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Saturday, March 26, 2016

Blink can't spell FREE

I received an EZ Charge card as part of the Nissan Leaf 2011/12 battery class action lawsuit. I was excited to use it. The idea of a single card that works on multiple networks is much better than the jungle of charging cards I usually carry. And it was free to use for 90 days! I registered on my local networks and was ready to charge!

I drove out to Gresham yesterday. Stopped at a Blink DC Fast Charge (DCFC) station on the way home. There was a Leaf there already and they were just starting a charging session. The Blink DCFC stations have two cords, but only one is operational at a time. I was not in a hurry.

I pulled into the open spot. I grabbed the EZ Charge card and scanned it to start the session. There was a note that this would be a 30 minutes free charging session. I had never seen this 30 minute limitation before. I learned later that it is a restriction on the EZ Charge program, but not on normal Blink members. 30 minutes should be enough so I plugged in. It said, "The other side is in use. Your next." I retreated to my car and occupied myself on my phone while I waited.

About a half hour later, the other car finished and unplugged. I expected my side to start charging. It did not. I went out and looked at the station. I had been logged out. My "30 minutes" had expired! That's right, the session never started, but the time had expired. There are only two primary usecases, (immediate charging and delayed charging) and they didn't even bother to consider them both. If I would have left and then come back an hour later expecting to find a charged car, I would have been disappointed.

So I scanned the card again and it started charging. After 30 minutes the charge stopped. I had enough to make it home, but before I left, I wanted to try the Level 2 Blink station there too, just to see if the EZ Charge card worked. I scanned it, logged in and it said that I would be charged "normal membership rates of $0.39 per kWh." What? It should be free. Did I miss some fine-print. Is it only for the DCFCs on the Blink network? I let it charge for a minutes and the kWhs and pennies were ticking by. I was being charged a fee on my "free card". I stopped the session.

Because of the fee, I logged on to my Blink account and checked my account history. Both the DCFC session and the Level 2 session were there and neither were completely free.

The DCFC session had a $0.25 junk fee on it. Twenty-five cents is not much, but this is part of a lawsuit settlement. The agreement is "Free for 90 days".  I went to Blink's website and found the agreement. Here is the relevant section:

The programs is even called "No Charge to Charge", not "No Charge, but only on fast chargers and some junk fees might apply and you are limited to 30 minutes and must wait 60 minutes between charges-To Charge".

So there you have it. The Level 2 stations are not part of the program. In my region, the Level 2 Blink stations outnumber the DCFC stations by ~10 to 1. Eliminating the Level 2 stations, means most Blink stations are not in the program.

In my experience, reliability of Blink's network has been an ongoing problem, and again they have found another way to disappoint me.

I used this same card on the AeroVironment network and I was not charged junk fees.

Charging can be a fun, hassle-free experience. With Blink, for me, that is too often not the case. I wish they would replace them all with something more reliable and better managed.

Sunday, March 20, 2016

The Jungle of Charge Cards

When I was a kid, my parents had store credit cards for nearly everyplace they shopped. They had a Sears card, a Meyer and Frank's card, a Fred Meyer's card, a Chevron card and many many others. They even had a special wallet just to hold all the cards.

Today, I have a collection of charge cards too. Mine, however, are not credit cards; they are EV charging network membership cards. This is a problem. Today, people don't carry a collection of store cards. Carrying a single credit card that can be used anywhere is much more convenient. Likewise, it would be nice to have a single card that could work at any EV charging station.

Why don't the charging stations just take Visa and/or Master Card? Charging transactions are generally small amounts. There are fees that the credit card companies charge with every transaction. These fess can consume most of the profit from a small transaction. This is why you might see signs like "$10 minimum for credit card purchases" at many small businesses.

This why most of the EV charging networks have membership cards. They charge a $10 or $20 amount to join and give you this amount of credit. When you have used this credit, they make another $10 or $20 credit card transaction. This way the small fees for charging up come out of your pre-paid account and the network only makes $10+ credit card transactions. This makes the transaction fees a much smaller percentage of the transaction cost.

