Stranded in Minnesota: Who's to Blame?
On Friday evening, my co-founder David Tse shared two articles with me:
The first was from The New York Times, written by David Gelles, who had the unfortunate experience of having to call a tow truck because he wasn't able to find adequate charging on his 308-mile road trip from Minneapolis out to a farm by the South Dakota border. After trying to charge his car with a Level 2 charger and overnight at the farm plugged into a wall outlet, he ends up asking Hertz for a tow that cost $700 (but was refunded after a chat with Hertz PR).
The other was a response by Electrek's David Ruddock, who blames Mr. Gelles for his own ignorance and doing no research before embarking on his road trip. All it takes, he claims, is 5 minutes of planning.
The interaction made me think of one of my favorite road trip podcasts, The Alarmist, hosted by the very funny Rebecca Delgado Smith (her segways between topics are... inspiring). On the podcast, the host and her guests scrutinize history’s greatest disasters to figure out what went wrong, and, most importantly...
Who's to Blame?
Was it The Driver?
In the opinion of Mr. Ruddock at Electrek, the blame lies squarely on Mr. Gelles. He says it's not the fault of Hertz that they didn't warn Mr. Gelles about the lack of charging infrastructure or that he had supposedly rented a slow-charging car. In reality, the car that Mr. Gelles rented, the Volvo C40 Recharge, can charge up to speeds of 149 kW DC, but... how can we expect the average person to know that?
Similarly, based on the existing rental experience, it seems reasonable to assume that the range you see in the car when you pick it up is its range when the electric "tank" is full. If a rental car had a 200-mile range on pick up, should a user really be expected to look up the car's EPA range?
The article by Mr. Gelles and response by Mr. Ruddock reminded me of another article by The New York Times that was published 10 years ago about another experience with being stranded in an EV, but in a Tesla. Elon Musk accused the Times of writing a smear piece and shared logs from the car to back up his claims, to which the Times published a rebuttal.
Mr. Gelles admits that, knowing he was "driving deep into farm country", he should have done some research on whether or not the trip was feasible in an EV. Knowing the state of EV charging in the US... yeah, he probably should have.
However, I don't believe Mr. Gelles, who has rented Teslas for his past trips, is guilty of anything other than behaving like a typical car renter. How would he know that the charger Volvo directed him to is only 6 kW and what that meant for his charging speed? How would any user be expected to know that "fast chargers" can range anywhere from 50 kW to 350+ kW? Or that plugging into a wall outlet won't do all that much if you're driving long distances?
Expecting new EV drivers to spend a lot of time and effort researching their car and potential charging stops, especially since they won't know what car they're getting until they get to the rental desk, is ultimately not a good user experience.
Was it Hertz?
Mr. Gelles rented a Tesla and was handed a Volvo C40 Recharge. I have nothing against Volvos (I had a lot of fun test driving them at the Electrify Expo in New York!), but Tesla's charging network is 10 years ahead of everyone else's.
Why not put some effort into making sure that their customers have a great experience with their EV rental, Tesla or otherwise? Maybe Hertz could share our article 5 Things I Wish I Knew Before Renting My First EV, or they could share something about:
There are some basics that the driver should know about the car:
How to put the car in drive and reverse (yes, really)
Its max range and things that can impact it
Where the charging port is (it's not going to help with awkwardly parking in tight charging spots, but at least the driver won't have to guess if it's front/back left/right).
Its max charging speed (and the difference between charging up to 80% and 80%-100%)
Its compatible plugs
How to disengage the plug when the car is finished charging
Accessories the car comes with: adapters and cords
Returning it "full": when I recently attempted to rent an EV from Thrifty in Miami, I was told to return the car "full". I had to ask what "full" meant, which turns out was the charge the car has on pick up or 5% less.
