Electrify America Thoughts

Palm Desert Electrify America Chargers

When making long trips in an EV, plentiful, reliable, fast charging locations are essential. Electrify America has done a good job of installing fast (150KW and 350KW units) in lots of locations, but the reliability is simply not there today.

Before getting to my thoughts on the state of Electrify America, I will recount our recent experiences. Also, I am restricting this to Electrify America for now for two reasons: firstly, they are the network that provides the Taycan’s included charging service, and secondly, they are the network with the most 350 KW charging units. We have used ChargePoint for a long time with our previous EV, and once with the Taycan too, and while I have never experienced serious problems with their network, the DC chargers they have deployed in most locations seem to be 50 KW units.

I should also note that Electrify America did reach out to me on Twitter and arrange to call me to talk about the experiences we had on this trip. In general, Electrify America support personnel are great, and will do everything they can to make it work, but, much like the Porsche Connect support team, they have very limited tools at their disposal to diagnose issues or resolve problems. Most of the time, the best they have been able to offer is to pass the message on to maintenance to get the charger looked at.

Our recent trip down to SoCal and back highlighted just how much the reliability matters, and how far from achieving it we are. The round trip was just over 1,000 miles, so we needed several charging stops (we also had no charging facilities at our destination, so we needed a charge while there to prep for the return journey). We left Alameda with 100% state of charge; enough to make it to the charger at Walmart in Tulare, about 220 miles away.

Tulare

The Electrify America location at Tulare is in a Walmart parking lot. We pulled up next to the 350 KW charger with 11% state of charge. Neither of the connectors on the 350 KW unit would connect to the vehicle. Nor would either of the connectors on the either of the 150 KW units. The first I tried both connectors on, and then I called Electrify America’s phone support. They were unable to get either of the dual 150 KW units working, but I was able to move to the CHAdeMO/CCS unit, which I generally try not to block up since there is only one, and that was able to start the charge.

That got us up to 82% state of charge while we ate lunch, but when I came back to stop the charger the screen showed this as the summary. No mention of the included 30 minutes, and I have no idea how they calculated that amount. The normal rate after the first 30 minutes is $0.31/kWh, Even if the rate was constant, that would be only 9.6 kWh after the first 30 minutes which would come to $2.97. If it hadn’t used the 30 minute time at all, the price would have been around $20.

Incorrect session summary

Interestingly, the Porsche charging app showed the cost of the session as $2.94- much closer to what I would expect for the five minutes. Of course, had the 350 KW charger been working, I would not have needed 35 minutes – we would have been done in under 20 minutes instead.

Session summary in Porsche Charging app history

Santa Clarita

Frozen charger UI at Santa Clarita

Next stop was at Santa Clarita, near the Six Flags park north of Los Angeles. As with Tulare, this one is also in a Walmart parking lot. Four of the units were grouped together, and two more were located nearer to the store on their own. The 350 KW unit was in use when we got there, but they were just leaving so we waited for them.

Even though this was a 350 KW unit, we did not get the normal high speeds we have seen previously from it. We did manage to pick up enough charge to get to our destination in just 26 minutes. While there, we noticed that the charger next to the 350 KW unit appeared to be stuck. With both connectors stored in the charger, the screen was stuck on the progress bar showing 37% state of charge.

When another vehicle pulled up to use the charger, they were unable to get the unit to respond to any buttons, physical or on screen, and they ended up moving to the unit to other side of ours.

Palm Desert

The house we rented in La Quinta was amazing, but the one thing it lacked was a way to charge the car (I did check out the dryer outlet that was conveniently next to where we parked the car in the garage, but it was a 30A one, incompatible with the NEMA 14-50 cable that came with the car’s travel charger. As a result, to prepare for the return journey I went over to the Target store in Palm Desert to charge, and pick up some items we needed from the drive up.

Arriving at the chargers, which were lit up in green and very easy to find at night, I pulled up to one and plugged in. After a longer than normal wait while the screen reporting “Connecting to vehicle,” an error appeared on the screen stating “Charging start error.” This is what I had seen previously in Tulare as well – error 42_00H_0.

Charging start error

As has become the norm when dealing with Electrify America issues, I moved to another charger, parking in a place where I could try two different units. The next one did work, and I was able to start the charging session successfully and pick up 57 kWh from one of the 150 KW units (there were no 350 KW units at this location).

Santa Clarita II

Leaving La Quinta the car did not feel it was going to make it to La Quinta for the first charger. However, were at 78% state of charge and it was about 170 miles away, so I was confident we could make it.

When we arrived, we were at 10% state of charge. We pulled up to the same 350 KW charger that we had used a week earlier on the way down to La Quinta, plugged in and started the charging session from the app. The car and the app both reported that the session had started, but the charger was stuck with the initiating charge spinner on the screen:

Initiating charging

Around seven minutes into the charging session, the “Welcome driver” screen finally appeared on the charger, showing the rate. We never got to the progress bar screen in the time we were sitting there. Indeed, when it came time to stop the session I needed to use the app to do that as the user interface on the charger itself was still totally unresponsive. We stayed at the location a little longer to finish lunch, and another Taycan pulled in while we were eating, but since the charger screen was unresponsive they used the unit next to it (the one that had been stuck on the progress display, and similarly unresponsive, on our first visit to the Santa Clarita location).

