Electrify America

One of the included services the Taycan comes with is unlimited, free 30 minute sessions on Electrify America, the charging network that Volkswagen are building as part of their retribution for dieselgate. As early Tesla Model S and X owners will attest to, free rapid charging makes road trips even better. Half an hour on a 150kW charger should be enough to get the car back up to 80% in most cases. On a 350kW charger, if you can find one, it will be more than you need.

Sounds great doesn’t it? Finally, a network to rival Tesla’s awesome super=charger network, backed by vehicle manufacturers so the experience with their cars will be as seamless as Tesla owners are used to: pull up, plug in and charge. And, yes, that really is how simple it is. We’ve rented a Tesla Model X twice now, once in the UK and once here in California. In both countries the experience was that simple. The navigation took us to the charger location, we plugged in (after a short wait on a couple of occasions) and that was it. No cards, no apps. Just plug in & charge.

Taycan Experience

Let’s start with the experience when it all works as Electrify America and Porsche designed it. This has only worked like this for me once, but it does show that it is at least possible.

As with the Tesla, the Taycan’s navigation system will take you to a charger when necessary, or you can find one manually if you wish. There is a special section of the navigation search that lets you search for chargers, and kudos to Porsche, it lists not just the Porsche Charging Service locations, but many more too (on our gold country road trip, it took us to an EVGo charger for example). The Taycan will also precondition the battery to optimize charging speed.

At the charger, the first step, as indicated on the big screen, is to plug in the vehicle. The cables on rapid chargers are not long (same is true for the Tesla cables), so pull in close. After this though is where the experience starts to diverge.

On the screen, once the car and charger have done some initial communicating, the EA screen shows a price per kWh (I believe in some states it may still be price per minute). It also prompts for a payment card to be tapped or swiped (there is a card reader on the front of the unit). First issue. Why can it not recognize the car (what was all that “communication” it was doing for, if not identifying the car)? I get it that Electrify America chargers are open to anybody, and if your vehicle’s manufacturer is not part of the program, even if the charger could identify the vehicle, it may not have a way to bill for the power, but for those that are, why doesn’t charging start immediately?

Enter the Porsche Charging App. Rather than tapping or swiping a card, which I am told is what European Taycan users have for the Ionity network, US owners launch an app to start the charging session. This app also shows state of charge, and charge rate, but I find it lags behind the reality, and behind the information in the main Porsche Connect app.

For a car made by a brand under the same parent company as the charging network, you would have thought somebody might have asked whether there was a better way. Somebody there must have experienced, or at least read about the Tesla super-charger network and how simple it is to use.

Errors

An app is not awful, at least as long as you have coverage on your phone, and the phone is not out of juice too (and if it is, you can always pay for the charge session with a credit card). As long as the charger works.

I have charged my previous EV on ChargePoint AC chargers many times, and never had a problem starting the charge. I have used Blink and EVGo less often, but also never had an issue starting charging. With Electrify America, I have used them four times with the Taycan, and on three of those four occasions had problems.

Davis, California

With under 20% remaining, we needed the charge in Davis to get home. The Electrify America chargers, four of them, were conveniently located at a Bank of America location in the downtown area. Three were 150kW CCS, the fourth a 50kW CHAdeMO/CCS unit. Our plan was to plug in, order some food to go, then drive to a nearby park to eat. The first charger I pulled up to and plugged into sat spinning on the “connecting to vehicle” step, then timed out.

Connecting to vehicle

After a couple of retries, I unplugged. moved to another unit and plugged in there. Same result. The screen shows a number to call for help, so I called. Very quickly, the person on the other end verified the vehicle type and the charger’s identifier and then rebooted the charger remotely. No dice.

Charging failed to start

At her suggestion, I moved to the third, and final 150 kW unit. This one got beyond the connecting to vehicle and I was able to start the session correctly and charge the car to just over 80%, giving us plenty of juice for the drive home.

I am more tolerant than most would be here. Others I know would not tolerate this and might even question whether the infrastructure was ready for EVs. (It appears that it is not, at least outside of the Tesla ecosystem.)

Alameda, California

The other three Electrify America sessions have been at the same Target store in Alameda. Each time I have had a different experience, including one time, the first time I used EA with the Taycan, with no issues. Sadly, the next two were not the same.

The next session, we plugged in, started the charge with the app and walked off to get a drink. Walking back, I noticed my phone was showing lots of charging started notifications. When I got back to the car, the charger was saying the opposite – the session had ended and I was four minutes over the grace period to unplug. The battery had gone from 44% to 61% in around 8 minutes and then the charger had mysteriously ended the session. Why the notifications the app sent me were session started messages is a mystery.

Repeated notifications

Finally, yesterday we stopped by to pick some things up from Target and plugged in to charge. First charger connected with the car, but the Porsche Charging app was unable to start the session. Second charger connected with the car, the app was able to initiate the session, but then the charger said there was an error and ended the session.

Session error

The third charger worked and I was able to charge to just over 80% without any further problems, but I should not have had to move the car twice just to find a working charger. I frequently see all twelve of the Tesla super-chargers here in Alameda occupied and charging, Cars back into the spaces, plug in and that is it. Nothing else needed and the cars charge.

Software

All of these issues come down to one thing as far as I can see: poor software. Legacy car manufacturers seem to be having problems understanding that software is not something that can be left to the end and rushed. Volkswagen Group have had software problems delay the launch of their ID.3. Some of those problems were said to be architectural too, not just bugs in the implementation, but flaws in the design of the system itself.

My Taycan spent two weeks on its “guest” account because the login button in the UI was “unavailable” = until something could be fixed on the server side, or a message pushed to the car to make it work. Even then, it took several days for the integration with Apple Music and the Porsche online radio features to catch up and work.

In the case of the chargers, when the one at Davis was rebooted it launched a Windows desktop onto the screen before the charger application started. This is a huge red flag to me for an embedded system like this. I even question the hardware choice at that point. The high voltage parts of the charger and even the industrial design of the units seems great. For the functions it performs, I imagine a Raspberry Pi would have been more than adequate as the brains inside the unit, and probably more reliable too.

Interestingly, I did find a video on YouTube showing an EA level 2 charger booting into Ubuntu (Linux), albeit still on what looks like an American Megatrends board with a very old AMD CPU on it (the BIOS is dated 2012, copyright 2010 and the CPU, an AMD G-T40E dates back to 2011 as far as I can tell). I do recall the BIOS flashing up with American Megatrends in Davis too, but I was not recording that, so I cannot tell if the 150kW units are using the same hardware. Booting into a desktop OS, even a Linux one, is just not the way to build reliable embedded systems.

Plug and Charge

Even more interestingly, Ford seem to have found a way to get plug & charge working on Electrify America (although it sounds like this was the third time she had tried, with the first two attempts failing with the same sorts of error I am seeing). Kudos to Ford for understanding what the experience should be at a public charger. Hopefully, now that EA have seen that this is possible they will expand support for plug and charge across their other partnerships. Why it wasn’t there from day one is a mystery – Tesla have been doing this for around a decade now. Surely those tasked with building Electrify America’s network were aware of that?

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