EV charging needs big improvements soon if the auto industry's transition is going to work


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A charging port is seen on a Mercedes Benz EQC 400 4Matic electric vehicle at the Canadian International AutoShow in Toronto, Ontario, Canada, February 13, 2019.
Mark Blinch | Reuters

There's a looming problem with the auto industry's grand EV plans.

Automakers are spending huge sums to bring a slew of new electric vehicles to market over the next few years. Ford Motor alone expects to spend more than $50 billion through 2026 to ramp up EV production around the world. General Motors said it will spend $35 billion through 2025, and Volkswagen said it expects to spend almost $200 billion on EVs and related software through 2028.

But Americans are still hesitant to buy in, and largely because of concerns around charging.

Survey after survey has shown that worries about charging — specifically, public charging — is holding buyers back from electric vehicles.

A June study by Cox Automotive found that 32% of consumers who were considering an EV cited a "lack of charging stations in my area" as a barrier to purchase. A Consumer Reports study in April found that "charging logistics" and "purchase price" were the two biggest factors holding consumers back. And an April poll by the Energy Policy Institute at the University of Chicago and the Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research found that 47% of U.S. adults said it's not likely they would buy an EV as their next car, with nearly 80% saying that a lack of charging stations was a factor.

Despite the United Auto Workers' concerns about Detroit's transition to EVs, and the union's ongoing strike, there's a groundswell forming to expand and improve the U.S. charging landscape. President Joe Biden has pushed the issue, working with Congress to deliver major incentives to improve public charging, and rival automakers have struck rare partnerships to help establish a single charging standard and reduce pain points for EV drivers.

But the question remains, how long — and how severely — will charging hamper the EV revolution, right as its finally picking up steam?

How and where do I charge my EV?

Public charging stations aren't quite like gas stations, in the sense that many EV owners only use them occasionally. Most EV owners do most of their charging at home, with a Level 2 home charger provided by the automaker or a third party.

That won't work for everyone, of course. And even EV owners who charge at home use public chargers on occasion.

Some EV motorists charge at work. Workplaces that have employee parking often have chargers available, as do a growing number of hotels, shopping centers and other places where people might park an EV for a few hours.

Often called "destination chargers," these charge at rates similar to what you'd get with home chargers, adding around 35 miles of range per hour. You may need an app from a charging company to use them, but the process is mostly painless — assuming the chargers are working.

Destination chargers can be a great way to add some range if you're planning to be parked for a while. But on a road trip, you'll want a fast charger.

A guide to charging your EV at home

The vast majority of EV owners — about 83%, according to a JD Power study in March — do most of their charging at home. Home chargers that can fully charge your EV overnight aren't expensive, and they aren't hard to set up. Here's what you need to know.

First, know your chargers: Most EV makers, and several third-party manufacturers, offer so-called "Level 2" chargers that plug into 240-volt outlets. A Level 1 charger plugs into a regular 110-volt household outlet and is really only applicable for emergencies.

Next, know your needs: A portable Level 2 charger, which you can install yourself, provides about 20 miles of range per hour and can work well for overnight charging at home. A dedicated 240-volt Level 2 home charging station, installed by an electrician in your garage or other covered area, will give you around 35 miles of range per hour.

Third, know your price point: A portable Level 2 charger will run you anywhere from $300 to $700, while a professionally installed 240-volt Level 2 could cost upwards of $1,000.

Modern fast chargers deliver much more power to your car's battery than the chargers that most EV drivers use at home or work, enough to charge your car to 80% in roughly half an hour, more or less.

While the cost of fast-charging varies with time of day and location, it's usually cheaper than a tank of gas.

And though Tesla drivers have it relatively easy, finding a charger that works with other EVs away from home — and specifically, finding one that is working — can be a frustrating experience.

Why do Teslas have it so much easier?

According to the U.S. Department of Energy, almost 21,000 of the roughly 33,000 public fast chargers currently up and running in the U.S. are Tesla Superchargers. Those chargers, like Tesla's own destination chargers, use a unique plug design called NACS, short for North American Charging Standard.

Tesla originally built its Supercharging network to overcome potential buyers' concerns about charging on road trips, back when there were few fast chargers available in the country.

The network's extent and reliability became a key part of Tesla's early sales pitch to customers hesitant to take the leap to a fully electric EV, and it has continued to play an important role in its success.

A view of Tesla Superchargers on February 15, 2023 in San Rafael, California.
Justin Sullivan | Getty Images

The charging option for most everyone else — called the Combined Charging System, or CCS — is harder to come by and often unreliable.

The shortcomings of CCS have been a growing concern for global automakers — and the Detroit companies in particular — as they spend billions on new EVs. Simply put, America's patchwork of CCS chargers offers spotty coverage, hard-to-use devices, and, too often, chargers that are broken.

CCS charging operators like ChargePoint and EVgo have recently begun taking major steps to improve the "up time" of their chargers, or the percentage of time the charger is available for use.

But the reliability issue remains a big one. In a study last year, researchers at the University of California at Berkeley checked 675 CCS fast chargers in the Bay Area and found that almost a quarter of them weren't functional. More recently, an August 2023 study by JD Power found that customer satisfaction with public CCS chargers — both destination chargers and fast chargers — has fallen sharply over the last few years, with reliability ranking as a key issue.

