Image above courtesy of WSDOT/Flickr

Nissan and NRG eVgo have pioneered a multi-network consortium to make topping up the bestselling EV a considerable re-LEAF.

When Nissan last graced the Charged cover (March/April 2013 issue), the company was picking itself up and dusting itself off. Its LEAF had taken a shellacking in the press after the all-electric car sold less than 50 percent of the company’s goal of 20,000 for 2012. But Nissan’s response was all business. It chose to not release LEAF sales goals for 2013 and instead focused on making its new 2013 model LEAF an undeniable deal. The three new LEAF models for 2013 came in with a slightly increased range and significantly decreased prices.

However, the strategists at Nissan knew that improving the LEAF itself was only going to be part of the sale. To break through to more people than just the early-adopting true believers, Nissan wanted to alleviate potential customers’ concerns that fuel for the LEAF (electricity) was hard to find. In 2013, Nissan doubled its efforts to spread its CHAdeMO DC fast charging stations across North America and Europe. By April 2014, Nissan had exceeded its expectations by installing – according to the company’s own internal data – at least 610 of its DC fast chargers in the United States, with more on the way.

“We’re well ahead of our goal, and we’re going to keep adding chargers every day though our network of partnerships,” Brendan Jones, Nissan’s Director of EV Infrastructure and Strategy, told Charged. “We have a philosophy about charging at home, at work, and in the community,” he continued. “If our customers have the trifecta, great. But we always want them to have two of the three. We believe you have to build infrastructure in and around where our customers work, live, and travel in their daily lives. When you have heavy consumers of community infrastructure, and you put a fast charger there, people flock to it. The data strongly supports that.”

The LEAF ended 2013 with a total of 22,610 sold in the US, and strong momentum from its biggest sales month in December. However, even with Nissan playing a huge role in spreading the CHAdeMO fast-charging standard, it could never single-handedly solve the charging infrastructure problem. And many believe that without sufficient infrastructure, it’s unlikely that Nissan will reach the 150,000-LEAF annual capacity that it says its Tennessee assembly plant can scale to.

Last October, in an effort to move more EVs, Nissan launched the “No Charge to Charge” program in the greater Dallas-Ft Worth and Houston areas. The offer gave new LEAF buyers and lessees free access for one year to all of NRG eVgo’s local Level 2 and DC fast charging Freedom Stations, which amounted to 23 locations in the Dallas-Ft Worth megalopolis, 17 in greater Houston, and local airport Park ‘N’ Fly locations. The six-month program stretched from October 1 to March 31, 2014. According to Nissan, through February 2014, LEAF sales grew in the test markets much faster than the overall regional and national rate: up nearly 60 percent in Dallas-Ft Worth, and up about 150 percent in Houston. Such results were enough to convince Nissan to begin to rollout the program – with some important changes – nationwide.

No money, no problem

Beginning on July 1, 2014, Nissan’s No Charge to Charge program expands to 10 of the top Nissan LEAF markets in the US: San Francisco, Sacramento, San Diego, Seattle, Portland, Nashville, Phoenix, Dallas-Ft Worth, Houston, and Washington DC. Eligibility is retroactive to LEAF buyers and lessees beginning on April 1, 2014, and the free charging will continue for two years from the day the customer registers for the deal.

Some notable changes to the program are based on Nissan’s analysis of customer charging habits and the company’s work to unify the major charging networks with the new EZ-Charge card. Jones said, “The Texas pilot was designed to see whether our dealers were structurally adjusted to offer this to consumers, the dealer infrastructure was in place, the public infrastructure was in place, the accounts receivables and payables mechanism worked, and did it resonate? Thankfully, all those proved to be very positive. We could manage it.”

So far, the EZ-Charge card will work with public Level 2 and DC fast chargers from ChargePoint, Car Charging Group’s Blink Network, AeroVironment (AV), and NRG eVgo.

[Update: One of the Nissan's four charging partners, California-based ChargePoint, pulled out of the No Charge to Charge program after this story appeared in print. However, there have been some reports that the companies are regenerating the terms of the agreement and that ChargePoint may still participate in the program.]

“In Texas, NRG controlled the whole market,” Jones said. “It didn’t have the EZ-Charge card associated with it for interoperability.”

Also, while the pilot program was for one year of unlimited charging, the current No Charge to Charge offers two years of time-limited charging sessions. On a DC fast charger, customers will get up to 30 minutes of charging – enough to fill up a LEAF on average from 0 to 80 percent state of charge. With Level 2, customers will receive a free hour of charging, which will net them an additional range of 12-25 miles, according to Nissan’s own reports.

Nissan used customer habit data from the No Charge Texas pilot, as well as other LEAF-user info gathered for more than two years to determine the free charging time limits that would appease both customers and the charger owner/operators. “Most customers who arrive at a DC fast charger come in at 35-45 percent state of charge,” Jones said. “Their average time on the charger is about 17 minutes. So a 30-minute cap on DC fast chargers is more than enough for your average consumer. What it is dissuading to some degree is the extreme situation where somebody sits on the charger longer than 30 minutes, because they go beyond 80 percent and are trying to eke out that last 5 percent, which is where it might take a little bit longer. We don’t want that charger hogged up, and lines queuing.”

In the case of Level 2, No Charge to Charge covers public Level 2 stations – not workplace or private garage pay stations. “The average dwell time on an L2 charger in most places like grocery stores is right under an hour,” Jones said. “We timed it to the average use cases of most people across the country.”

For those LEAF users for whom the free Level 2 time is not free enough, the EZ-Charge card still will provide convenience, because it will have payment information stored and allow the user to pay for extra time at the standard rate for each individual charger.

