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Here’s what electric cars need to succeed: roaming for charging stations

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Last summer, I took the plunge and bought an electric car. After a bit of research, I decided on an all-electric Nissan Leaf. A little over 12 months and close to 10,000 gas-free miles later, I couldn’t be happier about my decision. But countless short-distance commutes, weekly cross-city drives and one semi-adventurous road trip have also taught me a lot about the shortcomings of electric mobility. My biggest pet peeve? The hassle of finding, and using, public charging stations.

First, a few words about my car of choice. The [company]Nissan[/company] Leaf isn’t as splashy, or expensive, as a [company]Tesla[/company], but it does a great job as a city commuter car, and is actually surprisingly zippy when you need to speed up to merge onto the freeway or get the head-start at a traffic light turning green.

And yes, you can tell by my use of words like zippy that I’m not really much of a car person, so I don’t miss the roaring engine sounds, but rather enjoy the quiet drive, plus all the other benefits that an electric vehicle has to offer: no painful trips to the pump, no oil changes, free parking in some municipalities, and the privilege to drive with just one person in California’s carpool lanes.

The Leaf’s batteries have a nominal range of 85 miles per charge, but depending on your style of driving, use of the A/C and the actual route, 70 miles are more realistic. That’s still plenty when you just drive around in the city, and on most days, I just charge it up at home. But when I head to the Silicon Valley to visit with companies, or drive around San Francisco for an extended period of time, I have to charge up.

charging the leaf

There will be close to 15,000 public charging stations in the U.S. in 2015, according to Nissan. If you live in the Bay Area or any other metropolitan area where plenty of people buy electric cars, chances are there’s always one nearby. Finding it can however be a challenge. Nissan’s own on-board navigation system helps to locate stations and even query them to see whether they’re free or in use.

However, frequently, the system shows that no one is using a particular station while failing to inform you that the garage is actually closed at the moment. That can be annoying when you’re looking for a parking spot that happens to have a charger, and a real nail biter when you’re running low on juice and really, really need to charge up soon.

Crowdsourced smartphone apps like Plugshare can help take some of the pain out of charging station discovery, but the whole process is still pretty flawed and ripe for improvement. Maybe with Android Auto Google is going to add charging stations with real-time availability information to Google Maps? One can always dream.

But finding a public charging station is only half the battle; using them can be hit or miss as well. I’m not talking about fast chargers vs. regular chargers and the time it takes to get your car going again, but the fact that not all charging stations are managed equal. Most stations are run by or in cooperation with large charging networks like [company]ChargePoint[/company], [company]eVgo[/company] and [company]Blink[/company], and each and every one of these networks has different conditions.

Screenshot_2014-08-22-13-04-23ChargePoint membership is free, but fees can vary widely from charging station to charging station, and you’ll have to be a member of their network to charge your car. Each network has different rates, plans and rules, and for each, you’ll need to apply for a separate card, provide payment information and register your car. It’s like getting a new credit card for each gas station you frequent, and it’s a big headache.

What’s needed instead is what I’d like to call cross-network roaming. When you use your phone while on the road, it occasionally taps into a competitor’s cell tower to keep you connected, and when you get money from an ATM, you don’t have to worry whether it’s being run by your bank. It just works. Yes, it may charge you a bit more, but if run out of money (or juice, in the case of your car), you’re happy it works. The same kind of interoperability is desperately needed for electric charging stations.

Nissan actually took a first step in that direction this summer by introducing yet another card, called EZ Charge, that allows for interoperability across four networks — but the card is currently limited to select markets, as well as 2014 and 2015 Leafs. That leaves out owners of every other electric car, as well as quite a few charging stations. What’s really needed are direct deals between the various networks so that car owners only need to register once, and then pay their charging fees through the network of their choice.

Because in the end, it’s just silly that cars with the next generation of power supply should be harder to fill up than your average gas guzzler.

43 Responses to “Here’s what electric cars need to succeed: roaming for charging stations”

  1. I just bought the Mercedes B Class and love the drive. I do have a bit of range anxiety and I haven’t found many charging stations in south orange county, california. I live n Laguna Niguel and the closest I’ve found are in Irvine Spectrum, drive 15+ miles just to charge up? I did find some in San Juan Capistrano, Ca online, but my friends warn me that those are only for Tesla Does anyone know about that? Thanks for the tips!

