The design for EZ-Charge, an access card that would let new Nissan Leaf electric-car drivers use multiple charging networks, was unveiled yesterday at the EDTA convention.

Unfortunately, one of the four partners pulled out of the program--seemingly just an hour or so before the lunch event at which samples of the card were distributed to attendees.

Awkward.

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California-based ChargePoint called Green Car Reports and other outlets at noon yesterday to announce it would not be participating in the EZ-Charge network.

EZ-Charge program logo

EZ-Charge program logo

That leaves NRG eVgo, AeroVironment, and the Blink network now owned by Car Charging Systems as the three remaining participants.

Given ChargePoint's early entry into the charging-network business and network of more than 17,000 charging locations, its withdrawal is a blow to the idea of single-card access to a variety of networks.

And it leaves the EZ-Charge program with a much sparser set of locations in the important San Francisco Bay Area, a visible and affluent market that's one of the hotbeds of U.S. plug-in electric car sales.

Growing unease

A press release issued by NRG's eVgo network yesterday made no mention of the pullout--but indicated that the company plans to offer the EZ-Charge program to other carmakers along with Nissan.

Electric-car charging stations at Target in Fremont, CA [photo by Wilson F. via ChargePoint Network]

Electric-car charging stations at Target in Fremont, CA [photo by Wilson F. via ChargePoint Network]

Meanwhile, interviews with ChargePoint, NRG eVgo, and Nissan reveal somewhat different stories about what happened.

It's clear that ChargePoint made its decision very late in the game, catching both Nissan and NRG by surprise.

ChargePoint CEO Pat Romano stressed that his company will continue support Nissan Leaf drivers.

But, he said, as detailed negotiations continued after EZ-Charge was announced in April at the New York Auto Show, details that hadn't been clear at the time made ChargePoint increasingly uneasy.

"We thought that this would be primarily a Nissan program," he said, "not a program owned by NRG"--whose eVgo network of charging stations is a competitor to the ChargePoint network.

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Customer files to competitor?

In the end, Romano said, ChargePoint concluded that "the agreement was not something we could sign."

He highlighted two concerns among the several he said ChargePoint raised in its negotiations with NRG.

Nissan Leaf using CHAdeMO fast-charger

Nissan Leaf using CHAdeMO fast-charger

First, he said, the three non-NRG networks had to hand over details on their customers--known as personally identifiable information--to NRG to enable it to validate the customer's account when the EZ-Charge card was used.

ChargePoint has a "responsibility to protect personal information," Romano said, and "we couldn't guarantee what would happen to that information"--or how it would be presented to customers through the EZ-Charge interface.

2011 Nissan Leaf plugged into an EVgo quick-charging station, Texas

2011 Nissan Leaf plugged into an EVgo quick-charging station, Texas

Single toll-free number

Second, the back of the card carries a single toll-free Customer Service number for drivers to call if they can't charge at a specific location they've just arrived at.

Romano said that call center, to be run only by NRG, "inserts an unnecessary extra step for drivers" who don't have the luxury of time when they need to charge their cars and be on their way.

ChargePoint pushed hard for each of the four participants to have their own toll-free numbers listed, he said.

But NRG remained adamant that the card would have only a single number, and that it would route the calls appropriately.

ChargePoint would not have had the ability to ensure that NRG's staffing, service levels, and response time matched those of ChargePoint's own call centers, Romano said.

Tight timing

The schedule was always going to be tight: EZ-Charge was announced in New York on April 16, the card was unveiled May 20, and the program launches for new Nissan Leaf owners as of July 1.

In the end, it seems, ChargePoint was sufficiently uneasy with NRG controlling the interface and acting as the primary customer contact.

Along with the need to hand over proprietary customer data, negotiations to address those issues weren't moving in a direction the company was comfortable with.

Romano stressed that ChargePoint still believes electric-car drivers should have a single card to access multiple charging networks.

