How to Make Electric Car Charging Even More Convenient

By · October 11, 2011

You wouldn't guess coming to my house, but I love my vacuum cleaner. It has one great feature: an automatic cord rewinder. Here's a portrait of my cherished vacuum cleaner.

Vacuum cleaner

Vacuum cleaner

You pull the cord out to plug it, and when you're done vacuuming, you unplug it. The cord automatically rewinds itself with one push on the big button on top. Neat. Living in Europe, where people prefer hatchbacks over sedans, all car manufacturers have hatch engineers. These guys make sure that hatch hinges and gas struts are smooth to operate. They've even done some marketing research. One example is that hatches could open much faster than they do, but manufacturers keep them opening quite slowly not to surprise (or scare) owners. Most cars now have automatic doors and trunk unlocking, and some models also have a power operated hatch, but a new feature has appeared recently.

Opening the trunk of a Volkswagen Passat (European model)

Opening the trunk of a Volkswagen Passat (European model)

It works by detecting movement (the driver's foot) under the rear of the car. The car then checks if the driver's around, looking for the signal from its key. If found, the trunk opens itself. It just shows that anything can be improved, made better and easier to use. That's what Ford did when it launched its "Easy Fuel" system. Previously, to fill his car, a driver had to open the fuel door, then remove the fuel cap. That was not convenient, so Ford quite simply deleted the fuel cap.

Ford Easy Fuel

Ford Easy Fuel

With all that in mind, I was a bit disappointed when I discovered how the Nissan LEAF handles 120-volt charging. Obviously, the same level of engineering you can find in a hatchback wasn't there.

With Level 2 charging at 240 volts, the cord is mounted to the wall or a pedestal, and with varying degrees of ease, can be unwound and plugged into the car. But the charging cord that comes with the car—the primary charging connection for a lot of plug-in drivers—is another story.

At first sight, the charging port looks clean with the plug in the front end, but where's the cord? Why isn't it next to the plug? Nissan has placed it in the trunk, in a take-away bag, maybe thinking that most drivers would leave it in their garage, but considering the car's range, it seems wiser never to leave home without it.

Nissan Leaf front plug

Nissan Leaf front plug

Think about the process of charging a Nissan LEAF on the go. Park the car. Get out of the car. Open the hatch. Unzip the cord bag. Take out the cord. Close the hatch. Walk to the front of the car. Open the plug case door. Lift the socket cap. Plug in the car. Plug in the wall socket. All this leads to a question: Why is a $100 vacuum cleaner easier to use than a $32,000 car?

Nissan Leaf cord bag

Nissan LEAF cord bag

Several tests have shown that the future will be wireless, but it will take years before wireless chargers are available. All EVs will carry some kind of cord. There has to be a better way than managing this process than what the Nissan LEAF offers. Don't we want electrics to go mainstream? The Nissan LEAF is a great car. It's the greatest pure EV available today, but it could be even greater if the plugging process was more user-friendly—not only for the portable charging cord, but just about all charging.

The cord in the trunk is not convenient. Let's have it where the plug is. How about an automatic cord rewinder system? Why not? It couldn't work with a fast-charge as this requires a big bulky cable, but a 240V 32A cord is only half-an-inch thick. It's easy to roll. All EVs should come with a cord that rewinds itself. Or two of them? On Renault's electric Fluence, the plug isn't on the front of the car, it's on the fender, close to the front door. So the engineers had a problem. Should the plug be on the left side, or on the right side? They chose not to choose and fitted the car with two plugs, one on each side. Smart.

Car manufacturers are still unsure about how to make electric cars user-friendly, so some suggestions could help them. Any other idea about how to make an EV easier to use?

Comments

· · 3 years ago

Um, maybe because the 120V LEAF charger was not intended to be used on a regular basis. The idea was to use it in rare circumstances such as when you travel a long distance to a friend or family members home. You can opportunity charge there with a standard 120V outlet. If it were my primary method of charging, I would simply install it on the wall of my garage. Also, I would pay to have it upgraded to 240V.

