In late 2023, Mercedes-Benz opened the brand’s first Charging Hub in North America at a location near Atlanta, GA. The hubs are meant to provide a “premium” charging experience for drivers of any EV brand. (Image: Mercedes-Benz)

Automakers and EV charging services know time is running out on reversing widespread cynicism regarding the state of EV public-charging infrastructure. Despite billions of dollars of already dedicated and planned investment, the spottiness of the nation’s charging ecosystem consistently is cited as the chief reason for flagging EV sales and consumer consideration.

BMW said its i5 is the first EV model to support plug-and-charge protocols. (Image: BMW)

Although there is contentious debate about whether sales of light-duty EVs are declining rather than just growing more slowly, there a few who will argue that the current state of the EV charging network is far from ideal. According to J.D. Power data from the third quarter of 2023, nearly 20 percent of public-charging attempts failed. “What we’ve learned is that the infrastructure is at the top of reasons for rejection of EVs,” Steve Kosowski, Manager of Strategy at Kia America, told the Los Angeles Times in a story about California’s EV infrastructure issues.

The infrastructure’s macro problems largely are now understood and acknowledged, said panelists speaking in the “Enhancing the Light-Duty EV Charging Experience” session at SAE International’s 2024 Government/Industry Meeting in Washington, DC, in January 2024 — and there’s an emergent blueprint centered on closer industry collaborations and other initiatives to hasten improvement. Almost all the session’s speakers agreed that EV charging access — and equally important, reliability — has to improve.

EV charging “oasis” proposed by fast-food giant Subway includes playground and other facilities to make the best use of time while EVs recharge. (Image: Subway)

Niels Bohn, Head of Powertrain and Electromobility at BMW of North America, said the company has been assessing the “end-to-end” charging experience with cross-country test drives. It also uses data gleaned from vehicle onboard systems to monitor charging sessions and quality, among other analyses. As with other speakers, he said BMW recognizes an immediate need for the infrastructure is ubiquitous “plug-and-charge” functionality to eliminate the chaos — and related charging-session failures — common in today’s complex payment environment. Some automakers and charging providers are underway with plug-and-charge arrangements and Bohn said BMW has initiated plug-and-charge starting with its new i5 EV.

Sarah Hipel, Program Manager, Standards and Reliability, at the Joint Office of Energy and Transportation, speaks at SAE’s 2024 Government/Industry Meeting. (Image: SAE/ Bill Visnic)

Erika Myers, Executive Director, Charging Interface Initiative North America for the CharIN consortium, said there is an “evolution in the sophistication of communications between EVs and chargers. Nonetheless, she said that only about 30 percent of current EVs support plug-and-charge capability. She did not provide a figure for plug-and-charge compliant charging networks.

Sarah Hipel, Program Manager, Standards and Reliability, at the Joint Office of Energy and Transportation, acknowledged that the current matrix of charging apps often required for a long EV isn’t ideal — and suggested that enhancing the reach of plug-and-charge technology may address some of the problem — but probably not all. She said there are “convening areas” of market implementation that must be explored to expedite the payment process.

“We want the charging experience to be better than the gas-station experience,” asserted Emily Durham, VP, Legal and Government Affairs for charging giant Electrify America.

Expanding Collaborations

To achieve the reliability and interoperability that replicates the liquid-fueling infrastructure, the auto and charging industries have embarked on a variety of collaborations, but the session’s speakers said more — and more cohesiveness — is necessary. Hipel said increased collaborative effectiveness is the goal of the Joint Office’s National Charging Experience Consortium, or ChargeX in shorthand. Launched in May 2023, ChargeX is led by U.S. Dept. of Energy National Laboratories and its expanding membership numbers some 75 entities that include the Detroit Three automakers, BMW, Tesla, and numerous charging companies, including Chargepoint, Electrify America, and EVgo.

The ChargeX Consortium, Hipel said, continues to frame its work on improving the charging infrastructure in three problematic aspects of the charging experience:

  • payment processing and user interface

  • vehicle-charger communication

  • diagnostic data sharing.

“Our standard is ‘charge first time, every time,” Hipel stressed. The Joint Office also is in charge of the often-referenced National Electric Vehicle Infrastructure (NEVI) program charged with spending $5 billion between 2022 and 2027 to install 500,000 public EV chargers. The first NEVI-funded charging station, a public DC fast-charging facility in central Ohio, became operational in December 2023.

The NEVI program, Hipel said, includes $100 million in funding for routine maintenance and repair, a vital component of assuring high levels of charger uptime and delivering the “first time, every time” experience. Low uptime is frequently noted as a pain point for the existing infrastructure.

