Study Claims EV Charging Reliability Is a Problem

Matt Posky
by Matt Posky
study claims ev charging reliability is a problem

Researchers with the University of California, Berkeley, are pouring cold water of the premise that electric vehicle charging stations will require less maintenance than traditional fueling solutions. The study, which examined 657 individual connectors between 181 public fast-charging stations in the San Francisco Bay area found that about 23 percent were nonfunctional.

That seems quite a bit higher than the number of fuel pumps that might be down at any given station, though the pertinent question is why those EV charging points were inoperable.

Unlike your local gas station, which is likely to include a manned store, EV charging points are often dotted around parking lots and highway exits without much daily oversight.

Your author once stayed at swanky hotel in downtown Seattle and found that four out of six parking spaces equipped with chargers were out of service in its underground garage. Curious, I inquired with the front desk who was responsible for their upkeep and was told by numerous employees that they weren’t sure. Eventually I was informed it was down to the company originally contracted to install them. But that it only sent a person out once every other month unless they schedule some additional servicing. They apologized profusely for any inconvenience this may have caused me and offered to help me locate a nearby charger — unnecessary because I had arrived in a Jeep Grand Cherokee.

It wasn’t an isolated incident and my curiosity persisted. I began to notice that a lot of the places I would find EV chargers often had at least one bay that was wholly inoperable. But the situation never seemed all that serious because I was rarely driving a plug-in vehicle and there was typically a spot open regardless of how many others were down. Upon questioning acquaintances that daily drove EVs, they said that a bum charger did occasionally cause them trouble. However it didn’t seem to vex them in the slightest unless the incident took place far from home.

Still, having a bunch of out-of-order signs hanging on the latest automotive technologies hardly seems like the best way to spur adoption.

“Chargers need to be working well, and functionality needs to be at a high level for there to be large-scale EV adoption,” David Rempel, one of the Berkley professors that authored the study, told Automotive News. “Do you really expect EV drivers to go to one charger, call the 1-800 number because it’s not working, and then spend 45 minutes going from one charger to the next — and be happy with that? No.”

My assumption that EV chargers simply aren’t getting sufficient maintenance is just one possible explanation. The Berkley study seemed to suggest that at least some charging points don’t offer the kind of longevity their providers have suggested. It’s something the researchers said needed to be looked into as the U.S. government is poised to shower the industry with additional subsidies, including some $5 billion earmarked to expand that nation’s charging network.

From Automotive News:

The Joint Office of Energy and Transportation, established to distribute those funds to states, is expected to issue minimum standards and requirements for EV chargers in the coming days or weeks. States have until Aug. 1 to submit EV infrastructure plans to the office, which will begin approving plans by Sept. 30 and start to distribute funds, according to a government website.

“The next few months are really critical for the whole process of building a reliable EV infrastructure,” Rempel said. “The auto OEMs should be very aware of this process and ensure that reliability is high, and know that there is a system there to ensure that happens.”

It is not yet clear what standards the joint office, created by the U.S. Energy and Transportation departments following the passage of last year’s infrastructure bill, will adopt.

Rempel said any contracts that states enter into with charging providers should include “good, quality service agreements” that require chargers to be repaired rapidly.

Considering this is a newly created branch of the government that has yet to establish any guidelines for what constitutes an acceptable charging station, something has me worried that the funds might not be used responsibly. So many of these government initiatives seem to backfire (e.g. Cash4Clunkers, Paycheck Protection Program, banking regulations) that it’s hard to feel confident about one that seems to be flying more or less by the seat of its pants.

“The money that’s handed out should be handed out in chunks, and the final piece shouldn’t be handed out to the service providers or owners of the system until it’s shown that all of the chargers work well,” said Rempel.

That sounds like it could be a tall order based on the study — which reported that 73 percent of DC fast charging points checked around San Francisco (between February and March) were considered functional, while 23 percent were deemed “not functional.” A modest but meaningful 5 percent was also considered to have a critical design flaw that made it impossible for the test vehicle to use the station due to the charging cable being too short or otherwise incompatible with the port.

Additional studies, such as the one issued by Plug In America in February, have reported that inoperable chargers were a concern for at least a third of EV owners. Almost as many said the distance between charging stations was also a problem. However, complaints actually declined among Tesla drivers, who didn’t seem to notice broken charging stations. Only 3 percent cited them as a serious concern.

“Out of the box, we need to make sure EV infrastructure works well so it’s not something people point to and say, ‘I’ll wait to move to an EV until the system is better.’ We need to get the infrastructure right from the start, and we shouldn’t be dumping a lot of money into infrastructure that leads to a poor system,” suggested Rempel. “I believe in competition, and to have a competitive system, the whole thing needs to work well. Public chargers need to work well, in addition to the Tesla system.”

[Images: guteksk7/Shutterstock; U.S. Department of Transportation]

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3 of 43 comments
  • TR4 TR4 on Jun 08, 2022

    Never heard of RVers complaining about non-functioning electric hook ups at the campground. I wonder if the difference is who owns the cord? The EV charge points include the cord which is permanently attached to the charge point and plugs into the vehicle. Modeled after a gasoline fuel pump no doubt. RVers OTOH supply their own cord which plugs into the box at the campground. If it breaks they will be immediately aware of it and repair or replace it. Plus since they own the cord they will likely take care of it better than a public EV charging cord.

  • Lou_BC Lou_BC on Jun 08, 2022

    I've seen EV stations sprout up all over the place. I towed a car trailer 1,400km round trip a week ago and was amazed. Several stations I've seen have been damaged by thieves stealing components. With fuel around 1.98/litre - 2.25/litre, I've seen more EV's on the road. I'm surprised by the number of full sized pickups still on the road hauling sailboat fuel.

    • Jeff S Jeff S on Jun 08, 2022

      I am surprised as well on how many large pickups are still being driven hauling nothing but 1 or 2 passengers. Prices of gas around me are not as bad as in Canada or other parts of the USA but they are over $5 a gallon and I have heard people complaining at the pump. Glad I got my Maverick I have been averaging 40 to 50 mpg in regular driving just following the speed limit. I set it on cruise on the interstate at 65 mph for 20 miles and got 51 mpg (longer distance the mpgs would be in the 30s because the regenerative braking recharges the battery and if you don't use the brakes enough then it runs more on gas).

  • Leonard Ostrander Pet peeve: Drivers who swerve to the left to make a right turn and vice versa. They take up as much space as possible for as long as possible as though they're driving trailer trucks or school busses. It's a Kia people, not a Kenworth! Oh, and use your turn signals if you ever figure out where you're going.
  • Master Baiter This is horrible. Delaying this ban will raise the Earth's temperature by 0.00000001°C in the year 2100.
  • Alan Buy a Skoda Superb.
  • Alan In Australia only hairdressers would buy this Monaro as its known as. Real men had 4 door sedans and well hung men drive 4x4 dual cab utes with bullbars and towbars. I personally think this is butt ugly. Later iterations of the Commodore were far better looking.
  • Jeff As a few commenters on prior articles on this site about the UAW strike mentioned many of the lower tiered suppliers could go bankrupt and some could possibly go out of business if the strike is prolonged. Decades ago Ford and GM owned many of their own suppliers but as we all know over the years manufacturers have been outsourcing more parts and with just in time supply there is little room for any interruptions to production including strikes, natural disasters, and anything unforeseen that could happen. When the strike ends there will be delays in production due to parts shortages. It costs suppliers money to just keep making parts and stockpiling them especially when many parts have razor thin profit margins.