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Big carmakers unite to build a charging network and reassure reluctant EV buyers

An electric car is charged at the Motor Show in Essen, Germany, Thursday, Dec. 2, 2021. Charging may soon be easier across the U.S. with seven car companies banding together to create a charging network.
Martin Meissner
An electric car is charged at the Motor Show in Essen, Germany, Thursday, Dec. 2, 2021. Charging may soon be easier across the U.S. with seven car companies banding together to create a charging network.

Seven of the world's largest carmakers are launching a new electric vehicle charging network, in an unusual display of cooperation that's designed to address one of the major deterrents for would-be electric vehicle purchasers.

The goal is to open 30,000 new high-speed fast-chargers in North America, powered by renewable energy. If achieved, that would be significantly larger than Tesla's current Supercharger network, and would nearly double the number of fast chargers available in the U.S. today. (In this case, a "charger" refers to an individual plug. A charging station at a single location often has multiple chargers.)

But building a charging network of that scale will be a very high mountain to climb.

Ionity, a similar network in Europe launched as a joint venture between many of the same automakers, has built only 2,600 chargers since 2017.

In the U.S., Electrify America — bankrolled by $2 billion that Volkswagen paid as part of the Dieselgate settlement — has installed 3,600 in five years, and those chargers struggle with reliability.

Meanwhile Tesla, the undisputed leader in this space, has spent a full decade building 17,000 chargers.

The newly announced network, which has not yet been named, is a partnership between BMW, GM, Honda, Hyundai, Kia, Mercedes-Benz and Stellantis (formerly known as Fiat Chrysler).

Automakers frequently pair up in joint ventures to to defray costs of research and development or new vehicles. However, a joint venture like this between seven carmakers of this size is — as the automakers' press release notes — unprecedented in North America.

Carmakers getting involved in building fast chargers, on the other hand, has a very clear precedent: Tesla.

The electric car pioneer calculated that having a network of fast chargers was essential before Americans would be willing to buy EVs, so Tesla built its own. The reliability of that network played a key role in Tesla's meteoric rise.

For many years Tesla's network was only open to Tesla owners. But recently, in a deal with the White House, Tesla opened up some chargers to all EV drivers. And in a cataclysmic shift, rival car companies are embracing Tesla technology in exchange for access to its Supercharger network.

Other individual automakers have also explored building chargers directly, some closed to just their customers (like Rivian's) and others open to all (like one Mercedes-Benz announced this year).

But nothing rivals the scale of the new 7-automaker alliance.

These chargers, the group says, will be open to all EV drivers. The companies would not identify any suppliers they plan to work with to build out chargers, or break down the amount of funding being provided by each automaker. The group plans to access federal and state incentives for fast chargers to help cover the cost of building the network.

"Each site will be equipped with multiple high-powered DC chargers, making long-distance journeys easier for customers," the automakers wrote in a joint statement. "In line with the sustainability strategies of all seven automakers, the joint venture intends to power the charging network solely by renewable energy."

Most electric vehicles, most of the time, charge on much slower chargers; that's cheaper, more convenient and easier on the battery. But the availability of fast chargers remains a significant concern for shoppers. According to surveys by J.D. Power, access to chargers in public is the #1 concern keeping would-be buyers from going electric.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Camila Flamiano Domonoske covers cars, energy and the future of mobility for NPR's Business Desk.