20 Comments

Summary:

When it comes to electric cars, it’s already slow going, so why make electric car charging more confusing, says GigaOM Pro analyst Adam Lesser, who takes a look at the early emerging market for electric car charging networks.

NRG Energy's eVgo Network of charging stations.

This article originally appeared on GigaOM Pro (subscription required)

Despite tepid sales of electric cars, NRG Energy’s electric vehicle charging network project eVgo is rolling out chargers in public places like malls in Houston and Dallas. The company is getting in early, snapping up agreements to place its chargers at key points of visibility, good security and high traffic. NRG is betting that if it builds it, they will come, and with direct current fast chargers that can charge an electric vehicle in as little as 15 minutes, what’s not to like?

Members only

The proprietary subscription pricing model is what’s not to like. EVgo is selling access to the charging stations on a cellphone model where for a 3-year contract at $89 a month, customers get free installation of a home charger as well as access to all of the public chargers with electricity included at eVgo network stations (for $49 a month, you just get the home charger).

The problem with this charging network is that using it is proprietary. You can’t even access an eVgo charging station if you don’t have a subscription. And if you do have a subscription, you are extremely reliant on there being an eVgo charger where you need it. Because after plonking down your $89 a month, who wants to pay more money when you find yourself in a location where you need a charge and the only charger available isn’t an eVgo charger.

The issue of proprietary charging networks isn’t unique to eVgo and it represents a future customer experience problem for the electric vehicle industry. While other charging networks like Ecotality’s Blink and Coulomb’s ChargePoint may not employ strict subscription models, they penalize customers for not carrying company specific RFID cards that switch on their network chargers. Imagine needing the gas card of every gas station you go to get the best deal or the best service.

If you don’t have their company specific RFID cards, Ecotality’s Blink Network allows payments with “Blink codes” that can be obtained from a mobile device at double the price of using a Blink member card. And Coulomb’s ChargePoint requires drivers to call a number and provide their credit card over the phone if they don’t have a ChargePoint card (you can use contactless credit cards, which few people have, to pay at the station). The inconvenience aside, consider having to call a service late at night in a dimly lit parking lot and provide one’s credit card number in order to charge one’s car. Talk about the kind of user experience that would have Steve Jobs rolling in his grave.

A coming problem for the automakers

I spoke with the founder of EV Charging Pros, John Kalb, who has worked with numerous retail and commercial establishments throughout Northern California on public charger installations. “The charging networks believe the RFID cards allow them to control the customer experience but it’s not creating a customer experience that allows the market to grow,” he said. Right now the automakers have early adopters and enthusiasts for customers who don’t necessarily mind carrying different EV charging cards, but as Kalb noted to me in a previous conversation, what happens when you’re Nissan and you want to sell 400,000 electric vehicles.

What’s on the horizon is the potential for automakers to be in conflict with charging network operators in a way that they never were with gas station owners. The charging operators want proprietary systems because they want to optimize their relationship with their customer so that they can allow interesting payment schemes like letting mall owners offer discounted charging to people who frequent the mall. But this vision comes at the expense of the wider market need, which is about making it as easy as possible for EV drivers to access a charge.

Defenders of the current system point out that early adopters don’t mind the charging systems being deployed, and I

NRG Energy's eVgo Network at a Best Buy

suspect that eVgo’s all you can charge plans have a great appeal for car owners who want to pay one fee for all their energy use. But electric vehicles won’t exist in 5 years if the auto industry can’t move beyond early adopters and offer a convenient charging network. Chevy Volt and Nissan Leaf sales have been disappointing, and EVs are getting caught up in the current politicization of cleantech, which led GM CEO Dan Ackerson to note in The New York Times last week that GM “did not engineer the Volt to be a political punching bag.”

The interesting thing about electric vehicle charging is that it actually has the potential to make everyone’s life more convenient. We’re accustomed to having to take a trip to the gas station to fill up, but what if we could charge our cars while shopping or being at work. Any retail, government or commercial entity with some parking real estate can offer charging. It’s a lot cheaper to install an electric car charger than to put in a gasoline pumping station, and if level 3 direct current charging specs are ever resolved, charging one’s car will be a 20 minute affair.

