Does access to a robust, reliable charging network sell electric vehicles? While Tesla and its Supercharger network might be the first example that comes to mind, Nissan and BMW have more time invested in the idea that a generous set of chargers does spark a larger market for electric vehicles.
Tesla and those other two companies have gone about it very differently. Instead of focusing the effort toward building out a network of waypoint fast chargers, as Tesla has, with consistent branding and a fluid user experience, Nissan and BMW have become pioneers in brand-agnostic city fast charging. Although both automakers had started infrastructure efforts before Tesla, July 2014 marked the start of Nissan’s No Charge to Charge and BMW’s ChargeNow. No Charge to Charge essentially gives those who buy or lease a 2013 model or newer Nissan Leaf two years of complimentary public charging (in one of 51 major metro areas, with more than 1000 quick chargers) to serve as “a safety net” for when they need to drive farther around cities and suburbs. ChargeNow offers similar benefits to i3 drivers, although it’s a little more focused toward providing longer-distance waypoints. In fact, BMW and Nissan teamed up in January to facilitate public access to charging using the EVgo fast-charging network, so No Charge to Charge stations are not necessarily exclusive to Nissan owners. (Ford also offers a service called EV 1-2-3 Charge.)
Nissan couldn’t say exactly how many sales it can attribute to the existence of its program. But according to Anthony Lambkin, Nissan’s EV infrastructure manager for North America, it is helping to sell cars, and the brand’s in-market research says the network has an “overweighted influence on purchase decision.” Lambkin also points out that Nissan’s companion EZ-Charge pay service has earned the business of quite a few Tesla drivers, too. Tesla’s Supercharger network is “a great safety net if you want to drive across the country, but even Tesla drivers are opting to charge close to home,” he said.
Nissan Program an “Insurance Card,” Not a Daily Charger
The city-focused approach has created a few issues for Nissan that also happen to be Tesla sore points. One of them is that a very small percentage of participants are using the service far more often than the rest. According to Nissan, the No Charge to Charge (NCTC) service isn’t intended as a substitute for home charging—although about 5 percent of Leaf drivers don’t have access to home charging—or to enable Uber drivers. “Really, the idea behind NCTC is to provide an insurance card in the glovebox, a comfort level,” said Lambkin. Commercial or fleet use is not allowed by the terms of the service, and more than 80 percent of those using the program are charging with it less than 10 times a month, he said.
Tesla in November announced that free unlimited Supercharger use would soon expire, and then last month released pricing details for charging while clarifying that the approximately 110,000 vehicles that originally included free charging could still take advantage.
There are about 20,000 U.S. Nissan Leaf drivers enrolled in No Charge to Charge, and Nissan reports about 40,000 individual charging sessions per month. It adds up to about 4000 kWh monthly, and the automaker says that since the beginning of the program it has provided Leaf drivers with free energy to go 14 million miles. Given the rapid expansion of the program (it was in half the number of markets early last year), the totals likely are increasing exponentially now.
Nissan’s program includes both Level 2 public charging stations (the level that you might be able to easily install at home) as well as far more powerful Level 3 DC fast charging, the latter of which allows a Leaf to recover about 80 percent of its capacity in about half an hour.
It’s perhaps no surprise that No Charge to Charge participants are using DC fast charging 14 times as often as slower Level 2 charging. “When we go back and ask customers on a consistent basis, ‘How fast do you want to charge,’ every year the number gets smaller and smaller,” Lambkin said, pointing to how it’s no longer a question of whether upcoming cars will be able to take advantage of 150-kW fast charging but whether that will be fast enough. And 350-kW chargers already are arriving, too.
“That’s going to be even more important as the range of vehicles gets bigger and as the utility for EVs becomes not so much just the urban area but driving between cities,” he said. Users’ preferences and the need to get back on the road quickly also are represented in the network-wide average charging time of just 22 minutes. Shorter charging times also make sense given where Nissan is aiming to place most of its chargers: big-box stores, casual-dining restaurants, and coffee shops where there can be retail engagement lasting typically about 15 to 45 minutes.
For those who do opt to keep using the chargers included in the program after the two-year period (or for those driving vehicles from other brands) who will need to pay for use, Lambkin conceded there are issues with the “quite fragmented” interfaces and user experiences. It has only been in the past 18 months that all new equipment installations have started to include credit-card readers, while Nissan also began ensuring that pricing is the same across equivalent station types. In the interest of homogenizing the experience, Nissan is increasing its efforts with EVgo; its stations have a national design standard, are ADA compliant, and have a similar look and feel.
Nissan has strayed from its city-focused approach in a few instances—for instance, by subsidizing some of the stations of the West Coast Electric Highway, an early project aimed at installing fast chargers up and down I-5, all the way from San Diego to the Canadian border, and north along Highway 99 to Vancouver, British Columbia. But Nissan’s Lambkin admitted a program like No Charge to Charge probably will look more like Tesla’s Supercharger network or BMW’s network, allowing it to support vehicles with greater ranges. “It’s probably going to be more interstate—a national network where the location of the chargers themselves will dictate a lower utilization.”
BMW has been a little more invested in the long-distance potential of electric vehicles; while it has partnered with Nissan for some of the metropolitan locations, it has also separately worked with VW to establish express East Coast and West Coast charging corridors. “We’re very proactive in public charging,” said Rob Healey, electric-vehicle infrastructure manager for BMW. “We understand that it’s not about just selling the car and that we need a more holistic approach.”
Planning a Viable Business Case for Charging
Most automakers poised to release a mass-market electric vehicle over the next few years also are showing increased involvement in infrastructure. Ford in the United States has worked to help subsidize workplace charging, while Mercedes-Benz has said it will have an infrastructure solution ready by the time it rolls out its EQ sub-brand of electric cars beginning in 2019. More immediately, Volkswagen is ramping up to spend big money—$2 billion, spread over ten years—on EV infrastructure and affiliated projects, as part of its federally negotiated atonement for the diesel scandal. If there’s an outlier here, it’s General Motors, which has been especially cautious about infrastructure spending despite being bullish on electrified vehicles, the 2017 Chevrolet Bolt EV being the most recent example. As these product rollouts happen in rapid succession, it will be interesting to see whether the automakers who sell the most electric vehicles are those that labored hardest on infrastructure.
While programs like No Charge to Charge do contribute to purchase decisions, they also are investments in an infrastructure with a revenue model that may be difficult to define at this point. “As we go forward, I don’t think that the idea of ubiquitous free charging is a way to support the long-term sustainable growth of the industry. People need to understand the value of charging their vehicle in public,” said Lambkin. “You don’t pay $1.20 for a small bottle of water out of your tap, but you gladly pay it when it’s chilled, in a convenient place.”
There are places where Nissan is seeing utilization rates high enough to support sustainable revenue. For example, its chargers in Fremont, California—where Tesla’s assembly plant is located—are “used around the clock,” Lambkin said. “It’s very promising for the industry, and it does [indicate] if you put chargers where people want them . . . there might be a good business model for owner-operated [facilities] in the long run.”
In the meantime, automakers have to be careful not to sweeten the deal too much, dilute the value of the services, and create networks that still depend on subsidies for survival regardless of usage levels. “We’re really at a very early stage, and whatever we can do to get charging networks and sales sustainable, we’re going to do that,” said Lambkin.