Clean energy journalism for a cooler tomorrow

Will universally compatible EV chargers ever be a reality in the US?

A fragmented business landscape is to blame for many of the problems that plague EV charging. Government-backed standards could change that — if the industry obliges.
By Jeff St. John

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Graphic showing a woman connecting her car to an EV charger. There are 3 question marks between the cord and the charger.
(Binh Nguyen/Canary Media)

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This is the final piece in a three-part series exploring the biggest problems with public EV charging — and how to fix them (read Part 1 and Part 2). Canary thanks EnergyHub for its support of the series.

Erika Myers can talk about EV charging standards all day. After all, as head of the world’s premier organization dedicated to promoting them, that’s pretty much her job.

She does wish she could spend less time talking about the EV charging-standards topic that’s been making headlines lately, though: the debate over which type of EV charging plug will end up dominating the U.S. fast-charging market. That battle has pitted Tesla’s proprietary North American Charging Standard (NACS) against the Combined Charging System plugs used by almost every other EV sold in the country — although that may be changing soon, as major automakers plan to switch to NACS-compatible plug ports for their future EV models.

It’s not that charging-plug standards are unimportant. Far from it. It’s just that Myers, as the executive director of the 330-plus-member-strong Charging Interface Initiative North America, known as CharIN, has a million and one other pressing standards questions to address too.

We’re beyond connector standards,” she said. Whatever is preventing a good consumer experience on the charging front, that’s where we focus our time and energy. And, absolutely, interoperability and standards development are part of that.”

In Part 1 and Part 2 of this series, we’ve detailed the problems with the country’s unreliable public EV charging infrastructure. We’ve also covered how industry and government efforts to improve performance — including the requirements attached to the largest federal EV charging investment in U.S. history — may be held back by a lack of data.

These reliability problems largely have their roots in the lack of standardization across the U.S. EV charging industry. Too often, EV drivers are stymied by charging stations that don’t communicate effectively with their vehicle’s charging-management software, or by a payment processing platform that doesn’t work with the smartphone applications they happen to have downloaded.

When you go up to your gas pump, you know it’s going to work with your car,” Myers said. But you don’t have the same experience with your charger.”

At its core, what the industry faces is a massive coordination problem: getting EV chargers that are built by different manufacturers, operated by different charging network providers and using software from scores of different companies, to work smoothly with EVs built by automakers from around the world — all while new EV models and versions of software keep being released.

Convincing automakers, EV charging operators and the universe of hardware and software providers that serve them to standardize how their technologies will work together could be a vital accelerant to the EV transition, clearing the road of the interoperability obstacles that have plagued its early development, Myers believes.

Myers and CharIN aren’t alone in looking to standardization to solve the industry’s problems. It’s also core to the federal government’s plans for getting millions of EVs on the road before the decade’s end.

In February, the Biden administration released the rules for the state agencies and their private-sector partners seeking funding from the $5 billion National Electric Vehicle Infrastructure (NEVI) program established by the 2021 Bipartisan Infrastructure Law. The program includes a host of requirements for federally funded projects to use standards-based technologies that enable them to serve every EV driver — both today and into the future.

Those stipulations could drive significant change in the fragmented U.S. EV charging landscape — but only if the companies that make up the EV charging industry can execute on them.

Why standardization is a tricky goal 

Signs of the standardization challenge are everywhere you look in the U.S. EV market. As it stands, it’s not even easy to get an answer to the most basic question: Which technologies work together?

There is not a well-developed structure for creating and sharing common diagnostic information” between chargers and vehicles, said John Smart, director of the National Charging Experience (ChargeX) Consortium, a public-private group formed by the federal Joint Office of Energy and Transportation, which was created to administer federal EV charging funding.

And right now the status quo is that every charger must be tested with every vehicle to prove interoperability — and of course, that is not scalable,” he added.

This graphic from a ChargeX publication shows the mix of standard and nonstandard communications modes between EVs, EV chargers and the back-end software platforms now used across the industry. It indicates just how complicated it can be to get them all working together smoothly. 

Graphic illustrating the communications pathways between EVs, EV chargers and back-end EV charging management software

Part of ChargeX’s work is to coordinate automakers, charging manufacturers, public-charging network operators and software developers and to achieve consensus on which technologies to use to fix this. But the effort must contend with the lag between the speed at which charging hardware and software is being deployed today and the struggle of open technology standards to keep up with them.

Take the Open Charge Point Protocol, or OCPP, as a case in point. It’s a commonly used open-communications protocol maintained by the Open Charge Alliance and has become the primary template for sharing data on charger uptime, status and performance between charging stations and the back-end systems that manage them in Europe and North America.