It’s already slow going with EV adoption. Let’s not make this any more complicated.

You’re subscribed! If you like, you can update your settings

  1. “Despite tepid sales of electric cars…”

    When will the media stop using this tired meme? EV sales are creeping upward and will continue to do so …

    1. Katie Fehrenbacher Brian Tuesday, April 3, 2012

      They’re creeping. Slowly. I think it’s totally fair and accurate to call sales tepid. Ask all of the battery companies that have been making batteries for EVs, and power companies like NRG that have invested in EV charging if they think sales are tepid or not. They all resoundingly say EV sales are lower and slower than expected.

      1. “Tepid” may or may not be fair, but expextations are likely too high. It is worth noting that the Prius only sold about 6000 units during its first year of sales, a number exceeded by both the Volt and Leaf indiviually. The difference being that Toyota saw no need to advertise a vehicle which it could not produce in significant numbers, while Chevrolet and Nissan advertised their products before they were rolling off the line. Toyota sold more Prii last month than it did during the first two years of production. I don’t know if “tepid” is really the term to apply to baby’s first steps.

    2. Brian,

      It’s a nascent market that is scaling slowly. I do think “tepid” is a fair term, even by the automakers’ standards. For example, Chevy suspended production temporarily for the Volt because it wasn’t seeing the kind of demand it had hoped for.

      This doesn’t mean that the market won’t be much larger one day (I think it will). It’s just where we are today.

    3. I contend that the Leaf’s looks are an even bigger drawback than range anxiety and other nonsense. And I keep up with EV news regularly but even I have no idea where I could go locally (Indiana) to buy an EV. Until we get good-looking EVs with 80+ mile range actually available all over North America at normal dealerships, sales are going to continue to be “tepid”.

  2. Why imitate gas pump? There should be replaceble batteries. Faster than with peteol – full tank.

    1. That’s the BetterPlace (www.betterplace.com) model. It still requires a subscription (mileage based rather than monthly), but has the advantage of a rental model for the battery (you rent the battery rather than own it, so you don’t bear the replacement cost).

    2. I’m skeptical on the BetterPlace model working. Trying to get all automakers to standardize is very difficult in the first place. Imagine telling them every car is going to have x footprint for batteries at x weight. Then having the equipment to unnlock and move very heavy batteries to me has its problems too. Then installing that type of station across the United States. All for .11 cents a kWH? Like DC charging they’ll have to charge way too much to justify the investment, which will encourage everyone to charge at home, not use the equipment, and the charging company going bankrupt. Fast charging, increased capacity of batteries, and lower battery costs will make all of this a moot question in five to ten years.

      1. Actually, for Better Place the challenge of adapting to different automakers’ design specs is already today a simple one to meet. The Better Place battery switching stations today being constructed in Israel, Denmark and later this year in Australia can switch any battery type as long as it can be removed from underneath the vehicle. I believe that US automakers if they wanted to, could facilitate this minor design change without crying about it the way they are; however, it seems none are interested in a multi-million dollar purchase order from Better Place to get the ball rolling. As for fast charging, increased capacity and lower battery costs, etc it is quite logical to assume that in the same way we visited a gas station once a week or so, we can pop into a switching station with even less hassle. Yes Better Place will be able to construct switching stations across the US at $500K a station it’s real bargain compared with the price of gas station construction and the price might even drop further if instead of constructing new, you refurbish existing gas stations.

  3. Tony Camilli Tuesday, April 3, 2012

    $89/month!? Yikes! That’s more than I pay for unleaded, and I don’t have to sign a contract or hunt for a compatible place to refuel. Companies really need to examine their pricing model if they want to drive adoption of EVs. The warm fuzzy from “being green” will only go so far.

