By: Gigaom
April 03, 2012 at 17:36 PM EDT
Electric car charging: Let’s not make this more complicated
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.

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?

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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.

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