Making Sense of Electric Car Apps
For most of the 20th century, the automobile represented a means to get away from it all—to disconnect from your daily worries and hit the open road. But in today’s hyper-connected world, the car has become another networked mobile device, delivering robust streams of communication and infotainment. The new networked car is perhaps best symbolized by the pure electric vehicle, which requires regular replenishments of grid-supplied energy. In fact, software developers are connecting car, driver, electric utility and charging station providers by creating mobile apps specifically designed to map locations of EV charging stations.
Using Multiple Apps to Find EV Stations
But like the pre-Google Internet—in which web queries were conducted using any number of different fledgling search engines—electric car drivers use multiple tools to find the closest place to plug in. “The problem isn't the apps. It's that you have to use multiple apps,” said Felix Kramer, a Berkeley-based advocate of plug-in electric vehicles, and an owner of both a Nissan Leaf and Chevy Volt. “Like so many other things these days, there's no coordination, so you need to cover your bases.”
The leading EV charging station apps and websites are Recargo, PlugShare, and Carstations.com. But in addition, the operators of charging networks, such as Coulomb Technologies and Ecotality, also provide apps to locate EV charging stations. And the electric car producers such as Nissan, Ford and General Motors, even serve charging station locations directly in the navigation systems of their vehicles.
“While I tell my customers about these apps, particularly Recargo and Plugshare, I rarely use them myself,” said Paul Scott, the Leaf sales associate at Nissan Santa Monica. “The database in my Leaf tends to have a lot of locations already. On the rare occasions when I do need to use Recargo, it does help.”
Apps Powered by Crowdsourcing
Recargo collaborates with all the major EV networks to ensure that it has the most up-to-date listings. Registered users can also individually submit new stations, add photos, leave comments, and register check-ins. The mobile app also features a news feed about the latest developments in the electric car world. Recargo apps, like most of its competitors, are available for iPhone and Android.
Carstations also uses a crowd-sourced strategy so that EV drivers can add and update charging locations. “Recargo and CarStations are the first places I go,” said Earl Cox, a Tesla Roadster driver. “Both have their pros and cons.” Cox finds Recargo easiest to use, but doesn’t like the way it filters for different types of chargers.
PlugShare takes crowdsourcing to a higher level. In addition to open public stations (and working ones), individual private EV drivers who have a home charger can make it available for free. When you’re headed to a place that doesn’t have a public charging station nearby, fire up PlugShare to see if an individual nearby is willing to share access to electricity. Send an anonymous note to get started. Final arrangements are made directly between EV drivers.
Howard Clearfield, a Leaf owner, uses Recargo and PlugShare. He uses both of them when planning trips beyond his regular routes, but during his routine trips, he mostly relies on the app provided by Coulomb Technologies’ ChargePoint Network, because “it’s the network with the most stations in the San Francisco Bay Area.”
“At this point, one needs to have all the available apps one can have,” said Marc Geller, who owns both a Toyota RAV4 EV and a Nissan Leaf. “Otherwise, you might miss a charge station that hasn’t been listed on one app or the other.”