Automakers know electric vehicle sales won’t take off until drivers have access to a convenient network of chargers. But none, besides Tesla, were eager to spend the billions to build the infrastructure.
Now, Volkswagen is working to make it happen — not because it wants to, but as punishment.
Volkswagen subsidiary Electrify America will pour $2 billion over the next decade into developing a nationwide web of fast chargers accessible to all brands. The investment is a result of Volkswagen’s settlement with federal regulators after it admitted installing software in diesel-powered vehicles to cheat on emissions tests.
Electrify America’s mandate is ambitious: Build the infrastructure necessary to drive zero-emission vehicle adoption.
This is “an opportunity to build a sustainable infrastructure model that can live beyond the consent decree,” Electrify America COO Brendan Jones told Automotive News.
If Electrify America can achieve its goals, it could become the auto industry’s answer to Tesla’s formidable and proprietary fast-charger network. Tesla’s global footprint of more than 11,200 Superchargers has given it a big advantage over other EV makers, helping it to triple deliveries this year through September from the same period in 2017, according to Tesla.
But Electrify America’s nonproprietary charger network ultimately could do more than Tesla to fuel EV acceptance by better addressing infrastructure.
People used to talk about EVs creating “range anxiety,” said Matt DeLorenzo, managing editor at Kelley Blue Book.
“The next big thing is going to be charger anxiety,” DeLorenzo said. “Can I find an open charger, and do I have to wait for it?”
The urgency is clear. Full electric and plug-in hybrid vehicles will account for 12 percent of light passenger vehicles in North America by 2025, according to IHS Markit.
Developing the equivalent of a gas-station network, in availability and charging-time convenience, is critical for battery EVs to expand beyond roughly 1 percent of U.S. sales this year through August.
“The key is to make electric vehicles no different than other cars on the road,” DeLorenzo said. “A robust charging infrastructure is one way to do that.”
Electrify America says it is building the first national highway network of chargers. But it won’t happen overnight. The $2 billion will be invested in four 30-month cycles.
In its first $500 million investment phase, Electrify America will deploy 484 direct-current fast charger sites in 17 urban areas and along highways by mid-2019. So far, 24 sites have opened. Electrify America also will install more than 2,800 Level 2 chargers at 500 business and multifamily residential sites.
For some vehicles, DC fast-charging stations with 350 kilowatts can add up to 200 miles of range in 10 minutes. Level 2 chargers can add up to 200 miles in 10 to 12 hours.
“We are nearing 100 percent complete for site identification for the first cycle investment,” Electrify America’s Jones said.
The staggered rollout helps the company adapt to demand patterns and evolving charger and battery technologies. It also lets Electrify America apply lessons it learns during one investment cycle to the next.
“We are already better today than we were six months ago, in site selection, installation of chargers, management of software and service operations,” Jones said.
The expansion will require skillful execution and patience. Electrify America will donate and install Level 2 chargers at the business and multifamily residential sites. The property owners will pay for electricity and can choose to charge for the service. “It’s the most practical way to collaborate with the EV ecosystem,” Jones said.
Electrify America has agreed to maintain the Level 2 chargers for 10 years to ensure network reliability. “You don’t want a customer going up to a charger and it doesn’t work,” Jones said.
One of the biggest challenges is getting regulatory approvals to install the chargers, said Graham Evans, a principal analyst at IHS Markit.
While wiring and installing the chargers can be done fairly quickly, getting government approvals can take 12 to 18 months.
“As that time goes on, it’s customers that you’ll potentially lose,” Evans said. “The planning of the network has to be done quite carefully, respecting the fact that it’s going to take that length of time probably to put the infrastructure in the ground in certain locations.”
In a nod to that reality, Electrify America is partnering with networks EV Connect, Greenlots and SemaConnect to give drivers access to more chargers without needing additional cards or accounts. The partnerships, similar to those among cellular carriers, will give Electrify America customers access to about 12,500 chargers by mid-2019.
Other hurdles to profitability are the cost of the fast-charging technology needed to promote high customer turnover at each charger and a dependence on automakers making their EVs capable of fast charging.
