EV Drivers Suffer From Broken Equipment, Price Confusion, More

Study reveals that about 1 in 5 chargers actually work, and EV stations rarely advertise charging cost
EV charging stations
Photograph: Shutterstock

The top concerns consumers have about electric vehicle (EV) charging stations are broken equipment, price confusion, charging deserts and parking competition with internal combustion engine (ICE) vehicles, according to Harvard Business School research that examined more than 1 million charging station reviews written over 10 years by EV drivers across North America, Europe and Asia.

Today, there are more than 64,000 public EV charging stations in the United States, according to the U.S. Department of Energy's Alternative Fuels Data Center.

To gather data, Omar Asensio—the leader of the study from Harvard Business School’s Institute for the Study of Business in Global Society—and his team collected reviews from smartphone apps that EV drivers use to pay for charging sessions. The apps allow customers to review each station for factors such as functionality and pricing in real time.

Asensio and his team, supported by Microsoft and National Science Foundation awards, spent years building models and training AI tools to extract insights and make predictions from drivers leaving these reviews in more than 72 languages.

Asensio focused on consumer reviews “because they offer objective, unsolicited evidence of peoples’ experience,” he said.

Here are some of the top concerns noted in the research report.

Broken Equipment

EV drivers often find broken equipment because “No one’s maintaining these stations,” Asensio said.

Entrepreneurs are already stepping in with a solution, though. At Harvard Business School’s climate conference in April 2023, Evette Ellis, co-founder of ChargerHelp! explained that her Los Angeles-based technology startup trains people to operate and maintain public charging stations.

But until quality control improves nationwide, drivers will likely continue to encounter problems, the report said.

Charging stations in the United States have an average reliability score of only 78%, meaning that about one in five don’t work, according to the report. 

Price confusion

Unlike traditional gas stations, which often display fuel prices on signs, EV stations rarely advertise what charging will cost, the report said. Drivers often arrive without any information on what to expect or how to make comparisons because there’s no reliable way for consumers to find the most cost-effective places to charge.

Vehicle charging is both unregulated and non-transparent. Pricing can vary substantially by facility, level of demand, time of day and other factors, including the type of charger available. A 45-minute fast charger may have one price, while a traditional charger that takes 3 to 5 hours may have another. Pricing can also change by the hour, based on market conditions.

Drivers are vexed by the pricing they encounter at public charging stations, which are owned by a mix of providers, follow different pricing models and do not regularly disclose pricing information, according to the report. Research conducted by Asensio and his colleagues in 2021 found that charging station hosts, in the absence of regulation, have no incentive to share data—and they don’t. Station hosts are typically privately owned, highly decentralized, not well-monitored and have highly varied patterns of demand and pricing.

“The government has a source that lists all locations, but not in real-time,” Asensio said. “You might need five different apps to figure it out.”

Charging Deserts

Public charging stations are not equally distributed across the United States, concentrated more heavily in large population centers and wealthy communities and less so in rural areas and smaller cities. The result is that drivers have disparate experiences, well-served in some areas and starved in others. Some parts of the country have become “charging deserts,” with no station at all.

Looking only at Level 2 chargers, which top off an EV battery in 3 to 5 hours and are the most common type, S&P Global Mobility, an automotive intelligence company, estimates a need for 1.2 million nationwide by 2027 and almost twice that by 2030. That’s in addition to in-home chargers.

“The transition to a vehicle market dominated by electric vehicles will take years to fully develop, but it has begun,” said Ian McIlravey, an analyst at S&P. “With the transition comes a need to evolve the public vehicle charging network, and today's charging infrastructure is insufficient to support a drastic increase in the number of EVs in operation.”

The states with the most public chargers installed are those with the highest number of registered electric vehicles, including California, Florida and Texas.

Parking Spaces

A consumer complaint that surprised Asensio was a gripe from drivers about “getting ICE’d,” referring to having EV parking spaces stolen by internal combustion engine drivers.

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