Electric cars and charging stations are starting to mature

John McCormick
The Detroit News
Tackling the 7,000-foot climb up to Lake Tahoe from Sacramento does not phase Audi's new 2019 e-tron electric vehicle, which arrives with range to spare.

In the world of electric vehicles, the issues of battery charging technology and infrastructure have always loomed large. Now, as more high profile EV cars are launched by established automakers - the most recent being Audi’s 2019 e-tron - the charging questions are being answered.

On the heels of a trip to Electrify America’s Washington D.C. laboratory to see the latest in charging technology and network plans, I test drove the Audi e-tron on a challenging route that included a 7,000-foot climb to Lake Tahoe. Both experiences revealed plenty about the realities of a state-of-the-art EV and the charging business.

A previous drive of the e-tron in Abu Dhabi last year demonstrated a thoroughly competent SUV-style EV and this trip on U.S. soil, from Napa Valley to Sacramento and on to Lake Tahoe, confirmed my initial positive impressions.

Sized a little larger than Audi’s popular Q5 SUV, the five-passenger e-tron drives and functions much like its gas-engine peers, only it’s quieter, more refined and free of emissions. The e-tron is priced from $74,800 ($67,300 after the tax credit), which is a bit more than the Jaguar I-Pace and less than the Tesla Model X. But versus those rivals,  the e-tron offers more capability, in terms of a 4,000-pound tow rating and standard roof rails.

Though my drive to Lake Tahoe did not include any towing, the long climb did tax the battery, eating into the range available much faster than traveling on level ground. That said, I arrived at my destination after 122 miles with about 30 miles range remaining. At 5,600 pounds, the e-tron is heavy, even for an SUV, but its performance from the combined front and rear electric motors (405 hp total output) is impressive. Handling is steady and secure, aided by the sophisticated quattro all-wheel drive system.

Summing up the e-tron’s appeal, Matthew Mostafaei, product manager, says it’s “the right size, in the right segment, with the right technology and the right ecosystem.” It’s hard to argue with the first two of Mostafaei’s claims, as the mid-size, premium crossover segment is a favorite among American consumers. But the technology and ecosystem aspects are more debatable.

Audi raised some eyebrows in the EV community with its recent announcement of a 204-mile range for the e-tron, because the figure is significantly lower than its main rivals from Tesla and Jaguar. However, it should be noted that Audi is notoriously conservative with its performance claims and, more importantly, there is much more to the business of EV battery usage than just range. This becomes clear as you learn that a battery operates very differently than a gas tank in terms of the ways it ‘fills’ with energy and manages that energy.

EV batteries are not only heavy – one of the Achilles’ heels of the vehicle type – but also complex in their construction and control systems and very expensive. There are also significant differences in battery designs and management strategies between the rival auto companies. The Audi comes with a 95 kWh battery and an impressive 150 kW charging capability. While range is one factor, the e-tron distinguishes itself from the competition by being faster and more efficient in its charging capability.

A charger developed by Electrify America, the VW-owned U.S. charging network, is demonstrated by the company's chief engineer, Seth Cutler.

Comparisons between charging profiles of the various EVs on the market reveal that the e-tron maintains a high rate of charge until the battery is nearing capacity, whereas its rivals’ charge rates fall off markedly after reaching around 50 percent capacity. This means e-tron owners will have the flexibility to charge at a higher rate throughout large portions of the charge cycle. Audi anticipates that at least 80 percent of owners will charge their vehicles overnight at home and that most journeys or commutes are 50 miles or less. Given those criteria and the fact that the e-tron can add 54 miles of charge in 10 minutes at a 150 kW station (or go from zero to 80 percent charge in 30 minutes), the much-discussed EV ‘range anxiety’ issue should become less of a concern for this Audi.

All of which brings us to the question of charging infrastructure. Pulling up in an e-tron to an Electrify America 150 kW station in Sacramento in a real world charging demonstration, the experience confirmed Audi’s claims for ease of use and time spent. The charging device is similar in appearance and function to a gas station pump, except that when you plug in the cable, the car and charger communicate electronically, monitoring the process and giving the user information on a screen, including the cost. In my case, the charging process took about 20 minutes and cost $8.35.

The Sacramento station is one of some 500 similar facilities already established nationwide by Electrify America, a subsidiary of VW Group of America which was set up with $2 billion funding as part of VW’s settlement with the government over the diesel emissions scandal.

So far the Electrify America stations, which can be used by any EV from any automaker (Tesla owners have to use a special adaptor), are located in 17 metropolitan areas and along high-traffic corridors in 42 states. By the end of this year, the company plans to have more than 2,000 DC fast chargers in place, with more to come over the next eight years.

Giovanni Palazzo, Electrify America CEO, says the company has moved very quickly to develop the charging equipment, build stations, and create charging membership and pricing plans, plus a mobile app to help users locate and pay for charge sessions.

“EV adoption is moving ahead fast,” says Palazzo. “In Europe the Tesla Model 3 is outselling the BMW 3 Series. And our growing network in the U.S. is more extensive and sophisticated than that in Europe or China, with 350 kW chargers as part of the plan.”

So far the only EV with the capability to use 350 kW chargers is the forthcoming Porsche Taycan. “The Taycan is important,” notes Palazzo, “because it can charge at the rate of 20 miles per minute, or about six minutes for a full charge.”

Audi is one of the brands that has partnered with Electrify America to offer e-tron buyers subscriptions, but Palazzo says “we want as many OEMs as possible to sign up in order to make the whole business plan work.”

So far, EV sales in the U.S. are a tiny fraction of the overall market, but it’s clear that vehicles such as the Audi e-tron, and the charging technology, as evident from Electrify America’s network, are maturing quickly. Now it’s a matter of persuading more consumers to take the plunge and become comfortable with a brave new world of transportation.

John McCormick is a columnist for The Detroit News and can be reached at jmccor@aol.com