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A new study confirmed that the public EV charging experience leaves a lot to be desired.GABBY JONES/The New York Times News Service

Public charging infrastructure is only one piece of the electric-vehicle adoption puzzle. But nearly half of EV owners in Canada use public highway rest-stop chargers once a week or more, according to a 2022 report by consulting firm Ernst & Young Global Ltd. (EY). As sales increase, the auto industry risks a generation of disgruntled first-time EV buyers frustrated by poor-quality or broken chargers, which could slow adoption and keep the country hooked on fossil fuels for a longer period of time.

“The least-satisfying aspect of owning an electric vehicle is the availability of public charging stations,” says Brent Gruber, J.D. Power’s executive director of global automotive and lead author of the firm’s second annual Electric Vehicle Experience (EVX) public-charging study. “We’ve done two studies identifying that. We need to do more with building up the infrastructure, and I don’t care whether it’s the U.S. market or the Canadian market, that holds true.”

The new study confirms what drivers who have struggled to find a working unit will tell you: The public EV charging experience leaves a lot to be desired.

It’s been nearly 10 years since Tesla launched its first Supercharger charging stations. According to J.D. Power’s survey, not only is Tesla still the top-rated network for overall user satisfaction in the United States, but most of the major public EV charging networks south of the border barely receive a passing grade.

Ten years of progress and government subsidies, and this is what the EV charging industry has to show for it? (On the bright side, the fact the availability of public chargers is the least-satisfying aspect of owning an electric vehicle is an indicator of the quality of the vehicles themselves.)

J.D. Power, which conducts customer satisfaction and product-quality studies in a range of industries, surveyed nearly 12,000 owners of battery electric and plug-in hybrid electric vehicles (PHEVs) in the United States. The results are also broadly applicable to Canada because several of the major charging networks – namely Tesla, Electrify America/Electrify Canada, and ChargePoint – operate in both countries.

Tesla still winning

The survey asked owners to rate their satisfaction with public charging stations on factors that included ease of charging, speed, cost, convenience, things to do while charging, and how safe they felt at a location.

Out of 1,000 points, user satisfaction averaged around 650 for all types of public charging. Among Level 3 chargers – also known as DC fast chargers – Tesla’s Superchargers were the highest rated with 739 points, while ChargePoint’s network scored 644 and Electrify America (which operates north of the border as Electrify Canada) earned 614 points.

In a Canadian study, drivers gave Level 3 chargers an average rating of 3.55 out of 5, according to a 2022 report by Mogile Technologies Inc., for Natural Resources Canada. The ratings are higher than the J.D. Power numbers, but it’s worth noting the two studies had different methodologies.

Gruber says the key reasons for dissatisfaction in the J.D. Power survey were slower-than-expected charging, the cost of charging and a lack of things to do while charging.

“I can’t tell you how many comments I’ve read from respondents who’ve said, ‘Why don’t you at least have a garbage can here so I can clean my car? Or some shade to get out of the sun?’”

Higher uptake, lower satisfaction

Would-be EV buyers should note that satisfaction with public charging is often highest in places with low EV uptake, according to the survey, presumably because infrastructure in those regions is more in-line with demand. In California and Washington, for example, where U.S. EV sales are booming, satisfaction is lower.

“The growth of electric vehicle (EV) sales during the past year has been remarkable but has added stress to an already beleaguered public vehicle charging infrastructure,” according to a statement from J.D. Power.

This should serve as a warning to Ontario, in particular, where zero-emissions vehicle (ZEV) adoption lags the national average: Build chargers now before the situation gets worse. The provincial government only committed to funding public charging stations for the first time in March, to the tune of $91-million.

Failure to charge

It’s not enough to have chargers on site; they also have to work. According to the J.D. Power survey, 20 per cent of visits to public stations ended up with users failing to charge their vehicles. In those cases, 72 per cent of users indicated it was because of the station malfunctioning or being out of service.

“Tesla performs the best for station reliability. Only 3 per cent of Supercharger visits ended in no-charge, versus 20 per cent [industry-wide] on average,” Gruber says.

The Canadian study found that 7.4 per cent of all charging sessions – and 11.2 per cent of fast-charging sessions – resulted in failure, in which little or no electricity was delivered. (These figures may be low because the data used in the study didn’t capture all potential types of failures.)

Yuri Tereshyn of TheStraightPipes, a popular Toronto-based YouTube car-review channel, was recently shopping for a new family car. He considered an EV, but he hesitated in part because of bad experiences at different public fast-chargers. Of the 10 or so charging stations he visited last winter, he found dead chargers and a couple that wouldn’t accept payment without an app. “It was difficult, and I wouldn’t want to put my wife, who’s a new driver, through that – but I still like the idea of an electric car,” Tereshyn says.

EV charging takes longer, so the quality of the stations matters more than it does with gas stations.

Tereshyn, by the way, ended up buying a gas-powered SUV, a choice that more drivers might reluctantly make unless public-charging networks step up.