Electrify America chose the hard route, knowing full well it would be a rocky ride in the beginning.
When the Volkswagen Group was ordered to invest two billion dollars into zero-emission vehicle infrastructure and education, many people in the industry were cautiously optimistic about the potential impact such funding would have for EV adoption in the United States.
However, simply throwing a ton of money at a problem doesn't mean you'll get a favorable result, as witnessed by Ecotality's failure a decade ago when they received over 135 million in grants and economic stimulus funding to install public EV charging infrastructure. For those that remember the original Blink network (it has since been taken over by Car Charging Group), you may remember how unreliable the equipment was and how poorly their customer service performed. The bottom line is you can have all the money in the world and still fail to achieve your goal without the right people and proper planning. As they say, the devil is always in the details.
Fast forward to today and it's not hard to understand why many are skeptical of Electrify America, the entity created by Volkswagen to plan and implement the installation of zero-emission infrastructure ordered by a federal judge as punishment for the diesel-cheating scandal. Especially when you consider that many of the people who have used the Electrify America network have experienced problems, from credit card readers that don't work to sessions being dropped prematurely, to compatibility issues with certain EV models.
We assembled a group of professionals from around the industry, very few of us came from VW. What we assessed was what was we have done before, and what this space needed. One of the things we said was we have to eliminate this question about the chicken and the egg. We saw what Tesla had done, and how they sold cars primarily by building a SuperCharger network. For the rest of the OEMs out there we said we had to build for them to take away that excuse. The range confidence issue has to be built into that purchase so the manufacturers can focus on the features and advantages of their vehicles, as opposed to worrying about whether they had infrastructure out there. Brendan Jones, COO, Electrify America
The fact is, many Electrify America users have had a less-than-exemplary experience using the network and they have been very vocal about their issues on EV forums, Facebook groups and when commenting on posts in a variety of EV sites, InsideEVs included.
One such InsideEVs reader reached out to editor Steven Loveday recently to express his displeasure with his recent experiences, as well as point out that he believes Tesla was being treated unfairly by the press, in regards to back-ups at a few Supercharger sites in California over the Thanksgiving holiday weekend. Steven promptly published an article about the topic, and the comment section quickly turned into an Electrify America bash-fest.
"I wanted to bring this to your attention. Last week I saw articles posted on various sites highlighting queues of tesla vehices at a few of the most busy Supercharging stations during the recent holiday travel. I'm sure those people were able to charge and continue on their way. I'm an e-tron owner and had a much worse experience. We had problems at each location we stopped at and eventually had to turn back because a location had no working chargers (Electrify America). I feel like the problems e-tron owners have had for the last 6 months with charge plugs getting locked to the port is going under reported. Audi has mentioned a firmware update a few months ago but nothing is happening.
I'm an EV advocate and want to see the best future for EV's. All non-Tesla EV's entering the market are depending on Electrify America for DC fast charging but the experience so far has been terrible. Our experience is one of many."
So I reached out to Mike Moran, Head of Communications for Electrify America for comment. Mike was aware of the article we posted and thanked me for reaching out. He said instead of him offering me a PR whitewash, he'd prefer if I came down to Electrify America's headquarters in Reston, Virginia, and get the answers to whatever questions I had. I could meet with whomever I wanted to and ask anything - basically, no holds barred. Electrify America offered to pay my travel expenses, and I agreed to go.
So we set up a one-hour interview with CEO Giovanni Palazzo and COO Brendan Jones, as well as a visit to the engineering lab (located a short distance from EA headquarters) where I was accompanied by Electrify America's Director of Technology, Cliff Fietzek. They basically gave me unrestricted access to three of the top people in the company.
I started off the day at the engineering lab with Fietzek. He actually had to get there by 6:00 am so he could move most of the vehicles he had in the lab to a secure location so I couldn't see them -more on that later.
Before coming to Electrify America, Fietzek worked for BMW of North America's electric vehicle development and validation, as well as EV charging infrastructure and smart charging development. He was one of the people responsible for the East and West Coast Express Charging corridor programs that BMW partly funded. So he came to Electrify America with a good deal of EV charging experience.
I wasn't there to interview him, just look at their lab and ask a few questions. We mostly talked about the challenges of having four different versions of their DC fast chargers. Electrify America currently uses units made by ABB, BTC, Signet, and Efacec. Every time they have a software or hardware update, it has to be done on all four brands, and they don't always all work the same afterward. Fitezek has to work out the kinks with all four partners and they all respond on different timelines. I could see that this was clearly a pain point for him.
