Out of Order, Long Queues and Wait Times: We Need To Rethink Public EV Charging in Australia

Out of Order, Long Queues and Wait Times: We Need To Rethink Public EV Charging in Australia

During a 1,000km drive in the 2022 MG ZS EV over four days, I had to stop in at five public chargers (and charged at the homes I stayed at each night). It gave me time to see a snapshot of Australia’s charging infrastructure, if only within a 1,000km stretch of the roads between Sydney and Coffs Harbour on the east coast. I came to realise that the public EV charger rollout had problems that we’re not openly addressing.

This is obviously a limited snapshot, however, and although it isn’t representative of the entire charging network, it is representative of the infrastructure you’d expect if you were to do a drive between Sydney and Brisbane (with Coffs Harbour roughly in the middle).

If you haven’t read my MG ZS EV review, the TL;DR is that Australia’s cheapest EV is perfectly capable of driving between Australia’s main cities, however, this ability is entirely reliant on charging infrastructure within approximately 250km range of each other across the route.

This is something I gently teased out in that review, but wanted to elaborate on further. I think we’re a long way away from having the best-optimised EV charging infrastructure across Australia and, as of 2022, I want to discuss where we’re at, for both EV owners and those that are EV-curious.

This is how you plan your charging

To start with, I want to show you the Plugshare map of every charging station across Australia. This includes Tesla destination chargers, publicly available wall sockets (for emergency charging), 50kW fast chargers and 350kW ultra-fast chargers (and every type between, as mapped on a user-generated tool). If you’re in need of a charge, download the Plugshare app and have a gander.

Now as you can see, there are plenty of chargers across Australia. The more you zoom in, the more chargers will appear. In my experience, it’s often had more chargers listed on it than Google Maps (although Google might be changing this soon).

What’s more, because it’s a community-led app, EV owners encourage each other to “check-in” and log how long they’ll be charging for when they arrive at a station. This gives the added benefit of knowing if a charger is out of order.

As brilliant as this app is, it’s unfortunately symptomatic of a larger problem with the public EV charger map. While I love the idea of community-led guidance and giving a helping hand to your fellow car drivers, this app only passively addresses the problem with public EV charger infrastructure (not that the onus is on the app to fix it). Let me explain.

The charging challenge

Across Australia, EV charging stations typically have a standard form: two car parking spots, able to charge two cars synchronously, with either one or two charging units (like petrol bowsers). Sometimes you’ll find a charger with more than two chargers available.

Two spots are obviously better than one and with EVs coming through and spending around half an hour parked and charging, it obviously limits wait times and queues.

Except it’s not that simple, right?

During my trip, across the National Day of Mourning, the following Friday and then the weekend (so a busy four days on the road as people were utilising a public holiday), three out of the five public charging stations I visited had an out-of-order charger. This includes:

I’m not going to mince words: this sucks, and if you do a scan across the popular EV charging spots across Australia, you’ll find that out-of-order chargers aren’t an anomaly (the Wallsend charger in particular has had an out-of-order unit three times before when I’ve driven through).

This leads to obvious problems. EV owners are forced to bottleneck around a single charger at these destinations, often leading to long wait times (wait times that bumped my six-hour trip up to 11 hours).

Additionally, even when the chargers are working, they can provide a buggy experience. My stop at the Taree Evie charger, for example, kept playing up and wasn’t responsively beginning a charge. To fix it I had to wait five minutes and not fool around with the charger at all while it worked itself out, which is obviously not an optimal experience. Thankfully, the demand was not high at this charger at the time, so I didn’t have to worry about a queue.

Do not take my criticisms the wrong way: I’m an EV advocate, but this has to change.

Expense vs experience

Yet with the problems I’ve discussed above, I’m compelled to sympathise with network owners. Back when I spoke to Chris Mills, the CEO of Evie, he told me that their network experiences uptime of around “90 per cent up, 10 per cent down”, which seems like a respectable figure, but he was candid about it not being ideal. For him to be happy, it’d need to be closer to 95 per cent.

“It’s not good. It needs to be better and that is driven entirely by hardware availability,” Mills told Gizmodo Australia.

“We have a power outage from time to time… But you know, hardware can be down for days, you know, getting the spare part.”

What’s more is that it costs a lot to install and upgrade charging stations, between $250,000 and $1 million, in fact.

So with these high costs, before even discussing energy tariffs, it’s not especially clear what the right path is. Installing more chargers won’t translate to revenue immediately for infrastructure companies, and having attendants available at the sites, ready to fix the machines or work out bugs on the fly incurs its own cost problems (also, don’t get me started on having to rely entirely on an app or an autonomous pay machine to charge a car).

And we’ll need to work this out soon. While infrastructure companies likely have data on when sites will become more popular and when upgrades should begin, we are fast approaching a critical mass point for EV uptake. If fuel efficiency standards are to come in, we will approach this even faster.

So what is the ideal charging site?

If I’m to speak as openly as possible… Petrol stations worked it out years ago, and it’s silly that most EV charging stations in Australia are so different (but certainly not every station in the world). This is something more EV-focused countries have embraced.

Often lined with between four to six petrol bowsers (admittedly, sometimes out of order and sometimes offering fuels your car cannot use), having this many bowsers at the ready limits wait times, especially if one is out of order.

Moreover, petrol stations have an attendant on site, who might not be able to fix an out-of-order pump, but can definitely help if you’ve got an issue with the facilities.

But the problem with public EV chargers comes back to the cost for developers. Rolling stations like these out would be multi-million dollar projects that would be unlikely to see a return on investment in decades, especially while EV uptake remains considerably low.

The good news is that Australia’s governments are willing to address this. NSW has an ambitious plan to roll out ultra-fast chargers across the state, Queensland has an electric super highway and the federal government wants to throw $500 million at a national EV charging network.

Of course I welcome these plans, but I don’t think the problem is the scarcity of public EV charger locations… The problem is their layouts. Sure, having more chargers across Australia will improve this situation somewhat, but why wouldn’t we want to centralise charging around active hubs across major highways and roads?

You know. Like petrol stations.

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