In a nondescript office park in San Jose, Calif., ChargePoint Holdings Inc. runs a torture lab of sorts. It’s here that the operator of the U.S.’s largest network of EV chargers subjects its products to extreme temperatures and rain, and puts them through simulated dust storms and earthquakes. Pulley systems tug on charging cords over and over, mimicking years of use, and a different device slams a steel ball against chargers to see if they’ll crack. Every year, the lab tests about 3,300 chargers, which then can’t be deployed in the wild.
“You take this thing that’s expensive, and you basically burn it up,” ChargePoint CEO Pasquale Romano said, as a row of machines nearby simulated plugging and unplugging the chargers’ connectors.
ChargePoint’s process is geared at fixing one of the EV transition’s most pressing problems: public charging stations that often don’t work. Parts break, information screens freeze, payment systems malfunction. Copper thieves steal the cords. Vandals damage charging plugs or, in one infamous instance, stuff them with ground meat. In the U.S., nascent networks mean that if the machines at one station aren’t working, there may not be another nearby.
A decade ago, early EV adopters were willing to put up with unreliable public chargers. Now, however, the problem threatens President Joe Biden’s EV ambitions. Biden has made electric cars a cornerstone of his climate and economic policies, devoting $5 billion to the buildout of a charging network along major roads and $2.5 billion to charging within communities. The goal is convincing every American driver to go electric. But it’s a leap of faith for many — one they may not be willing to make if they don’t trust that public chargers will work.
“We’re really at the point right now where we have to address these issues before we get further along in EV adoption,” said Brent Gruber, executive director of global automotive research for J.D. Power. “The mindset is changing, from the early adopters who expected some bumps in the road, to the mainstream consumer who is not willing to overlook those problems.”
J.D. Power regularly surveys EV drivers in the U.S. about their charging experiences, working in collaboration with the PlugShare app that many drivers use to locate stations. Two years ago, 14.5 percent of respondents said they’d been unable to charge at a public station. Now it’s 21.4 percent. “It’s definitely heading in the wrong direction,” Gruber said.