Why EV operations minutiae, not big strategic announcements, will decide the success of the EV transition
PA Consulting energy and utilities expert Matt Lichtash shares steps that US EV companies can take to successfully implement their programs and meet long term goals.
Electric vehicles are surging in popularity, and soon they will comprise the bulk of the car market. Indeed, recent federal legislation in the U.S. allocated over $50 billion for electric vehicles and their supporting infrastructure this decade. Entities like Hertz (25% EV fleet by 2024), Ford and GM (100% zero-carbon sales by 2035), New York City (100% EV taxi target by 2030), and several states (CA, NJ, NY, OR and WA gas car bans by 2035) all raised eyebrows with their extensive long-term electrification targets.
These entities, all near the beginning of their electrification journeys, rightly formulated and announced their bold ambitions. However, the greatest value — and obstacles — in navigating this transition lies not in strategic planning and long-term target setting, but rather in the minutiae of implementing and operating electrified assets.
Entities should never announce “we will deploy this many EVs and chargers, in these places” — the typical press release strategy — in isolation. Such announcements should always be coupled with specific shorter-term steps to ensure timely asset deployment, smooth operations and optimal utilization. Sure, those details are less buzzworthy and glamorous, but they will ensure that the EV industry avoids costly setbacks and breaches of consumer trust. Put simply, chargers must get in the ground quickly, and work seamlessly.
Focusing on EV implementation transparency will establish trust
The “announce first, solve barriers later” mindset so predominant in the vehicle electrification industry today is a drag on progress. Consider the steps needed to deploy an EV charging site: finding real estate, designing the station layout, permitting, procurement, construction, testing and operations all take time to get right. Indeed, according to a major EV fast charging developer, the best and worst case scenario for navigating this series of fraught steps range from six to 18 months (with some entities even taking longer).
Take three examples: California’s average permitting time for major EV fast charging deployments took 81 days; California utilities took an additional six months to connect projects to the grid after they had otherwise finished construction; in New York City, several EV fast charging hubs, some announced as early as 2021, are still in construction purgatory, unfinished as of early 2023, with few providing a commitment to near-term completion.
Of course, the industry is in the early stages of maturity, and there will be growing pains. Changing decades-old processes, like permitting and utility interconnection, takes time and every single EV developer struggles with this. But if EV charging developers publicly listed the stage of development for each project on their websites, this level of transparency would increase, rather than decrease, trust in the general public: charging developers can be up front about these thorny challenges. Not providing timely updates on project status breeds mistrust and will hamper EV adoption. If it takes three years to build a charging hub, why should consumers, especially urban ones without home charging options, buy EVs right now?
EV charging operators must understand the complete data landscape of their systems
Transparency in EV charging project development would go a long way to instilling consumer confidence that future charging hubs can be built at scale — but timely development isn’t even half the battle. Once the stations are built, they need to work reliably, and right now, most networks (save for Tesla Superchargers), have myriad operational issues. Despite most major EV networks claiming on their websites that they have “95%+ uptime,” drivers do not experience 95% hassle-free charging.
As The New York Times documented, nearly one-quarter of fast charging stations in the Bay Area were non-functional (from vehicle-charger communication problems, broken credit card readers or plugs, slow charging speeds or other technical issues) during a secret-shopper study. Even Tesla’s recent foray into opening up some of their charging stations to non-Tesla vehicles has not been flawless — many of the first non-Tesla customer experiences show charging difficulties.
These operational problems exist for two reasons: sub-par monitoring and diagnostic, known as M&D services from charging software providers, and a fragmented charging vendor landscape causing no one entity to be accountable for critical O&M activities such as maintaining reliable operations and quickly responding to repairs in the field. To address these core problems and reinvigorate customer trust, we must outline both the root causes and potential solutions.
For M&D, the root cause of the problem is that entities responsible for maintaining network health often do not have a complete window into all relevant data, including the current functional status of key components such as credit card readers (are they working or not?) and on-board charger power electronics (are all charger power supply blocks at full health?). Additionally, full historical logs of all vehicle-charger interactions are often incomplete or hard to interpret.
Solving this would require more tightly defining M&D capabilities during charger software procurement: vendors must be able to show you the current state of health of all charger parts, and comprehensively capture and log each customer-charger interaction. Regulators responsible for managing ratepayer funding should also consider requiring simple, effective publishing of these key reliability statistics, such as the percentage of customer-charger interactions that result in a successful charge, from EV charging developers.
For the fragmented vendor landscape, the root cause of the problem is that each step in the EV charging value chain is controlled by disparate entities working in silos. There is no “single point of responsibility” for charger issues: one company controls the charger hardware, another the credit card reader, another the EV payment apps and M&D software, and yet another the on-site repair. Some charging providers have found ways to cobble this ecosystem together, but few have truly vertically integrated: one entity must have full control over each of these, in order to ensure that the maintenance lifecycle, from issue detection, to diagnosis, and resolution, happens quickly.
If certain elements, like physical credit card readers, cannot be in-sourced and improved, the EV charging industry must then take a hard look at whether those weak links in the customer experience should be bypassed altogether (while maintaining widespread public accessibility).
We have no time to lose in addressing the gory details of EV implementation and operations. These details will not be fodder for salacious headlines and press releases, but focusing on them will allow us to begin changing long-standing hurdles — time we are running short of if we are to rapidly decarbonize transport in support of preserving a livable climate.