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Electric car drivers left hanging in charger wars

Consumer Reports News: May 11, 2012 12:38 PM

With long charge times and charging stations few and far between, government agencies, Google, and others have gone to great lengths to maintain lists of every charging station in America and make it available via smart phones. But EV drivers have another story.

With different charging networks proliferating, some EV drivers we met this week at the 26th annual Electric Vehicle Symposium in Los Angeles (EVS26) say it's hard to know which ones they can use. Different plug standards for DC fast-charging and chargers owned by private businesses (such as CR) whose chargers are listed, but not readily available to the public, compound the problem.

Naturally, charging networks install electric car chargers in people's homes and in public places, such as parking lots and airports. For public chargers, they provide an RFID (Radio Frequency Identification) key tag to customers to activate the charger and authenticate payment. Some charging network providers say it's important to them to collect authentication information even if they're providing free charging, because it helps them track where future chargers should go, what kind of electric car you have, and how to manage loads on the power grid.

Perhaps the most important reason for charging networks is to collect and aggregate payments. Unlike buying gas, when you charge up an electric car, the cost amounts to just a few dollars. Charging our Nissan Leaf test car at our test track in Connecticut, for example, cost less than $4.50. And that figure is a worst-case scenario. (Our area has among the highest electric rates in the continental United States, and that cost is based on a completely drained battery, which ideally should never happen.)

At the modest energy costs for recharging, credit-card processing fees take a significant bite out of providers' profit margins. Companies are exploring more creative approaches to ensure profitability, such as aggregating payments from different tenants in an apartment garage. This business model may evolve over time.

Different charging networks take various approaches to collecting payment. Among the three largest:

  • ChargePoint (run by Coulomb Technologies) allows the property owners on whose land the chargers sit to set the rates. It bills users $25 at a time, up front, then draws down from this amount as they use the chargers.

  • eVgo, a division of electric utility NRG, recently settled a lawsuit with the state of California by agreeing to install 10,000 charging locations across the state, with 400 chargers initially, 200 of them "fast" chargers. The company, which also operates in Texas and elsewhere, has several payment plans: For $39 a month, drivers get unlimited use of public chargers (both 240-volt and so-called fast chargers). For $89 a month, they can get that plus a charger installed at their home, along with any electricity used. For $49 a month, a contracted plan can include a home charger and electricity, without public charging access. In addition, it charges extra fees for parking longer than an hour at its public chargers, but donates those proceeds to charity. As part of its settlement with the state, NRG agreed to include credit-card readers on its public chargers as well.

  • Blink by Ecotality will start similar subscription plans this summer along with collecting revenue by selling targeted advertising and store coupons on their chargers, along with other ancillary activities.

  • GoE3 is installing only public fast chargers that can recharge a typical car in about a half hour. It plans to charge a flat $12 for use.
So far, the current networks mostly operate in different geographic areas. But EV drivers who travel across boundaries sometimes need to carry RFID key tags for several networks. Clearly, Blnk's need to collect personal information for ad targeting is different from the other providers. All three say they are talking together about "interoperability" or "roaming" agreements, but evidence of progress is scant.

In the meantime, tech-savvy EV drivers have developed their own crowd-sourced charger maps, which they say are more accurate and up to date. Further, most EV owners do almost all of their charging at home, raising the question of how many charging networks are really needed. That's one of the biggest questions for the electric vehicle infrastructure development to answer.

See our guide to fuel economy and guide to alternative fuels.

California to boost mandate for electric cars
Purpose-built electric cars trump manufacturer-converted models
Wireless electric-car charging takes center stage
Plugless Power demonstrates cordless electric car recharging
Toyota introduces electric RAV4 SUV, starting at $49,800
Mercedes-Benz B-Class fuel-cell-powered car shows progress
Behind the wheel of the improved Coda electric car
We drive the first Chinese car expected in the U.S., the electric BYD e6
Do electric cars even need special chargers?

Eric Evarts

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