· · 3 years ago

@Laurent - For sure, we should be finding ways to make charging more convienent--but I almost never use the portable charging cord so its position in the hatch is not an issue for me. My home charger is positioned about five feet from the front of my LEAF when it's parked, and couldn't be more convenient. I know a lot of people are living with only 120v charging and/or are using the modified portable cord unit that allows for 240v, so it would make sense to find an easier way for them to access the cord.

· Les Moss (not verified) · 3 years ago

An easy answer is provide 2 cords. One to leave hanging in your garage. The other to carry in the trunk for emergencies. I always buy a second power suply for my laptop for the same reason.

· goldenfool (not verified) · 3 years ago

for those of us in NJ.. we aren't even allowed to pump our own gas.

· · 3 years ago

@Laurent,
While I wholeheartedly agree that retractable cords are more convenient, I'll point out that very few electrical appliances have them either. This would give future EV developers something to add to differentiate there products.
The Leaf's fully detachable cord is "good enough" but there is room to improve with many things on the Leaf.

· · 3 years ago

I wish the Leaf's designers had been as forward-thinking as Tesla's Model S designers are. Examples:

- As you approach the car holding the charging plug, the car senses the plug and the door automatically opens.

- As you fasten the driver's seat belt, the car automatically turns on.

Now that's smart! Wish the Leaf designers had also copied Tesla's transmission user interface instead of the silly gearshift, regen, etc. Regardless, driving the Leaf is a kick, and it's here now.

· Brian (not verified) · 3 years ago

I have been wondering this myself. I understand that for many, upgrading to 240V at home is a no-brainer. Unfortunately, for many (myself included), the leaf is already a pricey car. Furthermore, there are many places that one visits regularly that would have access to a 120V outlet. For example, when I purchase a Leaf, my employer has agreed to let me plug in during the day at work. Even with the home charger, I would have to do this dance every day. Overall, I agree with ex-EV1 driver: the plug is "good enough" (hey, it works, doesn't it?), but there is room for improvement/product differentiation in the future.

· · 3 years ago

I think it is very hard for most automakers to think outside the box, especially now. The cultures don't support it. They are certainly no Apple. You have to have a strong leader. Ford is one of the better ones, but still fairly weak. The big three were quite innovative during the '50's and '60's, and it was the people at the top who fostered that.

· x8notes (not verified) · 3 years ago

Great article. Thanks for sharing!

· · 3 years ago

I have to agree with Laurent. I've owned my LEAF since March, the car is fantastic, but the daily charging of at least 2 times a day is a hassle. The whole process could have been way easier and Nissan really messed up this feature. The Volt does it right here. Having to open the charger hatch on the LEAF is like opening the hood on a car - difficult to reach. If Nissian fixes nothing else, this should be corrected....at least open it via the remote or similar.

· · 3 years ago

A retractable 120 V cord would be nice in plenty of situations. Reminds me of all the cars in Alaska that have 120 V plugs hanging out of their front ends for engine block heaters.

· · 3 years ago

I forgot about the 120V, we have 230V in Europe and everyone I know has at least one 32A socket at home, so my thoughts make more sense here. But I'm surprised when I see people with home chargers where the cord is on the wall. On every other electrical appliance, the cord is on the appliance, I don't see why a car should be different.

@abasile
Thanks for that info, I didn't know that. So I guess houses have sockets on the outside, that's good for EVs.

· Andreas (not verified) · 3 years ago

@Laurent
cars in Norge and Sweden do have engine block heaters, too
Unfortunately your vacuum cleaner has only about 1500W thats 6.5 Amps @ 230V. This is a 10hrs plus charge for most batteries. To get a faster charge the cables need to be thicker -> larger drums for the automatic cord rewinder. If you look behind the trim parts, there's not much space for large parts. This could be one reason for not seeing an automatic cord rewinder pretty soon. Epecially in Plug-Ins. EVs may have some space left in the engine compartment.

