Does Public Charging Network Confusion Hurt Electric-Car Use?

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Polar Network Charging Stations

Polar Network Charging Stations

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Ask most non-electric car drivers why they haven’t even considered an electric car, and the reason they give will undoubtedly involve some form of range anxiety: the idea that an electric car will run out of juice before it reaches its destination. 

On the other hand, as those who own an electric car will tell you, the average range per charge of electric cars offered for sale today is more than twice the distance the average U.S. car travels in a single day. As a consequence, electric cars can be used to satisfy 95 percent of all trips made in the U.S.

In short, most people charge their car at home and never visit a public charging station. But that hasn't stopped a burgeoning industry that has sprung up worldwide from offering a plethora of charging solutions designed to let electric cars make longer trips.

But is the infantile charging industry helping or hindering the image of the electric car? 

We think it might be the latter. Here's why.

Early charging stations unreliable

Charging Station Shares Handicapped Parking Space

Charging Station Shares Handicapped Parking Space

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In the past year, we’ve driven over 15,000 miles in a 2011 Nissan Leaf. The car is used daily, and a single overnight charge to 100 percent has been enough to satisfy most of our driving needs.

For longer trips however, we've had to use charging stations located at rest stops, shopping malls and dealers, often with limited success. 

In fact, during the past year, there have been at least 15 occasions when we've arrived with only a few miles left in our car to find a broken charging station. The causes have been everything from broken RFID readers to a blown fuse, vandalism and even a software fault on an expensive DC charging station.

In most circumstances, we’ve been able to find a regular wall outlet to at least provide a slow trickle-charge. On three occasions when alternative power hasn't been available, we have had to take more drastic action, calling for a tow.

Too many payment plans

Blink EV charging point at IKEA store

Blink EV charging point at IKEA store

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Although most electric car drivers don't use public charging stations all that often, it doesn't diminish the frustration of arriving at an electric car charging station to find out that it requires an RFID smart access card that you don’t have.

In fact, it's become a joke among electric car owners to see who has the largest number of different RFID smart access cards, including everything from free-to-join networks to those that charge expensive monthly fees.

If you’re lucky, another electric car owner helps out, you can then ring a number printed on the charging station to gain access remotely using a credit or debit card, or use cell-phone style ‘roaming’ between a charging network you are a member of and the station in question. 

Sadly however, it is often more fruitful to look for somewhere else to charge. 

Finding charging stations is tough

Because most electric car owners spend most of their time charging their car at home, they’re often unfamiliar with the location of public charging stations for the rare occasions when they really need them. 

Some cars, like the 2012 Nissan Leaf, can assist owners in finding a charging station using on-board satellite navigation, but we’ve found these lists are often inaccurate or outdated.

Worse still, each charging network has its own smartphone app and website listing the location of charging stations, making it hard to obtain a comprehensive list of charging stations in one place without hours of planning

Add to this the frustration that many charging station firms advertise charging stations that aren't fully operational yet, and things get rather messy.

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Comments (25)
  1. It's going to be interesting to see if the all encompassing Better Place subscription model, despite it's perceived cost and monopolistic position overcomes all this.

    The cost per mile driven is certainly higher than private home charging. Overall, is that going to be balanced by a dependable network that makes occasional long distance excursions practical in addition to regular daily sub max range driving?

  2. Certainly a monopoly should have the advantage of self-consistent system so incompatibilities should be reduced. On the other hand, it can be difficult to get good service (sometimes) with a monopoly because the consumer has no place else to turn.

    Of course, Better Place's competition may be ICE cars, so they need to provide good enough service or people will stick with ICE cars.

  3. I need to explore this area properly in a long piece.

    Fundamentally, however, if one calls Better Place a monopoly it's immediately saying that gas and electric cars don't compete: that they're fundamentally different.

    Without some infrastructure EVs will be an interesting toy for dedicated fans or (more importantly) a specifically limited commute only vehicle for people wealthy enough to own other cars. Neither of these will sell the big numbers.

    If you want an EV to compete with a gas car you have to consider the missing infrastructure and service. If you do that then Better Place is in fierce competition with two industries (Oil and cars) that are massively strong.