If credit cards are not the way go, then what is?
  1. Status Que - Carry a bunch of membership cards - No
  2. One Card - Most of us have a debit/ATM card and they work at ATMs from nearly any bank (although fees may apply). These ATMs are on a common network such as Star or Plus. This allows them to record the transaction at your bank and give you cash from the ATM you are standing in front of, even if it is not from your bank. 
  3. Smartphones - Apps such as PlugShare are offering payment services.
Let's look at each option. 

1) The Charge Brigade 

I have a large collection of charging membership cards. Below is a picture of them. 

There are 14 of them. Some are startups that installed one or two stations, some are for local networks, others are for my workplace, and a few were just to see if I could get them. As my employer tried different strategies for workplace charging (starting in 2008), they changed charging station providers several times. This started my collection membership cards. 

Handing someone a stack of cards like this if they were to rent an EV, is not a workable solution. Even 3 or 4 cards would complicate charging.

The good(?) news is that consolidation is occurring in this area. As with many industries, this may settle on a duopoly or triopoly. Then again, local electrical utilities are just starting to explore this space, so convergence on just a few providers may take some time.

2) One Card To Rule Them All

As part of a class-action lawsuit, Nissan recently sent out EZ Charge cards to many 2011 and 2012 Leaf owners in the US. These cards have 90 days of free use in any of four networks listed below. Additionally, in select cities, Nissan is giving EZ Charge cards to new Leaf buyers with 2 years of free charging. This is a smart move. 

I have activated my account and signed up with all of them (other than Blink, they are having technical difficulties). I am not particularly interested in the 90 free days since I don't charge outside of home or work often and the EVSE provider that my employer is currently using is not on the list. But the part that I am excited about, is that this is one step closer to having a single card that can operate on any of the networks. After the 90 day free period is over, I'll be able to use this card (paying member rates) at any of these networks. Blink and ChargePoint make up the bulk of the public infrastructure around here and now they are on one card.

3) Smartphone - NFC for you and me

The smartphone ecosystem thrives on in-app purchases. Rolling in-app purchases into regular monthly bills and other techniques have been used to solve the micro-payment problem. PlugShare, Greenlots, GE Wattstation, and others allow you to pay for charging sessions with your smartphone.

Apple Pay and Android Pay are growing with merchants. These seems like they will be the eventual winners in the smartphone payment arena. If they were to add a small pre-paid buffer, like the charging networks have, they could further reduce the credit card transaction fees. It would be ironic, however, if your phone had a dead phone battery and this prevented you from charging up your car's dead battery.


The jungle of charging network providers has been thick. Two forces, consolidation and ATM-style network sharing, are allowing you to carry fewer cards. Smartphone payments could eliminate the need for membership cards altogether. Local electric utilities are just starting to enter this space and could have a big impact, especially on billing if they can tie it into your monthly home electric bill. With all of these factors, that pile of membership cards that we EV drivers are carrying today will be something to display in a future museum of transportation because they will be history.

Sunday, March 13, 2016

Chevy Bolt & Tesla Model 3, The 1-2 Punch That Kills Fuel Cell Vehicles

The Chevrolet Bolt and the Tesla Model 3 are oft squared off as rivals. You can find this head to head square-off in story after story (and even this blog). Both are 200+ mile range EVs and both are in the ~$30K price range. But there is another foe that these two have in common and that is fuel cell vehicles. If fuel cell vehicles are the future of transportation, then Tesla, GM, and others are wasting their efforts on battery powered vehicles.

Honda, Toyota, and others are betting heavily on fuel cell vehicles (FCV).
2017 Honda Clarity FCV rendering
To see how these technologies will square off we'll look at infrastructure, cost, and consumer acceptance.