"The reliability of public chargers continues to be a problem," said Brent Gruber, who leads JD Power's EV practice. "The situation is stuck at a level where one of every five visits ends without charging, the majority of which are due to station outages."

Notably, that JD Power study also found customer satisfaction with Tesla's proprietary fast-charging network to be much higher than the CCS alternatives.

Not to mention, there are fewer than 12,000 CCS fast chargers across the U.S. today.

What about a single charging standard?

Tesla has begun bringing its rivals into the fold.

The EV leader and Ford surprised the automotive world in May when they announced they had struck a deal to give Ford EV owners access to more than 12,000 Tesla superchargers in the U.S. and Canada starting in early 2024.

Ford also said that it will make the NACS charging port standard on its EVs starting in 2025. (Owners of older Ford EVs will be able to use the Tesla chargers with an adapter.)

It might seem strange for one of the world's oldest automakers to partner with the EV maker Tesla instead of building its own charging network. But as Ford finance chief John Lawler explained at a June conference that the tie-up makes sense for Ford and its customers.

"We're going to build things where we think we can be differentiated," Lawler said. "We're going to partner where it's really good for our customers and where we can scale quickly. Opening up the Tesla charging network to our customers, that's about them and it scales very quickly for them. Their options are much greater."

A flurry of similar deals between Tesla and other EV makers, including GM, Volvo Cars, Polestar and Rivian, were announced in the weeks that followed.

"We're deeply honored that Ford, GM, Mercedes and many other [automakers] have signed up to use our connector and gain access to our charging network," Tesla CEO Elon Musk said during the company's most recent earnings call. "We strongly believe in helping other car companies to accelerate the EV revolution and just trying to do the right thing in general." 

Ford CEO Jim Farley: EV adoption comes down to charging infrastructure
VIDEO 2:03 02:03
Ford CEO Jim Farley: EV adoption comes down to charging infrastructure

The broad uptake of Tesla's charging tech is generally good news.

The company's network consistently scores well for reliability. Its NACS plugs are also considerably smaller and lighter than CCS fast-charging plugs, which can be cumbersome for older or disabled drivers to use.

What's more, Tesla's chargers all work the same way, whereas CCS chargers from rival companies may have very different procedures. And, unlike most CCS fast chargers, Tesla's billing is simple and seamless: Owners simply plug in, charge up and drive away, with no special apps or credit cards required.

While it's not yet clear how the process will work for drivers of other EVs, it's expected to be similarly painless once the driver (or the car) is signed up with Tesla.

Meanwhile, progress is being made on formalizing the NACS plug design as an industry standard. SAE International, which sets key engineering standards for the auto industry, said on June 27 that it's working on official performance and safety standards for NACS charging plugs and that it expects to issue them within six months.

Charging networks and charger manufacturers are also responding. EVgo said in June that it will start deploying NACS connectors on the high-speed chargers in its U.S. network later this year. ABB, a Swiss maker of industrial equipment including commercial EV chargers, said on June 9 that it will offer NACS plugs as an option on its chargers as soon as testing and validation of the new connector is complete, likely in a few months.

And ChargePoint, which installs and manages chargers for other businesses, said its clients can now order new chargers with NACS connectors and that it can retrofit its existing chargers with the Tesla-designed connectors as well.

Long road ahead

Tesla's decision to open its network to other automakers — and the companies' willingness to accept the invitation — will give drivers of non-Tesla EVs a lot more options for charging on the go.

But most experts agree that the U.S. will need many more fast charging stations as the EV transition continues to unfold.

A provision in the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, passed in 2021, provides $5 billion in subsidies to states for EV charging stations and related infrastructure between 2022 and 2026. The stated goal is to accelerate the installation of 500,000 new EV chargers across the U.S. by 2030, with at least one station every 50 miles along major highways.

The states in turn have been handing that funding out to companies that are building charging stations — with a few catches:

  • Companies are to build chargers that are convenient, affordable and accessible to the broadest number of people.
  • The states must ensure that some charging stations are built in less dense areas, like rural regions and tribal lands.
  • Charging companies must provide customers with real-time updates as to whether the station is occupied or out of service.
  • There must be at least four 150-kilowatt CCS fast-charging ports per station.
  • Charging operators can't require drivers to sign up for memberships to access chargers.
  • Chargers must have ports that can be used by "the broadest number of vehicle owners." Specifically, proprietary charging stations that can only be accessed by one company's vehicles will not qualify for funding.

That last provision goes a long way to explaining why Tesla decided to open up its charging network to other automakers in a big step forward for EVs of all kinds.

And while the UAW is currently concerned about the industry's plans to transition to EVs — not least because EVs have fewer parts and require fewer workers to build than do internal-combustion vehicles —it's likely that those concerns will be addressed. It's a safe bet that EV adoption will accelerate over the next few years as dozens of new EV models hit U.S. dealerships.

But while many more EVs are on the way, the charging infrastructure buildout is still in its early stages. It will be several more years until fast chargers are available and convenient everywhere in the country.