Firebaugh

New style charger at Firebaugh

This was meant to be the final charging stop on the trip home, and we had been making good time. We had made one unplanned stop for ice cream at Bravo Farms in Kettleman City, but otherwise we had been on schedule. That rapidly ended at the Electrify America location in Firebaugh. Located at a Shell gas station just off the freeway, there were a total of six chargers here. Two newer looking 150KW units, two older style 350 KW units, an older 150 KW and the single 150 KW CCS / 50 KW CHAdeMO combined unit.

We pulled up to the 350 KW unit, plugged in and once again experienced the long time spinning for the connecting to vehicle, followed by the 42_00H_0 error screen. I then tried all of the other units, ending with the CCS/CHAdeMO one. As had been the experience at Tulare, only this last unit could start the session. Unlike Tulare though, it was not able to deliver more than 32 KW of power and within a few minutes of starting, that had dropped to just 24 KW.

After multiple calls to support, who are always helpful but seem to have limited resource, and all the time seeing other vehicles come in, connect, charge and leave, we eventually gave up and left with just enough charge to reach the Walmart in Patterson, While a couple of the cars initially had problems with the charger connecting, all were able to charge without needing to change locations except one, a Chevrolet Bolt, and they were able to charge at the second unit they tried without problems.

What were those cars? Well, first was a Kia eNiro, then the Chevrolet Bolt. New up a Ford Mustang MachE pulled in and even managed to use Plug & Charge. Finally a three year old Jaguar iPace pulled in and was able to charge immediately. It does seem as though cars that are not part of the Volkswagen group are able to charge at Electrify America better than cars that are; ironic given that Electrify America is part of the VW Group.

I should also note at that while at this location, the status of certain chargers as reported by the Electrify America app, the status reported by the support personnel over the phone and the obvious state of the unit from my looking at it were different. At least one unit claimed to be online, and I saw it being used, but I was told by support that it was unavailable, During one of my calls, they also asked me to try a unit that was currently in use, their system showing it as online and available.

Patterson

With just 7 kWh from the Firebaugh location, we had just enough to make it to the Walmart at Patterson. We got there around 8:45pm – well after the time we should have been home on our original schedule. Pulling up in front of the first 350 KW charger, I noticed first that one of the connectors was lying on the ground with a plastic bag wrapped around it – not promising, Sure enough, the remaining connector failed to work as well. I moved to the second charger, fully expecting to get a repeat of the Firebaugh experience and be stranded in Patterson with no way to charge, but this one did something different. The right hand connector, started the session, but then immediately ended it with a Please unplug screen. The unit did not make any of the normal noises of the cooling system spinning up either.

Please unplug

The second connector did start the cooling system in the charger, and was able to both start and maintain the session, albeit at a much lower speed than expected from a 350 KW unit. We had about 7% state of charge, but it peaked at 198 KW. Far from slow, but also a far cry from the 268 KW we have seen in the past from these units when starting from a similar state of charge.

198 KW at 10% State of Charge

Since we were late, we also picked up some feed nearby, and started a second charging session while we ate to maximize the charge we had for the run home,

Observations

I believe the problems with the Electrify America network fall into two categories, and while they have a mechanism to deal with one of those, the second is perhaps not being taken as seriously, Moreover, based on my experiences with the Porsche Connect support team, as well as information I read from other countries, I suspect the problem is not restricted to just Electrify America, but is perhaps endemic to the whole group.

Hardware Reliability

The first category is reliability of the charger hardware itself. These units are exposed to some pretty extreme conditions. The temperatures at several of the locations we stopped at were over 100℉ and the units are standing out in direct sunlight. That kind of heat is going to take its toll on the electronics in there before you even get to dealing with the heat generated by running a 250KW+ charging session. The direct sun on the touch screen also makes them very hard to read.

It would be unthinkable to build a gas station that did not have a canopy over the pumps to keep them shaded and out of direct sunlight, or rain, snow etc. For some reason, none of the Electrify America chargers I’ve seen so far in California have canopies. Even smarter, perhaps, would be to have PV solar canopies the way some locations in Europe do. We have plenty of sunlight, and while it may not be able to directly charge an EV, providing both shade and some power back to the grid would be a double benefit.

Software Issues

The second category is less about individual locations and more about the operation of the network and the software behind it. Given my background in embedded systems, I have some concerns when I see people deploying a desktop operating system, and especially Windows, in an embedded system. Having watched a few of these reboot now, I can say all of those were running Windows. I have seen some videos online that suggest some, perhaps earlier models, run desktop Ubuntu. Better than Windows, but still not the best design choice for an embedded system.

