All over the world, governmental bodies, agencies, and charities are jumping on the electric vehicle bandwagon. They’re embracing the dawn of the age of the zero emission vehicle with enthusiasm and gusto, helping to install charging point after charging point for the benefit of electric and plug-in hybrid drivers.
Thanks to generous grants and financial support from automakers like Nissan, BMW and Volkswagen, we’ve even seen an explosion in rapid charging stations, offering customers with suitably-equipped cars the ability to recharge their cars from empty to 80 percent full in as little as 30 minutes. With the exception of Tesla Motors [NASDAQ:TSLA] — whose Supercharger network is owned and operated by Tesla exclusively for its own customers — the remaining non-Tesla charging stations are owned and operated by a dizzying array of different organisations, companies and municipalities.
But while more electric car charging stations is a great thing for encouraging more people behind the wheel of a plug-in car, there’s a global endemic threatening the operation of charging stations and the very future of plug-in cars through poor reliability, a lack of accountability and inconsistent access.
We think all three comes from a lack of regulation and accountability among the charging station providers, which is why we think car charging networks need impartial, third party regulation in order to survive. What’s more, we think that regulation needs to happen quickly, or the charging industry faces major collapse.
With that in mind, here are three things we think plug-in networks need — and why they can only be regulated by a third party in the interests of true accountability. There’s a possible exception for sites with low-powered 110-volt charging and so-called ‘dumb sockets,’ but we’ll come to that presently.
Here’s the biggie. Reliability among electric car charging networks isn’t good enough. And while different networks and even different sites will have wildly different reliability and uptime to neighboring stations a few miles down the road, the lack of reliability is proving a challenge to many users.
Here in the UK, we recently visited a location with four different type 2 (level 2) charging stations installed. Of those four, only one was in operation, and the one we tried using inadvertently locked on to our charging cable but failed to provide any power. The emergency out-of-hours helpline — staffed by volunteers from the company in question — tried to be as helpful as they could but couldn’t help us retrieve the stuck cable until the following day. Luckily, some persuasion enabled us to retrieve it.
But we’re not alone. Look at any online charging database form the Open Charge Map through to PlugShare, and you’ll see tales of woe from electric vehicle owners around the globe who have found a broken charging station, unresponsive card reader, or simply haven’t been able to get their cars to communicate with the station.
It doesn’t matter if you’re in Boston, Lincolnshire or Boston, Massachusetts; Portland, Oregon or Portland, Devon, charging station reliability is a major issue. It’s the same no matter the network too — with perhaps the exception of Tesla’s privately-owned and privately-operated Supercharger network — there are just too many faults across every charging network we’ve looked at, although we note some are worse than others.
Worse still, many charging providers with units that are offline or broken often blame someone else, like the sites themselves or the hardware manufacturers, for the problems.
And after four years in the field — more in some cases — we’re starting to get fed up with the same-old argument that plug-in cars are a cutting edge technology that will surely have ‘teething problems’. Yes, problems are inevitable, but we need an agreed way to deal with them.
So how would regulation work? In the world of regulated utility companies, poor service and brownouts results in fines for the offending companies. In some situations, payouts or compensation can be claimed by paying customers. Regulating public charging stations (and levying fines against providers who didn’t meet acceptable uptime or provision levels) would, we think, dramatically improve service and eliminate the blame culture.
But in order for true accountability, that level of service would need to extend from the charging networks through to the manufacturers of the equipment and the sites which host the charging. In order for true accountability and reliability, each needs to be regulated or at least held accountable when things go wrong that lie outside of the bounds of an ‘act of God.’
Which brings us to charging for charging. At the moment, many charging networks provide their customers with free electricity, making it hard — and we think a little disingenuous — for customers to complain when things go wrong.
By setting out a fair pricing structure through a third-party regulator, charging providers are not only provided with a predictable income but customers are also given a right to complain when things aren’t as they should be.
Paying a fair price for the electricity consumed at a charging station — plus a fair overhead charge to cover maintenance and administration — also provides charging providers with an income stream that they can use to ensure the continued functionality of the network. Moreover, charging for charging also means that there’s more funds to allow charging providers to offer at least rudimentary 24/7 support, even if that equates to training up a member of staff at each charging location to understand how to safely perform a hardware hard reset if something goes awry with a unit. (In many cases, we understand, that can be enough to clear whatever the error was and enable further operation.)
Regulating the pricing of charging electric cars through a third party, just like utility companies are regulated, also means that both customers and providers have a clear path that they can take if they disagree with rulings on fees.
There’s more. By charging for providing a service, charging providers also eliminate the increasing problem of ‘freeloaders:’ electric vehicle drivers who live near a rapid charging station who will stop and charge there for free rather than charge at home. It also eliminates the problem of ‘charging station hogs:’ people who camp out at a charging station to get every last drop of power from a rapid charge, no matter how long it takes.
In both of those cases, someone who is paying a set fee per kilowatt-hour or per minute will be less likely to take advantage of the charging station, leaving it for other users whose need is more pressing.
Finally, we come to roaming agreements or payment processes. Regulating charging provision in a way similar to utility companies or telecoms companies should make it easier to mandate a set roaming agreement between different providers, including setting any allowable overage charges or extras tacked on to a customer’s account for roaming.
Most importantly however, mandating a roaming component through regulatory processes would make it easier and more transparent for a customer to cross between different charging networks as they travel. Moreover, in some situations — as we have here in the UK — it would allow customers of one network to drive a few miles down the road to a functioning charging station operated by a different network and get a charge without being stranded without the correct access card.
Of course, one of the ways around this particular conundrum would be to mandate contactless payment or smartphone connectivity for each charging station. But in some cases that could be costly and cause a negative impact for the industry.
But ask yourself this: when was the last time you tried to use a gas station and was turned away because you didn’t have the correct bank card or money? We’re guessing it’s only happened if you accidentally tried to use a ‘member only’ gas station like the ones operated by Costco.
Regulation: an unnecessary evil?
We get it. Regulation isn’t all that it’s cracked up to be. And sometimes, regulation can cause more problems than it solves. But just as utility companies, road regulations and the telecoms industry — just like many other public services — charging providers are responsible for providing a public service to an increasing number of plug-in and electric car drivers.
Just as gas stations are regulated, so too do we think it’s time to embrace at least some fundamental regulation among the charging providers of the world. But as we’ve learned from bad experiences across a multitude of different industries in the past — the oil and gas industry most noticeably — regulation needs to come from an outside body, not from within.
As far as we’re concerned, charging regulation is a necessary evil, with perhaps an exception for companies and sites who offer basic 110-volt or 240-volt outlets. In our experience, they rarely fail and are the most reliable of charging provision available.
Initially, it will be a tough task, and we may very well see the number of public charging stations drop, perhaps even dramatically, while the industry has time to adjust to the new reality. But as we’re sure you’ll agree, it’s far better to have a fifty thousand reliable charging stations around the world that are reliable and their owners accountable than it is to have one hundred thousand unreliable, unpredictable, and untrustworthy ones.
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