Electrify America, a new national electric vehicle charging network, launched a new mobile app and EV charging membership plans on Monday morning. The company, which is coming to the end of its first phase of deployment, is also preparing an innovative “plug-and-charge” feature that, if implemented by auto OEMs, will bring the same simplicity of charging to other vehicles as is currently enjoyed by Tesla drivers.
To find out more about Electrify America’s plans, and to see its new tech in action, I visited the company’s HQ and its alpha test lab in Virginia. What I discovered made me optimistic about the state of US EV infrastructure in the coming years.
Electrify America was created as part of a settlement by Volkswagen Group, after Volkswagen was caught lying about diesel emissions and ordered to invest $2 billion in electric vehicle charging infrastructure. That work began at the beginning of 2017, initially all behind the scenes as Electrify America began the process of designing and then building its network.
Phase one of four
That $2 billion is being spent in four 30-month cycles, the first of which is drawing to a close. In the first cycle, the bulk of the investment—$370 million—has gone into charging infrastructure. As we’ve previously reported, the first phase of the network—which should be fully in service by the end of 2019—will feature 2,000 DC fast chargers at 484 sites around the country. “We had no chargers at all in 2018; to date in 2019 we have 158 sites operational. The way we’re interpreting the consent decree is doing something unique in the US. We’ve got one chance to finally try to have an increase in EV adoption,” explained Giovanni Palazzo, president and CEO of Electrify America.
(Out of the first 484 sites, the design and engineering is complete for all but two. About 30 sites are still submitting permits; 370 sites have all permits and are in construction; 267 have had construction completed, and 158 are already in use.)
By the end of the year, that will mean sites in 42 states and 17 large metropolitan areas. In addition to the 2,000 DC fast chargers—a mix of both CCS Combo and ChaDeMo at all sites—Electrify America is also putting in more than 2,800 level 2 (7.2kW AC) charging stations. On highway corridors, the stations will be spaced at an average of 70 miles (113km), with 120 miles (193km) between them at maximum. Each site has a minimum of four charging stations, with the largest having 10 chargers.
As EV drivers will know all too well, charging an electric car is often harder than it needs to be. Some networks require you to be a member, others don’t. Sometimes you arrive at a charger and it’s not working, or someone else is plugged in already. So far, only Tesla’s walled garden of proprietary chargers offers more convenient access than a gas station—plug into a Supercharger with your Tesla, and the billing is handled between the car and the charging station.
Electrify America will also be implementing a plug-and-charge feature using the ISO 15118 standard by the end of the year. Once the charging cable is connected, certificates on the car and in the charger authenticate, with customer billing information pulled from a profile stored on the car. However, this will require some implementation on the OEM side as well—and don’t assume it will be just for VW Group brands.
“Electrify America’s job is to make sure it can enable all OEMs, not just favor VW Group. There is a bias on the European side right now, but the domestic and Asian OEMs are right behind [in preparing their cars for plug-and-charge]. Someone might be first to market and get bragging rights, but we need to make sure we treat them all 100 percent equally. All the chargers are pre-provisioned to make it work—it just requires the software to be rolled out,” explained Electrify America COO Brendan Jones.
“We need such high utilization of the network to make it pay that we have a business need to be neutral to OEMs,” added Palazzo.
Plug-and-charge isn’t the only way to top your EV up with electrons, however. The method with the least commitment is simply to drive up to a charger and pull out your credit or debit card. “Our chargers will be open access, with no membership needed. There will be flexible pricing products; embedded programs, Electrify America membership, and also pay at the station,” Jones told us.
The faster you charge, the more you’ll pay
The chargers will bill at three different price bands: 0-75kW for older EVs like the Chevrolet Bolt or Nissan Leaf, as well as any Tesla using a CCS adapter dongle; 76kW-125kW; and 126kW-350kW. Note: the user does not pick which band to charge at; that’s all determined by the kind of EV they have. You cannot arrive in a 350kW-capable Porsche Taycan but select to charge at a less powerful rate. Although exact pricing won’t be out until later in May, we do have some details about membership. An Electrify America Pass charges the standard per-minute cost—which should be less than $0.3/minute for the slowest rate—plus a $1 session fee. An Electrify America Pass+ membership gets an additional per-minute discount but requires a $4 monthly membership fee. If you get charging through an OEM-negotiated program (and so far, that means Audi, Porsche, and Lucid), expect to pay even less.
Visiting Electrify America’s R&D lab made it clear that the company has put a lot of effort into the charging user experience. The charging stations—which come from one of four different suppliers depending on your geographic region—all operate the same underlying software and all feature the same intuitive (and elegant) user interface. This makes it clear exactly what you’re supposed to do to interact with one and how much you’re paying to suck power from it. And if you arrive at a charging station that’s already in use, the display also makes it very clear how long you can expect to wait for that person to finish.
That information is all also available through the new Electrify America mobile app. In the app you can find charging stations, discover which of them are in use (and when they might be free if so), pay for your charging session (there’s an NFC token you can add), and also monitor your state of charge once connected.
Electrify America’s second phase is due to begin in July 2019 and will see another tranche of $500 million spent by the end of 2021. Of this, $338 million is earmarked for infrastructure. This is predominantly to be spent in metropolitan areas and is biased toward Californian ones (which will receive $95-$115 million) compared to the rest of the country ($145-165 million). For highway chargers, the split is reversed, with $25-$30 million for California and $65-$85 million earmarked for the rest of the nation. Jones says that the company is also looking at new opportunities beyond just metropolitan and highway charging, including buses and rural locations. “Multifamily locations are the hardest to do. It’s easy if they’re new build properties, but it’s hard to get approval to even install level 2 chargers in existing multifamily dwellings,” he explained. “So we might suspend some of our business rules to put DC fast chargers as close as we can to multifamily developments.”