News & Analysis

The US EV Charge and Lessons Thereof

At a time when India’s EV market is grappling with cheap imports, badly used subsidies and the perennial charging challenge, the US model has some lessons

While opinions differ on the impact of India’s reduction of subsidies under the FAME-2 scheme over false localization claims, the fact remains that the country’s nascent electric vehicles industry has received a jolt. In real terms, it means only one in two prospective EV owners could benefit from the government’s scheme. 

How did this scenario come about? A probe by the Automotive Research Association of India found several companies importing key components including electric motors, controllers and on-board charges, claiming however that these were locally sourced and therefore eligible for the Faster Adoption and Manufacturing of Electric (FAME) program. 

Though the industry is not too perturbed about this reduction, there are many who believe that lack of a holistic view on the entire EV industry is what the government should worry about. They point out that even the United States, which had a head start over India in this market, is facing challenges that policymakers here could learn from. 

There are lessons to be learnt from US chaos

Recently, the Joe Biden administration came up with a proposal on pollution that could potentially result in two of three vehicles being electric-propelled in the country. The proposal envisages that greenhouse gas emissions for 2027-32 for passenger vehicles would be limited to stricter levels than the auto industry agreed to in 2021. 

However, once again the core issues that consumers are bringing up have nothing to do with high costs of the vehicles or inadequate customer support. Most EV owners in the US believe that the country’s public charging system is broken and dysfunctional. Of course, in India we are still grappling with creating one. 

Who said anything about subsidy anyways? 

The challenge is that most EV drivers charge their vehicles at home because the public network of charging stations are unreliable, inconvenient and quite confusing to boot. There are four chargers of which two are mostly not active, which means long queues. Remember the days in India when autorickshaws would line up the roads waiting to fill gas? 

Drivers in the US are cribbing that most fast-charging stations that can power up a battery to 80% within 20 minutes aren’t even functioning. Some do work, but only the smart drivers who have a particular app on their smartphone, creates an account and loads up funds, are allowed to use these facilities. So much for monopolization of a public network! 

Charging infrastructure and an App Bazar 

In fact, studies conducted by the University of California at Berkeley found that more than a quarter of the 657 charging points in the San Francisco Bay Area had conked out during a test charging exercise. There were occasions when the charging cable was too short while on others the payment system wasn’t up-to-speed. Of course the most common causes related to a broken charger screen or the missing internet network. Another study by JD Power found that one in five EV owners visiting a charging station could power up their cars. 

Amidst all these grassroot-level challenges, there is Tesla with its proprietary charging network that welcomes its cars but drives off the others. So much for Elon Musk’s crocodile tears about saving the environment. Now they’ve agreed to open a small number of stations to non-Tesla drivers – that too only by 2024. 

Additionally, the decentralized charging network is managed by a bunch of private companies, state utilities and automakers where each insists on a particular payment method that could potentially result in EV owners having a dozen smartphone apps besides several RFID cards to manage all possible combinations. Thankfully, India’s UPI should overcome this challenge. 

Imagine if auto companies also build roads

All of this basically means that those who own the charging stations also own the cars – antitrust be damned! 

Now, if one were to draw a utopian parallel, this situation would be akin to automobile companies joining hands to build up the road networks. Maybe, they could even charge road users something when they purchase a vehicle, but that’s not the case, right? Roads are built by public funds (taxpayer money) and the users once again pay toll for the riding comfort. 

Are there some lessons here for India? Of course, there are and it is for our policymakers ensconced in multiple ministries to exit the comforts of their weather-controlled rooms and join hands to create a foolproof public charging infrastructure. FAME be damned! 

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