Andrew Moseman has covered science, technology, and transportation for publications such as The Atlantic, Inverse, Insider, Outside, and MIT Technology Review. He was previously digital director of Popular Mechanics and now serves as online communications editor at Caltech. He is based in Los Angeles. Read MoreRead More
Beware the Janky EV Charger
It might leave you stranded — or worse.
With its plastic cover shorn off and its metal skeleton showing, the Tesla charger at the entrance of Crater Lake National Park looked a little like Johnny 5, the stark robot from the 1980s Short Circuit movies. Against my better judgment, I plugged in.
We’d driven the Model 3 up from Klamath Falls, Oregon, the closest Tesla supercharger to the national park. Because the drive to the lake covered more than 50 miles, I hoped to draw a little juice at the entrance gift shop to ensure we’d be okay for the day. The plug looked decrepit, but other users on the Plugshare charging website said it worked for them. I gave it a shot, though I got nothing but a yellow error signal.
No matter. I drove conservatively around the lake and kept to the speed limit on the drive back to Klamath Falls through a biblical swarm of midges. When we reached the supercharger with 15 miles of range to spare and opened the port, I audibly gasped. One of the metal prongs inside my Model 3 was bent all the way over to the side, making it impossible to charge the car. The end of my wife’s birthday vacation flashed before my eyes. Instead of enjoying two more days at Crater Lake and working our way down the California coast, we’d be marooned in southern Oregon, waiting for technicians from two towns away — all thanks to a busted charger I shouldn’t have used in the first place.
The Klamath Falls charging station was built into the parking lot of a Fred Meyer, the superstore chain of the Pacific Northwest. The two men closing its attached gas station at 10:45 p.m. said that, if I ran, I might make it to the one remaining unlocked door on the far end of the warehouse-sized shop before it closed for good at 11. Inside, I bought a pair of insulated needlenose pliers, plus a tall IPA for my troubles. I negotiated the bent prong back into place and watched the car accept blissful electrical salvation. (Don’t try this at home, and don’t mess with electricity.)
One year later, the reports from other travelers suggest the janky Crater Lake plug has been fixed, and my own near-catastrophe has transfigured from possible calamity to funny story. Still, it portends a major problem.
To travel in an EV is to have faith that the promised plug at the end of a drive will work. However, America’s charging infrastructure doesn’t inspire blind confidence. A flurry of trend stories, and surveys by the likes of J.D. Power, have found EV drivers who are perpetually annoyed with the hassle of difficult chargers or anxious about encountering broken ones. A 2022 survey by University of California, Berkeley, researchers of chargers around the San Francisco Bay Area found that only 72% of them were working properly at any given time. Another found that most drivers who use public chargers in California, the nation’s biggest EV market, had encountered a busted one.
There are plenty of reasons why these issues abound. Chargers are generally out in the open, vulnerable to vandalism or wear-and-tear, and typically without a human attendant on hand to help out if the technology fails. Tesla’s Superchargers see their share of out-of-order chargers, but at least the customer interface is near-seamless — the plug recognizes each car and auto-charges the driver’s credit card on file. Many others require several steps that are all prone to failure: Their touchscreens break, their software glitches, their credit card readers won’t cooperate, their supposed bluetooth connection won’t talk to your phone.
Some far-flung plugs require an instruction manual. Just before our trip to Crater Lake, we visited Lassen Volcanic National Park, where a couple of helpful EV plugs are waiting at the visitor’s center. But because there is spotty cell service in the mountains, using them requires a 10-step procedure that starts with going inside, hoping the guest wi-fi works, and downloading the third-party app that manages the chargers.
Fear of a busted charger is especially acute on a road trip far from home, and most crucial when venturing away from the highway and into hinterlands where chargers are sparse. On one winter’s journey through the interior of Utah, the point of failure wasn’t the plugs, but the plows — four chargers next to a restaurant in Escalante were too snowed in for me to reach them. Luckily, there were some others at a nearby lodge, where the receptionist lent me her old Subaru to get dinner across town.
Horror stories like these may dissuade people from ditching their dirty combustion engines and their nationwide network of ubiquitous gas stations. But when thinking about going EV, it’s important to be realistic about driving — something that’s discouraged by the way Americans shop for and imagine their cars.
My misadventures have come from pushing my little 240-mile EV and America’s charging infrastructure to their limits by reaching for destinations far from the freeway. Within populated areas, the consequences of janky chargers amount to inconvenience, not disaster. A 12-plug Tesla Supercharger with a broken stall means maybe waiting a second longer to charge. If things have really gone wrong, the next charging station isn’t 100 miles away.
There are enough plugs to keep you out of trouble in the city or the suburbs, where residents do 90% of their driving. The problem is the 10%. A two-car family with one EV has it easy, as they could use their electric for city errands and the gas or hybrid car to make long-distance travel more convenient. But many people, especially those with a single vehicle, need their car to do everything, including a national park road trip to the middle of nowhere.
For Americans to fully embrace the EV, chargers need to go everywhere. And they need to actually work when you arrive.