As PluginCars.com has reported, the Blink EV charging network (operated by Ecotality) has a checkered history when it comes to quality . I learned this the hard way last April, when I was stranded in my LEAF at a broken Blink Quick Charger in Belmont, Calif. So now, I always not only check the Blink Network map, but also call them, when I'm planning a trip that relies on one of their chargers—especially if it’s a Quick Charger.
Such was the case last Thursday morning when I had to commute from Berkeley to Sunnyvale—a 45 mile one-way trip that I make several times a month. Unlike many Silicon Valley office parks, my employer doesn’t have chargers—so I always stop at a DC fast charger on the way home. My friend Jared traveled with me to work on that day. It was his first day on the job for a three-week consulting gig, and his first ride in an EV. I wanted to make a good impression.
After checking the online map, and confirming that all systems are go by phone, I decide to stop in Redwood City to charge because there are two different Quick Charge locations close together: Evernote and Silver Springs. If one fails, the other will surely be working.
For the first leg of our 90 mile journey, we average a modest 62 mph. It's 45 degrees, so I play it safe by leaving the heat off, and only using the heated seats. At lunchtime, still worried about Blink’s reliability, I call to confirm again. Yes, both Redwood City DC Quick Chargers are online and open to the public, with no restrictions.
We left work at 7 pm, going from Sunnyvale to Redwood City (adding about 15 miles to the trip). To play it safe, I drive 55 mph on the way to Redwood City. I know the car well enough that I'm confident we’ll reach with miles to spare, but it gets hairy for Jared: as we limp into the Redwood City parking lot where the Silver Springs Quick Charger resides, with only 7 miles of estimated range left.
But wait, the Quick Charger is nowhere to be found. We call Blink and the technician digs into his notes. It turns out the unit is behind a locked gate, and is only open to the public during regular business hours. Okay, but I sure do wish Blink had told me that on the phone earlier. The Blink technician apologizes.
No problem. There's a backup Quick Charger at Evernote. I still have Blink on the phone, so I check if the Evernote facility is still up and running. The Blink rep says, “Absolutely. You will have no problem charging there.” So we limp on over with the car indicating we have a low battery charge. We laugh nervously.
We arrive at Evernote with 4 miles range left, and breathe a sigh of relief. As I step up to the first of two Quick Charge units, I notice that one of the LED screens is dark. Not a good sign, but there’s another one. It reads my RFID card, cool, but when I plug in it flashes this message in red: “Unable to Communicate." Damn!
So I call Blink for the fourth time that day and, lo and behold, this Quick Charger is indeed broken. The Blink technician apologizes. You can hear in his voice that he has been here before—many times before. And, as he searches his database, there's more: this charger has been down since December 21.
He recommends that I try one of the ten Level 2 240-volt charge points at Evernote. It’s far from ideal to use an L2 right now, but maybe I can add a few miles and then head over to the Belmont Quick Charger, which is only about 5 miles away. Whoops, Blink has it wrong again. It turns out the entire Evernote grid is down.
So we call the tow truck, which took more than an hour to arrive. We froze our butts off. Jared took photos and made critical (but admittedly funny) comments about EVs on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter, vowing to never rely on one again. This is what kills EVs. That, and the neighbors coming outside when we arrived home with the LEAF being lowered off the tow truck.
I have lots of questions. Why did the Blink technician not know that the chargers were broken until I plugged in and they failed? When he learned that one Quick Charger at Evernote was down, why was he clueless about the Level 2 units also being down? Why did I have to locate and read the serial number on each unit to the technician? Why does the Blink Network database not get a notification of failures? This means that Blink only learns about a broken unit when a customer finds out it’s not working—in other words, when someone is already stranded. And the big question: Who designed this system?
I'm an early adopter. I accept that there are going to be problems from time to time. This is intrinsic to new technology. But it does not have to be this bad. There are existing mature technologies, not related to EVs and charging infrastructure, that can solve this problem.
What Blink needs to do is very straightforward: improve their own monitoring capabilities so that they get push notifications when a unit is down, and set it up so that consumers like me can get those push notifications on their mobile phones.
Blink already knows all of the chargers I use because they are tracking everything as part of the government-sponsored EV Project. So I should be able to turn on mobile notifications so that if any charger I have ever used breaks, I get notified by the Blink mobile app, a text or email, or even an automated call. Then, I can plan accordingly and go to a different charging station. Problem solved.
This should have been built into the original specs of their equipment and network. It should become mandatory for all charging service providers receiving state or federal funding, especially for any charging stations open to the public.