Public Electric Car Charging: Our First Attempt

Tesla_plug-in
Thanks to the loan of a 2010 Tesla Roadster and a welcome coincidence, Cars.com took its first crack at charging an electric car using a public charging station — with mixed results.

If range anxiety is the No. 1 concern among potential electric-car buyers, the second, and related, one is where they can expect to plug in and recharge once they venture out into the world. Talk of public charging stations has been minimal and vague, especially in Cars.com's hometown of Chicago. Imagine our surprise when two such stations appeared in the parking structure we use for our test vehicles.

Chargepasswide

The operator, InterPark, plans to install chargers at 12 of its Chicago locations, the first of which was ours. A look at the ChargePoint station finder shows only a few installations in the Loop, Chicago's business district, and one of them is a literal stone's throw from our offices.

Chicago's Tesla dealership kindly lent us a Roadster 2.5 for an upcoming review, and we eagerly parked it at one of the charging posts. We had opened a ChargePoint account online and received a ChargePass, which is a bar-coded key tag. Holding the tag in front of the box, a unit built by Coulomb Technologies, signed us in and unlocked the thing.

Then the obstacles began.

Suspended
The station supports 240- (level two) and 120-volt (level one) charging. Although electric cars charge faster at 240 volts, the unit's pistol-grip connector is incompatible with the Tesla, a surprise for two reasons: One, the auto industry chose this connector, called SAE J1772, as a standard for the U.S.; two, Tesla has converter cables to accommodate almost a dozen different outlets with varying ampere ratings, from the RV park standard to a generator cable, but it doesn't have one for SAE J1772.

In Tesla's defense, the Roadster has been the only electric car on the U.S. market longer than a year, and that arguably makes Tesla’s connector the de facto standard, but it doesn't change the inconvenient truth. Tesla is working on a converter, but it's not ready yet. General Motors suffered a similar setback with the EV-1.

120plug
So we resorted to the level-one option, but we soon found that the Tesla 120-volt cable's plug has a ground-fault-circuit interrupter built in (you know, one of those test/reset safety devices) that makes it too tall to fit into the charger's recessed outlet. Strike two. The sole electric car and the most common charging station on the market simply don't like each other.

120plugwithextension
We produced a 9-inch-long extension cord, which allowed us to make the connection and lock the charger's door. Success. But when we connected the other end to the Roadster, we got nothing. The charger's display reported a ground fault and said it would try again in 15 minutes. Unfortunately, the retry didn't work, and neither did later attempts using the second Coulomb unit. Strike three; we were out.

The car charged fine at 120 volts at my house, and there's a converted Volkswagen Beetle that has been charging successfully for more than a week at our office location, so where was the problem? With the car? With the charging unit? Possibly both.

Adapters
The next morning, I drove the Tesla to the only other parking facility downtown, where I found exactly the same kind of Coulomb stations. I followed all the steps, and voila! We were charging. The same type of hardware and the same car got along fine. Tesla has suggested there might be a wiring error at our stations, and the operator will be looking into that. However, the homemade electric Beetle charges without incident, and some Tesla owners have described the car's onboard charging electronics as finicky. (We'll address that in our upcoming Roaster review.) It's possible both parties share some responsibility. We'll try and get to the bottom of it and report back. In our next post, I'll detail how we set up our ChargePoint account and how consumers will be billed.

Comments 

Can you imagine going to different gas stations and some gas nozzles fit and some don't or they all had different kinds of gas that may or may not work in your vehicle?

The industry may retort the exact same thing happened in the early days of automobiles but, c'mon man, this is 2010. If this EV movement is going to gain momentum there must be some uniformity or nobody will feel comfortable buying these things.

hitman1970

How long before thugs make these thing look like pay phones in the Bronx? Would suck to think your vehicle is getting charged to find out some jackwad unplugged it as soon as you were out of sight.

Lance,
They are uniform for Leaf and Volt that will work right away with these stations. As Joe states, Tesla was the oddball because as they say, they were first.

eagle2x

Perhaps the best EV design would be quick change (slide-out; slide-in) battery packs. Service stations would provide a slide-in bat pack in exchange for your depleted bat pack. Envision the battery pack as if it were a tank of gasoline.

Thomas

There's nothing like trying to pass off Shai Agassi's Better Place concept as your own idea. Busted!

the chargers are differnt from each.and how much time it take to charge the battery to full level?

eagle2x

Thomas

In no way did I imply credit for Shai's concept. Hopefully Israel will set the example for this infrastructure. Quick battery exchange could be an alternative to the many shortcomings of lenghty re-charge periods.

Charging a Tesla Roadster at a Level 2 charging station is easy: you just have to build your own adapter. (See my blog.) While it's true that Tesla hit the market first, you don't get to set a standard when there are other products coming on the market at 100x your production rate.

Post a Comment 

Please remember a few rules before posting comments:

  • If you don't want people to see your email address, simply type in the URL of your favorite website or leave the field empty.
  • Do not mention specific car dealers by name. Feel free to mention your city, state and brand.
  • Try to be civil to your fellow blog readers. This blog is not a fan or enthusiast forum, it is meant to help people during the car-buying process and during the time between purchases, so shoppers can keep a pulse on the market.
  • Stay on topic. We want to hear your opinions and thoughts, but please only comment about the specified topic in the blog post.
view posting rules

If you have a TypeKey or TypePad account, please Sign In

Search Results

KickingTires Search Results for

Search Kicking Tires

KickingTires iPhone App
Ask.cars.com