It will continue to support new and existing Nissan Leaf drivers through its current network, and that "hopefully we can work something out with Nissan, perhaps even with NRG."

But, he acknowledged, the two companies are not talking at the moment. "We would hope to continue to discuss the matter with NRG."

Nissan Leaf electric car with eVgo quick charging station. [courtesy eVgo]

Nissan Leaf electric car with eVgo quick charging station. [courtesy eVgo]

Jilted bride

NRG, for its part, says it was shocked at ChargePoint's abrupt withdrawal from EZ-Charge.

Glen Stancil, an NRG vice president, told Green Car Reports that the company had believed negotiations were progressing well as late as Saturday, and that NRG was "very disappointed and surprised" at yesterday's sudden turn of events.

ChargePoint was on board, he said, and NRG had felt the two companies would be able to work through remaining details in time to make the July 1 launch date.

He noted that it had always been clear that NRG would administer EZ-Charge--and disputed the notion that Nissan was originally going to run it.

Indeed, the joint announcement of the program on April 16 says, "The EZ-Charge access card is managed by NRG eVgo with support from ChargePoint, Car Charging, and AeroVironment."

Stancil said that while personally identifiable customer information indeed would have been required from ChargePoint, NRG--as a large regulated utility--has strict confidentiality policies and procedures in place to keep such information private.

And, he said, EZ-Charge operators would simply have connected callers to any partner's own call centers in a "warm transfer" if customers called about problems with a specific network station.

Nissan Leaf using CHAdeMO fast-charger

Nissan Leaf using CHAdeMO fast-charger

NRG and ChargePoint were deep in the process of working through "use cases," or combinations of circumstances to which operators would need to react properly, according to Stancil.

"We only want to do what's best for the customer," Stancil concluded--a sentiment echoed in almost identical words by ChargePoint's Romano.

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Nissan caught off-guard

As for Nissan, which plans to provide an EZ-Charge card to every buyer of a Leaf electric car starting July 1, it appears the company too was caught off-guard by ChargePoint's withdrawal.

Late yesterday, Nissan issued a terse statement:

We are disappointed that ChargePoint has decided to withdraw from EZ-Charge. We remain confident that the three EZ-Charge partners -- NRG eVgo, Blink Network and AeroVironment -- provide excellent market coverage with Level 2 and quick charging to provide range confidence to Leaf owners.

What can electric-car owners take away from this episode--which may yet have more twists and turns?

First, it appears that two aggressive companies--NRG's eVgo network, based in Texas, and venture-funded ChargePoint in Silicon Valley--clashed over control of a system that both agree would be a benefit to any electric-car driver who ever uses a public charging station.

Second, ChargePoint's withdrawal of 17,000-plus charging sites from the EZ-Charge network will definitely hurt its usefulness, despite Nissan's assertion of "excellent market coverage".

'No conversations' about current owners

Third, in the focus to get the EZ-Charge program launched July 1 for new Leaf buyers--it will be extended retroactively to anyone who has bought a Leaf since April 1--the issue of the much larger pool of existing electric-car drivers remains unaddressed.

Asked about the 200,000 or so existing owners of plug-in cars, many of whom would undoubtedly benefit from EZ-Charge as well, NRG's Stancil said the partners had had "no conversations" about what are termed "units in operation," or UIOs.

Will those new Leaf buyers notice the omission of ChargePoint's network from EZ-Charge? Perhaps not; the little drama that played out yesterday at the Electric Drive Transport Assocation's EDTA 2014 conference is inside baseball of the most detailed kind.

But it highlights the same challenges that mobile-phone companies faced in implementing network roaming 15 years ago, and that the electric-car industry itself was able to overcome in creating the single J-1772 connector standard for charging cords.

There are likely to be further efforts along the lines of EZ-Charge, and no company will benefit more than Nissan, whose intent was to remove a source of annoyance for Leaf drivers forced to keep multiple accounts and access devices for each network they might use.

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