Why Don’t These D@#N Things Work?!?!

It is a phrase that has been said (yelled or muttered with a tone of disdain) by many EV drivers. Stories of stranded EVs and charge anxiety have been documented in social media and the news.  According to JD Power’s latest charging satisfaction survey, nearly 20% of charging attempts failed in the fourth quarter of last year. It also states that charging station outages and malfunctions are the most significant pain points, comprising 71 percent of failed visits.  Gas station failure rates resulting in stranded vehicles are uncommon, and a gas station not working isn’t top of mind for internal combustion engine (ICE) vehicle drivers.  What gives?

Here are some factors that contribute to the perceived or actual reliability issues with DC fast chargers:

  1. Complex Technology: Flowing electrons into a battery is very different from flowing gas into a tank. DC fast charging involves high power levels (often up to 350 kW) and requires sophisticated technology (hardware and software) to manage the charging process safely and efficiently. The complexity of these systems can lead to more points of failure compared to a traditional gas station. This complexity requires an involved troubleshooting process across hardware and software interfaces when problems arise.
  2. High Usage and Demand: DC fast chargers are often located in public areas and are in high demand, especially along busy routes. This can lead to wear and tear from constant use, environmental exposure, and occasional misuse or vandalism, which can affect reliability.
  3. Electrical Grid Constraints: The high-power demand of DC fast chargers can stress the local electrical grid, especially if multiple vehicles are charging simultaneously. Some charging locations can consume as much power as a Walmart Super Center.  Grid constraints or instability can lead to chargers operating below their maximum capacity or experiencing outages.
  4. Software Issues: The operation of DC fast chargers relies heavily on software for user interface, billing, remote monitoring, and integration with vehicle charging protocols. Software bugs, updates, and compatibility issues with specific EV models can cause chargers to be temporarily unavailable or malfunction. Most charging events require a mobile app to complete the transaction. The in-app charging sequence requires several timed steps that can be challenging for the “un-initiated.” Add to that, most charging sites do not have a canopy or coverage to protect a driver from the elements.  Imagine clicking through your phone while standing in the heat of Arizona or the chill of Chicago. This can add another level of anxiety and frustration to the process.  The good news is these customer experience issues are being addressed. The roll-out of plug-and-charge will allow drivers to charge their car and pay without a physical payment method (credit/debit card) or mobile app. When a vehicle connects to a charger, the feature initiates the charging sequence and completes the payment transaction.  Charging station owners are also investing in amenities (trash cans, coverage) to improve the site’s quality.
  5. Maintenance and Support Challenges: Maintaining a network of (complex) fast chargers, especially those distributed over vast geographic areas, poses logistical challenges. Troubleshooting and quick response to malfunctions or damage can be difficult, leading to longer downtimes. The need for specialized parts can further exacerbate these challenges.
  6. Weather and Environmental Impact: DC fast chargers are exposed to the elements, affecting their performance and longevity. Extreme temperatures, moisture, and dust can damage components and lead to failures.

Despite these challenges, the reliability of DC fast chargers is improving as technology advances and operational experience grows. Industry stakeholders must work together to address these issues and educate drivers as we navigate the path of transition and innovation. Innovation is a bumpy road with a few potholes along the way. The hope for a brighter future makes it worthwhile.  Stay tuned as we unpack these topics and share solutions in future articles.

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