For example, there have been problems with the Nayax credit card readers and after rounds of software revisions three of the four manufacturers appear to have the compatibility issue resolved (it's still in final validation) but one of the manufacturers hasn't managed to correct the problem yet. This happens all the time. When Electrify America identifies a problem, they need to work it out four times and that obviously causes these issues to take longer to resolve than they would if there were fewer equipment vendors.
As I headed over to HQ for my sit-down with Palazzo and Jones I now knew the first thing I wanted to ask them.
Why four equipment manufacturers?
After hearing how difficult it is to fix the same problem four times, every time there is an issue, I had to ask why they went this route. I think I already knew the answer but needed to hear it from Palazzo and Jones. Palazzo was very blunt: They had no choice. Because Electrify America chose to install high-speed DC fast chargers that could deliver 150 kW to 350 kW, there weren't any existing manufacturers they could source the equipment from, and there wasn't even a robust supply chain for the parts needed to make the units.
Basically, they had to push these companies to make chargers that could deliver more power than anything else on the market at the time. They weren't "off the shelf" components that they could use, it was all new. Even the liquid-cooled cables needed to be designed and manufactured just for them. So while they might have preferred to work with one or two equipment suppliers, none of them could have made enough of these totally-new DC fast charger units to allow EA to stick to the aggressive timeline that they agreed to. Without four manufacturers, they simply wouldn't have enough units to install for cycles 1 and 2.
What is happening with regards to the installation of our stations is epic and unprecedented - Giovanni Palazzo, CEO, Electrify America
Electrify America installed their first DC fast charger in May of 2018 and they now have nearly 2,000 units in the ground. That's an average of 100 per month for 20 months, an unprecedented pace according to Palazzo. But just having them in the ground isn't good enough, both Palazzo and Jones know that the units have to work.
I then asked if the aggressive timeline was a problem and that if they had more time to install the units would there have been fewer issues. They refused to use that as an excuse and told me that they are the ones responsible for the timeline. Electrify America provided the plan to CARB and the EPA, the governing bodies overseeing Electrify America's work, they weren't told how many units they had to install by what deadline. They set the deadlines so they aren't going to complain about them now.
They also told me that they didn't have to install these ultra-high-speed chargers, they choose to. They could have installed thousands of 50 kW DC fast chargers and called it a day. That would have been so much easier because there were existing vendors with proven units. The parts supply chain was already in place and they wouldn't have had to use so many different vendors. However, they choose to take the hard route, because it's what they felt was needed to really push electric vehicle proliferation.
Also, now that they have been working with the four companies for a couple of years, they are beginning to see which ones are the best partners. The supply chains for the parts for these units are becoming more robust, so they can begin to look at the possibility of reducing the number of companies that supply the units. I pressed them on this issue and although they wouldn't directly comment on whether or not they would be narrowing the field, it appeared to me that was their intention. My guess is that sometime in 2020 we'll find out that there's no longer four different suppliers.
When we started, we choose the high road. We could have been compromised by building out a network of 50 kW chargers. That would be easy to implement because it’s a very established industry, the products are there and you can streamline your hardware suppliers much easier. We deliberately selected the most challenging road because 50 kW is the past; we wanted 150kW to 350kW. That decision challenged the industry because the product simply was not there. So, what’s happening now is we're working with our partners to get the hardware problems fixed. Because quite honestly, it may be that not all of the hardware was 100% ready for primetime. This isn’t totally unexpected because when you deliberately select to go into an area that nobody has done before you face unprecedented challenges for you as a company and the industry. - Giovanni Palazzo, CEO, Electrify America
So they knew full well there were going to be problems in the beginning because they were basically inventing new units and that their issues would be compounded by the fact that they needed to fix every issue four times. Why do it, then? According to Palazzo and Jones, it was partly because they are electric vehicle believers and wanted to help drive mass adoption, and also partly because the network needs to be sustainable after the ten-year implementation period. Having a network of 150 kW to 350 kW chargers guarantees that they won't be obsolete any time soon.
If they had chosen the easy route and built a network comprised of 50 kW units two things would happen. First, the EV manufacturers would have an excuse to continue selling EVs with a 50 kW charging limit and you can be sure they would have used that excuse. Now that there is infrastructure in the US and Europe that supports high-speed DC charging, the OEMs are compelled to make cars that can accept high charging rates. If they don't, their competition will eat their lunch. Tesla has proven how well 200+ mile EVs can be used for long road trips as long as there is high-speed infrastructure. If Tesla's Superchargers were capped at 50 kW I doubt we would see as many Teslas on the roads as we do today.