· Priusmaniac (not verified) · 3 years ago

I also don’t understand why they didn’t put an automatic cord rewinder. It is so simple, straight forward and even available off the shelf.

· · 3 years ago

While a retractable cord in an EV is a clever idea, the wall plug really isn't designed to be used on a daily basis whereas the J-plug is. Plugs and sockets can wear out. Perhaps the plugs and sockets in Europe can handle thousands of insertion cycles but the standard 120V plugs in North America really can't.

A wall unit with a retractable cord would be a nice touch though.

· PFCBubba (not verified) · 3 years ago

I think it would make sense to put a charging port on the back as well. That way, one could just charge from the rear, and that would also allow someone to plug in a small generator trailer for longer trips exceeding the limit of the battery. Kind of an aftermarket do it yourself chevy volt kit for your leaf. Range problem solved.

The generator could run by all different kinds of fuel, natural gas, gas, diesel, propane, hydrogen fuel cell. That way, as technology in other energy fields develops, you don't need a new car, just another small and less expensive trailer. Say, in the sub $5,000 range. Or you could even rent them from u-haul for the few times you need them for trips.

· · 3 years ago

@dgp: I know what you mean about 120 V plugs and sockets wearing out, but that hasn't stopped folks with engine block heaters from using them daily during winter. The current draw in L1 charging shouldn't be that much higher than an engine block heater. Obviously, L2 via J1772 or QC via CHAdeMO is preferred, though. But L1 does make sense if it's all that's available and you're going to be somewhere for a while. Many LEAF owners do daily L1 charging at work, for instance, at minimal cost to their employers. A built in, retractable 120 V charge cord would be handy for this.

· Anonymous (not verified) · 3 years ago

I can think of a few reasons that go against this "retractable" cord.

(1) Most home appliances are not susceptible to big temperature fluctuations, or weather condition like rain, snow, wind, salt, acid (rain), etc.
Now consider having a cord and its mechanism built in. Then you need QA on the plastic cord, retractable mechanism and the plug itself to handle such situation.

(2) If changes are needed - thicker cord, for example, think of the space (engine compartment) that need to redo the entire mechanism. That is much "bigger" than just the female plugs right now (eg. try fitting the backpack in the current front space where you plug it in).

(3) No standard in the plug-in mechanism. That's ever changing. Unlike the plugs for household appliances, which have been there, like, hundreds of years, current EV charging format can change quickly. Right now, car manufacturers only need to change the interface. If the cord mechanism is provided, a whole lot of testing and what not, which means cost and MSRP increase. More liability too.

· Anonymous (not verified) · 3 years ago

(4) In case of damage (say, the cord broke), you can't charge your vehicle at all (just like any appliances), unless you've it repaired. OTOH, if you have what it is now, all you need to do is to go buy another cord. That maybe much cheaper than fixing, as in most other things electrical. If not now, then it probably will be (cheaper).

· Lad (not verified) · 3 years ago

I have one charger, the Nissan Brick. It's modified to accept 240 or 120; I keep it plugged in my garage and use it for charging and never put it in the car; The trick is to not run out of juice by planning your route before you drive and allowing time to do so. In my mind, you are quite dumb to run out of juice, ever. I see the Nissan Brick as insurance against ignorance. A little hint: If you drive in the hills, mountains, plan for no more than 70 miles range; in the flat land plan for no more than 90 miles.

· EvDriver (not verified) · 3 years ago

I have a blender with a retractable cord, the cord currently only goes in half way, also electrical wire gets warm from the line loss and while a $100 retractable cord in your garage that gets used for ten minutes twice a year might be fine for powering a few weekend projects, plugging in your car for 12 hours, drawing 12 amps is going to crate a bit of heat build up in that cord reel that is packed in to the car, requiring larger wire to be used and thicker heavier insulation to be used.
I've only seen one electric car with a retractable cord added on to it, but the 5 amp charger wasn't much of a load for it, if I ever add this feature on to my electric car I'll be sure to go with a heavy duty cord reel, even tho they cost $500 to $600 new.

