivers say is reliable.

But that’s all changing. Electric vehicle sales are growing rapidly as established automakers roll out new models. Some of those cars will be bought by Americans who can’t refuel at home because they don’t have the ability to install a home charger.

Studies show that public charging is a major concern for people when considering buying an electric car. The other major concern is the related issue of how far a car can go on a full charge.

Even those who already own an electric car have such concerns. About a third said broken chargers were at least a “moderate concern,” according to a survey by Connect Americaa non-profit organization that promotes these vehicles.

“If we want the adoption of electric cars to continue to grow, like I do, we need to solve this problem,” said Joel Levin, executive director of Plug In America.

The urgency is not lost on the car industry.

Ford Motor recently started sending contractors it calls ‘charge angels’ test the charging networks with which it partners to provide energy to the people who buy its electric cars and trucks. Unlike Tesla, Ford does not build and operate its own charging stations.

This spring, a member of that team, Nicole Larsen, pulled up to a line of chargers in a Long Island mall, plugged in her Mustang Mach-E, and got to work. Ms Larsen watched as a laptop recorded a detailed stream of data exchanged between the charger and the vehicle and began taking her own notes.

The chargers, which were built and operated by Electrify America, a division of Volkswagen, worked well that day. But Mrs Larsen said someone had given her an error message the day before. If that happens, Ms. Larsen will notify the Ford technicians, who will work with the charging company to resolve the issue.

Ms Larsen said problems are uncommon in her experience, but they do show up enough that she can sometimes identify them by sight. “I can tell you in advance that this one will give me an error on the screen,” she said.

There are few rigorous studies of charging stations, but a study conducted this year by Cool the Earth, a California environmental nonprofit, and David Rempel, a retired professor of bioengineering at the University of California, Berkeley, found that 23 percent of the Bay Area’s 657 public charging stations were broken. The most common issues were testers not being able to get chargers to accept payment or initiate a charge. In other cases, screens went blank, didn’t respond, or showed error messages.

“Here we have up-to-date field data and the results were frankly very concerning,” said Carleen Cullen, executive director of Cool the Earth.

Charging companies dispute the findings. Electrify America said there were methodological errors in the study, and EVgo, which operates a charging network, said it was unable to replicate the results of the study.

Another major charging company, ChargePoint, had a success rate of just 61 percent. The company rarely owns and operates the chargers it installs on behalf of commercial companies, although it offers warranty service. That model is fraught with problems, critics said, because it places the responsibility on property owners, who may not have the expertise or dedication necessary to manage the equipment. ChargePoint did not respond to requests for comment.

EVgo and Electrify America say they take reliability seriously and employees monitor their stations from centralized control rooms that can quickly dispatch technicians to fix problems.

“These are only in the wild,” said Rob Barrosa, senior director of sales, business development and marketing at Electrify America. “You just can’t set it and forget it.”

But not everything is under their control. While those companies test chargers with various electric vehicles, compatibility issues may require changes to chargers or cars.

Even stations owned by charging companies like EVgo and Electrify America often stand unattended for long periods of time. Most gas stations usually have a clerk present who can see when problems arise. With chargers, vandalism or other damage can be more difficult to detect.

“Where there’s a screen, there’s a baseball bat,” said Jonathan Levy, EVgo’s Chief Commercial Officer.

It’s a problem reminiscent of the early days of the Internet, when broken modems and outdated phone lines could make using websites and sending e-mails an irritating exercise. The auto and charging industry hopes to overcome such problems soon, just as the telecom and technology industry has made internet access much more reliable.

The money also comes with a requirement that chargers be functional 97 percent of the time and meet technical standards for vehicle communication. Stations must also have a minimum of four ports that can be charged simultaneously and must not be limited to one car brand.

Tesla is also expected to open its chargers to cars from other automakers in the United States, which it has already done in a few European countries. Still, auto experts said Tesla’s network is working well, in part because the chargers are designed for the company’s cars. There is no guarantee that vehicles from other automakers will work smoothly with Tesla’s charging equipment from the outset.

For now, many car owners say they have little problem with public chargers or are so happy with the handling of their battery-powered vehicles that they would never consider going back to petrol models.

Travis Turner is a recruiter for Google in the Bay Area who recently traded in his Tesla Model S for a Rivian R1T pickup. The truck doesn’t seem to work well with EVgo chargers, he said, and some stations won’t start charging until he closes all the truck’s doors and trunks.

But Mr. Turner said it doesn’t bother him too much as he’s solved those issues and feels his Rivian truck is so much better than any other vehicle he’s owned. He is also confident that the kinks will be resolved soon.

“This is really just the beginning,” he says. “It can only get better from here.”

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