I recently had the opportunity to talk at length with FLO Chief Product Officer Nathan Yang about EV charging station design, evolution, and reliability. We also talked about differences in the customer base across the EV landscape and providing a complete, useful, memorable user experience. Listen to the full podcast discussion via the embedded SoundCloud player below or on your favorite podcast network, or skip down further for a little summary of what we talked about.
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I started off by asking Nathan about the FLO customer base — who the customer base is and how it has changed over recent years. He noted that it has become quite diverse, everything from single-family residential to multi-family residential to commercial to governmental. Though, he also pointed out that there are notable geographical differences. In Vancouver, they provide a lot more charging stations to multi-family buildings. In the rest of Canada and most of the US, they mostly sell charging stations to single-family homes in the residential sector.
I also asked about the fact that, while “level 3” fast charging has changed enormously in the past several years (especially getting faster and faster), “level 2” charging like you do at a home, workplaces, or some shops has basically held steady. It hasn’t really gotten faster. Part of it is that level 2 chargers are relatively simple tools that get the job done that they’re expected to do. Part of it is that using that level of power keeps the appliance within the norm of other appliances and electricity uses, and thus allows for easy installation and management no matter where the charger is hosted. Part of it is that the speed of level 2 charging doesn’t really need to increase in most common applications. There’s little to no benefit with faster home charging for many people, for example. Nathan pointed out that we haven’t had to upgrade how a hose and faucet work for a long time, because they just work, and it’s the same for level 2 chargers.
There has been evolution with EV charging station UI (user interface), nozzles, and screens, though, so I asked Nathan about improvements FLO has made over the years to its EV charging station solutions in order to make them better and better. Since FLO provides both level 2 and level 3 chargers, he pointed out some improvements about both. On the residential/level 2 side, they’ve spent time and resources creating more infrastructure options (regarding pedestals, cable management, etc.) and they’ve also been getting more and more requests for integration into their connected home systems/networks.
I then dug further and asked about the top 3–5 improvements they’ve made in the past few years to their charging stations. His answer: 1) Improving ruggedness and durability when used outdoors, including being designed to withstand extreme ice, snow, sun, and cars themselves running into the stations. 2) Cable management improvements. Since stations are typically unattended, they’ve spent a lot of time trying to make cable management and connector management as easy as possible and less and less prone to user errors, tangling, being left disconnected, or just getting messy. 3) Trying to simplify the user experience across the board.
I then brought up a new pet peeve of mine. When I moved back to Florida a few years ago with wife and daughters, we were happy to find a bunch of new or somewhat new charging stations in the area at shops, parks, offices, etc. However, in just a few years, the screens on several of these have become practically unusable. The clear plastic in the front has been destroyed to the point that you can’t see what’s showing on the screen behind it. With that issue in mind, I asked about FLO’s work and methodology developing stations that truly hold up well over the long term. He highlighted that they choose parts that are made for outdoor use and for the kind of use that occurs at a charging station (which I didn’t ask about, but I presume means keys and cards regularly touching the screen from drivers trying to activate charging, among other things). He also referenced designing them to work well in “the freezing ice cold in Canada or the hot and humid Floridian weather.” (I do sometimes wonder if too much EV or EV charging station testing is done in the mild California climate, but that certainly doesn’t seem to be the case with FLO at least.)
Nathan also brought service and monitoring into the conversation. “For most things that work really well, they’re serviced or monitored.” Hmm … good point. “Like a gas station typically has an attendant. Somebody rips off a gas pump, cable, the hose; they see it, and they’ll replace the hose. And the same thing with telecommunication — your cell phone tower works because it’s monitored, and if something goes bad, ATT, Verizon, whoever knows to send somebody to it. And so we do the same thing, and there are companies out there that would do it as well, where you would monitor your system, and when you notice something is not — you know, sometimes you go to a charger and you notice it’s not quite charging as fast — it’s probably because something is worn inside. … Well, you can monitor that. You can find out, ‘oh, one of the 6/12/15/2 power modules is down. I should send a tech to replace it, and investigate what’s the problem.”
Nathan also focused on a topic that I think many Tesla fans and followers will appreciate — the power of vertical integration, especially in a relatively new, fast-growing, fast-changing market. “Today, if you’re vertically integrated, and you develop and build everything, you control everything, you have the luxury to deliver a better experience to the customer. So, at FLO, if I use us as an example, we build the chargers ourselves, we have a cloud service and a backend to monitor them, we have a mobile app for users to try to find those chargers, and so when somebody calls our phone number and says ‘hey, this charger doesn’t work,’ we’re on the hook to fix the problem because everything is part of us.”
He also noted that when you design for people with disabilities — whether color blindness, poor eyesight, mobility-related disability, or something else — you often make the experience better for everybody. “Usually when you design for diversity and for users with disability, you actually benefit everybody.”
We also talked about the experiences charging station customers have beyond the station itself, and how important that broader environment and opportunity is for drivers, charging station companies, and retailers. On that topic, and especially focused on the benefits retail locations gain from charging stations in good locations, Nathan brought up some research they did. They surveyed a retail group that identified average dwell time of gas-powered vehicle drivers as 77 minutes, whereas EV drivers using the charging stations at those locations stayed an average of 143 minutes. That’s a lot of extra time to be tempted into buying something!
There was much more in the discussion, so listen to the show to get more industry insights.
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