“These infrastructure providers are impatiently waiting for the number of EVs on the road to ramp up in order to get the throughput through their stations so they can start to make money,” Evans said. “At the moment there is a drip feed of OEMs bringing vehicles with higher power levels to the market.”
With Electrify America, Volkswagen is killing two birds with one stone. It’s penance for Volkswagen’s emissions cheating while also becoming the infrastructure underpinning the automaker’s electrification ambitions.
“As much as the Electrify America campaign is a big financial commitment, it’s also an opportunity for Volkswagen to ensure that the infrastructure isn’t a barrier for them when they bring their EV products to market,” Evans said.
Volkswagen Group says it expects to build 10 million EVs based on its EV architecture, known as MEB. VW plans to build 27 models for four brands based on the platform.
“If there’s no place for customers to plug in their vehicles, it puts a cap on the desirability of those vehicles,” DeLorenzo said.
Unlike Tesla’s Supercharger business model, which relies on exclusivity to drive sales of the company’s vehicles, Electrify America embraces inclusiveness as a path to profit.
Electrify America, for now, has two revenue sources: an access fee automakers pay and use-based fees that EV drivers pay. Next up: a charging subscription service.
Profitability hinges on Electrify America’s ability to drive use by placing chargers in high-traffic areas and ensuring the network operates reliably.
But it also hinges on something beyond the company’s control. “The vehicle sales have to be there,” Jones said. “The manufacturers have to bring vehicles out to market that people will buy.”
Jones declined to say when Electrify America expects to break even.
To maximize use, the network is designed to accommodate an assortment of charging speeds and connectors. The urban stations will have three to six chargers ranging from 50 to 150 kilowatts. Highway stations will offer four to 10 chargers, including ultrafast 350-kW ones.
It’s a network that’s “future- proofed and flexible enough to service all the vehicles for today, tomorrow and the future,” Jones said. “We are aiming to have as close to the same fueling experience as ICE drivers have today at a gas station.”
Electrify America’s DC fast chargers are compatible with CCS and CHAdeMO connectors.
“I don’t see this ‘charging-standard-neutral’ approach, of having one CCS charger and one CHAdeMO charger at each charge point as being a long-term viable approach,” said Shiv Patel, an analyst at ABI Research. “The industry needs to move towards one charging standard, to help reduce complexity for consumers as well as bring down infrastructure costs for charging providers.”
In September, EV startup Lucid Motors announced a deal with Electrify America to provide its customers a nationwide charging plan. Lucid’s first vehicle, the Lucid Air sedan, is scheduled to begin production in 2020.
Meanwhile, Volkswagen’s Audi will provide customers of its upcoming e-tron EV with 1,000 kilowatt-hours of charging at Electrify America sites over four years.
Jones waved away queries on who might be next to do a deal. “We are in talks with every automaker that’s bringing out an EV,” he said.
Audi stablemate Porsche could be next. The sports car maker is talking with Electrify America, ChargePoint and EVgo to have in place a network of at least 500 highway-based chargers before its all-electric Taycan arrives in the U.S. in early 2020.
“Hopefully, before the end of the year we will have signed the contract with one of them,” Porsche Cars North America CEO Klaus Zellmer told Automotive News in September.
Victim of its own success
Tesla’s Supercharger network was born out of necessity. Public charging infrastructure was rare when Tesla began selling its Model S luxury sedan in 2012.
While an exclusive charging network set Tesla apart and drove sales, it has created an infrastructure bottleneck as demand outstrips capacity in some areas. Tesla has begun to charge customers for access and has initiated idling fees to keep traffic flowing.
Mike Ramsey, automotive research director at Gartner, doubts Tesla will open its network to other automakers given the congestion at certain sites.
“Can you imagine the outrage if a Chevy Bolt or an Audi e-tron pulls up into one of these stalls?” Ramsey said. “I think it would be difficult politically to do.”
In the long run, though, Tesla could look to spin off the Supercharger network into a business that caters to the broader EV market.
“When charging infrastructure is commoditized and it’s everywhere, then there won’t be a need to provide a service specifically for Tesla customers, especially if others offer higher performance,” said Evans, the IHS analyst. “I don’t think it’s sustainable for Tesla to keep on putting more and more infrastructure in the ground to support specifically their models.”
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