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?

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.