Rule number one when signing up for a membership or service plan with an electric vehicle charging company: Make sure they have charging stations near where you live, work, or play.
As a Southern California and Ventura County resident accepting an assignment to review the new Electrify America smartphone app and membership plans, I figured a company with this level of brand recognition and visibility would be convenient. Especially in my area of the country, where EVs are everywhere.
I was wrong.
Using Electrify America’s “Locate a Charger” function, I found a bank of them located in Camarillo, California, 12 miles from my home. Unfortunately, those are planned and coming soon, rather than active. The nearest live Electrify America chargers are 33 miles from where I live, installed in a Walmart parking lot in Burbank.
Looking at the company’s map of active chargers and those in development, my area of America is not electrified by Electrify America. And aside from the chargers that are coming soon to Camarillo, the company neither plans, nor offers chargers between Point Conception and Los Angeles International Airport.
If you live in West L.A., Gardena is your closest charging location. San Fernando Valley residents must trek to Burbank. Malibu and Thousand Oaks, take your pick. Santa Barbara? No juice for you.
Ironically, there are several active and planned hydrogen fueling stations that are closer to my house than an Electrify America charging station, one of which is already open and located just a few miles from my driveway.
Electrify America Account and App Setup
Using my laptop, I set up my Electrify America account. In order to use the smartphone app for charging, you must choose a membership plan. The Pass plan does not require a monthly fee, but does charge a $1 charging session start fee and costs more on a per-minute basis. The Pass+ plan costs $4 per month, but waives session fees and offers reduced per-minute charging rates.
Since I had no intention of using Electrify America on a regular basis, I chose the Pass plan. Electrify America wanted the usual information such as e-mail address, phone number, and credit card number. During this process I also learned the company would pre-charge my account to an amount of my choosing, and that each time my account dwindled to $5, it would automatically pre-charge again. So be prepared for that sneak attack.
With my account set up and the app downloaded to my iPhone XS, I set off for Burbank in a 2019 Chevrolet Bolt EV.
Before leaving my driveway, I connected to the car’s standard Apple CarPlay and used the Electrify America app to request directions to the bank of stations. Given three choices, I selected Apple Maps instead of Google Maps or Waze. The Bolt EV’s touchscreen display responded with “Directions Not Available.” After two more attempts with Apple Maps, I switched to Google Maps and had no problem getting the fastest route.
As it turned out, this glitch was an omen of things to come.
Seemingly Straightforward Process Devolves Into Confusion and Frustration
Following an uneventful drive to Burbank, I pulled into the Walmart parking lot and found two charging stations with three CCS connectors and one CHAdeMO connector. Naturally, someone had left a shopping cart in the EV Charging Only parking space, so I needed to exit the Bolt and move it before pulling in.
Opening my Electrify America app, I reviewed the charging process. Then I got out and looked at the directions on the charging station itself. Everything appeared to be simple and straightforward, so I plugged the 150-kW DC Fast Charger with the CCS connector into the Bolt EV’s charging port, and followed the directions to use the Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) reader to activate the charger.
I tried multiple times, to no avail. Each time, the charger’s screen would prompt me to tap my phone on the RFID reader, and after doing so each time the screen would tell me that no account was found in association with my phone.
Clearly, I needed help activating the charger, or my account, or my Electrify America app, so I called the customer service phone number. During the course of the next 45 minutes, I worked with a representative to try to activate the first charger, and then, after moving the car, the charger next to it, so that I could juice the Bolt.
During one of several times that I was placed on hold, I also attempted to use a credit card to start the charging station. My card was declined.
Finally, After 45 Minutes, Success!
Just before I gave up on charging the Bolt, the customer service rep asked me to log out of the Electrify America app and then to log back in. After that, she directed me through the remote “swipe to charge” function.
Using the “Locate a Charger” map I had to select my location, choose the exact charger I wanted to use, plug the connector into the Bolt EV’s port, and then swipe on the app to start the charging process. This worked. Finally, success!
This remote “swipe to charge” process, once you know how to execute it, makes perfect sense. But getting to this point made no sense whatsoever. And one of the big challenges during the call with customer service was that just like the charger itself, the rep could not find evidence of my account.
Later, after the call, I couldn’t figure out why, at around the 70% battery capacity mark, my app was showing that it was going to take 900 minutes to reach 80% capacity. Heck, to be honest, I wasn’t entirely sure why, suddenly, the charging station was working in the first place since neither it nor the customer service rep could determine whether or not I had an account in the first place.
Confusing to Young and Old Alike
But working it was, and while sitting in the Bolt waiting for the battery to reach 80% capacity I blamed myself for this charging debacle. “I must be too old to understand the technology and the process,” I thought. “Or maybe I’m too new to electric car charging, which means this experience doesn’t represent that of the average user.”
Then a young guy in a beat-up first-gen Nissan Leaf pulled up to the charger next to me. He bounded out of the car as only someone with no more than two decades of mileage on his legs can, unhooked the CHAdeMO connector, and plugged it into the front of his car. Returning to the screen, he tried to activate the charger using a credit card. After a few attempts, he enthusiastically jogged into the Wal-Mart seeking help, returning about five minutes later to continue his attempts.
During an impromptu interview, he explained that he was relatively new to electric cars himself, had four different charging company apps on his phone, and had never had trouble activating a charger before. This time around, though, he had no choice but to make the Electrify America charger work.
“I’ve only got 10 miles of range left,” he explained, “and I just need enough juice to get home.”
“Call customer service,” I suggested.
He was still trying to charge his Leaf when I unplugged and headed for home.
Questioning the Costs and Benefits of Going Electric
Using Electrify America’s Burbank charging station, I charged the Bolt EV from 45% battery capacity to 85% capacity (from 94 miles to 185 miles of range). To obtain the extra 91 miles of range, the car charged for 47 minutes and 38 seconds, at a cost of $12.91. Add the time spent with customer service trying to get the charger to work in the first place, and driving to and from the charging station, and this process consumed 3.5 hours of a Sunday morning that would’ve been better spent with my family.
In retrospect, now that I’ve been through the Electrify America experience from start to finish, I’m confident that I could quickly login to the app, plug in the car, and activate charging. And I’d give that a try, too, if it didn’t mean another round-trip to Burbank.
Nevertheless, as I drove home, burning through a third of the electricity I’d just purchased, it occurred to me that the gas station down the street from my house sells unleaded for $3.65 per gallon. Based on what I spent with Electrify America, I could’ve easily pumped 3.54 gallons of gasoline in a matter of minutes. And while that would only provide about 70 miles of driving in our own midsize crossover SUV, in a Hyundai Ioniq or a Toyota Prius that amount of gas would fuel at least 160 miles of travel, if not more.
Compared to my Chevy Bolt test car, an Ioniq or a Prius is a bargain. Plus, Chevrolet charges an extra $750 for DC Fast Charging capability. Now factor in the cost of a 240-volt home charging station and installation, and it’s clear that either a high-mileage hybrid or a plug-in hybrid that fully charges overnight using a standard household wall outlet makes better financial sense than an electric car.
At least for now.