There are also features unique to the EV that make the experience even more interesting:
Single pedal driving (or how to turn it off if you hate it)
The ability to "creep", if you like
Pre-conditioning the battery for a fast charge
Apart from plug types, new EV renters need to know about:
Charging speeds: what a wall outlet, a Level 2 charger, and Level 3 charging mean
Approximate charging times between these, and how much "Level 3" charging can vary
How to pay: unfortunately, users will likely need to install a few new apps to pay for their charge
During my recent attempt to rent an EV in Miami, I asked the agent where I could charge the car. The response was that there were chargers at all the malls, but to double check Google first in case there isn't. Hardly sounds like a recipe for success.
Why not recommend Chargely? 😉 We've built our app around the road trip experience and do all the work for the user to find a great charge, even if you've new to EVs. My co-founders David and Nick used it to successfully navigate from Maine to Miami and back recently — without any pre-planning!
Was it Volvo?
Interestingly, neither Mr. Gelles or Mr. Ruddock seemed to point the finger at Volvo, even though it was the in-car software that directed Mr. Gelles to a 6 kW Blink charging station. While there aren't details of how the software was used (was the car aware of the planned route?), Volvo's recommendation fell short here.
It's not unreasonable for someone who has driven a Tesla and used it to find a supercharger in the past to assume that their non-Tesla EV would do the same. Unfortunately, the variability of chargers outside the Tesla Supercharger network means that most EV drivers have to learn about the nuances of charging the hard way: by making mistakes.
Until in-car software recommendations improve, users are going to have to rely on solutions like Chargely to fill the gap. We're designing our product with the user experience in mind above all else.
Was it the Charging Networks?
Should there have been more options for Mr. Gelles to charge between the Minnesota airport and a farm on the South Dakota border?
Since the only thing I know about Mr. Gelles' destination is that it's by the South Dakota border on a route that's close to Clara City, let's take a look at what Chargely recommends for a route from the Minneapolis airport to Ortonville, a town right on the border of South Dakota:
There are a few options here, but not as many as I'd like if I were making the trip. Is it the fault of charging networks that there aren't more fast charging options in areas that are less dense?
Were I a guest on The Alarmist, capitalism (which often comes up as a possible candidate for the blame) would probably be added to the board of suspects here. With charging infrastructure, there's a chicken and egg problem: without a criticial mass of EVs, what's the incentive to invest in a fast charger? And without robust charging infrastructure, how can we expect people to comfortably make the leap to electric? I hope the $7.5 billion investment from the Inflation Reduction Act will help create the proverbial chicken (or egg).
Who gets sent to the Chargely Jail?
At the end of each episode of The Alarmist, after eliminating and consolidating suspects, the podcast team gives one guilty party the Big Slap (with an echoing sound effect) and sends another to the Alarmist Jail. This list isn't exhaustive of all the possible candidates for blame, but it seems like a reasonable place to stop.
It's not our mission to pass judgment. We're here to help EV drivers, especially the newbies, find a great charge on their road trips. However, we wouldn't be doing The Alarmist justice if we left you hanging.
Who is responsible for the EV rental user experience?
In my humble opinion, car companies like Volvo need to do a better job with how their on-board software helps drivers find chargers if they want to compete with, and eventually surpass, Tesla. Sending a driver to a 6.2 kW charger is a mistake unless they have hours to spare.
However, there is so much variability between EVs that rental agencies should do more than just hand over the keys for an EV rental. A little bit of education or onboarding could have helped Mr. Gelles avoid needing a tow.
And so... Volvo gets the Big Slap 😮 for sending Mr. Gelles to a Level 2 charger in the middle of his trip. I plan to rent a Volvo (and many others) to experience the in-car software first hand, but for now, it seems like there was a big miss on Volvo's part in helping the user find a charger fit for their needs.
Which leaves Hertz Minneapolis in the Chargely Jail for not doing more to help Mr. Gelles, especially since he had booked a Tesla and was given another EV. A word of advice from Hertz to look up chargers in advance (let's say, using Chargely) could have prevented this outcome.
We hope you enjoyed this episode of The Chargelist, inspired by The Alarmist!
I had fun writing this, though I still owe a long-overdue wrap up of David and Nick's return EV road trip from Miami to Maine, complete with a detour through The Smokies. Keep an eye out for that soon (I promise)!