    1. This is from an electric utility with a monopoly business model. Sure i avoid $300/month in gas with an EV but i only spend $20 for the electricity to charge at home. If i need to charge anywhere else, i know i can find a plug everywhere without absurd prices. My favorite is a local restaurant with free charging while i enjoy lunch. I use $.25 in electricity and gladly leave a generous tip.

  4. Exploring Green Technology Tuesday, April 3, 2012

    Great article Adam. It’s a very pertinent point that many current customers are enthusiasts and as such are more likely to deal with inconveniences like rigid recharging systems & teething problems. Surely the ticket to success is to make the whole system as hassle-free as possible. I guess competition (or anti-competition) of charging-providers may be a big factor of ev rollouts.

    I like Tony’s mention of leasing. Leasing generally seems like a logical market model in terms of all types of clean energy tech, not just cars. Make the tech accessible for more people and keep the responsibility with the manufacturer for long-lasting components – in an ideal world. Of course, someone still has to foot the initial investment.

    1. Thanks, Yes, I agree the leasing model is interesting to defray the up front expense of installing a charger. One, all you can charge model, is also attractive in these times of volatile gas prices. If the issue of universal access to multiple charging networks could be worked out, that would be a game changer.

  5. Mart Shearer Tuesday, April 3, 2012

    One major obstacle is regulatory. Several major utilities have sued solar pv installers with similar service contracts as being “unregulated” providers of electricity in a government regulated geographic monopoly. POS readers allowing credit and debit cards with the local utility selling the electricity and a $3 fee going to the charger owner seems the likely outcome. Otherwise billing would have to go to the vehicle owner’s provided address linked to IP address of the vehicle.

  6. $89/month for all the juice I can use is a fantastic deal, especially when compared with the £400 ($600) that I currently spend on diesel each month in UK. Whether an EV can offer the kind of range I need is another matter, but if I can be GUARANTEED a charge at work as well as home it should be possible.

    But the idea that this will be more convenient is nonsense: when I arrive at work I park in the street for free, somewhere within a 10 minute walk of the office. If charging is to be convenient I’ll need to plug into a charger, and it’s unlikely that I’ll be popular if I then leave the car there for 8 hours even though the charge only takes 20 minutes, because there will never be as many charging points as there are empty spaces in the street. And if the chargers are only in car parks, meaning I have to pay for parking, then the cost of that will likely push the combined charging & parking cost up past my currently monthly diesel cost.

    Certainly there is potential in this, but as the author says the current model has the potential to be both less convenient as well as more expensive, and fall apart in a few years as a consequence. But then does this matter if hydrogen is coming along as a truly viable and convenient alternative which can use the existing network of fuel stations…

  7. While I understand many consumers would rather use a swipe card reader rather than RFID, RFID allows for lower operating costs in the long run. The cheap swipers are difficult to maintain in the elements, and the ones that are more robust just drive up the cost of the unit, and this is something the entire industry is trying to avoid.

    1. Thanks, Jim. I appreciate that there are drawbacks to credit card swipers being built into industrial chargers. But credit/debit cards are how the mass market consumer wants to pay right now. One interesting shift down the line could be if NFC payments from smartphones take off. That would allow contactless payments to work and make it easier for charging networks that want to avoid swipe machines.

      1. It is the fault of the US banks that have refused to deploy RFID credit cards (kudos to American Express for doing it for the past decade). RFID cards are more reliable and more secure as mentioned above. ChargePoint stations accept them so guess where I’ll go charging if I had the choice?

      2. Also, ChargePoint allows you to start a charging session from your mobile phone. And if all else fails, there is the 24/7 call center.

  8. Lee Colleton ★ Wednesday, June 6, 2012

    So what would an EV driver from out of state do if they drive down to California for a weekend? They’d have to pay $89 and have a key fob to use quick charge stations through the state if I’m reading this right. If that subscription covered roaming on other networks, I’d consider it. However, if it’s only for some stations in another state then it seems like a highly flawed approach to pricing if subscription is the only option.

Comments have been disabled for this post