Whether you’re charging your car with electronics or gasoline, powering up should always be easy. If it’s an electric car, you should be able to swipe a credit card, plug in a cable, and your car will just… charge. And it actually works that way a decent amount of the time.
Unfortunately, not always. There are inconsistent charger designs, different charging speeds, and acronym overload. (Is it CCS or NACS? Why can’t I find CHAdeMO when I need it and why does it say that?) There are fast chargers that aren’t always very fast – but that’s not always the charger’s fault. Also, how do I pay for it? But where is the charger?
As the industry expands and agrees on standards, many problems are solved and a lot of pointless confusion is eliminated. But other differences come only with technology, and probably always will.
Surveys by JD Power show that despite the availability of more and more EV chargers, EV owners are actually less satisfied with public charging. When it comes to consumer satisfaction, EV charging has some very poor corporates.
“They’re still very low, and that’s compared to some notoriously low-satisfaction industries like telecom and cable providers,” said Brent Gruber, managing director of electric vehicle practice at JD Power.
Lack of chargers remains the biggest complaint, Gruber said. According to the Department of Energy, there are approximately 144,000 public EV chargers in the United States. About 42,000 of them are in California. States like Mississippi and Montana—admittedly less populated, but people still have to drive there—only have a few hundred.
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The CCS charging port on the Volvo VNR electric truck.
Charging public EVs is particularly complicated. First of all, there are currently various chargers. Do you have a Tesla or something? Most major automakers have said they’ll switch to Tesla’s NACS, or North American Charging System, format in a few years, but that hasn’t happened yet. Fortunately, most of these non-Tesla automakers have some type of charging port called a Combined Charging System, or CCS.
Charging ports: What all the letters mean
With CCS, you can be sure that if you find a charger that isn’t a Tesla charger, you should be able to use it. Well, if you don’t have a Nissan Leaf with a ChaDeMo (or Charge de Move) port for fast charging. In this case, you may have trouble finding a place to join.
One of the great things about owning an EV is that you can charge at home if you can install a home charger. A home charger is like having a gas pump in your garage. Just plug in and wake up with a “full tank” that’s cheaper per mile than you pay for gas in the morning.
Charging an EV away from home costs more than charging at home, sometimes twice as much. (Someone has to pay to keep that charger in addition to electricity.) There’s more to think about.
First, how fast is this charger? There are basically two types of public chargers, Level 2 and Level 3. (Level 1 basically just plugs into a regular outlet.) Level 2 is relatively slow, good for when you’re at the movies or a restaurant. , let’s say you just want to pick up some electricity when you’re parked.
The math and myth of fast charging
If you’re on a long trip and want to quickly run out of juice to get back on the highway, that’s what Level 3 chargers are for. However, there are a few things you should keep in mind along with these. How fast is fast? With a really fast charger, some cars can go from 10% charged to 80% in just 15 minutes, adding another 100 miles every few minutes. (Charging usually slows above 80% to reduce damage to batteries.) However, many fast chargers are slower. Fifty kilowatt fast chargers are common, but take longer than 150 or 250 kW chargers.
The car also has its limitations and not every car can charge as fast as every charger. Your electric vehicle and charger communicate to solve this.
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A ChargePoint electric vehicle (EV) charging station at the Lafontaine Kia dealership in Detroit, Michigan, U.S., Thursday, July 13, 2023.
Nathan Wang, project manager of the UL Solutions Advanced Electric Vehicles Charging Lab, says that when an electric vehicle is first plugged in, a lot of information is sent back and forth between the vehicle and the charger before any electrical movement begins. First, the car must tell the charger how fast it can safely charge, and the charger must respect that speed limit.
The popular Chevrolet Bolt EV, for example, can only charge up to 55 kilowatts. You can choose to connect to a faster charger, but you won’t finish it as quickly. The charger simply slows down to meet the needs of the car.
In addition, even if your electric car can charge up to 250 kilowatts, the charger can get much less than that. This could be because you’re in a location with, say, six fast chargers and each one has a car plugged into the grid. Chargers can reduce the output of all vehicles rather than overloading the system, Wang said.
Of course, there may be occasional technical issues. With so much energy moving around, if anything looks like it might go wrong, the system can shut things down.
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Pedestrians walk past an electric vehicle charging station in Corte Madera, California on July 28, 2023, in an aerial view. Seven major automakers announced plans earlier this year to increase the number of high-powered electric vehicle chargers in the country with 30,000 new charging stations along highways and in urban areas.
“Safety is paramount,” said Rick Wilmer, chief operating officer of EV charging provider ChargePoint. “Obviously you don’t want to hurt anyone or set the car on fire to pose any danger… we’ll automatically shut everything down of course.”
Still, ChargePoint’s chargers work most of the time, Wilmer said.
What will come
Then there are the various EV charging networks. If you want some gas, it doesn’t really matter where you get it. Whether it’s Shell, BP, Exxon, or any company, they pretty much all work the same way.
With electric chargers using a different charging network, you must download a new smartphone app and open an account with another service before charging. That’s something charging industry groups are working to clarify.
JD Power’s surveys show that drivers who plan to charge ahead of time seem happier than those who don’t, Gruber said. These days, various apps and the vehicles’ own navigation systems make it quite easy to plan routes with charging stops. You can see what types of chargers are available and where they are currently available.
Mark Hawkinson, head of technical solutions at ABM, which builds charging stations, said charging companies are currently working on being able to provide more detailed information, such as how long a car using a charger will last.
As complicated as EV charging is, every little bit of extra information helps.