Electric vehicle drivers have more public chargers than they did just a few years ago. But to access all those chargers, drivers still need to navigate a range of different charging companies that each have their own account and payment systems. Some use apps, some use RFID chips, some ask you to swipe a credit card.

"The feedback we’ve been getting from EV drivers is that this is one of the biggest pain points," said Harmeet Singh, CTO at charging services company Greenlots, a subsidiary of Shell.

The answer: interoperability standards, or the electric driving equivalent of cellphone roaming. European charging companies have been moving in that direction, and North America is starting to catch up.

When Ford launches a "Mustang-inspired SUV" next year, the FordPass Charging Network will let drivers access a roster of the biggest charging networks in North America without signing up for a half-dozen accounts. At launch, the network will include more than 12,000 charging stations with more than 35,000 plugs, the company said.

"The driver can now pull up and not have to think," Singh told GTM. "We anticipate this to become table stakes going forward."

Ford previously chose Greenlots as its mobility software provider; the roaming module emerged as part of that relationship. At launch, it provides access to chargers from Greenlots and Electrify America.* Electrify America is a subsidiary of Volkswagen, which was ordered to invest $2 billion in a nationwide charging network as punishment for its Dieselgate scandal.

Drivers who don't have one of the upcoming Fords (the company does not yet have a fully electric car on the market) can still access the roaming service through the Greenlots app. EV customers can also look to their EVgo or ChargePoint apps for interoperability: Those companies announced a bilateral roaming agreement back in July.

General Motors also previously announced its own roaming network for Chevy Bolt drivers, which includes EVgo, ChargePoint and Greenlots.

“EVgo is pleased to see Ford join a wide range of automakers ensuring that electric vehicle drivers have full access to all EV charging networks,” said EVgo CCO Julie Blunden.

Leapfrogging the "liquid fuels ecosystem"

The forthcoming Ford models will also have "plug and charge" capability, which means the charging cable itself handles the necessary communication for authentication and billing. This also requires the charging station to have certain hardware and software features.

Roaming programs for EV charging popped up in Europe first. As EV adoption increased there, the frequency of cross-border car trips forced the issue, Singh said: Drivers needed the ability to charge with different companies in different countries. The U.K. followed suit last month, when a coalition of nine charging companies agreed to make their systems interoperable by the end of the year.

"This agreement is a significant step in the expansion of access to public charging, improving the driver experience, and helping to make the switch to e-mobility more seamless for U.K. drivers," Christopher Burghardt, managing director for Europe at ChargePoint, said at the time.

Instead of trying to match the incumbent gasoline refueling experience, digital tools like the roaming network can improve on it, Singh said.

"The EV market certainly is maturing and also leapfrogging the existing liquid fuels ecosystem by becoming more high-tech and focusing on user engagement," Singh said.

Being able to roll up and charge without pulling out a credit card and typing in a ZIP code will simplify the purchasing experience, although the actual charging will still take considerably longer than refilling a gas tank.

The digital opportunities extend to carmakers, too. Services like EV roaming create an ongoing relationship with the customer in a way that is not possible with gasoline refueling. The software layer presumably unlocks reams of data on where and when a driver charges up. How exactly Ford will make use of that enhanced customer relationship remains to be seen.

*The article initially included EVgo and AddEnergie on the list of participating networks, but Greenlots noted after publication that their participation has not been officially confirmed.