Electrify AmericaTM: If I Ever Get The Chair and They Supply the Juice I Might Live to a Ripe Old Age
Fans of the 1985 hit movie Back to the Future will recall the scene, a flashback to 1955, in which four well-groomed gas station attendants run out the instant the customer pulls in over the rubber pressure hose, triggering the bell inside the station, to check the oil, top out the air in the tires, fill the tank, and wash the windshield:
One may suppose that the customer was on his way in perhaps well under five minutes.
I thought of this during our recent maiden road-trip voyage in our brand-new Porsche Taycan 4S, a marvel of state-of-the-art automotive electric-car technology, which we ordered way back in 2017 and finally took delivery of less than two weeks ago.
Hoping to get out from under the smoke-choked air of San Francisco, we embarked on a 330-mile, 5 hour* journey on California Highway 101, certainly one of the most-traveled byways in our state of nearly 40 million people, and therefore one that might have provided a showcase for the charging network for the state with the largest automotive market in the world.
Sadly, our five hour trip took 3 1/2 hours longer — 8 1⁄2 hours, thanks to the hopelessly unreliable technology of Electrify America (EA), the network of charging stations owned by Volkswagen Group, which also owns Porsche.
Along with the network owned by ChargePoint, we did not have a single instance of what might be called a successful experience charging our dream machine.
Based on this, we are now the proud owners of a $170,000 car we will never again drive further than about 100 miles from home, as we will never be certain we can charge it, or will encounter such frustration when we manage to charge it that it’s not worth the hassle.
Which is really a shame, since the car is otherwise magnificent. As is documented in perhaps hundreds of automotive press articles, this latest specimen of “German engineering” is a joy to drive, with handling and acceleration that lives up to the hype in every way.
Each of the five times we attempted to use a charger, twice at the Salinas EA location, once at their Pismo Beach location, and at two ChargePoint locations in Paso Robles and Santa Barbara, we had to try multiple chargers, make calls to Customer Service, and in one instance had to “pull the ripcord” and use the emergency disconnect string that is well- concealed inside the door in order to disconnect the connector hose and get on our way.
And, at none of these locations were we able to obtain anything close to the promised ultra-fast charging speed, so even when we finally got the car charging, the wait time was at least twice the promised one of 15–20 minutes to charge from 5% to 80%.
Hence the reverie about the Back to the Future Texaco station scene from 65 years ago… in and out in a handful of minutes, with a smile. (And, by the way, those restrooms were clean as a whistle!)
The Maiden Charge on the Maiden Voyage
Let’s drill down into the first attempt to charge, in the dusty, litter- strewn corner of a gigantic Wal-Mart parking lot in Salinas. Herewith is the minute-by-minute chronology:
1:14 PM: Having driven 110 miles over two hours from San Francisco to Salinas we pull into the immense lot to find … a sea of parked cars and no visible charging station — so you have to drive around like a mouse scurrying in a labyrinth just to find them. The first one found was blocked by a car parked in the space for the charger — which was not plugged in and was not being charged — raising the question, how does EA keep scofflaws from using these as parking spaces?
Thus began the first of many customer service calls to EA, which, to its credit, at least answers these calls fairly promptly, and has service agents who seem to have been trained by the Biblical Job himself, so great is their patient forbearance with what is undoubtedly a constant stream of angry, frustrated customers.
Having reached one, we learned that there are other chargers on the lot. So, back in the car, with more trips around the labyrinth, to another set of chargers in a far corner of the lot. Duration of call #1: 4 minutes.
1:24 PM Upon pulling in to one of the “fast” 350 Kwh chargers, and climbing out of the car, we see in the glare of the sunlight a notice that
“the maximum power of this charger has been temporarily reduced in order to improve service and perform an update.”
Time to get back in the car…
Having re-parked at what was fortunately an empty space at one of the other chargers, we managed to wrestle the short, stiff hose into position into the connector dock on the car, after several micro-adjustments of the car’s position relative to the hose — fortunately there were two of us.
Following the not-at-all user-friendly steps on the EA app on our iPhone, we appear to have success getting the charging process going. At last! Now, we can climb back into the car and wait for the charging process to proceed — NOT.
1:38 PM: Charger screen message pops up: “Charging start error. Please ensure your vehicle is plugged in correctly. Your credit card has not been charged.”
Time to get back out of the car and initiate Call #2 to the friendly customer service agents. Sure, there’s dust swirling, and the roar of passing trucks makes you have to repeat, loudly, everything you say,
and ask the agent to repeat everything she says, if you’re lucky, only once. Mandatory questions that must be answered include full name, charger unit number, phone number, model of your car, and I can’t recall what else.
We are instructed to move the car yet again, to another of the three chargers at this location on the lot. This one has a maximum charge rate of 150 Kwh — neither of the “fast” 350 Kwh chargers works.