· Brian (not verified) · 3 years ago

@Lad
"The trick is to not run out of juice by planning your route before you drive and allowing time to do so. In my mind, you are quite dumb to run out of juice, ever."
I would argue it's quite dumb to leave your cable behind. As John Lennon said, "Life is what happens to you while you're busy making other plans"

· DarkStar (not verified) · 3 years ago

"How about an automatic cord rewinder system? Why not?"

Unfortunately, it's because of the SAE and NEC (and a few other groups). In the name of "safety" a lot of new things needed to be developed (and patented) and unfortunately a retractable cord wasn't part of the solution (with "safety" stated as the problem).

· · 3 years ago

Yes, the heat can be a very big problem in the unreeled cord.

Additional engineering issues are cycle life and cost. 10,000 cycles under harsh conditions is one connector requirement. Do you think that is practical with a cord reel? I bet your vacuum cleaner does fewer than a few hundred cycles before the reel fails.

And the cost...

· · 3 years ago

@jamcl3,
You're right about the heat issue. If a cord is on a real, unless it is fully extended, it will have to be a much heavier gauge wire than necessary in order to ensure it doesn't overheat. I've heard stories of cables melting while charging EVs because the cables were left tightly coiled.

· · 3 years ago

"I've heard stories of cables melting while charging EVs because the cables were left tightly coiled."

Now, that's an interesting observation. Thanks for mentioning it.

· · 3 years ago

That is a good point about not wanting to leave cables tightly coiled while charging, something I personally make an effort to avoid. My sense is that a retractable 120 V charging cord should be relatively short and should be fully extended whenever it's used. Admittedly, this is a bit less of an issue with engine block heater cords since they are only used in frigid temperatures.

· · 3 years ago

Any retracting mechanism would probably have to have an interlock to prevent its use unless the wire is completely extended.

· EvDriver (not verified) · 3 years ago

The problem comes up then, how long do you make the cord? if it's to long then you have a mess of cord to trip over, if it's to short then you have to get out an extension cord and risk having that union of the two cords laying in a mud puddle or on a wet floor, I own a short cord and a long cord and I take out the correct cord for my charging needs and use the velcro strap that keeps the cord coiled up to take up any slack so it's not a tripping hazard, even power tools are moving away from having cords on tools and instead having a plug that you plug an extension cord in to.
The $600 industrial cord reels that I use at work are not rated to be in an enclosure, they require free air flow around them even with 12 gauge wire and enough insulation that it's a 5/8" (16mm) round cable.

· · 3 years ago

Perhaps a length of nine feet or so, with an interlock, would be a good compromise. But I agree that there is no perfect solution.

Charging from standard 120 V (and ideally 240 V as well) outlets is going to be a part of life for many EVs for a long time, especially until long-range battery packs become affordable and mostly eliminate the need to charge at work or daytrip destinations. The reality is that J1772 will never be as ubiquitous or cheap to install as standard outlets.

Personally, I am not terribly bothered by the inconvenience of pulling my Nissan EVSE (modified for 240 V, by the way) out of the trunk from time to time. But I also think EV manufacturers would do well to look for ways to improve the convenience of charging from standard outlets.

· Steve S. (not verified) · 3 years ago

Some great ideas here. I own a LEAF, and I too have thought there has to be a better way to plug in your EVSE unit. I carry hand sanitizer in the car for use when plugging in at L2 public chargers where the cords have been on the ground sloshing around in the rain water and mud. I've wondered why the cords can't be spring loaded and originate overhead, like a standard gas pump. Plus whenever I see photos of the charging cord lying on the ground, I question how long it will be before someone trips over the thing and files a lawsuit. We have an Eaton L3 high speed charger here in Chattanooga, and it's cord is the size of a baby elephant's trunk. Very cumbersome to use!

· · 3 years ago

Pretty good. Thanks for the tip.

· Priusmaniac (not verified) · 3 years ago

There is not much tech involved in making a cord that can stand a higher temperature or even provide a small cooling fan to make sure it doesn’t overheat.