Putting that aside however, my observation at Firebaugh that other brands were able to connect and charge without problems, leaves me wondering what kind of testing Electrify America do before they release new software to their chargers. One thing that i have seen at most locations, from a month or so ago, is they changed the location of the current power level from within the progress bar to underneath it, and they split it into two numbers: the power requested by the vehicle and the power being delivered. Both the Santa Clarita and the Patterson locations had the older version of this display. At Firebaugh, and I think at Tulare, it was the newer format. At both of those locations, only the CCS/CHAdeMO combination charger worked.

Software updates do seem to be rolled out quite regularly, but I wonder how much testing is done on those releases, especially using actual vehicles, before they are pushed. It also seems to be inconsistent across the network, which means bug fixes and feature changes will be inconsistent too. It would seem to me that at the very least any new candidate for release should be tested against at least the VW Group vehicles, and ideally also the most common across other brands, prior to release. Then, once it is signed off as being ready, it should be deployed consistently to the whole network. I’m all in favor of staged rollouts to get some more data about how the new release performs in the wild, but that should not take months, and if there are problems discovered in the new build, I would expect it to be rolled back, not left on some units.

In an ideal world, using a modern orchestration system, the support organization should be able to push an older version of the software to a charger on demand too, as well as getting detailed diagnostic information from the charger while the customer is on the phone so they can determine whether that course of action makes sense. As it stands currently, I fear the support people have been given the ability to start a session and to reboot the charger, but when that doesn’t work, they are unable to help much further.

Software and the VW Group

I should add here that I am totally willing to believe that some or all of the problems I experienced are related to the software in the vehicle as well. Porsche had just installed an update into the vehicle for the power management related recall campaign before we left. I don’t know whether that could have impacted the charger compatibility in some way. The car also has more than its fair share of infotainment system related software problems. Bugs that should never have made it into customers’ vehicles if a good quality assurance process was in place.

Even if it was the recall update, testing by both sides should have revealed this issue and a solution should have been in place before customers were impacted by it. My experiences at Santa Clarita and Patterson make it clear that there are some chargers that still work, suggesting the change, if not the root cause, is in the Electrify America side. Either way, I would expect both sides to be engaging in mutual testing before they release any updates, and when there is a recall in progress, both the new and old versions of the vehicle software should be tested.

I also believe this is a recent change. Back in early May, we did experience some problems with connecting to the vehicle, and indeed the same error message. Since then though we have done a number of road trips where we have not experienced issues charging on EA, with the worst case being early session ends or slower than expected charging speeds. In fact, that was one of the reasons i was confident we could make the trip to La Quinta and back without problems, With the number of 350 KW chargers along both 99 and I-5, getting there and back should have been a breeze.

Plug and Charge

I have been wondering whether the cause of this issue might be the bungled attempt to deploy what Electrify America call Plug and Charge. The Taycan is meant to be one of the two vehicles in the US that can currently use this, but it is not available on my vehicle because I have the 19KW AC charger option, and that has a bug in its software that prevents it working with Plug and Charge. The latest information I have is that this might be fixed towards the end of the year, but it will require a visit to the dealer for them to install the updated software.

OK, bugs happen, and this is not in a system that has OTA capability, but how did this bug leave the factory? Could this bug be interfering with the charging sessions now? What is taking so long to get it fixed? This is not rocket science and the other US vehicle that supports it, the Ford Mustang MachE, apparently works perfectly, so clearly it can be done.

Over in Europe there is a charging network called FastNED. They have recently deployed what they call Autocharge (essentially the same feature), but they have a list of vehicles on their website that do not work with it:

  • Audi e-tron (model 2018, cannot be guaranteed for model 2019)
  • DS 3 Crossback E-Tense
  • Mazda MX-30
  • Volkswagen e-Up!, e-Golf, ID.3 & ID.4
  • Seat Mii electric
  • Skoda Citigo e-iV & Enyaq iV

All but two of those are VW Group vehicles. Granted, the Taycan is not on that list, but I cannot find any information to suggest it has been tested and is working either. Regardless, underlying this feature is an ISO standard (ISO 15118), so there really is no excuse for this to be incompatible with so many VW Group vehicles, especially new ones like the ID.3 and ID.4.

Conclusions

My only conclusion is that while the VW Group has made some bold claims about becoming a software power house, at present they are either not investing enough in their software development, or they are simply using dated development methodologies. Sadly, it is not uncommon when companies are moving from being primarily hardware (whether electronics or mechanical) into a world where software controls almost everything, for them to underestimate the importance of good software engineering processes.

Cars in particular go through months of rigorous testing, in all kinds of conditions, to ensure they are both safe and reliable. Based on my experiences with the Taycan, I’m guessing that is not extended to the software in the infotainment system, nor to the software that interacts with the charging network the comes as part of the deal.

Herbert Diess, if you really want the VW Group to become a powerhouse of automotive software, I think some big changes are needed in how software is developed, tested and deployed across the whole group from vehicle brands to charging networks and, indeed, mobile applications.

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