Secondly, and perhaps even more important to Electrify America, is that the network needs to be financially sustainable once the funding from the penalty is exhausted and all four cycles are complete. Who's going to want to pay to charge their EV at 50 kW in 2027? Probably not too many because that will mean waiting between 1 and 2 hours to recharge. However, people will be happy to pay to get 150 kW or more, because it means charging to 80% is going to take less than 30 minutes. The Porsche Taycan, for instance, can charge from 5% to 80% in 22 minutes on an Electrify America 350 kW charger and that's worth paying for.
So basically what Palazzo and Jones were saying, is they knew full well there were going to be growing pains, and that the first couple years would prove challenging. However, the path they chose was the right one both for Electrify America's long-term sustainability and also for the EV industry as a whole.
About those credit card readers
This was a high priority on my list because I have personally had problems using the Nayax card readers while road testing the Kia Niro EV, the Chevy Bolt EV and also when charging my personal BMW i3s.
Give us 90 days. We’ve analyzed all of the faults and errors that are taking place with the NYAX readers and we have a couple more fixes to deploy out on some hardware platforms and we will resolve that issue. While we believe the app is an overall better user experience, we still have an obligation to resolve all of the issues on the credit card readers so we can offer universal access. -Brendan Jones, COO, Electrify America
According to Jones, they have been working with the four partners to get the credit card readers to work with the hardware on the units and have made great advances recently. They are pretty confident they have the issues taken care of on three of the four stations, but still need some time to get the fourth supplier's hardware updated. As mentioned above, Feitzek said his team was working with the suppliers on this very issue when I visited the in the technology lab. Jones said he expects to be rolling out the improved hardware and software within the next 90 days.
Use the app!
Still, both he and Palazzo stressed that the app currently works much better than a credit card and urged me to let our readers know that. If you are an occasional user and don't want to pay a monthly fee for lower per kWh rates, you can select the basic EA Pass plan that doesn't have the $4 per month fee that the EA Pass Plus plan does. However, if you use the EA network just once per month, it's worth it to have the Pass Plus plan, because you'll save money. The only time the basic Pass plan is a better financial option is if you use the network less than ten times per year. Either way, using the app to initiate a charging session circumvents the Nayax reader issues they are currently having and will allow you to initiate a charge immediately.
Has CHAdeMO been left behind?
It's pretty clear Electrify America would have preferred if they didn't have to provide CHAdeMO support. The fact that they don't have more than one CHAdeMO connector at any of their locations speaks volumes. When asked why they won't increase the number of CHAdoMO plugs they offer they basically said to look at the market and you'll see where the industry is going. Every new EV that gets introduced to the US and Europe is using the Combo plug, even from Asian manufacturers like Kia (who defected from CHAdeMO on the new Soul EV), Hyundai and Honda.
Before coming to Electrify America Jones worked at Nissan for 20 years and for the last 6 years he was responsible for LEAF sales and building out CHAdeMO infrastructure. He even said, "there was no bigger CHAdeMO supporter than me". But the market has changed, and it's clear that CCS is going to be the dominant standard for the foreseeable future. When asked if they thought Nissan would eventually switch to CCS for Europe and the US, neither of them would touch that, instead, they just looked at me and raised their eyebrows. I got the feeling that they are hoping that happens sometime soon.
Because we don’t have redundancy with CHAdeMO, when there’s an issue it becomes a top priority and our goal is to fix it within 24 to 48 hours depending on the region. If there’s a ping from a station that says there’s an issue on a CHAdeMO port, we just roll a truck. There’s no wasting time to assess the issue or to determine the cause. - Brendan Jones, COO, Electrify America
Jones promised that they will do their best to keep the CHAdeMO ports working and that when one goes down, they respond as quickly as possible. If they can't immediately fix the issue with a station reboot, they send out a repair truck that day. He urged users to please call Electrify America and open a service ticket if they have a problem with any port, CHAdeMO or not.
Not always the station's fault
One thing that I brought up that they both quickly responded to was issues created by the car, not the station. For instance, some Audi e-Tron users are reporting that the connector sometimes won't release from the car once the session is complete. There have also been issues with some of the older cars like the Spark EV not communicating with Electrify America chargers properly. In a case like the Spark EV, Electrify America needs to work with Chevrolet to determine the issue and correct it. Sometimes, OEMs won't put time and resources into discontinued cars, so that can be an issue with legacy EVs. Jones and Palazzo wouldn't comment on specific cars or manufacturers, because they are really their partners in this, needing to work with each other to make sure the communication process between the vehicle and charger works every time.
Sometimes it is the car's fault. We work with the OEMs and it’s our job together to fix all the issues before the car is actually in customer hands. Now it’s a complex process with legacy cars plus the fact that we’re working with four hardware suppliers, but it’s up to us to get it to work, we’re not going to point fingers. We never want to blame the car because it’s our job to get it right for them. - Brendan Jones, COO, Electrify America
So why should we feel confident that Electrify America's service will improve? First of all, because it already has. Palazzo pointed out (with graphs, charts and a bunch of supporting data) that the Electrify America Network recently became the highest-rated network on PlugShare. They were a distant third as recently as 6 months ago, but since then their scores have been constantly improving and as of October, they now have the highest overall score.