There currently is a complex patchwork of sometimes overlapping automaker-guided charging initiatives. Tesla in 2023 made arrangements with multiple automakers to grant those brands’ EV customers access to the coveted — and highly reliable — Supercharger network, but BMW General Motors, Honda, Hyundai, Kia, Mercedes-Benz, and Stellantis joined for an announced $1-billion collaboration to install some 30,000 public chargers. Mercedes-Benz, however, also said it plans to invest more than $1 billion in a joint venture with MN8 Energy to install a total of 2,500 chargers at some 400 charging hubs across North America by the end of the decade.

Electrify America’s Durhma said the service is the only current plug-and-charge compatible charging network and its 900-plus stations and more than 4000 chargers are seeing increased usage. She said the network averages 250,000 weekly charging sessions, but asked rhetorically, “Where do we go now that chargers are in the ground and vehicles are on the road?”

Next Step to Connector Standardization

SAE International announced in December 2023 that it released the Technical Information Report (TIR) for the SAE J3400 standard covering development and implementation of the Tesla-developed NACS (North American Charging Standard) connector to couple public and residential charging units to EVs made by any automaker. The action was a vital step in the move to standardize connectors at all public charging stations and their on-vehicle counterparts.

In a release, the organization said the SAE J3400 North American Charging Standard Electric Vehicle Coupler Technical Information Report (TIR) “was developed through broad-based industry consensus in the SAE Hybrid-EV J3400 TM NACS Electric Vehicle Coupler Task Force.”

Volkswagen hopes to accelerate availability of public fast charging with “portable” power storage containers, or PSCs, each using 96 cell modules repurposed from pre-production versions of VW ID.3 and ID.4 models. Each PSC has net capacity of 570 kWh. (Image: Volkswagen)

Release of the TIR for the J3400 standard means certain critical engineering and development parameters have been established to allow developers to proceed with certainty about many critical aspects of deployment and commercialization of the NACS connector. Ford and GM this spring were the first in a string of automakers to indicate they would adopt the NACS charging connector. SAE said in June 2023 that it would standardize the NACS connector.

A 2024 Jeep Grand Cherokee 4xe hybrid recharging. Although many automakers have stated their intention to adopt the NACS charging connector, as of late 2023, Jeep parent company Stellantis had yet to confirm it is considering an option to the current SAE J1772 Combined Charging System (CCS) connector. (Image: Stellantis)

The CharIN collaborative currently has some 325 members globally. Myers said at the SAE Government/Industry Meeting that efforts are underway with a task force that will “support seamless interoperability for NACS and the J3400 standard.

SAE said that in addition to benefiting EV drivers, the J3400 standard will help to ensure that any supplier or manufacturer will be able to use, manufacture, or deploy the J3400 connector for vehicles and charging stations in North America. “SAE J3400 provides a blueprint for cost-effective mass electrification of transportation in North America,” said Dr. Rodney McGee, Ph.D., P.E., who is Chairman of the SAE J3400 NACS Task Force and also is a Research Engineer at the Transportation Electrification Center at the University of Delaware. The standard, he stressed, “facilitates broad interoperability for EV charging solutions by providing a unified, compact connector for both AC and DC charging.”

Crucially, the standardized approach also means that the same utility power feeds used for public DC fast charging can be utilized for single-phase AC charging used in homes and other facilities, “eliminating the need for separate circuit panels and additional step-down transformers at charging sites, resulting in Lower infrastructure costs and higher efficiencies,” SAE said.

In the release confirming the completion of the TIR for the J3400 standard, SAE said the U.S.’s Joint Office of Energy and Transportation was instrumental in fostering the SAE-Tesla partnership to expedite plans to standardize NACS. “As the Joint Office supports the buildout of a convenient and reliable national charging network, open and interoperable standards are crucial to ensuring that every EV can charge at any station,” said Gabe Klein, Executive Director of the Joint Office of Energy and Transportation. “We appreciate the commitment and knowledge of SAE and its experts from the automotive, EV charging, academic, and government sectors to make the charging experience easier and more accessible for Americans nationwide.”

Although there have been questions about the continuing consumer uptake of EVs, BMW’s Bohn said at the conference that the robustness of the charging network is the key to achieving consumer acceptance. “We are not concerned about EV adoption,” he said. “Once we improve the reliability of the EV charging network, we will see the increase in adoption.”

The Joint Office’s Hipel said there’s no obfuscating that the charging experience must improve if consumers are expected to embrace EV technology. “We have [charging infrastructure] reliability challenges. The strategy is to demonstrate that we can do this — we need to prove it. We have a lot of work to do.”

This article was written by Bill Visnic, Editorial Director at SAE International. For more information, visit here .