Fueling your car should always be easy, whether you charge it with electricity or gasoline. If it’s an electric car, you should be able to swipe a credit card, plug in the cable, and your vehicle will just… charge up. And it actually works that way a lot of the time.
Unfortunately, not always. There are incompatible charger designs, different charging speeds, and abbreviated overloading. (Is that CCS or NACS? Why can’t I find it when I search for CHAdeMO and why is it spelled that way?) There are always fast chargers that aren’t very fast – but it’s not always the charger’s fault. Also how do I pay for this? Where is the charger anyway?
As the industry expands and agrees on standards, many problems are being solved and many pointless confusions are being ironed out. But other differences come only with the technology and will always be this way.
According to research by JD Power, despite the large number of EV chargers available, EV owners are increasingly dissatisfied with public charging. When it comes to customer satisfaction, EV Pay is in some very poor corporate company.
“They’re still at a very low level, and that’s compared to some very low satisfaction industries like telecom and cable providers,” said Brent Gruber, managing director of electric vehicle experience at JD Power.
Gruber says the biggest complaint, though, is the lack of chargers. There are about 144,000 public EV chargers in the United States, according to the Department of Energy. About 42,000 of those are in California. States like Mississippi and Montana — so sparsely populated that people still have to drive there — have only a few hundred.
Public EV charging is particularly complicated. First of all, there are currently different types of chargers. Do you have a Tesla or something? Most major automakers have said they will switch to the Tesla NACS or North American Charging System format within a few years, but that hasn’t happened yet. Fortunately, most non-Tesla automobiles all have a charging port called a Combined Charging System, or CCS.
Filling ports: what all the letters mean
With CCS, if you find a non-Tesla charger you can feel confident that you should be able to use it. Well, if you don’t have a Nissan Leaf, a Chademo (or a Charge de Move) with a port for fast charging. In this case, it can be very difficult to find a place to mount it.
One of the nice things about having an EV is that you can charge it at home if you can install a home charger. With a home charger, it’s like having a gas pump in your garage. You plug in a “full tank” and take off in the morning, which costs far less than what you pay for gasoline.
Outdoors, charging your EV costs more than charging it indoors, sometimes twice as much. (One has to pay to maintain that charger in addition to the electricity itself.) There’s also a lot to think about.
First, how fast is that charger? There are usually two types of public chargers, level 2 and level 3. (Level 1 is basically just plugging into a standard socket.) Level 2, relatively slow, is convenient for those times when you go out to the movies or a restaurant. Eat, and you just want to pick up electricity when you’re standing.
Quick fill math and legend
If you’re on a long trip and need a quick juice to get you back on the highway, that’s what Level 3 chargers are for. But with these, there are a few things you should remember. How fast is it? With a super-fast charger, some cars can go from a 10% state of charge to 80% in just 15 minutes, adding 100 miles per minute. (To minimize damage to the battery, charging is usually reduced by more than 80%.) But many fast chargers are too slow. Fifty kilowatt fast chargers are common, but more than 150 or 250 kW.
The car also has its limitations, and not every car can charge as fast as every charger. To solve this, your electric car and the charger connect.
When you first plug in an electric car, a lot of information passes back and forth between the vehicle and the charger, says Nathan Wang, project manager at UL Solutions’ Advanced Electric Vehicle Charging Lab. For one thing, the vehicle must be informed at what speed the charger can safely charge and the charger must respect that speed limit.
For example, the popular Chevrolet Bolt EV can only charge up to 55 kW. You can choose to plug in a fast charger, but you won’t be able to do it faster. The charger slows down to match the car’s needs.
Beyond that, your electric vehicle can charge up to 250 kW and the charger can charge you less than that. The reason is probably because you are in a location with six fast chargers and each one has a car. Instead of overloading the system, the chargers can reduce the output of all vehicles, Wang said.
Of course, there can also be random technical issues. With so much power moving, if something looks like it might go wrong, the system can put everything on hold.
“Safety is paramount,” said Rick Wilmer, chief operating officer of EV Charge Point Pay. “Anything that looks like you really don’t want to hurt anybody or burn a car that could cause any kind of danger…we’re really going to shut down everything.”
Still, Chargepoint chargers often work, Wilmer says.
What comes next
Then there are different EV charging networks. When you need gas, it doesn’t matter much where you get it. Shell, BP, Exxon or whatever, they all work the same way.
With EV chargers, you must download a new smartphone app using a different charging network and sign in with another service account before you can start charging. This is something that charging industry groups have been trying to clear up, though.
One thing J.D. Power’s studies show is that drivers who plan ahead to charge up seem happier than those who don’t, Gruber says. Nowadays, various apps and vehicle navigation systems make planning routes with charging stops very easy. You can see what chargers are available where and now.
Mark Hawkinson, technical solutions team leader at ABM, which installs the charging stations, said they are working to provide more details on how long it will take for a car to use the charger.
And while EV charging is complicated, every little bit of extra information helps.