EV Charging Needs A ‘WiFi Moment,’ ChargePoint’s CEO Says

It can be hard to remember this experience today, and there are now plenty of people who never lived it all. But there was a time not long ago when your new smartphone, tablet, gaming device or computer wasn’t necessarily guaranteed to work with whatever WiFi network you were trying to join.

Wireless internet may be ubiquitous today, but getting its compatibility to be nearly flawless with a wide array of devices was an uphill battle. It’s one Rick Wilmer remembers well from his years in the tech and broadband space, and now that he’s CEO of electric vehicle charging giant ChargePoint, he sees the parallels as he deals with the challenge of EV interoperability—any vehicle working with their chargers, at any time. 

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Charging is a tough business

Despite the record, growing sales of EVs, the public charging infrastructure hasn’t sprung up as quickly as automakers hoped. It’s a tough, capital-intensive business to be in with a “chicken and egg” problem tied to EVs themselves, but expanding charging access will be crucial to electrification. 

“I remember our interoperability labs we had every laptop, every phone, every tablet, every device that anyone could buy, in our lab, connecting to the WiFi network to make sure it worked,” he told InsideEVs in a recent interview. “This is very analogous to that.”

ChargePoint Express Plus Power Link 2000 DC fast charging system

For Wilmer, who took over the top executive role at ChargePoint in November after serving as its chief operating officer, getting EV charging to be as universal and “taken for granted” as WiFi is today is top of mind. That’s a challenge on multiple fronts these days.

“Overall charger utilization is really moving up and to the right. It’s growing much faster than charger installations are growing.”

But it’s not the only challenge ChargePoint faces. Like nearly all EV charging companies, the path to profitability has not been an easy one. ChargePoint lost $94.7 million in the final quarter of 2023 and revenue was down 24% from the year before. The company’s stock price has been on a downward slide for years, and not only did Wilmer replace longtime former CEO Pasquale Romano, but Chief Financial Officer Rex Jackson left the company as well. 

There are some upsides; its revenue was up 8% from 2022, and the network is growing. The opening of the Mercedes-Benz High-Power Charging Network and Volvo’s Starbucks network,  which use hardware from ChargePoint, are big feathers in its cap. But overall, the enormous capital costs, high interest rates and an uncertain economy ahead—something keeping many business owners from investing in charging—are all proving to be major headaches.

Still, Wilmer thinks things are picking up. “Overall charger utilization is really moving up and to the right,” he said. “It’s growing much faster than charger installations are growing, which tells us that you’re going to start to see (businesses and government facilities) that are putting charging in really start to serve the EV drivers that come there. In fact, those EV drivers are going to stop going there if they don’t have chargers.”

Tackling charger compatibility will be key to making sure those drivers aren’t furious when they get there. 

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For one, Wilmer said North America is now a three-format market, in a weird space between phasing out legacy CHAdeMO charging stations that serve cars like the Nissan Leaf; living with the scores of cars that use the Combined Charging System (CCS) plug; and preparing for a future more centered around Tesla’s North American Charging Standard (NACS) plug. Nearly all automakers are moving to that standard, first with adapters and then from the factory—another set of challenges for ChargePoint, since it’s largely dabbled in the first two plugs until fairly recently.

Besides, who hasn’t rolled up to a fast-charging station only to find they only have access to the “wrong” plug? That’s what Wilmer aims to fix.

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“The key, underpinning philosophy that we’re taking is we don’t want any parking spot to be dedicated to one connector type or another,” he said. He added that it will take “years” for CCS and even CHAdeMO to “drift out of the market.”

It’s why forthcoming units will come with two plugs: one for CCS, and one for NACS. “If you pull in and ideally, if you’re using our mobile app, we’ll know what vehicle you’re, you’ve got and we can automatically release the right connector type for your car.”

Hardware is only part of the problem. Software is the other. In short, there are tons of EVs out there all running different battery management systems, internal software, electrical architectures, and even software versions. And now, they’re having to add other types of vehicles, like heavy-duty electric trucks and even locomotives to the mix. 

The approach, then, is to just test everything at an advanced testing lab inside ChargePoint’s headquarters in Campbell, California. And Wilmer says it’s a “brute force” approach not unlike his days in WiFi. He recalled instances where a vehicle would quit during charging testing, only for ChargePoint engineers to realize an automaker’s over-the-air update changed something to affect performance.

“You’ve got to plug the car in and test it,” Wilmer said. “We’ve made that investment and I don’t see any other way around it.”

Polestar ChargePoint partnership

That extends to making sure that property owners who technically own the stations maintain them if something goes wrong, too. For years, the forgotten, broken ChargePoint charger was an unfortunate hallmark of electric driving; now, Wilmer says that with remote monitoring they can easily detect downtime and “99%” of customers are interested in a quick fix.

It also means having chargers everywhere, including standard-speed Level 2 ones and not just DC fast chargers, he said. “I’m seeing it as an emerging trend in the market that I’m fascinated with,” he said. “The most forward-thinking institutions want EV drivers to come to their place.” 

For now, ChargePoint seems to be in an “outlast and outmaneuver” phase of its existence. While it’s taken some hits over its financial statements, it remains the largest EV public charging network in the United States (though most are Level 2 chargers.) The charging industry is probably looking at continued consolidation, much as—to use another Wilmer metaphor—most hard drives are now made by only a small handful of companies. 

Ultimately the industry’s goal is the WiFi moment: when EV charging is something that’s generally everywhere and is barely something we think about.

“This industry is going to get there as well,” he said. “It’s going to follow the same path of maturity, standardization, until interoperability becomes more regimented. And we’re eventually going to all take it for granted. But it’s just it’s just a new technology that’s going through these growing pains.”

Contact the author: patrick.george@insideevs.com