    We'll see an answer emerge in the next 6 months.

  4. Thank you for your thoughtful reply.

  5. @Brian: In most parts of the world, EVs *are* going to be limited-production, pricey, and not for the mass market for a while yet. See here:

    In the U.S., there's not much missing infrastructure for early adopters; they will mostly charge at home in garages attached to private homes, some via 110 Volts w/out Level 2 charging station.

    In Israel, as you and I have discussed, Better Place is betting on a steeper adoption curve...and apparently the Israeli grid is sufficiently fragile that networked charging is needed (they say) to prevent damage. That's not so in the U.S.

  6. I'm asking this because I seriously don't know: how long can the car companies afford to subsidise niche EVs? Designing an all EV from the ground up like Leaf and Zoe is expensive: can that ever be justified on sales sub 100k? I'm sure those cars are better EVs than retro fits like the Fluence ZE but at least it can't be claimed that all the cost of the Fluence falls on the EV.

    I agree that the US is not the right place (for maybe a long time) for an infrastructure project like Better Place. Clearly they know that too.

    I also know that even if Israel hit 50% EVs in 5 years (very unlikely) it's still not enough cars to really make manufacturers see a return. For that they need China, India, US or somewhere big in EU.

  7. I'm following up on the grid issues here and waiting for a few calls back but I'm hearing the astonishing population densities we're building now are definitely an issue on the local level and the problems with insecure supply of gas from Egypt make the national level grid fragile too.

  8. Do not come through West Virginia driving an electric vehicle because you will not find a charging station anywhere in the state. We are a state of great pollution and we only allow vehicles that can pollute as much as our coal burning power plants do to come into the state or pass through it. I am serious about that, just ask governor Tomblin and senator Manchin and they will back everything I just said up.

    So why aren't the states, automakers, and utility companies installing charging stations at every gas station, and why aren't General Electric installing their Solar Parks throughout America? Pure profit for GE and gas stations.

  9. I live in southwestern Vermont and I own a Volt. Right now there are no public access stations. There's one over in Albany NY. There's a couple way up in Burlington Vermont (120 miles away!). When I talk to local Town Managers in Southern Vermont I find they are being influenced by for profit charging stations companies such as U-GO Stations who don't have any real product OR are completely different than ChargePoint. So yes, what little charging network that exists is becoming terrible fragmented. And these other charging station companies are charging rates that exceed the cost of gasoline use. This will confirm the suspicions of non EV people that this whole EV thing is a scam.

  10. You almost need a smart phone with a charge locator app because unlike gas stations there aren't huge signs calling your attention to chargers. But I do think that wide spread charger installation isn't a nesassary thing it's more of a peace of mind thing, in an emergency it's nice to know that they're there. The biggest problem the electric car is struggling with is the lazy consumer who doesn't take the time to look at their actual consumption, they just want more range and more chargers so they don't have to put any thought into it. Its like getting a large soda with a meal, most people think they need the large just incase the small or medium isn't enough even though the small would have done fine and you would consume fewer calories.

  11. We do need shorter charge times, and like the Tesla Model S I think optional ranges would be excellent so you only have to buy what you need. (if you've taken the time to know what you need)

  12. Well, you have inspired me to take some action (small as it might be).

    I noticed that the address listed for my local chargepoint (4 Grant Ave, Lexington, MA) is likely to result in unhappy charging customers. That address is one retaining wall and one fence away from the actually chargepoints, which cannot be seen from that address..

    I have submitted an address correction. We will see if that goes through.

  13. Thank you, John.

    Now we only have to wait for the other incorrectly marked charging stations to be rectified!

  14. Well than was disappointing. Todd Anderson at ChargePoint Support basically said all they can do is pass the information on to the "owner". They cannot fix the problem or update the database?

    Also, citing Privacy concerns, would not even tell me who the owner of the Lexington Charging Points is?

    I suspect it is stuck in bureaucratic limbo.

    Isn't "ChargePoint" the owner? If they are not, surely they are relying on "ChargePoint" to have the database right.