But until recently, OCPP 1.6 — the most commonly used version of the standard, first released in 2015 — had a key flaw, said Julian Offermann, CEO of S44, a New Jersey-based open-source EV charging software provider. Instead of providing system operators a menu of error codes that can indicate what precise problem caused a charging session to fail or end prematurely, OCPP 1.6 had only a single error” message.

This lack of visibility into the charging-station components really makes it difficult,” Offermann said. If you don’t have a clear monitoring eye on these systems, you don’t know what’s gone wrong.”

ChargeX’s Smart agreed that the single error code provided by OCPP 1.6 was akin to a get-out-of-jail-free card” for the charging system manufacturers and network operators implementing it. Each charging manufacturer developed different ways to detect internal component failures, and getting all of them to agree on a common method of translating those proprietary error messages into a standard data-reporting format is complicated.

The latest version of the standard, OCPP 2.0.1, formally released in 2020, corrects this problem by incorporating far more error codes, Smart noted — and the NEVI standard requires all projects using its funding to employ this latest standard. Still, there’s a lot of latitude given to the charging station operator about how they choose to report their error[s],” he said.

But OCPP 2.0.1 is not backward-compatible” with the old version, creating complexities for charging operators seeking to update existing charging networks to use it. That’s one example of how real-world technology deployments can quickly get ahead of the consensus-based pace of standards development.

The NEVI program offers an opportunity for federal requirements to try to get ahead of these issues with the chargers to come. In November, ChargeX issued a list of 26 recommended minimum error codes.

We’re recommending that all companies in the EV charging business use at least these so that anyone involved in finding and fixing problems can easily understand and interpret the data,” Smart said.

Following the money: Payment processing problems

Payment authorization is a key failure point — and a good demonstration of the difficulty of enforcing standards in the EV charging space. On a test of public EV chargers across the Los Angeles area, nearly 10 percent of the 120-plus chargers Wall Street Journal reporter Joanna Stern visited that were otherwise in working order failed to accept her credit card.

At least those stations are equipped to accept credit and debit cards, noted S44’s Offermann. Many EV charging stations deployed in the early days of the industry required drivers to carry vendor-specific RFID cards or key fobs to activate a charge, and many charging operators still offer them. Starting around 2010, public charging stations began to offer smartphone apps that EV drivers could use instead of the cards or fobs — an improvement in some ways, but still a fragmented and, at times, frustrating process.

That’s cumbersome — you have to download an app to get the charge started,” Offermann said. While it might work for some EV drivers, I don’t want to plan ahead of time to know where I’m going to charge and how I’m going to charge,” he added.

Government mandates have increasingly pushed charging networks away from these proprietary methods and toward accepting credit and debit cards. But retrofitting stations to use those payment methods comes with its own difficulties.

Credit and debit card readers can be clunky, they can be exposed to a lot of wear and tear, and they can require frequent maintenance,” said Sara Rafalson, EVgo’s senior vice president of market development and public policy. The rules for NEVI and other federally funded programs do require that stations accept credit and debit cards, but only via contactless tap-and-pay systems, which are more tamper-proof than the tech for swiping or inserting a card.

The holy grail for payments is what’s called plug-and-charge” capability: enabling payment for charging via automated data-sharing between EVs and charging platforms. That would allow drivers to simply plug in and start charging without having to use an RFID fob, smartphone app, credit card or other existing payment methods.

Tesla Superchargers support this capability today — an easier task for a company that has existing relationships with all its EV owners and has vertically integrated the technology for its vehicles and chargers. But standards that could enable plug-and-charge are even further out, noted Jonathan Levy, U.S. managing director for U.K.-based EV charging and energy management software provider Kaluza and former chief commercial officer for EVgo.

Tesla’s EVs already support plug-and-charge capability, but the rest of the industry has only just begun to enable it via a standard called ISO 15118. NEVI-funded projects are required to be equipped with ISO 15118–ready hardware, but they didn’t say it needed to be implemented” immediately, he said.

Meanwhile, the major U.S. EV public-charging networks have set up roaming agreements” that allow users of one network to pay via their smartphone app on stations owned by another company. But those roaming agreements aren’t universal across all charging providers. Nor do they solve the problem of poor cellular coverage in locations like parking garages.

Several EV charging stations in a parking garage backlit by an eerie green light. A gray SUV is connected to one unit.
(Barbara Lantz/Canary Media)

The requirements for NEVI and other federal programs do lay out fixes on this front. By 2025, all federally funded chargers must comply with the latest version of the Open Charge Point Interface roaming protocol, which will ensure that any driver can utilize any charger via a single app.

The situation is strikingly different in Europe, said Bhaskar Deol, CEO of eDRV, a software startup developing application programming interfaces, or APIs, for charging stations in multiple countries. The European Union and the U.K. have instituted regulations over the years mandating some transparency of information around pricing, settlement transaction and availability,” he said.

