Chargeway Joins the Rush to Idiot-Proof Electric Vehicles
(Bloomberg) -- Gas stations are conspicuous and when one pulls up in a traditional car, the nozzle is sure to fit and pump fuel at a predictable, fixed speed. The biggest mystery at most of these joints is the quality of the coffee and the variety in the Doritos assortment.
An electric vehicle charging station, by comparison, is a physics test. There’s the power capacity of the charger itself, the battery capabilities of the car, a confusing scramble of prices and fees and, finally, an array of different plugs, which may or may not fit your silent whip.
Not surprisingly, a cottage industry of software makers has sprung up to map stations and break down charging speeds and prices. Chargeway is trying to address all those variables, for every charger, at the same time. The three-year-old startup has created a simple subway map-like labeling system that’s baked into a mapping app, plastered across 1,000 different charging stations and layered onto interactive screens -- dubbed “Beacons” — at car dealerships around the country. Different colors correspond to a type of plug, and numbers are linked to the speed of a charger. Drive a Chevrolet Bolt? Then look for a green 5 and head to that. If your ride is a Tesla, look for a red 6.
Hyperdrive checked in with Matt Teske, Chargeway founder and CEO, to discuss why he thinks his platform is slowly knocking down one of the biggest hurdles to EV adoption in the U.S. (The interview has been edited.)
How did you identify the opportunity and the challenge?
The first electric car my wife and I bought was in 2013. We were going on a trip out of town to a resort for our anniversary and we drove out there. The maintenance guy walked us out to a wooden shed and proceeded to flip open a regular old electrical outlet and said, ‘There you go.’ Thankfully, we had a hybrid. I’d been working in the automotive sector for most of my career. At dinner that night, my wife said: ‘You’re a car guy. If you couldn’t figure this out, how is the rest of the world going to do it.’
So it’s basically about confusion?
Consumers fundamentally understand cars, they really do. So it’s not like we’re trying to get people to understand electric cars, we’re really trying to get them to understand electricity as fuel. That’s the psychological hangup with trusting an electric car. If you get into one and make assumptions, like you do with gasoline, you will get into trouble.
How did you approach the market, what was your sales strategy?
The question was, ‘how do we help car makers and dealers sell a product they don’t make?’ People don’t understand kilowatts and kilowatt-hours. It boils down to which stations are made for their particular car; how much power their car can take in; and how much power each station is putting out, which will dictate how long they have to wait. We basically translated it down to something you could hand to anybody on the street.
Why haven’t the car companies done a better job of explaining it?
Mainly, because they don’t make the product. For the last century there’s been another stakeholder that solved the fuel question.
How about charging networks?
They’re all selling the exact same product, but they are really working to differentiate themselves to gain market share.
Is part of the problem an assumption that car buyers are geeking out on EVs and will do their homework?
I would agree with that. And the networks aren’t big enough; they don’t carry enough weight to change those conversations. A lot of the partners we work with are utilities. They have a need to let the world know, ‘We’re a fuel provider now,’ and they’ve never had to market themselves to anyone. Now they’re going up against big brands that do a very good job of positioning and consumers are very aware of those brands.
How much has confusion about the intricacies of charging hamstrung the electric vehicle market?
In the focus groups we’ve held — aside from Tesla — about 2 or 3% of people say they would still be motivated enough to dig in and try to figure it out. The vast majority of people stand back and say, ‘I don’t want to have to go to class to drive a car.’ It truly is, in our viewpoint, the psychological barrier that has kept the industry from growing.
There are a lot of tech platforms focused on this, why build another one?
We recognize there are other applications people have used. We customized ours. Instead of showing everybody everything, we immediately ask, ‘what car are you driving?’ Then it automatically will filter to only show the stations that are compatible with your vehicle and then show you the plug type by color or the power level at those stations.
What does the pandemic mean for the EV market?
Across the board, there was obviously a drop in low-end sales. I think in the long term there’s a huge benefit to say, ‘You don’t have to touch anything to fill up.’ It gives you a little more control over what you’re engaging with. People are willing to give up control for convenience. In the case of gasoline, for a long time, they’ve found it convenient. We’re trying to create a way for people to visualize what their everyday experience with an electric car would be and show them that they truly have control and it’s convenient and the price is also better.
Do you get the sense there’s momentum?
We’re certainly seeing that response from the partners we’re with that have really activated. One of the best data points we have is there are four Chevrolet dealerships in the Portland, Ore. metro area. We did a study on what their sell-through rate was for electric vehicles and then we deployed a Chargeway Beacon at one of those dealers and did the same study. Over the entire year of 2019, the one dealer was able to move between two and four times as many vehicles per week as the other 3 dealerships. From our perspective, both qualitative and quantitatively, it lowered the bar.
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