Expanding interoperability

By July 2015, Nissan plans to extend No Charge to Charge to an additional 15 markets, for a total of 25 markets within a year of the program’s launch, which Jones said will represent 82 percent of the more than 50,000 LEAFs sold to date in the US. Nissan hasn’t revealed what the next 15 markets will be, but Jones did say that they may not necessarily be strictly the next 15 areas with the highest sales.

“Sales are a big criterion, but it is the level of chargers in the market,” Jones said. “You take care of customers. You want to make sure that when the LEAF sells, there are enough chargers to maintain customer satisfaction. We have a few holes in some of the markets, so we’re going to wait until we fill some of those holes with DC fast chargers. We have aggressive plans, and we’ll pull forward some of the launch dates.”

As it stands now, Jones said Nissan will announce some additional markets for the program late this summer, and more by the end of the year, with the program launching in certain new markets by January 2015.

In the meantime, Nissan and NRG eVgo, which manages the EZ-Charge card, will be working hard to not only secure the participation of charging station owner/operators, but also to sign up more charging networks on top of the four major networks on board as of now.

“A lot of those networks are reaching out to Nissan and eVgo,” Jones said. “There are 10 networks in the US. Who would believe you could have 10 different cards? That’s just ridiculous. Now Nissan customers will have one card, and that’s what we want. It’s a very neutral platform, but Nissan doesn’t want to be the one in the middle of the charging business. So we selected eVgo to manage that platform, while they also manage their individual network simultaneously. And everybody plays as an equal partner: Car Charging Group, AeroVironment, ChargePoint, etc.”

Not only does Nissan want to sign up every charging network for the EZ-Card program, but it also wants to expand the program nationwide after the initial 25 markets go online. “We’re not going to leave the other markets just hanging there,” Jones said. “We’re simultaneously laying the groundwork for these plans to get to those other markets, and we’ll announce plans on a future date for making this scalable country-wide.”

EZ for all

Regardless of anyone’s personal preference for electric automaker and/or charging provider, the success of the EZ-Charge card could spell success for the whole EV industry, because the EZ-Charge card will not be exclusive to Nissan. Any OEM could adopt it. Jones says the No Charge to Charge program’s potential for success hinges upon its interoperability between charging networks and EV OEMs.

“I think the charging partners coming together and realizing their customer satisfaction is huge,” Jones said. “It’s as important to them as it is to the OEM. My hat’s off to ChargePoint, AV, the Blink Network, and eVgo for coming together and forming those agreements. That’s just a win for customers – not only for Nissan customers, but the industry as a whole. The cards can be used for another OEM, as well, if they choose to use its interoperability. That’s great for the EV movement.”

In a way, the No Charge to Charge and EZ-Charge card initiatives also pursue the goal of a non-profit group trying to eradicate a disease. Their ultimate success would be to eliminate concern over charging availability and convenience from the EV buyer’s mind. Then, Jones said, the OEMs can concentrate more and more on the vehicles, rather than their fuel.

“Next-level success is simplicity for our consumers, that they understand infrastructure, and that our dealers have a much easier way to explain it,” Jones said. “One card gets you access to the DC fast chargers and the L2s in your area. All the miscommunication that has happened in the past goes away, and we can focus on what it’s really about – that when buying an EV, your fueling needs are taken care of. We need to get to a place where the fueling takes a back seat to the product. That’s true for Nissan and every other OEM. The product needs to lead the way. We’ll build the infrastructure behind the scenes and find a way to easily communicate it, and we’re heading towards that goal right now.”

Spending money to make money

Of course, no one should think that Nissan has embarked on some kind of altruistic crusade. Jones makes it clear that the point of No Charge to Charge is to drive sales. It worked during the pilot program in Texas, and the nationwide rollout of the program certainly means to keep the LEAF in its current position as the best-selling pure EV.

“We’re a sales company, absolutely,” Jones said. “We’re not going to say how big of a sales bump we expect out of this, but it needs to drive sales. We’re confident that it’s going to drive sales. I have a LEAF at home, and two neighbors have also bought one, because our car is present throughout the neighborhood, and they always see it. Think about if a customer goes home and says ‘This is the easiest thing to fuel. I’ve got this card; I’ve got a home charger; I’m done. I thought there was some complexity to this, but there’s not.’ That word of mouth will increase sales.”

The program also helped make sales easier for dealers during the pilot run in Texas. Dealers were able to explain the convenience of the program, show the customers where available chargers were during a test drive, and often demonstrate DC fast charging on the lot. “It really resonated that the customer saw that there was an infrastructure,” Jones said.

Although it’s not giving specific figures, there is certainly some cost to Nissan to implement No Charge to Charge. However, Jones said that Nissan is not actually paying the charging fees that would otherwise be incurred. In most public charging situations (like those on the ChargePoint network), the individual site hosts own the hardware and are responsible for setting the fees. In those cases, ChargePoint and NRG are signing up each site host for the program. The majority of Level 2 sites – according to Jones – are already free to use. “There’s very few instances where an actual profit from the charge station is what makes the site host happy,” Jones said. “There are some, but they’re isolated. Most of them are providing a service to a retail customer. So it benefits the site hosts to be in the program. All indications are that by the time the program launches, we’ll hit the high penetration rate we’re looking for on the amount of L2s available.”

If you live in one of No Charge to Charge’s initial rollout markets, expect to see or hear some advertising that heavily pushes the “free charging” and “network agnostic” angles. Nissan will geo-target its marketing efforts according to the facilities and demands of a particular region. Although common themes should involve the number of chargers available, the convenience of interoperability, and of course, that it’s free!

“We’re excited about it,” Jones said. “We think it’s a step in the right direction.”

This article originally appeared in Charged Issue 13 – APR 2014

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