I have driven from the Netherlands to the south of Europe, through six countries, where I’ve had a couple of apps — not dozens, but one or two — that have gotten me all the way along, without the kind of horror stories” commonly heard from U.S. EV drivers, he said.

The tension between standards and proprietary tech

CharIN’s Myers agrees that Europe has made much more progress on interoperability. A big reason is that electrification happened so much earlier in the European Union because of more aggressive incentives and charging infrastructure funding.”

And the impact of that was huge. In Norway, nearly 100 percent of new car sales are electric,” she said. That’s largely because of government policy. Whereas here, we’ve taken more of a hands-off approach. NEVI is great — but if we’d done it even a few years earlier, it would have made a big difference.”

Europe’s head start has also given its EV charging industry more time to shake out the diagnostic and repair problems that have dogged U.S. charging deployments, where the data is very elusive” on the causes of fast-charger failures and malfunctions, she said.

In an attempt to reshape the U.S. market in the mold of the more mature European industry, CharIN is running multiple annual testing events that bring together dozens of automakers and EV charging manufacturers. The aim is to rapidly scale up the process of ensuring real-world interoperability between newly introduced EVs and charging equipment, she noted. Eventually, she’d like to see charging become as standardized as Wi-Fi or cellular networks. It just takes a while to get there, and we’re a new industry.”

Whether automakers and EV drivers are willing to wait is another question. The move by Ford, General Motors and other automakers to switch from Combined Charging System–compatible to NACS-compatible plug ports for their future EV models represents the conundrum inherent in standards-based versus proprietary technology development, said Andrew Krulewitz, CEO of EV leasing startup Zevvy. Simply put, he said, automakers that have become fed up with poor interoperability are seeking safety in Tesla’s proprietary technology.

If you drive a Tesla, the experience is exactly what you want it to be,” he said. The giant screen [in the vehicle] tells you exactly where to go, how many stalls are available, exactly how long it will take — and you plug it in and everything works.”

A row of unused Tesla EV chargers in a parking lot. The bright blue sky is full of wispy white clouds.
(Maria Virginia Olano/Canary Media)

This illustrates how a unified but proprietary — not standards-based — charging implementation can solve a lot of problems. Industry experts concede that the high performance and satisfaction metrics awarded to Tesla’s Supercharger network, compared to those operated by other companies, stem from the company’s monolithic control over every aspect of how it works — as well as its vested interest in making sure it works as smoothly and seamlessly as possible for the buyers of its EVs.

The time it takes for standards to be developed and implemented in the real world might lead charging companies to think they’re better off adopting Tesla’s playbook and taking control of as much of the tech stack as they can, rather than waiting for the slow-moving world of standards to deliver a frictionless EV charging ecosystem.

But as tempting as that route may be, it will be tricky to navigate for any company that plans to make use of the massive government funding pouring into EV charging. NEVI rules require that charging stations from one vendor must be compatible with software platforms from another vendor — whether that’s to enable payment system data between vendors, or in the worst case, to allow one vendor to take over the stations of another that has gone out of business.

The issue is now you’re talking about interoperability between networks,” said Carter Li, CEO of Toronto, Canada–based EV software provider Swtch. And unless individual companies have taken care to make sure their efforts have conformed to standards, those workarounds won’t work.”

In other words, interoperability problems may be inevitable — even if charging companies choose to implement their own vertically integrated technology implementations outside the evolving technology standards ecosystem. That’s one big reason why mass-market technologies like cloud computing and telecommunications have seen standards win the day over proprietary solutions, S44’s Offermann said. The same dynamics haven’t yet taken hold in the EV charging industry, however.

We’ve had 10 years or so with the…‘closed’ Tesla charging network that did not benefit other drivers,” he noted.

Nor does success in a closed technology ecosystem necessarily spell success in a more open environment, he pointed out. Users of Tesla’s Magic Dock” stations — the handful of Supercharger sites it has retrofitted for use by non-Tesla EVs — have reported a series of glitches that indicate the company is facing challenges dealing with a variety of vehicles and not their proprietary connection,” he said.

In Europe, by contrast, Tesla has been mandated to use the same CharIN-supported Combined Charging Standard plug configuration along with all other EV and charging manufacturers, Offermann pointed out.

The same is true for other large-scale European charging networks like Ionity, formed in 2017 by BMW, Daimler, Ford and Volkswagen — a move that presages announcements from multiple automakers to collaborate on building their own fast-charging network in North America.

What we learned from Europe is that there’s a solid business case in exposing yourself to more customers,” Offermann said. You can see from the rate of growth in the charging-station operator field.” Companies operating in the U.S., including S44 and its customers, can learn a lot from it.” 

Expect more from your EV program

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Jeff St. John is director of news and special projects at Canary Media. He covers innovative grid technologies, rooftop solar and batteries, clean hydrogen, EV charging and more.