  2. Hmmm! If you would have purchased a Chevy Volt, you could charge it with 220 or 110 voltage outlet. Here in Indiana I get winter 29 mile charge to 48 mile charge in summer. If I run the charge down, the gas motor takes over, and I get 30 to 40 MPG on it, until I coast, which recharges the Battery. I love it, I have owned it for 2 1/2 years. I buy very little gas. GM,s best kept Secret!

  3. Ray Boggs

    Give your EV a real boost by charging it with a residential EV solar charging system equipped with new ultra high efficiency high efficiency Hyper X 2 solar panels. Hyper X 2 solar offers a better PTC to STC ratio “Real World” performance according to the California Energy Commission’s performance rating listings than over 100 of SunPower’s solar panel models.

    Hyper X 2 solar modules are less than a 1/4 inch thick. and offer sturdy glass on glass construction with no aluminum frames, so there’s nothing to corrode. And they offer a competition crushing 92.88% PTC to STC ratio. Hyper X 2 also offers a heat busting -0.31%/degree C temperature coefficient for better performance in warm/hot climates. And when it comes to aesthetics, nothing even comes close to Hyper X 2’s glass on glass, see through, frameless construction.

    With N-type mono-crystalline bifacial cells for double sided power production, up to a 21.5% efficiency rating, superior aesthetics, and a price that absolutely crushes the solar lease and PPA company’s offerings, nothing compares to Hyper X 2.

  4. Andrei Moldoveanu

    Networks roaming standard coming up! NEMA, a trade association that includes an EVSE manufacturers group, is working hard addressing this need. A six parts standard NEMA EVSE 1 EV Charging Network Interoperability Standards is in a fairly advanced development stage. Its Part 2: A Contactless RFID Credential for Authentication
    (UR Interface) was already been formally balloted and approved. The rest of the modules will cover:
    – EVSE 1.1 EV Charging Network Interoperability Standards Framework
    – EVSE 1.3 QR Code and NFC Tags for EV Charging Station Identification (UT Interface)
    – EVSE 1.4 Data Model and Protocols for Distributing Station Directories (ID Interface)
    – EVSE 1.5 Authentication and Authorization Across EV Charging Networks (IA Interface)
    – EVSE 1.6 Charging Session Status and Accounting Data Exchange (IC Interface)
    Expected completion of the entire document: early 2015.

  5. Mark Renburke

    Actually, for apartment/condo dwellers who are unable to negotiate even a simple outlet with the landlord, the next best option is not public chagrin but rather workplace charging (private). Could that be an option for you?

    Again, often a standard outlet will do, as most people spend 8 or more hours at the office and commute 20 miles or less each way. Plenty of time to top off, even if you feel like going out for lunch. If a (Level 2) charging station is desired, there are currently many incentives for employers to this, both financial and wellness-wise.

  6. Adam Woolway

    ‘Roaming’ between networks is a service that PlugSurfing is offering now in Germany, and soon Europe. With our app and RFID keyhanger a driver can simply charge on a pay-as-you-go basis across multiple networks. At the end of the month we send you one, easy bill. More info at for the curious, or add me on linkedin.

  7. My wife is leasing a Volt with 15,000 miles per year and zero down and $300/month including taxes. I wanted her to get a Nissan Leaf and she wanted no range anxiety and went with the Volt…

    My wife loves her Volt…She loves the quietness of all electric operation and single speed transmission and likes running on all electric power for up to 50 miles per charge (35-40 miles is the average).

    Two months and 2500 miles later most of our use has bee on electricity and we typically charge at home… I have used plugshare App and Plugshare on the web and to find free chargers out in the world a two times in two months…4th of July parking lot had one and Daughters soccer field had one.

    I coordinate the charging infrastructure Chargers/Electric Vehicle Supply Equipment (EVSE) at my employer…We have 12 x Level 2 (240V) and 4 x 120V…There is no way to charge a fair amount for power and cover the cost of installation of EVSE. The chargers were public financed and we spent tens of thousands on installation.

    I heard that Stanford University plans to install 500 Level 2 chargers in the near future.

    I have heard that Toyota and Honda are both banking on Hydrogen Fuel Cells rather than Battery electric vehicles

    We like our electric car and I wish they were more affordable as the driving experience of a car with so few moving parts is unequalled.