We keep increasing the size of the team that monitors the chargers on a daily basis, in fact just 2 weeks ago we doubled the team, and by the end of January, we’ll have the team in full force. You ask why we didn’t have a larger team until now, and the answer quite honestly is we didn’t have the ability to dial into any specific station and look at its operation, we now have that ability...Despite all of our problems, as of today, Electrify America is now the highest rated network on PlugShare. - Giovanni Palazzo, CEO, Electrify America
Another good sign is that they have recently doubled the team that monitors their stations and responds to problems. Palazzo also admitted that until recently, they didn't have the ability to dial into a station and really analyze it. They could previously see the station and reboot it, but they can now do more complex diagnostic functions, and either fix it remotely or know exactly what the issue is. Therefore, when they dispatch the field technician, that person has the arts necessary and just fixes it, they aren't tasked with on-site diagnosis.
Another reason to be hopeful about improvement is because Electrify America is working closely with the manufacturers on their future EVs. OEMs are realizing how important it is that their customers have a good experience charging at Electrify America sites so they are bringing their future EVs to EA's technology lab years before it will be sold to make sure all of the communication processes are 100% compatible.
If you remember at the beginning of this article I mentioned at Fietzek had to get to the lab early the day of my visit to remove vehicles from the testing facility. That was because I wasn't allowed to see them, as they were cars that haven't yet been introduced to the market. Palazzo told me that having the ability to work together with the OEM's engineers in their own lab, months or years before the vehicle ever hits the market will allow them to be certain it will not experience any charging issues on Electrify America's equipment. More reason to be positive about the future.
There were a number of things we discussed but didn't necessarily go into deep detail. Here are a few of the items briefly covered:
Pricing: There are complaints about the pricing by time as opposed to by the kWh. Electrify America believes the current pricing structure is fair, but they are willing to look at other options if they believe that's warranted. They need the network to be sustainable, it will not be subsidized once the funds for the penalty have been exhausted. *Note: I conducted the interview before the state of California announced their new rules with regards to EV charging station pricing, so I didn't have the opportunity to get comment on that.
Hyundai Kona and Kia Niro pricing issue: Hyundai Kona and Kia Niro owners have been complaining that they are being charged the wrong price per minute by Electrify America. These cars cannot accept more than 75 kW so they should be paying the 1-75 kW rate. However, when they plug in they are being charged the 1-125 kW rate. This causes them to pay an extra 38 cents or 45 cents per minute, depending on the plan they have. Electrify America is aware of this and has promised to have the issue resolved soon.
Progress by end of cycle 2: Cycle 2 of the plan continues for another 2 years. By the end of 2021, Electrify America will have 800 locations that host 3,500 chargers. Tesla currently has 860 Supercharger locations in the US. So while Electrify America is still way behind Tesla, it will have taken them 3.5 years to reach 800 locations in the US, and it took Tesla about 6.5 years to achieve 800 Supercharger locations. By the way, this isn't a race. I believe both Electrify America and Tesla are happy the other is continuing to expand their networks. The quicker that high-speed EV charging becomes ubiquitous, the better for the entire industry.
You can help! Report issues to Electrify America: Both Jones and Palazzo asked me to please stress to our readers to report any issue they have, as it will help bring attention to it faster. Call Electrify America and report the problem and they will have someone on it immediately. They also said they read every single PlugShare comment. Palazzo said he has personally read every comment left on PlugShare about Electrify America and checks it every day. So you have direct access to the CEO of the company. Let him know how your experience went, good or bad because he's reading.
Plug and Charge will be introduced in 2020: 2020 will bring the first vehicles that utilize ISO 15118 capability on the Electrify America network. Plug and Charge will dramatically improve the customer experience, as there will be no need to swipe a credit card or even use an app to initiate a charging session. The customer will simply pull up and plug in like Tesla owners do at Superchargers. The station will identify the vehicle and automatically bill the customer's account for the session.
Thanks to Electrify America for addressing these issues head-on
I want to thank Mike Moran at Electrify America for arranging the visit, as well as Fietzek, Jones, and Palazzo for making the time to meet with me and speaking so freely. They could have easily hid behind some vague PR comments and given us a couple of well out planned quotes. Instead, they wanted to tell their side of the story, and have not only promised that service will improve but also invited me back in six months to check-in and discuss their progress. Of course, we'll take them up on that offer.