EV Charging Stations Need an Upgrade

A dark empty parking lot isn't a great charging experience

Initially, the goal (and really this is still the goal) was to pepper the landscape with as many EV charging facilities as possible. Sure the reality is that most charging happens at home for EV owners with driveways and garages, but for apartment dwellers and those going on a road trip, a robust charging network is key to the continued adoption of these vehicles. But as these stations become more prevalent they need to be more than just a few parking spaces in the far corners of parking lots. 

EV charging at a station

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A few years ago, EV owners who didn’t own a Tesla were just happy if they could find a working station somewhere along a route. Finding a place to plug in was a huge pain, with EVs not surfacing stations via their in-car navigation and most EV charging apps not showing competitor stations, while these same companies required drivers to sign up for an account to pay instead of just using a credit or debit card reader. Some still require accounts—which defies logic at this point. Fortunately, some of those ridiculous roadblocks have largely been sorted out to some degree. So as these companies continue to expand their charging networks, it’s time to upgrade those stations. 

Tech Features for a Tech Vehicle

It’s safe to say that many EV owners also enjoy their tech. The first adopter vibe is strong in the electric vehicle world. The car world is undergoing a technical revolution, with more and more automakers showcasing the next-generation features of a vehicle ahead of its horsepower and torque. The electric vehicle is the current pinnacle of what’s happening right now in the transportation world. So it’s odd for the driver of an EV to arrive at a station and realize that it’s been placed in an area without service and that there’s no Wi-Fi. 

I’ve heard the horror stories of folks arriving at a station to discover that the app they needed to start a charge won’t work because the driver’s phone doesn’t have enough bars to initiate the charging. It’s difficult to wrap my mind around the planning that placed a station in an area without network connectivity for all the carriers without adding Wi-Fi to that area. In fact, all charging stations should have a Wi-Fi hotspot. 

Charging stations in a parking garage

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We’re still dealing with a technology that takes a while to get a car back on the road. Seeing people just sitting in their car is the norm at charging stations and these companies should be offering up a way to get online not just to pay, but also to pass the time while sitting. It would alleviate the issue of not being able to initiate a charge because of a bad network connection, and give those same drivers access to either entertainment, work, or even emergency services. 

Expanding the “plug and charge” feature also would go a long way toward decreasing the issues experienced at charging stations. The way the feature works is, if you have an account with a charging company and your vehicle is registered to that account, all you have to do is plug the cable into your vehicle’s port and the system recognizes the vehicle and just starts charging. That’s it. No opening an app to select and turn on a station and no need to use the credit card reader. Having an account with a company should include more value than saving a few cents per kWh or being able to launch a charge with your phone. A real-world feature that would make people happy is plug and charge. 

"In fact, all charging stations should have a Wi-Fi hotspot." 

Unlike Wi-Fi, this will take work on the part of both the charging company and the automakers. Both the machine and the vehicles need to support the feature and have a way of talking to each other beyond just the usual software handshake that allows charging. It is already available on some vehicles and networks. Tesla has been doing this for years with their Supercharger network and Electritrify America has introduced this with support on the Volkswagen ID.4 and Ford Mustang Mach-E. 

Location, Location, Location

I appreciate when a group of charging stations are located in a shopping area. I can buy the things I need while adding electricity to my car. It’s also convenient when they're near restaurants while on a road trip. An issue arises though when all the EV charging stations are set in a weird location in a parking lot. Sometimes you’ll find them behind the store or way off in the corner. This might be fine during the day, but sometimes a vehicle needs to be charged at night and these far off and secluded areas don’t exactly feel safe once the sun goes down. 

Kristen Lee at Business Insider wrote about how these off-in-the-corner and unmonitored areas feel unsafe at night. My wife experienced the same thing when she needed to charge our Kona Electric one night. She was alone, it was dark, there’s no one around to ask for help if things get weird, and if something does happen, she can’t leave because the car is connected to thick cable full of electricity and, ironically for safety reasons, won’t drive while connected. 

Charging stations in windswept parking lot outdoors

Shunli Zhao / Getty Images

At a gas station there are cameras, an attendant, and other drivers coming and going and of course they’re very well lit and next to the road. There are some charging stations from Tesla that are next to a Tesla-run rest area with coffee, bathrooms, and even a human in some instances. But even Tesla has stations hidden in back corners of strip malls far away from other people. 

Recreating the gas station system with mini marts and fast food around charging stations like we do with gas pumps would reduce a lot of stress that comes with charging at night. It also would give drivers quick access to food, drinks, bathrooms, and trash cans. I can’t tell you how many times while charging I have to walk what feels like a quarter mile just to throw something away. If I’m going to be at this charge station for at least 20 minutes, let me at least clean out my vehicle. 

This is also a huge business opportunity because these drivers are going to be at the station for a while and if you have a delicious burrito/burger/hot dog/taco/sandwich within easy reach, they’ll likely buy it while passing the time. 

There’s also the opportunity for states to partner with charging companies to place chargers at rest stops. Why not charge while using the restroom, having a roadside picnic, or giving your dog an opportunity to stretch its legs and also go to the restroom. There could be a revenue sharing program or maybe the companies could help with the upkeep of the rest stop areas, that’s for them to decide. But it’s a great place for someone to sit and relax while also recharging. 

Man the Power Stations 

EV at a charging station

Greg Pease / Getty Images

If a fuel pump breaks, the attendant at the gas station calls it in or fixes it themselves. Sometimes it takes a few hours, sometimes a day, but they can put up a sign to direct people to other stations. At EV stations, because no one is around, if a station breaks, it’s up to someone far away to be notified. But in the meantime, ahead of their arrival, that doesn’t stop people from constantly trying to use the station and pulling away frustrated. It also means that there’s no one nearby to fix a minor problem. Both small and big issues require someone to come out when they have time. 

It’s great that everything is monitored via the cloud, but it’s better still when an issue can be taken care of in a few minutes by a human who happens to be nearby, or at least passed on to other humans with the ability to add the context that maybe this particular charging location is about to get very busy. Also, as noted above, this person could sell you tacos. 

The increased proliferation of EV charging stations is great. Most of the companies involved are pushing ahead and making sure that those who buy an electric vehicle will have a place to charge them when needed. But there’s room for improvement, and if we truly want EVs to be the future, the present needs to stop putting the charging stations off in dark, sometimes unsafe, corners.

Want to know more about EVs? We have a whole section dedicated to electric vehicles!

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