  8. Katy Walker

    Last weekend after coming back from camping in the Poconos we decided to test out a Charge Point station. Unfortunately it was inside a BMW car lot, in the middle of nowhere New Jersey. We ended up getting seriously harassed by cops who were bored and itching to arrest us (3 black people and 1 white person, plus the cops were juiced up a la Ferguson Missouri). The local IHOP also had no action so it closed early and forced us to wait in the parking lot. The BMW security guy called the cops, 4 cop cars/4 cops whip into the parking lot at breakneck speed. Of course they had never heard of an EV car or Charge Point. They were certain that we were trying to steal BMWs. Again it was 3 black folks, (2 of which were women). The most jacked up cop threw one of the women into the back of his car and handcuffed her. She was very shaken up and not much she could do but get the officers name. The robot/clone cop was trying to intimate and was praying to his Gods, hoping to find something on us, as we are all artists/musicians and dress “creatively”. When people take long EV car rides with my husband and I, I always tell them that it’s going to be an adventure. From day one owning a Nissan Leaf has been one serious trip!

  9. What do I do? Manage total home and my plug-in consumption in tier 1 and tier 2 rates; use EV when the traffic speed is 40 mph or less, switch to gas engine whenever speed over 40 mph. Never charge the car @ tier 3 or 4 rates, especially @ public charging point with $0.55/kwh.
    Sorry for re-posting because the sentence was trimmed by the website made it senseless.
    No idea about what the cause is.

  10. What do I do? Manage total home and my plug-in consumption in tier 1 and tier 2 rates; use EV when the traffic speed is 40 mph or less, switch to gas engine whenever driving over 40mph. Never charge the car @ tier 3 or 4 rates, especially @ public charging point with $0.55/kwh.

    Sorry for re-posting because the sentence was trimmed by the website made it senseless. No idea what was the cause!

  11. I am driving a Ford C-Max Plug-in. Driving an electric car is cool, but is it still cool when you know how much you pay for the drive? Is it cheaper or more expensive than getting gas?
    My answer: it’s cheaper and it’s not cheaper.
    Car’s websites estimate that: driving an EV for 40 miles with the rate of $ 0.11/kwh and $3.80/gallon, EV’s electricity consumption is equivalent from $1.70 to $1.95. It’s really cheap.
    But the reality: in San Jose, CA, the resident electric rates are almost $0.14/khw for tier 1, $0.16 for tier 2, $0.34 for tier 3, $0.36 for tier 4, and $0.55 @ public charging station.
    Gas: $3.65/gallon as of today. Now you do the math.
    What do I do? Manage total home and my plug-in consumption in tier 1 and tier 2; use EV when the traffic speed is 40 mph. Never charge the car @ tier 3 or 4, especially @ public charging point
    Result: I save a lot of money. LOL and love my C-Max.

  12. Hmmm when I pay for parking aVisa card works fine. Too bad the Freddy government funded charging pouters are not making it user friendly. I guess that want service fees more than a successful business plan. I give it a year before we have another Eco-fatality!

    Workplace charging it much more important that public stations at walgreens! :)

  13. The 33 miles per day is a misnomer. That’s an average and does not tell the whole story. There are about 250 working days per year. On those days, people tend to drive an average number of miles to and from work. On weekends and holidays, however, all bets are off. Want to hit the beach? Visit a friend? Try to enter or leave NYC? Live in the Northeast? – if so, it is either going to be 30 degrees or 90 degrees outside and you will be cranking heat or air (unlike California). The author even admits to suffering range anxiety. No thanks. A car is something that gets me from point A to point B. I don’t want to have to search for, or sit at, point C trying to save a few pennies on fuel.
    Tesla cars are over $100k because they need so many batteries just to get to 250 mile range. They prove that electric cars are viable, but they are hardly “efficient.” Can you imagine if every Tesla owner bought a perfectly fine $50k car and invested the other $50k to fund a solar farm (or save dozens of starving kids)? Now that would be efficiency.

