Here’s what electric cars need to succeed: roaming for charging stations

Last summer, I took the plunge and bought an electric car. After a bit of research, I decided on an all-electric Nissan Leaf. A little over 12 months and close to 10,000 gas-free miles later, I couldn’t be happier about my decision. But countless short-distance commutes, weekly cross-city drives and one semi-adventurous road trip have also taught me a lot about the shortcomings of electric mobility. My biggest pet peeve? The hassle of finding, and using, public charging stations.

First, a few words about my car of choice. The [company]Nissan[/company] Leaf isn’t as splashy, or expensive, as a [company]Tesla[/company], but it does a great job as a city commuter car, and is actually surprisingly zippy when you need to speed up to merge onto the freeway or get the head-start at a traffic light turning green.

And yes, you can tell by my use of words like zippy that I’m not really much of a car person, so I don’t miss the roaring engine sounds, but rather enjoy the quiet drive, plus all the other benefits that an electric vehicle has to offer: no painful trips to the pump, no oil changes, free parking in some municipalities, and the privilege to drive with just one person in California’s carpool lanes.

The Leaf’s batteries have a nominal range of 85 miles per charge, but depending on your style of driving, use of the A/C and the actual route, 70 miles are more realistic. That’s still plenty when you just drive around in the city, and on most days, I just charge it up at home. But when I head to the Silicon Valley to visit with companies, or drive around San Francisco for an extended period of time, I have to charge up.

charging the leaf

There will be close to 15,000 public charging stations in the U.S. in 2015, according to Nissan. If you live in the Bay Area or any other metropolitan area where plenty of people buy electric cars, chances are there’s always one nearby. Finding it can however be a challenge. Nissan’s own on-board navigation system helps to locate stations and even query them to see whether they’re free or in use.

However, frequently, the system shows that no one is using a particular station while failing to inform you that the garage is actually closed at the moment. That can be annoying when you’re looking for a parking spot that happens to have a charger, and a real nail biter when you’re running low on juice and really, really need to charge up soon.

Crowdsourced smartphone apps like Plugshare can help take some of the pain out of charging station discovery, but the whole process is still pretty flawed and ripe for improvement. Maybe with Android Auto Google is going to add charging stations with real-time availability information to Google Maps? One can always dream.

But finding a public charging station is only half the battle; using them can be hit or miss as well. I’m not talking about fast chargers vs. regular chargers and the time it takes to get your car going again, but the fact that not all charging stations are managed equal. Most stations are run by or in cooperation with large charging networks like [company]ChargePoint[/company], [company]eVgo[/company] and [company]Blink[/company], and each and every one of these networks has different conditions.

Screenshot_2014-08-22-13-04-23ChargePoint membership is free, but fees can vary widely from charging station to charging station, and you’ll have to be a member of their network to charge your car. Each network has different rates, plans and rules, and for each, you’ll need to apply for a separate card, provide payment information and register your car. It’s like getting a new credit card for each gas station you frequent, and it’s a big headache.

What’s needed instead is what I’d like to call cross-network roaming. When you use your phone while on the road, it occasionally taps into a competitor’s cell tower to keep you connected, and when you get money from an ATM, you don’t have to worry whether it’s being run by your bank. It just works. Yes, it may charge you a bit more, but if run out of money (or juice, in the case of your car), you’re happy it works. The same kind of interoperability is desperately needed for electric charging stations.

Nissan actually took a first step in that direction this summer by introducing yet another card, called EZ Charge, that allows for interoperability across four networks — but the card is currently limited to select markets, as well as 2014 and 2015 Leafs. That leaves out owners of every other electric car, as well as quite a few charging stations. What’s really needed are direct deals between the various networks so that car owners only need to register once, and then pay their charging fees through the network of their choice.

Because in the end, it’s just silly that cars with the next generation of power supply should be harder to fill up than your average gas guzzler.