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One frustrating trouble holds electric cars back: Broken chargers

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

The electric vehicle revolution is almost here, but its arrival is being slowed by a fundamental problem: The chargers where people fuel these cars often break. A recent study found that nearly a quarter of public charging outlets in the San Francisco Bay Area, where electric cars are common, were not working.

A huge effort is underway to create hundreds of thousands of public chargers – the federal government alone is spending $7.5 billion. But drivers and analysts for electric cars said companies that install and maintain stations need to do more to ensure they are more reliable than the new chargers and 120,000 already existing ones.

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

Some frustrated drivers say that problems have them second-guessing whether they can give up on gas vehicles entirely, especially for longer trips.

“Often, those fast chargers have real maintenance issues,” said Professor Ethan Zuckerman of the University of Massachusetts Amherst, who has owned a Chevrolet Bolt for several years. “When they do that, you very quickly find yourself in very serious trouble.”

In the winter of 2020, Mr Zuckerman was driving nearly 150 miles to land a job at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Cold weather can reduce the driving range of electric cars, and Mr. Zuckerman found himself in need of a charge on the way home.

He checked online and found a station, but when he went to it, the machine broke down. There was another one outside across the street, he said. In desperation, Mr. Zuckerman went to a nearby gas station and persuaded an employee there to run an extension cord to his car.

“I sat for two and a half hours in the freezing cold, getting enough charge so that I could limp in the town of Lee, Mass., and then use another charger,” he said. “It wasn’t a great night.”

He said the availability and reliability of public chargers is still a problem.

Most electric vehicle owners charge primarily at home, so they use public chargers much less often than people with traditional cars that use gas stations. Many also report some issues with public fees or are willing to look at past problems. And most of the battery-powered vehicles on the road today are made by Tesla, which has a proprietary charging network that analysts and drivers say is reliable.

But all this is changing. Electric vehicle sales are growing rapidly as established automakers introduce 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 top concern when people consider buying an electric car. The other big concern is how far a car can last when fully charged.

Even those who already have an electric car have such concerns. Nearly a third said broken chargers were at least a “moderate concern,” according to a survey by Plug in America, a nonprofit that promotes these vehicles.

“If we want to continue to see EV adoption, as I do, we need to solve this problem,” said Joel Levine, executive director of Plugin America.

The urgency is not lost on the automotive industry.

Ford Motor recently began sending “Charge Angels” to contractors to test the charging network it works to provide energy to people who buy their electric cars and trucks. Unlike Tesla, Ford does not build and operate its own charging stations.

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

The chargers made and operated by Electrify America, a division of Volkswagen, worked well that day. But Ms Larson said one had given her an error message the day before. When this happens, Ms. Larson notifies Ford technicians, who work with the charging company to fix the problem.

Ms Larson said the problems are unusual in her experience, but they come to the fore that she can sometimes detect them by sight. “I can tell you ahead of time, it’s going to give me an error on the screen,” she said.

There are few rigorous studies about charging stations, but this year another conducted by Cool the Earth, an environmental nonprofit in California, and David Rempel, a retired professor of bioengineering at the University of California, Berkeley, found that 23 percent of 657 public charging Stations in the Bay Area were dismantled. The most common problem was that the testers could not get the charger to accept payment or initiate a charge. In other cases, the screens went blank, unresponsive or displaying error messages.

“Here we have real field data, and the results were, frankly, very worrying,” said Cool the Earth executive director Carlin Cullen.

Charging companies dispute the findings. Electrification America said the study had methodological errors, and EVGo, which operates a charging network, said it could not replicate the study’s results.

Another big charging company, ChargePoint, had a success rate of just 61 percent. The company rarely owns and operates chargers installed on behalf of commercial businesses, although it does provide maintenance under warranty. Critics said the model is fraught with problems, as it places the responsibility on property owners, who may not have the expertise or commitment required to manage the equipment. Chargepoint did not respond to requests for comment.

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

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

But not everything is under their control. While those companies test chargers with a variety of electric vehicles, compatibility problems may require changes to the charger or cars.

Even stations owned by charging companies like EVGO and Electrify America often sit unattended for long periods of time. At most gas stations, a clerk is usually on duty and can see when certain problems arise. With chargers, vandalism or other damage can be more difficult to track.

“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 old modems and old phone lines could make using websites and sending emails a brutal practice. The auto and charging industries hope they will soon overcome such problems as the telecommunications and technology industries have made Internet access more reliable.

The penny also comes with a requirement that chargers work 97 percent of the time and comply with technical standards for communication with vehicles. Stations must have at least four ports capable of charging simultaneously and are not limited to a single automotive brand.

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

For now, many car owners say they have little difficulty with public chargers or are so happy with how their battery-powered vehicles run that they never consider going back to the gasoline model. will do.

Travis Turner is a recruiter for Google in the Bay Area who recently swapped his Tesla Model S for a Rivian R1T pickup truck. He said the truck is not working well with the EVGO charger, and some stations will not start charging until he has closed all doors and trunk of the truck.

But Mr Turner said he is not too upset as he has resolved those issues and finds his Rivian truck is much better than any other vehicle he has owned. He is also confident that the kinks will be worked out soon.

“It’s really just the beginning,” he said. “It can only get better from here.”

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