How the US can build EV charging infrastructure that works

How the US can build EV charging infrastructure that works
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Earlier this year, the Biden administration announced plans to accelerate adoption of electric vehicles (EV) and deploy charging stations throughout the country, with the goal of reaching 500,000 new stations nationwide by 2030.

It’s an ambitious objective, and one that will require technology solutions as well as strong cooperation between the public and private sectors. If it’s successful, the initiative could go a long way toward making the use of EVs far more commonplace than it is today.

There are currently about 102,000 public charging outlets across some 42,000 charging stations nationwide, according to the U.S. Department of Energy. That’s well below the target goal announced by the White House, and considerably behind the progress of other regions of the world.

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The lack of widespread charging stations — and the inconvenience this could mean for vehicle owners — is one of the biggest factors keeping consumers from buying EVs, according to consulting firm Deloitte. But it’s not just the lack of charging station availability that’s a problem. Poor charging experience is one of the greatest barriers to widespread adoption. In California, which holds a third of America’s charging stations, one in five EV owners eventually switches back to a gas-powered vehicle citing dissatisfaction with charging convenience.

The typical experience for consumers charging EVs in the U.S. today is not especially pleasant. EV charging infrastructure consists of a fragmented collection of proprietary hardware and software that is confusing and anything but user centric. Just about every network requires drivers to download an application and create an account, which means handing over unnecessary personal information every time they ‘get gas.’

The networks do not talk to each other in a way that benefits the user. If you have a Tesla vehicle and you charge at Tesla chargers, you can simply plug in and the system automatically starts a charging transaction. It’s a beautiful experience, and something that everyone in the industry should strive for because you don't need apps or an account.

But if you take a Tesla to charge at a station that's not owned or operated by Tesla, none of that convenience is available. You need to download a new app and create a new account to use the charger. On the other hand, if you own a non-Tesla vehicle, you can’t even use a Tesla charger (yet) because Tesla has its own network.

Compare this situation with what’s happening in Europe, where there is at least the perception of unified networks with roaming agreements in place, and where EV drivers can use one application to gain access to multiple networks. In addition, Europe has standards in place when it comes to the plug that electric vehicles are required to have. In the U.S., it’s a free-for-all, with no standards in place for interoperable software or plugs. 

Meanwhile, EV sales are continuing to rise in the U.S., but many consumers don’t have access to home chargers and are relying on the public infrastructure to charge their vehicles. While the percentage of EVs on the road today might be relatively low compared with the total number of vehicles, the share of new car sales that are EVs is rising dramatically

Infrastructure challenges

One of the big challenges the administration faces with creating cohesive infrastructure is that programs providing funding, rebates, and tax incentives for EV adoption and EV charging stations are entirely state-led. This leads to an ongoing fragmented approach.

Communication and collaboration — not only between different government organizations but among the public sector and private sector entities such as charging companies, vehicle makers, property owners, and electric utilities — is essential to building an effective, cohesive infrastructure.

One of the key reasons why collaboration and coordination are important is because the charging infrastructure involves multiple components including hardware and software. For example, it involves getting electricity from a nearby source to chargers that might be located along streets in a city.

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Any particular charging station or outlet could involve local governments, utilities, and building owners, as well as the companies providing the charging hardware and software. For large-scale programs such as placing chargers throughout a city, the level of complexity can be staggering.

Lessons can clearly be learned from government-backed programs in states like California and New York and how they’ve begun mandating the placement of electric vehicle chargers and working with partners. The government needs to be in lock step with private enterprise on these types of efforts, in terms of both mandates and incentives, to help create a massive industry where virtually every automaker is committed to going electric. The core component necessary to help facilitate collaboration is to promote ‘Make Ready’ programs from utilities.

The way forward

Ideally, going forward the charging stations being installed will support all types of EVs, regardless of the manufacturer. That requires an open architecture and standardization, including plugs (standard CCS) that are compatible with all vehicles. It also requires payment systems that don’t require users to provide personal information each time they use the system or to download a new app.

Technology such as open application programming interfaces (APIs) can help system builders provide such open access charging facilities, reducing the complexity of the charging experience for consumers and commercial vehicle drivers. Enhanced focus must be placed on open data, APIs, and integrations so anyone with an EV vehicle can easily locate stations, seamlessly pay and charge their vehicle.

Clearly, the federal government is prepared to help fund the infrastructure needed for charging the growing number of EVs. The American Jobs Plan will establish grants and incentives for public EV charging infrastructure, including a $15 billion investment to spur the manufacturing and installment of chargers and a national network. Through state and local governments and the private sector, the program will fund chargers in apartment buildings, public parking, throughout communities, and along roadways.

Any federal money that goes toward installing infrastructure in the U.S. should benefit all EV owners by requiring true open access. Only then will the dream of greatly expanding the use of EVs throughout the nation become a reality.

Aaron Fisher is the CEO and Co-founder of EVPassport, an EV hardware and software platform. Follow him on Twitter @aaronmfisher