Comparing Infrastructure

We have detailed the problems with FCVs here, but the simple truth is that FC passenger vehicles require a vast, expensive hydrogen refueling infrastructure that does not exist.

Plug-in vehicles require infrastructure too, but recharging can be done from any outlet, the very same ones that we use to recharge our phones and computers. Overnight charging in your own garage means that you can start out each day with a "full tank" and you don't have to detour to a filling station.

The one advantage that FCVs can tout over EVs is refilling time. That is, if you can find an hydrogen (H2) filling station. Fast refill time is a great component for long distance driving. However, the few H2 filling stations that we do have in the U.S. are primarily in California. This currently makes the FCVs a regional vehicle, despite their range and refueling speed. You can drive a FCV from L.A. to San Diego and back, but there is no refilling available to make a coast to coast trip.

You can drive a FCV from LA to San Diego and back, but forget about driving from LA to NYC.

Comparing Cost

The Toyota Mirai currently sells for $57,500. The Honda's FCV is expected to have a similar ~$60k price tag. The Chevy Bolt is expected to cost $37,500 before $7,500 federal incentive price and Tesla says the Model 3 will be $35,000 before the federal incentive.

H2 filling for the first two years of FCV ownership is currently free. After that, it is not clear how much it will cost. The current estimates available, when broken down as price per mile, are that H2 will cost approximately the equivalent to $6 per gallon gasoline.

Driving on electricity, depending on your local utility rates, it costs about the same as $1 per gallon gasoline.

Fuel cell vehicles are twice the cost to purchase and 6 times the cost to fuel.

Customer Acceptance 

Both battery electric vehicles and fuel cell vehicles offer smooth rides and great acceleration driven by electric motors, both can be 'fueled' from renewable resources. Despite these similarities, they have had very different acceptance in the alt fuel community.

Given the small region that actually has H2 filling stations, there are not many places that currently sell FCVs. This has significantly reduced the number of potential customers for FCVs. In contrast, EVs are currently sold around the world. And the Chevy/Opel Bolt and Tesla Model 3 will be sold worldwide.

Additionally, Toyota's marketing has specifically attacked battery electric vehicles. This, and other events, has divide the community into two camps. Many of the customers that are early adopters of alt fuel vehicles are now adamantly opposed to fuel cell vehicles. Without an enthusiastic group of early adopters, you can not move to the mass adoption stage.

Fuel cell vehicles don't have the enthusiastic following that is needed to move to beyond a niche market.


The Chevy Bolt and Tesla Model 3 will coming out and competing with the Toyota Mirai and Honda Clarity FCV.

The Chevy Bolt and Tesla Model 3 will be affordable long range electric vehicles. These two vehicles, and the fast followers like them, will bring new customers to the EV market. These will be customers that were not comfortable with the ~100 mile range EVs and those that could not afford the more expensive Tesla Model S.

The FCVs will be twice the price with a fraction of the locations to refuel. This will leave cars like the Toyota Mirai and Honda Clarity FCV with no significant number of prospective customers.

The affordable 200+ mile EV could be what is finally needed to bring an end to idea that passenger cars are the right segment to first deploy FCVs.

Vehicle Type Vehicle Cost Range (miles) Fuel Cost eqv Refueling Time
Battery Electric ~$30,000 200-250 ~$1 per gallon
30 min to 80%
Fuel Cell ~$60,000 300-400 ~$6 per gallon
5-10 minutes

Table 1 - Battery Electric and Fuel Cell Vehicle Comparison

Friday, March 11, 2016

What's Next for Tesla After Model 3

Tesla is soon to unveil the Model 3. This is their affordable high-volume car and it completes their 2006 Secret Plan. So what's next for Tesla?

There's been a few hints, a lot of speculation, and even an April Fools' joke. The April Fools' joke is that Tesla is going to make an RV.

Jokes aside, what will Tesla make after the Model 3? Will it be a motorcycle, a truck, will they bring the Roadster back, will they make a vertical takeoff and landing airplane?

