Accountability and transparency of charger operations under the spotlight to ease EV “charger anxiety”
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EV Charging
Jan 14, 2021
Emma Jarratt

With growing installations of new EV charging infrastructure there’s increasing need for greater accountability and oversight on uptime and charger access

With growing installations of new EV charging infrastructure there’s increasing need for greater accountability and oversight on uptime and charger access

One of the more stubborn obstacles for electric vehicle adoption remains the issue of charging. Typically, that’s portrayed as driver concern about the number and location of public chargers. But in reality, that’s only half the story.

Just as troubling is the experience of pulling up to an existing charger only to find that it is broken, offline or has its access obstructed.

“If it doesn’t work what is the point of having a charger there,” says Daniel Nguyen, senior director of marketing at FLO, a national charging network operator.

The source of the problem is twofold: a lack of uptime reporting and no vendor accountability.

To this point, private companies have been buying and installing chargers — with the benefit of considerable public funding — without bearing any responsibility for monitoring or reporting on charging units’ uptime and downtime once they’re in operation.

That, Nguyen and other industry leaders say, needs to change.

No national standard

“There is currently no coast-to-coast standard being used by most government-funded public charging initiatives that require proponents to report on user experience (including uptime/downtime) at funded stations,” says Benoit Marcoux, executive advisor to ChargeHub, creators of a charging station map app for EV users, in an email to Electric Autonomy. “As tax-paying individuals ourselves, we definitely want to see public dollars being deployed as effectively as possible.”

In Canada, specifically, there is no minimum requirement, no duty to self-report for private manufacturers or service providers and, once the physical charger is installed and connected to the grid, no mandated oversight on how it’s run.

“I have no teeth once the station is up and running,” said Louise Tanguay, program chief at Natural Resources Canada, in a recent webinar on this topic (the webinar was hosted by FLO and moderated by Electric Autonomy). NRCan is responsible for dispensing millions in public funds to help thousands of public chargers get up and running. Tanguay is part of the team responsible for reviewing the applications. She says of the last 200 she received, only a very small number were awarded coveted funding.

“We make sure that at the application stage that [there is] a very detailed operation and maintenance plan,” said Tanguay. “This is how we select our projects. We want our stations to be working all the time.”

More oversight needed

Yet the fact that the government is prioritizing the expansion of EV charging infrastructure as an essential service, Nguyen says, behooves it do more.

“If you consider the funding role played by the government there is a role for them to start asking the questions,” he says. “The ultimate goal is to make sure EV drivers can charge and encourage potential EV drivers to reassure them that ‘I see the chargers, I’m not afraid of range anxiety anymore. I know there is going to be a charger along the way.’ So, the charger has to work.”

It’s not just a Canadian problem, mind you. The troubling lack of transparency surrounding private companies benefiting from public funds to set up chargers is similar around the world.

“There is no consistency across networks,” says Nguyen. “I’ve been to many conferences and some people are starting to talk about it [but] this is something that all stakeholders — from government, private manufacturers and site hosts — need to focus a bit more attention on.”

Electric Autonomy reached out to six international agencies in an attempt to find evidence that some country or organization is tracking the issue of uptime. None met our request because the data, simply put, does not exist on an official level.

A patchwork of solutions

Because there is no standardized approach to uptime minimum or reporting it falls to companies, or, in some cases, provincial governments, to choose to fill the gap. In New Brunswick, for instance, the government has stepped in to try and mandate some level of guarantee for EV drivers.

“Our uptake, or the time we expect our charger to be operational — we strive for 99 per cent and we do have a service level agreement that supports that,” said Diane Robichaud, e-mobility lead at NB Power in the same webinar.

On the private side, some companies are taking it upon themselves to offer network monitoring and market it as a way for network operators to gain driver confidence.

For FLO, that looks like their transparency platform SmartVIEW, which allows station operators to subscribe and monitor in realtime the health, performance and repair times for the charging equipment. ChargeHub, too, offers network operators third-party monitoring apps, but it is on their public-facing apps that EV drivers are able to see and report the “real time” status of many network charging stations across Canada. In many cases the driver’s real-time reporting is identifying some critical issues.

“In Canada and elsewhere in the world, attention has been on deploying the public charging infrastructure. However, EV drivers tell us that they are unsatisfied with public charging. There should be greater attention to user experience at public charging stations,” says Marcoux. “There is a long list of different cases we’ve seen where the station itself may have flawless “uptime” in terms of it being usable by drivers, but in reality, the driver experience and the use of public funds is clearly sub-par.”

Establishing best practices

From a policy standpoint, putting the responsibility on companies to track and report their own uptime data in lieu of governments taking an active oversight role does not ensure consistent service or customer satisfaction.

Nguyen believes a good first step to address this gap would be for the government to set uptime minimums for companies receiving public funding. That would help ensure that network and station operators treat uptime — and their accountability for it — as a priority.

“The common denominator to come up with these best practices is for stakeholders to look at it from an EV driver’s perspective,” says Nguyen. “The equipment is the conduit to be able to charge the vehicle, but if everyone focuses on delivering the best EV driver charging experience then I think we are on the right track.”

For Marcoux, increasing reporting transparency is about spreading responsibility evenly between the federal and provincial governments, the private companies and utilities and it boils down to three touchstones: put drivers first, increase accessibility to infrastructure and data and stay informed about trends on a government level. With this recipe the path to easing “charger anxiety” is much less bumpy.

“We see Canada as being a country that is slowly but surely lining itself up in the right direction on this front,” says Marcoux. “When getting into electromobility, the ‘product’ that people buy isn’t a luxury, but rather an essential tool to complete daily activities: getting to work, going grocery shopping, visiting friends and traveling to go see family. All of these are potential touch points for utilities and governments to connect with EV drivers and engage with them in new ways that have yet to be leveraged.”

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