  15. OK, I was wrong. ChargePoint did update the information and also followed up with me. Well done ChargePoint.

  16. Now you understand why Tesla is installing their own super charging stations and have made agreements with various motel companies, etc. The problem right now is that there are too few electric cars out there. When the numbers grow (and their ranges as well, allowing for lengthy trips)as a result of cheaper (and faster recharging) batteries, there will be an incentive for action. The obvious location for recharging stations are, of course, existing gas stations. They can replace some gas pumps with charging posts or simply add charging posts and do so far more cheaply than some "charging station" company ever could : the infrastructure is already there, rest rooms and all. They are already right where you want them and in the numbers needed

  17. Spot on Nikki. I'm hearing the same thing here in Kansas City. Cards that don't work, staions out of order and support numbers out of service. The service will improve when more EVs get on the road.

  18. When the fee moratorium from the DOE expires and it’s all about money, VISA and Mastercard will be the financial site aggregators. In the same way, Recargo, Plugshare and Carstations aggregate site location info. BTW, ChargePoint is good about correcting site info, but crowdsource aggregators allow you to fix it yourself. right now, for the next customer. which might just be you.

  19. This is where open street maps with their charging station object type. (though that's still up in the air a bit) There is also the open charge map, which is a separate project with a specific aim.

    I think the OSM project is great anyway, and i've added streets around my neighbourhood, and a publicly accessible charging station (i checked!) i found on my travels. If enough people contributed and checked the maps, everyone wins.

  20. I guess i have to consider myself lucky in that i am in an area with a bundle of L2 charging, hopefully soon to get some DCFCs as well. But i have had some issues with charging as well. i was lucky in that once despite my first AND Second destination being out of order or something, a 3rd option was well within range.

    but we are still in the very early stages and for some of us who have been driving electric for well over a year, it might not seem that way but we STILL have areas of the country that have not received a single official delivery of the Leaf or any other EV for that matter. every day another charging station pops up. competition will bring the cream to the top but i hope we end up with dozens of options either way!

  21. The main question posed by the article is whether the lack of infrastructure away from the primary charging point, your home, is hindering EV adoption. I say yes.

    Maybe I live in a Utopian bubble where all of my needs for 27 miles per day of driving are well handled by the 240 VAC plug in my detached garage. But after reading Official surveys of how many daily miles other EV users are putting on their cars I don't think I am.

    I'm growing weary of hearing that infrastructure is "weak" for EV charging. All of the infrastructure that most people need is right at home in their garage.

    I have a ChargePoint RFID tag in the glove box of my Leaf. I only have it for emergency charging but I doubt I will ever need it.

  22. One solution to the 'rfid only' problem encountered on EVSE equipment is for the governments (local to federal) that are subsidizing the installations to require the stations to use credit/debit cards and take cash. Public EVSE equipment should have the same access requirements as parking meters. Networks are a fine side business that can be offered to receive discounts, perks, whatever - but the stations need to be accessible to everyone. Educate your elected officials and policy makers.

  23. Not that I want to defend the networks but they are probably not using the VISA MasterCard route because of the high fees to use those networks for each charger. It is far cheaper to have an internet based service with one point running the credit cards. All the chargers I have found so far have a phone number you can call the get access altho I haven't tried it.

  24. The charger apps for smarts phone seem to have many locations but I have noticed that so few people comment or check in on the apps. Only one spot in St.Louis had a check in from a person who charged and it was on a private AmerenUE parking lot not accessable to the public. I went around to the half dozen chargers in my area and at least confirmed on the app which ones actually existed and where accessable to the public.
    I think I will place a plug outside for EVs with a quarter slot and let them charge at 50 cents and hour.

  25. My instinct is that it's not as bad in the UK. For one thing we are a much smaller territory, no interstate issues, way less roads and so on.

    I'm also pretty sure that we'll avoid the worst of those issues, because we're a small country, smaller distances travelled and our relatively limited amount of major highway - the motorways. Ecotricity's Electric Highway is in effect the motorway network, the locations will be well know and well signed - motorway service stations. And with 100 mile plus car range, I really think the big need in Britain will be charging on the major roads, motorways primarily - and the local stuff, where confusion of location, ownership & public/private status - will be avoided.

    Dale Vince - Ecotricity

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