CNN Money quotes Elon Musk saying, “If you’re trying to replace the most gasoline miles driven, you have to look at what people are buying. That’s the best selling car in America. If people are voting that’s their car, then that’s the car we have to deliver.”

The best-selling vehicle in America is a truck. It's the Ford F-150. Musk told Automotive News, “I have this idea for a really advanced electric truck that has the performance of a sports car but actually more towing power and more carrying capacity than a gasoline or diesel truck of comparable size.”

Musk has dropped hints about a small crossover based on the Model 3's platform, much as the Model X was based on the Model S platform. In his now deleted tweet, Musk called this the Model Y. That would complete the set and give Tesla the Model S, ≡, X, and Y. Thereby making Tesla vehicles officially S≡XY.

There have also been hints that Model 3 platform could also be the basis for a new Roadster. With a dual motor, a carbon fiber body, and Maximum Plaid acceleration, Tesla could make a new tire destroying machine.

So what can we expect after Model 3? An electric motorcycle or an RV don't seem likely. An electric truck, a smaller crossover, and a new Roadster seem the most likely.

These seem like the right moves for the company. As mentioned above, trucks sell well in America. We'll see if Tesla can attract a new set of buyers with an offering there. The Model Y will be the affordable family hauler; Tesla's appeal to the soccer moms. And the new Roadster will be a nice nod to their beginnings and give the high end buyers a reason to part with large sums of money to get fast 0 to 60 times and autopilot features.

After these, maybe Tesla really should consider that RV. There's a lot of room for solar panels on top of a Winnebago :-)

It will likely be 2020 or later before we even see alphas of any of these, I wonder which one will be first, or if there are more surprises in store for us.

Live electric!

Friday, March 4, 2016

Model 3 Completes Tesla's Secret Plan

One fan's (ultimately incorrect) rendering of what the Tesla Model 3 could look like
As the March 31st reveal date approaches, the Tesla Model 3 has been dominating the alt car news recently. Many people will be hearing about this vehicle for the first time as the reports from the big reveal are circulated, but it has been planned for a long time.

When Tesla was started, they had a plan to start at the high end of the market and work their way down. Plenty of EV startups had tried starting at the bottom and gone bankrupt. Tesla planned to start at the high end of the market because new technology is expensive. For example, when DVD players came out in the mid-1990's they were over $500. Today, you can buy one for less than $30. Economies of scale bring down prices.

Tesla's plan was to follow this natural adoption curve and use a start-at-the-top business model. In 2006, Elon Musk wrote:

In short, the master plan is:
Build sports car.
Use that money to build an affordable car.
Use that money to build an even more affordable car.
While doing above, also provide zero emission electric power generation options.
Don't tell anyone.

So, Tesla's plan was to create a high-priced low-volume car, then a medium-priced medium-volume car, then a low-priced high-volume car. The first car was the Tesla Roadster.

Tesla Roadster

Tesla Roadster

The Tesla Roadster was codenamed DarkStar. The plan was to use Lotus Elise frames, AC Propulsion motors, and commodity batteries. Tesla would work on battery packaging and battery management. The rest would be nearly as simple as the home EV conversions that many hobbyists undertake. That plan didn't work out as expected.

The car body had to be significantly redesigned. Quality problems plagued the AC Propulsion motors. Tesla had to raise the price and delay the launch several times. These problems nearly killed the fledgling company. But they got through them and learned many lessons that they could directly apply to their next project. In 2008 the Roadster was launched and the campaign to change the view of EVs as glorified golf carts was off to a racing start.

Tesla Model S

Tesla Model S
The Tesla Model S was the medium-priced, medium-volume, part two of the strategy. It was codenamed Whitestar. As a designed-from-scratch project, they again had many unforeseen problems and the launch was delayed. They worked through these issues and launched the car in June of 2012. When the Model S was introduced there were three battery options: 40 kWh, 60 kWh, & 85 kWh. The respective prices were: $57,400, $69,900, & $79,900. The smallest battery pack met Tesla's goal to have an offering in the $50k price range ($49,900 after the federal tax incentive).

