Tesla vs. Mustang: The future of Ford is here. To succeed, it needs to shake off its past.

The new electric Mustang is a delight to drive, but highlights the heavy investment in electrification that's needed to bring EVs into the mainstream.

Tesla vs. Mustang: The future of Ford is here. To succeed, it needs to shake off its past.

Charging the Mustang at a slow charger. At least the view is good.

Photo: Mike Murphy

No one's ever had to worry if the gas pump they're standing at will fit into their car's fuel tank.

Standing outside a Dunkin' Donuts somewhere in New Haven, Connecticut, I'm confronted by the fact that I do not know the difference between a CHAdeMO and a CCS electric charger. I don't want to spend an hour waiting for this to charge. It's cold and I just want to go home.

Last week, I tested out Ford's first serious electric car, the Mustang Mach-E. It's an extremely fun car to drive that, while looking nothing like a Mustang, feels surprisingly like a sports car. It's meant to be a statement piece, announcing Ford's grand entrance into the nascent consumer EV market, but Ford is still hamstrung by the infrastructure around its new Mustang. To succeed over the next few years, as most first-time buyers turn to electric vehicles, Ford and other automakers will have to rise to the bar that Tesla has set with its experience. And there isn't a simple way to do that — it requires heavy investment in chargers, seamless payments and a modern software stack. In short, the brief for Detroit should be, as one person suggested to me: Copy Tesla.

Traditional automakers are greeted by a two-headed threat in the EV space: the first serious new U.S. automaker in decades, and the fact that countries around the world are setting aggressive deadlines on when new internal-combustion engine sales will be banned. Much like Ford led the car-driving boom in the 1910s and '20s that resulted in gas stations springing up around the country, it's attempting to help spur on the infrastructure needed to support the switch to electric energy. It invested $11.5 billion in 2019 in building out a charging network. The difference between the last boom and now is that Ford already has an established competitor in the market — and Tesla is, as of now, far ahead.

The problem with Ford's response is that it was likely to struggle even before anyone revved up one of its electric engines. The company opted not to create its own network of charging stations, like Tesla did, instead relying on a patchwork collection of third-party chargers from the likes of Electrify America and EVgo. These chargers show up in the FordPass app and on the car's built-in map. It's like an HMO network, but for powering your car.

mustang The rather different-looking Mustang Mach-E. Photo: Mike Murphy

By going down the third-party route, Ford isn't able to control the experience of charging its vehicles at one station versus another. And in a nascent industry, that's an issue. The electric car industry is still having its Betamax/VHS moment when it comes to charging standards: With names like CCS, CHAdeMO and J1772, it's easy to see how consumers could get confused by what chargers can power the car they own, and why Tesla just made its own "Supercharger" standard. By one count, there are some 35,000 chargers in North America, of which more than 6,000 are Tesla's Superchargers. And the quality of the experience, the speed of charge and the price vary wildly across the different charging companies. To convince the average person, rather than some early tech adopter, that a Mach-E is as simple as owning a gas-powered car, every part of the driving experience needs to be comparably simple. And after spending a few days with the new Mustang, it's clear that Ford isn't there yet.

Behind the wheel: Tesla vs. Ford

I own a Tesla. The pandemic forced me to consider a private way to get around, and I've generally enjoyed using it, and rarely had to worry about the amount of charge remaining while driving. The Tesla experience eschews much of the traditional car playbook when it comes to things like car sales, dashboards, keys and repairs. Pretty much everything exists on your smartphone or the car's minimalistic dash screen.

Last weekend, my fiancée and I drove from Brooklyn to New London, Connecticut. It's a trip we've done a few times in the Tesla. (The Dunkin' Donuts at the Milton Tesla charging station is pretty slow, in case you were wondering.) Using a Supercharger is simple: You drive up, plug in, maybe watch a movie on Netflix or go get a coffee as you wait for the car to fill up, and leave. The station automatically charges the credit card you have on file with Tesla.

In the Mustang, things were not as simple.

The Mustang has a built-in mapping system that lists all of the chargers in its FordPass network. It seems to have a real attention problem. If you select a destination for turn-by-turn directions, the marker will randomly disappear from the map while driving, requiring you to constantly re-center on your highlighted route to figure out where you're going.