    • Mark Renburke

      Like many electric naysayers, you make the case for an affordable electric car that can give you 40 gas-free miles every day, then become a hybrid any day for 40+ mpg long trips. Starting at around $27k, it’s called the Chevy Volt. ;)

  14. rbhebron

    ..first of all, perhaps your thinking like an owner of a fossil fueled car.. leaving the house and hoping that a charging station will be available on your route.. thats really a poor way of getting from one place to the next on your EV.. you already know that you would need to recharge on your route, and you already know that you might get into trouble when you dont plan your trip.. then why leave the house not knowing what you have to do when you do..? planning your trip makes a lot more sense and eliminates the anxiety when you make that trip.. if its the first time you would take that route, then it just makes sense to use your internet to get info about the charging stations on your route.. if there is none, then perhaps you should make a small detour to get one.. better ready than not at all.. if you have already done that route before, then list the things you did last time for your charging needs so that your trip would be worry free.. mark all the necessary information for your use next time.. when you reach your destination, perhaps its also a good practice to also list down all the info so your ready for your trip back home.. think like an owner of pure electric car and not as an owner of an fossil fuel car.. after a few years, after electric becomes the norm than an exception, you may have the luxury to think differently.. for now, plan and be aware that the infrastructure is still not yet in place, but knowing your enjoying your freedom from fossil fuels makes a lot more sense..

  15. John Johnson

    The Electric car is never going to make it till, 1 They plug into a standard outlet. 2 You can change the battery as needed yourself. 3 It will have two battery packs and be able to recharge one while you drive

    • Mark Renburke

      They already do plug into a regular outlet. I’ve been charging this way overnight for over 2 years for a gasoline free 35 mile commute. I charge at just an 8 amp rate, similar power used as a medium size window air conditioner.

    • SeadogMillionaire

      The Chevy Volt plugs into a standard 120V outlet. Being able to change the battery “yourself” should only be done by people who now can change a gasoline engine by themselves !!! Current physics suggest that a battery cannot be charged while it is being driven (by the time we have that capability … oil will be gone and the United States – maybe even the planet – will not exist as we know it today !!! So… you can wait it out … the rest of us are already adopting the newest technology and the better way to power a car !!!

  16. You couldn’t be happier with your Leaf? Except that you could be…if there weren’t so many problems charging it. And a ’70 mile range’ is actually a 35-mile range, because you have to get it back home! What you call a nail-biter is what is known as ‘range anxiety’, which is why people avoid electric cars like the plague.

      • Hi Janko – I agree with your figures but there is one point, customers want to have: Security, that they can go on one day more than the average miles per day. This can only be done with a good charging infrastructure and than the EV’s will win also this customers

    • Paul, you drive more than 70 miles everyday? An overwhelming percentage of Americans drive less than 40 miles per day. I thought my commute was long at 32 miles a day. If someone drives over 70 miles a day commuting, they need to :
      A. Move much closer to work. (no brainer)
      B. Just simple don’t get an electric car since you choose to live so far from work and obviously enjoy driving plenty each day.

  17. Kevin Roberts

    Buy a chevy volt getting 46 miles consistently then the gas kick in so far 8 months 219 mpg yes I have used 42 gallons of gas during those 100 mile days

  18. I’d love for our next car to be all electric – but I don’t have a lot of the problems you seem to have. As long as I can plug into an extension cord from inside my house, or get a proper station installed outside my garage, we’d be set, because we almost never exceed 60 miles in a day.

  19. Hi Janko, many thanks for the article. I’m also an EV driver since three years and in total nearly 29.000 miles. And here in Europe we are facing a similar problem. We have some tools available but they are inaccurate and also missing some additional information like closed garage. Another trend here is the introduction of RFID cards – every utility is introducing their own system with their own RFID card and of course fixed cost. So charging in public areas are going to be expensive because you need to sign several contracts to have access to the infrastructure. Even though that many of them are still open and for free of charging, the first utilities are issuing already cards.

  20. Alexander I Shaskevich

    Don’t most people charge at home? Unless you live in a high rise that does not have electric sockets, ( most do ) then you only charge your vehicle when you are traveling. Only the Tesla Model S has supercharging available. With supercharging you can put in 200+ miles in one hour. 100% for the full 265 miles from 0 miles takes 75 minutes.

    In 75 minutes I eat lunch, take a dump, stretch my legs, check my e-mail on my smart phone. To travel 265 miles would normally take about 4 hours when going 65 mph.

    If you want to buy an electric ( please do ) buy the best.

    Tesla Model S is the best.

