Bombing down a winding road in the 2021 Ford Mustang Mach-E, it’s easy to feel like the EV revolution is settled business. For all the hand-wringing about the bastardization of the Mustang name, the Mach-E is on its own merits exciting, fantastic to drive, and charming. Its tail-happy nature and brutal acceleration egg you on, lulling you into dreams of an EV wonderland that are instantly shattered once you see your state of charge. Too low to get home, you now must enter the hellscape of public EV charging in the United States.
California, for its part, has this largely sorted. The fawning EV reviews coming out of the Golden State press understandably treat this as a solved issue. By the way they talk you’d expect to find a plug on every corner. Yet if that’s even true in California it sure isn’t worth a damn for the rest of us. Because 90 minutes outside of America’s largest city, a quick search on the FordPass app shows that I’ll immediately have to head 20 minutes in the wrong direction. It’s a single-stall charger, which means if anyone arrives before me I’ll be out of luck until they complete their prolonged top-off. Yet I arrive to an empty lot, with one ChargePoint charger seemingly installed as an afterthought alongside an array of a dozen Tesla Superchargers.
Tesla’s network of fast chargers is robust. The FordPass Charging Network claims to be the largest public charging network in America, with 16,000 stations, but it’s a patchwork of multiple separate charging networks strung together in a single app. Its number of total stations is impressive, but even networks that beat Tesla on the basis of a sheer number can’t compete with that company’s network of conveniently placed and extremely fast chargers. Plus, as I learned, in some cases ChargePoint will tap into the inverter of an already-installed Supercharger station to save development costs. So even my Mach-E’s charging station was built on Tesla’s back, with charge pricing set by the suits in Silicon Valley.
You might assume that charge pricing is effectively irrelevant when it comes to EVs. After all, the ubiquity and affordability of electricity are core EV strengths. In practice, though, I was charged $13.29 to go from 44 percent to just above 80 percent. Total indicated maximum range went from 83 miles to 166 miles, meaning I paid $13.29 for 83 miles of range. Assuming you get 25 mpg and pay $3.00 a gallon for gas, you’d get 112 miles of range for the same price. And you’d be out the door in five minutes.
Back in my EV, though, I had to kill 55 minutes in a movie theater parking lot in a pandemic. Anyone briefed on the official Mach-E literature should be surprised here. Ford claims that a 150-kW FordPass charger should jolt the base Mach-E from 10 percent to 80 percent in just 45 minutes. But that’s only the standard-range car. The figure for an extended-range model like my tester is less impressive. Per Ford, it should be able to get 61 miles of range in 10 minutes from a DC fast charger. Yet even that bar proved impossible to clear since the battery charges slower as it approaches full charge. Plus, the ChargePoint charger stubbornly refused to provide its full 150 kW payload despite 0 other vehicles charging at any linked station.
This experience alone isn’t a dealbreaker. We know charging takes time and we know that coverage is worse when you get outside of major cities. But it confirms the stories I had already heard. Busted chargers, inexplicably long charge times, publicly listed chargers that are actually behind locked gates—the variety and severity of problems associated with public charging in America are staggering. Just a few weeks before, Road & Track editor-in-chief Mike Guy was nearly stranded by a Mach-E that directed him to a broken charger on his way back from the ski slopes.
Neither his journey nor mine is outside the realm of a New York day trip. A 100-mile run there and back is par for the course here, necessary to get to any good roads, campgrounds, or anything else that requires non-suburbanized land. Confine yourself to city streets and you’d expect to be living the charmed life. Every EV ad shows 20-somethings cruising through the urban expanses, laughing hysterically under illuminated street lights. The city is usually unnamed, but I can tell you with confidence that it isn’t New York.
Check the FordPass Charging Network—again, America’s largest EV charging network—and you’ll find that the borough of Manhattan contains two fast chargers. One is at a BMW dealership and the other is at Icahn Stadium on Randalls Island, far from anywhere you’d actually be heading. The one at the BMW dealership has one stall and, per reviews, is frequently broken. I opted instead to work from our office for a day. The building is open, though no one on staff is required to go and no one really does. The underground garage has a level 2 charger, perfect for a workday charge.
It was inoperable. The garage has used the coronavirus-related slowdown to do some long-needed work, making the section with the single L2 charger inaccessible. Searching online for nearby slow chargers yielded nothing. The only ones listed are Tesla destination chargers, which I’d need an adapter to use. Many garages have L2 chargers, but the only way to confirm that is by calling around until you stumble onto one. Instead, I opted to build in a 45-minute detour to Queens Center mall on my way to my photoshoot with the Mach-E. A 30-minute top-off would give me enough range to make it out to the outskirts of Brooklyn for photos and back home with mileage leftover for the Ford fleet representative to drive the Mach-E back to its home base in Northern New Jersey.
Factor in the parking garage fee and the money I blew at Uniqlo and this charge was even pricier. But the Electrify America charger there at least reached its rated 150-kW speed, getting me in and out in as much time as it took to grab two new t-shirts and a pair of pants. The mall had a captive audience. In much the same way that the attached convenience stores are the real moneymakers for gas stations, the stores, movie theaters, and restaurants surrounding EV chargers will be the real winners.
The losers, at least for now, are the rest of us. Public charging infrastructure in the U.S. is too sparse, slow, and unreliable. I can’t, in good conscience, recommend setting sail on a cross-country journey relying purely on any brand-agnostic charging network. Those with a sense of improv and an open schedule could surely make an adventure out of it, but anyone looking simply to arrive without hassle is best served by a plug-in hybrid for now. EVs are, at present, best left to their home territory and owned by people with at-home charging.
That doesn’t make them unworkable for everyone else. If you care deeply about their many broad benefits—smooth torque, silent motoring, brain-scattering acceleration, new-school charm, cheap home charging, and lack of world-warming carbon emissions—you can make it work. The network is big and getting bigger, the kinks on their way to being ironed. These flaws in experience, big as they may be, will be solved. Make no mistake that this is the future. Just accept, too, that it’s a challenge in the present.
Correction: An earlier version of this story mistakenly said that an Electrify America charger refused to provide its full output during a charging session. The charger in question was a ChargePoint charger, not Electrify America.
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