Then something unexpected happened.

When the GM EV1 was being sold, there were two battery options: the standard lead-acid pack and a longer range nickel-metal hydride option. The cheaper lead-acid model accounted for the vast majority of sales leases. Many of us expected Model S sales to follow a similar course but things were different this time. The Model S is a vastly different vehicle than the EV1 and the design and tech in Model S made it attractive to more than just the environmentalist crowd.

After 3 months of preorders, the 40 kWh version was just 4% of the demand. Tesla canceled the 40 and said that existing preorders for the 40 would receive a vehicle with a 60 kWh pack and a software restriction to make it effectively a 40 kWh vehicle.

This was just the first step in Tesla recognizing their buyers' attraction to the high-end market. They continued to court the high-end making improvements and adding options that led to higher margin products. Battery upgrades, performance models, dual motors, ludicrous mode, and autopilot moved subsequent offerings up the price scale.

All this upscaling helped Tesla's cash flow.

Is it time for the high volume car?
  • The Roadster was done - Phase 1 (low volume, high price)  
  • Model S was shipping and winning awards left and right - Phase 2 (medium volume, medium price) was complete-ish.
  • So now it's time for the affordable high volume car, right? Almost. 

Phase 3 Needs A Gigafactory 

The battery market had not blossomed the way a high volume vehicle would need. Tesla had defined their mission as, "To accelerate the advent of electric vehicles." This meant that if battery price/production was the limiting factor, that is what they would focus on and address.

Tesla Gigafactory Rendering
In a speech announcing the Gigafactory's site location, Elon Musk said, "This factory is very important to the future of Tesla because without it, we could not make the mass market car."

The gigafactory was not just planned as yet another battery factory. The massive scale of it needs to be mentioned. This one factory will double the global battery production. If you add up all the battery factories in China, Japan, Korea and elsewhere that were operating when the Gigafactory broke ground, this one factory would produce more than all of the others combined.

Tesla expects the Gigafactory to reduce the production costs by 30%. The factory is currently under construction and partially operational, but Tesla will need much more of it complete before moving to phase 3.

So what to do while the massive battery factory is being built? If the low price vehicle is not an option, then another phase 2 vehicle. Let's call it Phase 2.5.

Model X

Tesla Model X
After Darkstar and Whitestar, Tesla aimed for the stars with Model X. It was an ambitious project based on the same foundation as the Model S, but this time in a crossover form. The stats for the Model X are filled with in-class superlatives (fastest, safest...). It has the largest panoramic windshield of any vehicle in production. The gullwing doors are double hinged and Tesla has dubbed them falcon wing doors. The double hinge allows them open and close even in tight spaces.

Just as with Tesla's first two cars, this vehicle was plagued with production delays. Again, given time, Tesla's engineers worked through the issues. In a recent earnings report conference call, Elon Musk said that it was hubris that caused Tesla to take on such an ambitious project and that no car company, not even Tesla, will ever again make a vehicle so great.

Many have lamented that the Model X was causing the affordable car to be postponed. This is not the case. What's delaying the Model 3 is lithium batteries produced on a massive scale, but it's coming.


So we are finally going to see the Tesla Model 3 at its unveiling set for March 31. The Model 3 was codenamed Blastar Bluestar and it is the final step in the original secret plan. The low-cost, high volume 200+ mile range vehicle. Tesla has confirmed that the base price will be $35,000. As with their other vehicles, there will likely be multiple battery options and possibly an all-wheel drive (dual motor) option.

But enough speculation, we'll learn more about Model 3 in less than a month. The real question is, when the Model 3 is shipping and the secret plan from 2006 is complete, what will Tesla do next?