Biden Moves to Rein In the Wild West of Car Charging

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The Biden administration wants to make sure America’s next 500,000 charging stations work a lot better than the 59,000 it already has.

As the White House prepares to spend $7.5 billion on public EV infrastructure, it published a lengthy set of rules Wednesday aimed squarely at the broken chargers and confusing pricing that have hamstrung EV adoption to date. Roughly one in five public fast-charging sessions is a failure, according to a recent J.D. Powers report, and Twitter appears as crowded with irate EV owners as it is Tesla evangelists.

“The establishment of this final rule provides a powerful antidote to these issues,” read the criteria laid out by the Department of Transportation. “Consumers will be more confident in the availability, safety and consistency of the EV charging stations.”

The document lays the groundwork for some 500,000 new charging stations that the government plans to fund in the next five years. It also represents the first national oversight of EV infrastructure; most notably, it mandates that each federally funded charger: 

  • has 4 ports has an “uptime,” or is functional, more than 97% of the time prominently displays pricing in dollars per kWh (as opposed to dollars per minute).
  • offers contactless payments, and an 800 number for phone payments does not require a membership of any kind is connected to a multilingual customer service line.
  • is interoperable with other charging networks.
  • is maintained for at least five years regularly reports critical metrics.

“Uptime is probably the No. 1 thing,” said Andrew Fox, CEO of Charge Enterprises Inc., which designs and builds charging stations. “It’s just like the cell-phone commercial ‘Can you hear me now?’ There was so much friction with cell phones in the early days and that’s exactly what we’re experiencing now. ”

American EV infrastructure is still both anemic and fragmented. The country is scattered with blinky chargers, many already dated or too distant to maintain. Meanwhile, vast electron deserts still patch the South and American West as charging networks wait for paying customers and would-be EV drivers hold out for public places to fill a battery. It’s a chicken-and-egg standoff that the Biden administration aimed to break up with its big-ticket infrastructure plan in late 2021. The National Electric Vehicle Infrastructure Program called for fast, public charging stations every 50 miles nationwide, but most of the details about what those sites will look like and how they will operate weren’t fleshed out until yesterday.

Albert Gore, executive director of the Zero Emission Transportation Association, said the rules will have a psychological impact among EV drivers and the EV curious, establishing confidence in a way that the federal highway system first engendered trust in road-trippers.

“It is really looking at it as public infrastructure, a public good,” he said. “Ideally, this makes it so that wherever you go there’s a refueling station nearby that is going to work.”

In tandem with the rules, the White House said a range of businesses are accelerating charging investments, including Hertz and TravelCenters of America. The administration also said that Tesla will open some of its US chargers to other brands for the first time. Unlike its auto rivals, Tesla built its own network from scratch on the thesis that charging infrastructure helps sell cars. It agreed to open 7,500 cords to rival brands by the end of 2024.

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