ECOtality: Electric Car Charging Leader Admits to Falling Behind

By · September 20, 2011

ECOtality Blink

The two-part UL-certified Blink charger is a sleek solution, with a rectangular base station wall-mounted (a pedestal is also available) above a round dock for the J1772-compliant cable. It retails for $1,195 if you can’t get one free from the EV Project, and there will be installation on top of that. (ECOtality photo)

In 2009 and 2010, California-based ECOtality was awarded $115 million in two federal grants, with the aim of installing 14,000 of its Blink-branded EV chargers in 18 cities located in six states and Washington, D.C.

So far, only about 3,000 of the 14,000 chargers (plus 300 commercial units) have been installed, a less-than-scheduled number that ECOtality attributes to the unexpectedly slow rate of LEAF introductions (caused in part by the Japanese tsunami and hurricane).

"We expected to be further along with the residential EV Project installations," said Don Karner, president of ECOtality North America, in an interview with PluginCars.com. "But we're the tail on the dog, and the EV rollout is moving a little slower than had been anticipated. We have applied to the Department of Energy for a new completion date of the second quarter of 2012."

The Blink home unit has advanced features, including a mobile app for smartphones that notifies when charging is interrupted or complete, utility connections that can reduce output to meet demand response requests, and an interlock that prevents owners from driving off with the cable connected. It “de-energizes” if the cable is stretched.

But it’s also complicated—critics would say overly complicated and expensive. The MyNissanLeaf.com community site has many postings from users who say that their Blink went on the blink, in some cases stopping charging when it lost an Internet connection. According to an informal poll posted on the site, 21 percent of users have had Wi-Fi connection problems, 24 percent have had crashes affecting charging, nine percent have had crashes that didn’t affect charging, and 33 percent have had no problems at all. (Eleven percent are in the “other” category.)

Here’s a sampling from the site:

  • TLeaf says, “Running on Wi-Fi, I’m getting the occasional locked screen and loss of network problems.”
  • Sparky says. “I have both crashes affecting charging one time per week, and Wi-Fi problems two or three times per week.” But Sparky adds, “I am happy to be part of the EV Project and hope ECOtality manages to quickly squash these bugs and gathers useful data from these units.”
  • Mythic Seabass says, “It’s just network issues in general. Wired or wireless, it drops all connectivity. Power cycling will fix the issue about a third of the time.” Seabass complained about the screen light being “always on” and draining power.

Qualifying drivers of the Chevrolet Volt and Nissan LEAF are eligible for free residential chargers as part of the three-year Department of Energy EV Project. Approximately 8,300 EVs will be served as part of the program.

ECOtality Blink

ECOtality announced a series of high-profile partnerships with Fred Meyer, Best Buy, Cracker Barrel, BP and ARCO to install public chargers, both Level 2 and 480-volt DC fast charge. The company’s revenue jumped 60 percent in 2010, to $13.7 million.

Marc Geller is a San Francisco-based LEAF owner and one of the founders of Plug in America. He has a free EV Project-derived Blink charger, and says that the unit “didn’t work for a while—it went offline pretty quickly. There was a firmware update that didn’t take. A service ticket went out, and in total there was about a month it was out of commission.”

Geller believes that federal funds provided to ECOtality would have been spent more wisely on simpler, less expensive and more reliable equipment. Geller had his Nissan-supplied 110-volt charging cord updated for approximately $300 to also accept 220 volts (through EVSEupgrade.com), and says that’s adequate for most of his needs.

ECOtality says the EV Project is behind schedule.

Connecting to Wi-Fi, Or Not

ECOtality's Karner says that its plan to connect EV chargers to homeowners' Wi-Fi systems "ended up being far more complicated than we thought, and we have experienced some issues with communication between the chargers and our back office. There are a wide variety of different Wi-Fi systems, as you might imagine, and we have to adapt to whatever router and security system is in place. In some instances, we've abandoned Wi-Fi and gone to cellular. But only in very infrequent circumstances does it have any impact on the unit's ability to charge."

Some users, even those who’ve experienced some connectivity issues, say the positives about their Blink chargers far outweigh the teething problems. J.P. White, who maintains a blog on his experiences, got his LEAF SL in March and his Blink Level 2 Charger in April. “I’ve had two small charging issues, both of which self-resolved within 10 minutes. There are a few bugs with the Blink Charger firmware, but none have resulted in a charge failing or aborting. White enjoys monitoring electrical usage and related costs directly on the Blink screen.

ECOtality is also expected to install 20 480-volt DC fast chargers in the San Francisco Bay Area. The fast chargers, and the $700 compatible ports on the Nissan LEAF, were paid by the D.O.E.'s EV Project. ECOtality is at least several months away from installing the first fast charger, and has not yet identified any of the locations. That has left drivers with a three-year lease on the LEAF wondering if the fast charge port was worth the investment, even though they received the fast charge port courtesy of taxpayer dollars.

New to EVs? Start here

  1. Seven Things To Know About Buying a Plug-In Car
    A few simple tips before you visit the dealership.
  2. Incentives for Plug-in Hybrids and Electric Cars
    Take advantage of credits and rebates to reduce EV costs.
  3. Buying Your First Home EV Charger
    You'll want a home charger. Here's how to buy the right one.