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
EVs Have a Sabotage Problem
How electric vehicles and their infrastructure are vulnerable to bad actors
In February 2022, Tesla opened a new supercharging station in Oakhurst, California, a town on the scenic road up from Fresno to Yosemite National Park. It was wrecked the first night it was open. Thieves came in the night and cut the thick, black cables from all eight charging stalls that were tucked away in the back corner of a motel parking lot, presumably to steal and sell the copper inside.
Within days, Tesla not only fixed the cables but also installed a mechanical guardian: a solar-powered, camera-equipped “MacGuyver” robot to keep watch over the chargers. So far, the new security guard has thwarted subsequent raids. But the episode and other similar crimes at charging stations — like the time vandals stuffed ground meat into a charging port in Germany, for some reason — illustrate how electric vehicles and the infrastructure that supports them are vulnerable to sabotage and vandalism.
Gas stations see their share of crime, of course, but they have a few lines of defenses. There’s usually at least one attendant inside the booth or accompanying convenience store. Even if they close at night, stations are usually lit up and surveilled by cameras, and many are visible from the road in a way that inhibits theft and vandalism.
An EV fast-charging depot is a ghost town by comparison. Yes, there are some big stations with several dozen plugs that serve popular routes between major cities, and at these you’re liable to find humans around at just about any time of day. Many charging stops, though, are lonely outposts built to take advantage of America’s preponderance of parking spaces. They are collections of four or eight plugs at the periphery of an outlet mall, the top floor of a parking garage, or in a dark hotel lot.
During daylight hours, this setup means customers can charge while visiting stores at the mall or having a meal, but at night, these parking lots are deserted. A charging station does not need a human attendant, so the late-night EV traveler may find themselves alone. A midnight thief, meanwhile, might find the station unguarded. Last summer, Vice reports, bandits stole cords from chargers in Reno, Nevada, while cars were in the middle of charging. One happened at a hotel, another at a mall. In Los Angeles, a station saw all its wires cut on Earth Day last year.
Copper thieves, just like those who are stealing a rash of catalytic converters from gas and hybrid cars, have a clear economic motivation. But EVs are also vulnerable to attackers motivated by politics or spite. Tesla owners have used the car’s “Sentry Mode,” which records what the vehicle cameras are seeing, to catch a variety of vandals targeting the cars, some of whom seem driven by dislike of EVs or of Tesla and outspoken CEO Elon Musk. When a Florida couple saw their charging cable destroyed while their Chevy Bolt was plugged in at home — requiring them to buy a $450 replacement — they thought someone was trying to “send them a message.”
So far, vandalism incidents have been relatively rare. A spokesperson for Electrify America, for example, told me they account for less than 1 percent of the company’s charger repairs, and that it installed extra lighting and cameras in places with recurring issues. But that’s not the only concern. Charging stations are also linked to the internet in order to process payments and monitor their status, and anything that’s connected is inherently hackable. This January, someone had a laugh remotely hijacking the screens that control Electrify America chargers.
And many EV drivers are now personally familiar with “ICEing,” when internal combustion engine (ICE)-powered vehicles block or park in EV charging spaces and prevent electric vehicles from getting the juice they need. Many of these incidents can be blamed on ignorance or inattention, like when a car club in upstate New York caused a ruckus by blocking all the stalls at a Tesla supercharger, then pledged not to do it again. A few, though, appear to be driven by malevolence, with vehicles intentionally occupying charger stalls out of a loathing for electric vehicles or EV drivers.
It’s a tricky problem. Charging spaces are a common resource, and like all common resources, they’re susceptible to abuse. To enforce good charger etiquette, Tesla, for example, charges its drivers “idle fees” if they remain plugged in after their car is finished to motivate people to open up the plug for the next customer. But stopping bad-faith drivers from simply blocking spaces is a harder task. It requires either vigilant parking policing to ticket or tow offenders, or some kind of technological fix.
In China, Tesla is experimenting with one example. Its superchargers there include a kind of locking gate that prevents a non-Tesla from parking in the stall. However, North American superchargers don’t have this technology, in part because it interrupts the company’s mostly seamless charging process when drivers must download a third-party app just to pull into a space.
The next few years will tell us a lot about the future of anti-EV crimes. To date, most electric cars and EV chargers are found in the “blue” states and cities that are most friendly to the technology. In California, EVs made up 16 percent of new vehicle sales in 2022, far outpacing the rest of the country. The next step for the kind of widespread EV adoption the Biden administration is now pushing is to put many more electric vehicles and charging stations in other parts of the country — including those with a much less EV-friendly political climate.