Problems At Electrify America? You Might Be Treating It Like A Gas Pump

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Over the last couple of months, Electrify America has been getting a lot of criticism about charging issues. Social media posts, YouTube videos, and even some articles in mainstream publications have piled on. While there are sometimes stations that are truly broken and completely out of order, it’s usually an error message that people run into, requiring them to either try plugging in again or move to a different stall.

Problematic charging obviously isn’t great for the future of EVs. If people can’t depend on charging infrastructure away from home, EVs basically end up only being useful for about half the vehicle’s range (because you need the other half to get home). While most trips people take are within that radius, people don’t buy a car to do 90% of their driving, so powering that other 10% is a big deal.

But, I’ve been a little confused at most of the coverage of Electrify America’s problems. Thing is, I’m not seeing it myself. I don’t doubt that it’s happening, and I don’t want to be accused of gaslighting people who really experience problems. I also know for a fact that some stations really do go down. What I’m going to share in this article isn’t going to solve every problem people have, but I think it accounts for a good chunk of the complaints I’ve seen.

What I’ve Always Done Differently

When it comes to charging stations, I’ve always approached them like a computer component and not a gas pump. The normal procedure at a gas pump is to pay, wait for it to say “lift handle and select grade,” and then put the nozzle in your car and pump the gas. But, I worked as a computer technician in college, and my mindset has always been to plug the device (my car) in, and then configure it (start the charge).

It turns out that I’m not the only one who does it this way and has far fewer problems. A couple on YouTube (the same people from this article about towing a camper with a Chevy Bolt) made a video a few months ago explaining how they have a mostly problem-free charging experience:

Electrify America Confirms That This Is The Best Way To Do It

Before sharing these tips with readers, I reached out to my press contact at Electrify America to see what they thought of this. It turns out, they also think people should do it this way. They even pointed me to a page on their website that recommends a similar procedure (even if part of it could be worded better).

So, it really comes down to doing things in this order:

  • Pull up to an empty stall that fits your power needs (if you’ve got a Bolt or Bolt EUV like me, don’t park in the 350 kW spots!)
  • Before getting out of the car, open the Electrify America app, look up the station on your map, and find your charger. You can look at the last two digits on top of the charger to help.
  • Get the app ready to swipe to charge (assuming the app doesn’t say the stall is out of order).
  • Get out and plug the charger into your car’s charging port, pushing the button as you insert it. Keep a grip on it with one hand to support the weight of the charger.
  • While still supporting the charging handle, use your other hand to swipe the app and start the charge. Keep holding it until you feel a positive “click.” That’s the car latching onto the connector. You have 30 seconds after plugging in to “swipe,” or you may get a timeout error.
  • Let go, and let your car charge.

Why Go Through This Ritual?

Why does all this matter? I’m not 100% sure, but there are probably two things at play. People who have done computer networking are probably familiar with the OSI Model, which describes layers that computer networks require to run. While EV charging stations are all about delivering energy to charge batteries, they have to establish a networking connection to enable a number of important safety features.

First off, there’s the physical layer: the cable connections. If the CCS connector’s electrical connections aren’t all touching well, the data going back and forth from the car and the charger simply cannot pass. If the weight of the cable pulls the handle into a slightly crooked position before it locks, the car and the charger have no chance at all of communicating.

The second issue is the higher physical layers. For the charging station and the car to communicate, even when the electrical connections are good, they must be able to start a conversation and keep the conversation going. Plugging in the car before starting might be giving the car and the charger a few seconds to “handshake” and get that conversation going before you swipe to start the charge.

Going further up the layers (the host layers in the OSI Model), Electrify America told me that the app is the best way to get the session started. “Overall, charging using the App is the most seamless method. Contactless would be second and the third would be by swiping the credit card.”

Those other methods, using a contactless card or swiping a credit card, are still available to you, but they aren’t as reliable as the app. The app knows what station you’re using, whether that station is working, and what car got plugged into it. Your credit card company only handles financial stuff, so a lot more work has to happen in Electrify America’s backend for that transaction to start the session up. More moving parts often means more failures, especially when things get rushed.

But, This Isn’t Exactly Like A Gas Pump! People Will Be Confused!

That last part (not using a credit card) may sound bad, but if not being able to swipe/scan a credit card and “pump electrons” sounds like a bad driver experience, that’s because your head is still in the gas pump paradigm. I know people will argue that new EV drivers will want to do the gas pump thing, but at the same time they also need to learn to start using apps to check on stations further up the road before driving off, at least until we get a lot more EV charging infrastructure.

New EV drivers aren’t dumb. Like anyone, they’re capable of learning new things and thinking differently. It’s up to us, the manufacturers, the dealers, and also Electrify America, to educate them and show them the ropes on EV charging. Plugging in, swiping the app, and then charging isn’t super hard.

It’s also true that EV charging stations will get better and be more flexible with people in the future. Handshakes will get faster, charging plugs will improve to get a better connection when not perfectly inserted, and software will get less finicky as the technology matures. But, while that’s happening, it’s good to share tips for charging so we can have a better experience today.

Featured image provided by Electrify America.

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Jennifer Sensiba

Jennifer Sensiba is a long time efficient vehicle enthusiast, writer, and photographer. She grew up around a transmission shop, and has been experimenting with vehicle efficiency since she was 16 and drove a Pontiac Fiero. She likes to get off the beaten path in her "Bolt EAV" and any other EVs she can get behind the wheel or handlebars of with her wife and kids. You can find her on Twitter here, Facebook here, and YouTube here.

Jennifer Sensiba has 1955 posts and counting. See all posts by Jennifer Sensiba