Most people prefer to charge up their electric vehicles at home – but what happens if you’re on a longer trip, or you just forgot to get a charge the night before? This is where public car charging companies enter the picture. Before you start thinking of them as the obvious alternative to gas stations, though, there are a few things you should know.

The Problem Of Time

While recent breakthroughs in energy storage are likely to drastically reduce the time it takes to charge vehicle, the current state of the industry is that electric cars generally take hours to get a useful charge. Even Tesla’s Supercharger network takes half an hour to fill about 80% of their batteries, and those stations are only compatible with Tesla’s vehicles, not electric vehicles as a whole.

If you’re on a long road trip with kids in the back of your car, it’s not hard to see why spending two hours to fuel up every 200 miles or so is a bad plan. This only gets worse the further you go. In short, the problem of time means that electric vehicles are not ready for long distances, and public car charging companies are entirely aware of this.

Building A Useful Network

While charging companies aim to replace gas stations in the future, many of them are switching from large, well-branded fueling structures to individual charging stations placed in convenient locations.

For example, Tesla emphasizes its Destination Charging Partners, with stations placed at restaurants, resorts, shopping centers, hotels, and other places people are likely to visit. Instead of making a special trip to fuel up, you’re able to recharge your car while doing something else.

At the moment, most public car charging companies are focusing on cities, where it’s relatively easy to have a dense network of charging stations. For example, at the time we wrote this, major station owner Blink had 285 charging stations in the Seattle area and another 333 in the Portland area.

Meanwhile, Everett – a smaller city north of Seattle, best-known for a major Boeing airplane manufacturing plant – only had 20 charging stations. Everett’s roughly half an hour away from Seattle, but as soon as you step outside the major metropolitan areas, public charging stations almost entirely vanish.

This, of course, presents something of a Catch-22. If there are no charging stations, nobody wants to buy electric vehicles. On the other hand, if there are no electric vehicles, there’s no incentive to expand the charging network.

Furthermore, electric vehicles aren’t compatible with all chargers. Manufacturers may focus on custom fueling stations designed specifically for their own brand of vehicle, making charging significantly more difficult than refueling the standard gas tank.

As you can see, building a useful network of charging stations isn’t as simple as setting them up in as many places as possible. Everything from economics to plug compatibility affects the viability of a given network – and constantly upgrading charging stations is fiendishly expensive.

Who Are The Best Public Car Charging Companies?

Now that you know a little more about the complexities of the network, here are the best public car charging companies as they currently are, as well as how they’re working to expand in the future.

Blink

Founded in 2009 as Car Charging Group, Blink has rapidly expanded to become one of the nation’s major providers of electric vehicle charging stations. In 2013, the company acquired the Blink network and the assets of the EV Project, a plan supported by a mixture of funds from the United States Department of Energy and private investors.

This company owns the majority of its charging stations (rather than simply selling them to others), which allows them to maintain the hardware and update the software to provide a largely-uniform experience across the network.

One of the main drivers of Blink’s success is the use of the Blink Network, a cloud-based software system that helps to operate, maintain, and track all of the charging stations. This network also helps local businesses and property owners monitor the stations, process payments, and provide EV drivers with the information they need to find the charging stations.

Blink aggressively targets locations like airports, auto dealerships, hospitals, hotels, municipal locations, parks, retailers, schools, transportation hubs, and workplace areas for charging stations. In short, if there’s a place people will park their car for hours, Blink aims to support it.

As we mentioned earlier, their network currently focuses on major cities, but they plan to expand outward over time.

Volta

Volta Charging bills itself as the largest network of free charging stations in the country. It has the strongest presence in California (especially Los Angeles, San Francisco, and San Diego), as well as Chicago. Other networks are in the process of being constructed, but all told, the company currently has well under 400 locations throughout the United States.

Yes, we said free charging. Here’s how the business model works. Volta starts by talking with strip malls, local businesses, and other places that people actually visit. They offer to install and maintain the network, as well as pay for the electricity and almost everything else. Meanwhile, the stores in the area are encouraged to offer incentives to EV drivers and buy advertising space on the charging station’s screen.

Demographic targeting is a key part of Volta’s business model here. Instead of just showing advertisements, the company aims to show ads that are genuinely useful to EV drivers at the time they’re visiting the area. In other words, the kind of ads people actually want to look at.

Right now, Volta’s network is only intended for short-range travel, which is why its stations are limited to cities. The stations function at Level 2 charging and provide 30A to connected vehicles – in the practical sense, they give about 20 miles per hour of charging. That’s about right for a casual shopping excursion, but nowhere near enough for a long-distance trip.

Tesla

Tesla charging stations are great… but only for Tesla vehicles. That’s always been the sticking point for their network, but if you can access it, you’re certainly in luck. Like other public car charging companies, Tesla aims for convenience when possible, which means either fast charging or placing them in locations where cars can wait for a while. In fact, they recently announced a workplace charging program (although companies will bear many of the costs).

Aside from being limited to their own vehicles, one thing sets Tesla apart from other charging stations: the presence of the Superchargers. These high-speed devices can charge a Tesla to about 80% in half an hour, and to full in somewhat longer. Most of this is because batteries don’t charge with the same level of efficiency at all times – the fuller it is, the slower the charging goes.

The current network has over 10,000 charging stations (including some along major highways, making long-distance travel to certain locations viable), and Tesla is aggressively expanding them.

ChargePoint

ChargePoint is another large network, currently operating over 46,000 charging locations. Notably, most of these are commercial locations – less than 1000 of their stations are Express chargers, which are mostly located on the coasts to facilitate travel up and down them.

Unlike some other providers, ChargePoint also sells home charging systems, and heavily encourages brand loyalty with a variety of useful features. Notably, they allow people to schedule charges and get reminders if they forgot to plug their vehicle in. Given the amount of time needed to charge most electric vehicles to full, you don’t want to forget that.

Public charging stations have a variety of fees – ChargePoint allows them to set their own rates for charging and parking. It’s worth noting that some of these locations are free – following a business model similar to Volta’s – but that’s not always the case. ChargePoint also has a mandatory $10 fee the first time you use a paid station, which acts as a balance on your account, so you can quickly charge the next time they visit.

Convenience is important to ChargePoint, and they send out cards you can use on paid stations. They’re also open to suggestions for places to install chargers, and in many cases, customer feedback determines where new stations go. This neatly avoids the problem of having to predict where to install units.

What About Other Companies?

The four companies introduced here are among the best public car charging companies, but they’re certainly not going to be the last. It’s too early to say which of these companies will survive long-term, but all of them are trying to build brand loyalty and encourage people to charge exclusively on their network.

If you’re planning to buy an electric vehicle – or already own one – be sure to check which compatible networks are in your area. You may just find you have more options than you ever realized.

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