· · 3 years ago

I hadn't thought of the heat issue. It's not a problem with the vacuum, but I understand it might be with a car charging long hours, yet there has to be a way to solve that. With the vacuum, I always extend the whole cord, it could be the same with a car.

Cord's length should be the same as the cord from the backpack.

· EvDriver (not verified) · 3 years ago

Priusmaniac Said:
"There is not much tech involved in making a cord that can stand a higher temperature"

True to a point and there are cord reels out there that are designed for heavy use like this, but they are bulky and add a bit to the cost, Nissan is charging around $900 for their extension cord based charging cord, add a reel in to the mix and you could see it costing $1,500 for a part of the car that is going to see a lot of abuse, dirt, dust, moisture and salt, I wouldn't want to pay for a replacement, I'd rather have a charging option like my electric car currently has where you plug an extension cord in to the socket on the side of the car and plug the other end of that cord in to an outlet, electrical code requires that all of my out door outlets be ground fault protected so dropping it in a puddle is not an issue, the only issue is that it doesn't hold up to being plugged in 10,000 times.

· Anonymous (not verified) · 3 years ago

Automation of charging/sharing chargers is key. It makes no sense to leave a car plugged in at the airport for 2 days when I only need 4 hours of charge, thats a waste.

The Leaf/all these cars need a means to be automatically connected too by a Roomba-like device that can patrol the streets or parking lots, plugging cars in a few hours at a time for a "hit" of juice.

Putting a plug UNDER the car, so it could be driven over a Roomba plugger would be perfect. The current nose location on my Leaf is a pain, very manual process. Its requires
a lever tug as if I am opening the hood every time - it should at least pop open automatically when the charger or keyfob is near.

Don't get me started on the disturbing lack of vision regarding Berkeley and street-accessible charging...

· · 3 years ago

@anonymous,
It would be a whole lot cheaper for the airports to install a whole bunch of standard 120volt outlets instead of expensive automated pluggers/unpluggers. I'm sure for about $5000 they could install over a dozen 120 volt outlets. I'm sure that automated plugger/unplugger would cost way more than that for just one. Eventually, the kind of system you suggest may prevail.
Even the Tesla Roadster can fully charge in less than 2 days at 120 volts/15 amps.
Let's not solve easy problems with hard solutions.
I agree that the Leaf's door isn't ideal but it does work. They clearly didn't want to have to redesign much from the base Versa that has the same lever to open the gas door.

· · 3 years ago

Ex- Not only is it a whole lot cheaper, but in reality probably just as good as level 2 charging would be there for about 90% of the uses. The exception would be for airport workers and the few same-day round trips. In most cars that don't have huge batteries like Tesla, even the same day round trips would probably be fine unless the battery was really drained when they plugged in.
I'd love to charge 110 at Newark Liberty where there is currently no public charging.

· Anonymous (not verified) · 2 years ago

i think Designer Key FOB Covers have those chargers for electric cars. but is it really safe? but anyway this one helps to make things getting better. thanks a lot.

· matth (not verified) · 2 years ago

@Anonymous

Street charging is an issue that I've rarely seen come up and is of some concern to me as well. The Leaf at least is agnostic as to which side its power comes from. The Volt puts the charge port on the left side, away from the sidewalk in the US. Street side charging would be quite difficult for a Volt owner.

I'm a Berkeley resident--what's the issue on street side charging there? I know Berkeley makes it hard to create new off-street parking at residences!

· Anonymous (not verified) · 2 years ago

I came across a charging station website that offers a retractable reel product...This company seems to have a high focus on user convenience with a sleek design. It appears they have extra safety features to ensure the cable doesn't over-heat. Check it out: www.evocharge.com

"Charging Cable on a Retractable Reel - The charging cable rewinds when not in use, keeping the cable off the floor – no more tangled cords or unsightly messes. Using a design that has proven durability in a wide range of industries, EVoCharge’s patent-pending EVoReeL products use heavy-duty retractable electric cord reels engineered specifically for electric vehicle charging."

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