Public Recharging of Electric Vehicles – how it works/doesn’t work

bmw i3 and tesla model sMost Electric Vehicles can charge at home, but to get full value the ability to charge away from home is essential. The networks are there and growing rapidly – however networks (plural) is where it becomes a little less straightforward.

An EV charge is mostly started and stopped by the ubiquitous radio-frequency identification (RFID) card. Many EV drivers need a pocketful of different cards to access different charging points – why is this?

RFID cards have serial numbers and these are exchanged across competitor networks using White Lists (valid cards) and Black Lists (stolen or deactivated cards). The exchange of a list between operators is a mutually agreed automated or manual process dependent on the sophistication of the Network Operators systems. So far, so good.

There are other access tools, such as Interactive Voice Recognition Technology (IVR), SMS Texting and Smart Phone Apps, which are software-based and features of Network Operators’ systems and service portfolios. These tools do not usually depend on prior registration with a Network Operator – they are drive up, use and pay by credit /debit card.

But back to RFID Cards – some networks have equipment that is all free to use, some have equipment that has a tariff and some offer a mix of both. Where a tariff is in place and drivers opt to use an RFID card, the Network Operator will ask drivers for a pre-registered payment solution to link to the RFID card.

Some networks have issued RFID cards with no link to a payment method.

• So if network B accepts an RFID card from network C whose cards are not linked to a payment method – network B is unable to collect any money owed for the use of its charging equipment.

• If network B offers alternative tools such as the smart phone app etc – a driver from network C is able to pay using credit / debit cards despite the non- acceptance of network C’s RFID card by network B.

• Network C can accept the RFID cards from network B if it chooses.

Those networks that do have tariffs associated with equipment have the basics to agree billing and settlement contracts between themselves using the white lists and RFID cards (linked to individual driver payment solutions) as a mutually common access tool.

Alternately, acceptance of RFID cards on multiple networks can be facilitated by the use of a clearing house (similar to the bank clearing houses) but inevitably this means another layer of cost – either paid by the driver or justifiable in the nirvana of the value add model. And the RFID card still needs a payment solution attached to it.

People are used to swiping credit / debit cards for small purchases and this would seem the logical payment method to use EV charging equipment – however the technology used to read and authenticate the credit / debit card currently adds a disproportionate amount to the cost of the equipment.

These are the practical / technical reasons for the existence of the ubiquitous RFID card. There are high tech ways forward – linking the payment system for the use of the equipment to a mobile phone bill. Integration with corporate or domestic electricity accounts leading the way to benefits from off peak charging – the technical and commercial solutions to allow this to happen are still in their infancy.

There’s one further commercial facet to the acceptance or non-acceptance of competitor network’s RFID cards: competition. A larger market share with the appropriate profit margin is what most businesses aim for. The UK is not unique in its problem with RFID cards – in California at the recent EDTA convention, one of four network operators pulled out of Nissan’s EZ-Charge Solution (a programme to enable Nissan LEAF drivers to access multiple Networks in the San Francisco Bay area).

So what’s the way forward?

A. Choose your network with care – look for one that provides the maximum of number of charge points in the area you’re likely to be driving in.

B. Choose a network whose RFID card is accepted on more than one network

C. Choose a network that has alternative access tools – Smartphone App, IVR as well as RFID cards.

CYC (Charge Your Car) – the UK’s growing pay as you go recharging network for electric vehicles – has over 1600 charge posts from Scotland to Cornwall. The CYC RFID card is also accepted on the Ecotricity Network. CYC also offers the CYC Smartphone App and IVR access to the majority of charge points.