      • I decided to go for a pure EV because: more sustainable, next generation technology and simply because I wanted. Hybrid is for me to complex, I believe that after a certain time, the cost of service will increase significantly – which nobody can answer me right now. The comparable car here in Europe is the Opel Ampera and the sales figure are not really good. Tesla Motors is for example doing really good and so I believe, that customers like me – we want to see and have pure EV’s. (buy the way, we have not forgotten the state help for car makers in 2008 and 2009. We don’t want to pay this again…)

    • Hi Alexander, you are right, but this works for the market now. If E-Mobility really want to get into mass market, we will need a public network as not everybody can charge at home. Tesla is really doing a great work, because once I have a super charger I can use, the issue of roaming, RFID etc is not necessary anymore.

    • SeadogMillionaire

      Your personal opinion, that a Tesla is the best should make Elon happy. But it remains simply a personal opinion and depends on what your criteria may be. The Tesla S is a fine car … for the money, and you get what you pay for. It has good technology and comes with a nice 8 year warranty on the battery.

      The Volt is priced at $35,000, but would be $50,000 if Lexus were to make and sell one .. so you get MORE than what you pay for. It also comes with an 8 year battery, and an infrastructure of service centers that has at least one in every major city. However, a Chevrolet Volt has more technology and advanced engineering in it than a Tesla (or Ferrari), so if one wants to have the “best” car on the road … the choice is narrowed to one.

  21. commentor 1 thousand

    Magnetic In Resonance wireless buried road charging strips. They have this. It works. In Korea of course , not here. Don’t let them jerk the public around like this. Read about this and expose that it exists and expose that it’s being covered up. Thank You.

  22. scuderia16m

    Rather than cover the country with charging stations, imagine if all EVs got 300+ miles per charge. Tesla is leading the charge (ha) and I believe battery technology will be there in 5ish years.

    • Price cures this problem. Charging stations (public) in places where adoption is already high should never be free, they should be prices to be slightly more expensive than gas. Then you’ll see the Volt drivers disappear, as they will use gas instead. But if they do decide to charge anyhow, remember that their EV miles are just as true as the “true EV’s” you laud. Just because the Volt driver chose an EV with a backup plan and you didn’t, doesn’t give you any more right to the station than them. Plan accordingly! :)

    • SeadogMillionaire

      That’s because Volt’s are popular … and that is a good thing. Funny, as a Volt driver, I could feel the same way when a Leaf – or any other electric car – is using one of my 12 charging stations in my town. But I am not … I am actually still happy to see other EV cars on the road. Some of the chargers are located on streets which limit the parking time to 2 hours … so there is no “blocking” by anybody, whether they drive a Leaf or Tesla or whatever car . I do make good use of those chargers, so that I can do my share to keep them in business and encourage them to expand.

  23. brian bulkowski

    Regrettably, a variety of public utilities (like cabs) should be run as public utilities, with “crowdsource” style apps run by municipalities. Just like knowing traffic congestion on public roads, just like an app to pay for parking (and find free spaces), just like having all medallion cabs through a central dispatch, just like gas stations required to post their prices in a certain-size font, just like having a single health care market for insurance, just like which bikes are free in public bike racks, “there should be an app for that”. A _single_ app, at least in each municipality.

    Regrettably, municipalities are poor at tech. They are asking for volunteers on one hand, and hiring incompetent contractors for way-too-much-money (reading Oregon v Oracle is a laugh riot — $240 MEEEEELION for NOTHING) on the other.

    A competent company that can give municipalities a fair deal on a local services app would be good for america. Municipalities spending reasonable money to “app up” creates GOOD – efficiency for everyone living in the city – lower costs in a million small ways – thus a good use of centralized resources. Small apps competing and fighting for share doesn’t.

    Let’s stop talking about “not enough money” and start talking about “investing in our community”.

    Let’s really stop talking about how government fails in every possible case and never does anything right (endemic among libertarian-leaning techies). Clearly false, if you enjoy tap water, electricity (public service until recently), police and fire, roads.

  24. John Selden

    You make a great proposal. I’d really like my next car to be electric, but I live in a high-rise where I can’t charge at night. So I would have to rely solely on public charging stations. This laundry list of problems definitely gives me pause.

    • Mark Renburke

      Actually, for apartment/condo dwellers who are unable to negotiate even a simple outlet with the landlord, the next best option is not public charging but rather workplace charging (private). Could that be a viable option for you?

      Again, often a standard outlet will do, as most people spend 8 or more hours at the office and commute 20 miles or less each way. Plenty of time to top off, even if you feel like going out for lunch. If a (Level 2) charging station is desired, there are currently many incentives for employers to this, both financial and wellness-wise for the company.