Duration of call #2: 48 minutes.
2:10 PM: At long last the rickety scheme seems to be working. We watch as the battery shows we are getting juice at 4.4 miles/minute, with an estimated full charge at … 3:01 PM.
2:36 PM: Taycan battery shows 98% charge and 262 mile range. Charger shows 34 kWh delivered in 30 minutes. Although we are supposed to get this electricity free for three years from EA as new
owners of a Taycan, we gave up on getting the app to work in this way and just fork over $5.54 on our credit card.
2:41 PM: Free at last, free at last, thank God Almighty, we are free at last.
Total time since entering lot: One hour, 32 minutes.
Visions of that ’55 Texaco station are dancing in my head.
With chins high, we plowed on, hopeful that this maiden charging debacle was just bad luck. With 220 miles to go to reach our hotel in Santa Barbara, which had no compatible charger, we knew we had to get more juice before we arrived there, as we did not want to arrive there with less than 50 miles left on the battery.
The Remaining Four Charge Stops
5:00 PM: And so, after 140 miles, we pulled off at lovely Pismo Beach at five o’clock sharp, having driven for two hours and 40 minutes, with 54% left on the battery.
Once again, we were greeted by a litter-and-dust-strewn parking lot, this time with menacing-looking local kids sizing us up as they strolled by, one of them slapping a club-like object in his palm. Once again, we had to attempt charging at multiple chargers before we could get the juice flowing. By 5:20, all seemed at last to be working OK, and 23 minutes later we were at 92% charge — plenty to get us to Santa Barbara and back to this same charger when we made the return trip.
Except for one small glitch: the latch on the charging connector would not budge and could not be disconnected. [Many expletives deleted] At 5:50 PM we were back on the line to the oh-so-patient Customer Service, for an 18-minute call during which the agent rather miraculously discovered that on page 85 of the Taycan manual there is a procedure described for emergency release of the connector latch. So, down on hands and knees on the hot dusty pavement to find the hidden tab inside the door, which in our case was a black tab on near-black paint and not at all easy to spot.
Having yanked this ripcord, voila!, the connector latch released. Of course, the cheap plastic tab also tore off the string, which could not be pushed back into its hole any easier than toothpaste into a tube. But still, we were once again free at last to continue our journey, with the string dangling and the tab in my pocket.
Total elapsed time: 1 hour, 8 minutes.
7:35 PM: We arrive at our destination, a hotel in Santa Barbara, having driven 80 miles, with 65% charge on the battery and 171 miles range.
Total drive time: 11:15 AM to 7:35 PM: 8 hours, 20 minutes. Mileage: 325 Average speed: 39 mph.
Predicted drive time with no stops in a gasoline-powered car: 5 hours, at 65 mph.
Electrify America / Taycan time penalty: 3 hours 20 minutes.
At this point, I will not burden the reader with the minute details of the remainder of the trip, other than to say that our experiences at ChargePoint chargers at the Rosewood Miramar and in Paso Robles were somewhat smoother, but still plagued with similar issues: each attempt was met with frustration, by the need to move the car to several chargers before finding one that worked, by long calls in inhospitable circumstances with loud road noise to customer service agents who would re-boot the non-working chargers, and by charging rates far below the advertised very fast ones promised by Porsche.
The final charging stop was back at the Salinas Wal-Mart, and, despite our hard-won familiarity, it too involved multiple attempts at non- working chargers before we could get on our way. That 40-minute stop, from 3:35 to 4:15 PM, brought the battery from 13% / 34 miles range, to 78% / 207 mile range.
We left Santa Barbara at 11:15 AM and arrived home at 6:00 PM, total travel time 6 hours and 45 minutes — a 1-hour 45-minute penalty vs. the 5 hours it would have taken in an ICE vehicle.
This reporter is not a climate-science denier and hopes that some day soon, internal combustion engines will go the way of the horse and buggy. He is also someone who, while not a true gear-head car fanatic, can appreciate the pleasures of a beautifully designed high-performance car with fantastic acceleration, handling, and whisper-quiet noise levels.
But it is most disappointing to discover after all the fanfare surrounding the introduction of the Porsche Taycan, that the charging network is simply not ready for prime time. Even if all the charging stations had worked flawlessly, the absence of the infrastructure of a traditional gas
station makes road trips in these vehicles a less-than-attractive proposition: no restrooms, no implied security of an owner or attendant on the premises, no shade from sun and rain in a covered bay, and, even with perfectly-optimized charging rates, wait times that exceed a filling station by a factor of at least four to five.
We will not be repeating this experience any time soon…
*In a gasoline powered vehicle with an old-fashioned internal combustion engine. Picture Fred Sanford’s 1951 Ford truck for example.