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Alternating Currents: EV apps for charging and route planning need to be simplified

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At the risk of sounding like an old fuddy duddy, get-off-my-lawn type of guy, I’m going to use this space this week to vent a frustration about EV ownership. Charging needs to be simpler. I don’t mean the physical act of plugging a charge cable into your car’s charge port. I mean the ancillary practices required to facilitate the plug-in. For a normal person who drives their normal car, they never have to think about what to do at the gas station, it’s always been the same, and hasn’t changed since credit card readers were installed at the pump twenty-five years ago. 

Since purchasing an EV, my phone is now loaded with myriad different charging-related applications. I have PlugShare, ChargeHub, and A Better Routeplanner to help me track down charge stations on my route. I have ChargePoint, EVGo, Electrify America, Blink, and GreenLots apps to pay for my charge. Hell, EVGo shipped me a physical card to use at the charging station. I have charging apps for my Nissan Leaf, the Harley-Davidson LiveWire press motorcycle I have in the drive, and the Tesla Model Y I’m borrowing from a friend. It is, as they say, a whole lot. 

On a recent road trip, I found myself bouncing between multiple apps to not only track down the next charger on my route, but then plug in that charger on a mapping app like Waze to get turn by turn directions. Then, once I arrived at the station, I had to figure out each of the apps individually to actually get the thing charging. ChargePoint, for example, doesn’t even have a credit card slot on their machines, bottlenecking the process through their proprietary app. Electrify America thankfully did have a credit card slot, because I never got the app to operate correctly. 

(Editor’s note: ChargePoint doesn’t always make it clear on its chargers, but some of its newer units support tap to pay in addition to the ChargePoint account.)

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I’ve been driving gasoline-powered cars for my entire life, and the learning curve was nowhere near this steep. In order for electric cars to take off in an appreciable enough way to overtake internal combustion engine cars in the near future, all of these systems need to be integrated far better than they are at present. The average driver absolutely does not care what the difference between CHAdeMO and CCS is, and they’re never going to bother to learn. Your average driver doesn’t want to learn a new process. Some people still manage to put diesel in their gasoline tanks, so getting them to learn the difference between J1772 and a Tesla plug is going to be an uphill battle. 

What does an appropriately simple charging process look like that would attract more drivers from ICE to EV? It looks like a single universal charging connector. It looks like plugging in without interfacing with the charging machine in any way. It means being able to charge, even if you forgot your phone at home, or it died and you didn’t bring a charging cord. Maybe it means the charger company seamlessly billing your local electric company and tacking it on to your power bill every month, even if you go on a road trip. Imagine how much easier it would be if you could just show up at a charger, plug in, charge up, and drive away. No phones, no apps, no charge cards, no fuss. 

READ ALSO: Tesla Supercharger network is the company’s key to success

And on top of that it probably means at least another 100,000 charging stations need to be installed. People need to get to the point where they aren’t afraid of being able to run their car down until the low-electrons light comes on and still have enough range to make it to the next charger on the interstate. No preplanned routes, no extra steps, just show up and charge. The average driver cares far more about their daily routine continuing uninterrupted than they do about the environment. It’s a cold hard fact, but for EVs to truly “catch on” that’s where they need to be. 

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You want to know who is getting it right in the current electric landscape? Tesla. As cliché as it might sound, Tesla is as close to the idealized future of EV charging as we currently have. You can put your destination into the navigation, and it’ll not only tell you which Supercharger station to pull into, but it’ll indicate how long you’ll need to stay parked there in order to have enough charge to make your destination. The car is linked to your account, and the Supercharger shakes hands with the car in a way that just bills your card. You don’t need to tap or swipe or anything. It just plain works. 

(Editor’s note: Electrify America is deploying something similar network wide, but it does require the car to be able to communicate with the charger. New Porsche models support it, along with the upcoming Mustang Mach-E. Read more about that support from Electrify America here.)

Now, even Tesla isn’t quite ready for prime time, as there are only just over 900 Supercharger locations nationwide. There are still large swathes of the United States where the charging infrastructure just plain doesn’t exist yet. But, if we’re going to revolutionize the way Americans drive, we need to absolutely work as hard as we possible can to make it a more integrated and simpler task than it currently is. Driving electric doesn’t have to just be better for the environment, it also has to be better for the driver’s life. We can’t just preach to the electric choir, we need to reach hands out to our ICE neighbors to help them make the transition. You and I are willing to make sacrifices to drive our EVs, but the average Joe or Jane just plain isn’t. 

In short, no more apps, please.

Written by Bradley Brownell
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