The way that Ford signposts chargers in its mapping system also leaves something to be desired. On the map, the difference between the chargers that can and can't support fast-charging isn't particularly clear. Looking quickly at these icons, can you spot the fast-charging stations? How about if you were going 65 mph on the highway?

It can be difficult to read this map in general — what about when you're on the highway? Screenshot: Mike Murphy

Once you make it to a station, the charging experience isn't as seamless as Tesla's. In our Model 3, the car alerts you that it's charging once you plug in the cable. On the Mustang, there's no notification. It was cold out last weekend, so every time I plugged the car in, I got back into the car to warm up, assuming the car would just start charging. The machines had to authorize that I could charge there, talking to the car, the internet and the bank. Some of the machines made this clear; some just showed a loading icon, and usually I had to get back out of the car and press some more buttons before they'd start charging.

I tested out charging the Mustang at a range of stations. Some worked well, but most were very slow. Some had issues that I still can't comprehend: At one Electrify America charging station (ironically one of two stations I tried that ran on Tesla Powerpack energy storage systems), I couldn't get the car to charge. I plugged in with 33% charge and the car told me it would take 65 minutes to charge to 80%, so I walked off to get some lunch. About 10 minutes later, the FordPass app messaged me saying, "Charge station fault," with no more information. I headed back to the car with a grumbling stomach and tried plugging the car back into the same station. The car wasn't much help; it just told me to "see manual." There were no hits for "charge fault" in the car's built-in manual. I ended up unplugging and driving to the next bay but had the same problem. I tried one more bay, and miraculously, it worked.

I hadn't noticed that the charging stations all had small stickers on them displaying what wattage they were rated for. The first two I tried were for 350 kW, and the third was for 150 kW. Ford later told me that the Mustang should've been able to charge at any of the stalls, but it did not. Regardless, these stickers are a lot harder to notice than the colored "Diesel" or "Unleaded" signs you'd see on a gas pump.

Can you spot the charging speed stickers? Mike Murphy

Later in the day, I saw that the destination I was heading to had a ChargePoint fast charger available. When I got there, it was out of order. On the way home, we stopped at an EVgo charger, at a Dunkin' Donuts in New Haven. This charger was glacially slow: The car told me I'd go from 28% to 80% in 82 minutes. The longest I've ever had to charge my Tesla, which I usually charge to around 95%, is roughly 50 minutes. This charger was also out of Ford's network, so I had to pay $10 for the privilege of sitting in this lot next to a highway overpass for the length of a feature film as the temperature dropped.

Charging forward

None of these charging problems are really Ford's fault, but they're the sort of problems that will dissuade people from making the jump to an EV right now. If you're one of the tens of millions of Americans who live in an apartment or don't have a driveway at your home, owning an EV today is a bit of a challenge. Tesla has tried as best it can to smooth out many of the hurdles by creating a closed system: Its walled garden controls the car, charging, payment and software systems, which leads to a seamless experience for the average driver. Ford doesn't have that.

Ford did help create 12,000 new places to charge in 2019, but there are around 115,000 gas stations in the U.S. today, each with several pumps, none of which take more than 10 minutes to use. The other issue is that the energy companies aren't the ones making big infrastructure investments — Chevron (then Standard Oil) was behind some of the earliest gas stations in the U.S. It has invested modestly in EV chargers. And the major electric utility companies — the fuel companies for electric vehicles — have started to offer incentives to companies looking to deploy EV chargers, but they aren't getting into the business of actually building charging stations.

And Ford is still playing catch-up on the experience of owning an EV. For all the strides it's made in building a notable electric car — and this Mustang is absolutely a dream to drive — it's still hampered by its software. You're given a key fob that looks like one you'd find on a Ford Fusion a decade ago; Tesla gives you black keycards it doesn't even expect you'll use. Tesla's sleek user interface looks like it was designed to consider how you drive a car in 2021; Ford's feels like it was designed around the same time as the key fob. But software is easier to fix than production lines: Ford's software system supports both Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, and replacing the onboard maps with Google Maps made life much easier — until I needed to find a charger. Perhaps, then, all that's really missing right now inside non-Tesla EVs is an app store, something that would allow me to pull in third-party data from apps like Chargeway into a UI that didn't look like it was designed in 2005.

Until then, many early adopters may well be left out in the cold.

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