Electric car charging: Good luck with that

September 10, 2012: 10:18 AM ET
fisker karma
Thank goodness the Karma runs on gasoline because finding a place to charge it in the city brought on a migraine.
NEW YORK (CNNMoney)

I sometimes get to borrow plug-in cars but, like many city dwellers, I don't have a place to plug one in at home. That means, if I want to drive on electricity farther than a full battery will take me, I have to rely on charging stations provided in some of New York City's parking garages.

If you live in a city and are thinking about making the leap to a fully electric car, I recommend carrying a large bottle of Tylenol in the center console because your headaches will be epic.

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I've recently had two plug-in cars. The first was a Fisker Karma, a beautiful $100,000 performance-tuned car with 30-mile all-electric driving range, after which it ran on gasoline power. And thank goodness it could.

The second was a Mitsubishi (MMTOF) i-MiEv, an all-electric car with a roughly 60 mile range. In that case, the headaches started with the car itself. Sorry, Mitsubishi but the i-MiEV is awful. It's ugly, uncomfortable, and it performs like a dog sled in the desert.

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Problems with charging these cars fell into three camps: technical, human and financial.

The first is actually easiest to deal with. When the charger's not working, go somewhere else. For instance, the convenient electric car charger in my office building was broken and could only charge cars at the weaker 110 power rating, not the much faster 220. That means you can charge a car there provided you don't actually need the car because it's going to be plugged in all day.

Fortunately, with a handy iPhone app, I found another option only eight blocks away. This is where human error comes in and where it gets scary.

By the time I pulled in, I had 5 miles left on the Mitsubishi's battery.

"I really need this car to be charged," I told the attendant.

He made it clear it would be no problem. I asked him if I could see the car being plugged in to make sure it was done properly because, if not, I wouldn't even have enough power to make it back home. I was told I couldn't. Customers weren't allowed downstairs where the cars were parked. (I'd already had another garage fail to fulfill the same promise with the Fisker Karma but, at least then I could resort to old fashioned fossil fuel.)

I made the same plea to the garage manager and was, again, rebuffed. So I left trusting that my car would indeed be plugged in properly. Of course it wasn't.

Luckily I had to go back a bit later to retrieve something. I found that the car was not one bit charged.

"Where's your card?" the manager said.

"What card?" I said.

"You need to have a card to charge your car," he said.

I figured out that he meant an account card from an electric car charging company. It turns out that different garages use chargers from different companies and I needed an account card from that company.

"Well, you could have told me that before you took my car!" I said, my voice rising to an outraged scream.

An executive for the parking garage company later offered to refund my parking charges -- parkng and charging are billed seperately -- and told me something very interesting. The charger wasn't downstairs. It was upstairs, a few feet from where I'd been standing while I was screaming at the manager.

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A competing garage company avoids this whole mess by requiring customers to plug in their cars themselves. It sounds like a hassle but it provides peace of mind.

So I drove to the competitor's garage a few miles away, watching my meager battery charge dwindle. I'd used this garage before so I knew the routine. I asked them to park my car near the charger and I got my credit card out and called the 800 number on the device. I had ordered an account card from this company but it hadn't arrived yet. (In fact, weeks later, it has still not arrived.) But I could at least call and give them my credit card information over the phone. All of it. Every single time. They don't store the information.

So there I was, again, in a dimly lit, noisy parking garage squinting at my credit card and shouting into the phone...

"I just gave you the billing address! The account number is...!"

Good thing those guys say they don't keep all my info on their servers or I might worry it could fall into the wrong hands.

All this comes with the added "benefit" of a terrifyingly large charge on my corporate card. I'd already seen a bill over $20 for charging the Karma's 30-mile battery. At $2.95 an hour, charging electric cars this way adds up fast.

Joseph Turquie, president of Beam Charging, which provides a lot of these charging stations around the city, explained the high rates as a way of pushing customers to get monthly accounts. For $98 a month you can charge your car all you like. But you've got to commit to using their charging stations. It's like paying for your gasoline monthly, but you can only fill up at Shell stations.

Now, all the hassles I experienced are part of living in a world where electric cars remain a rarity, said Oliver Hazimeh, an analyst with the professional services company PwC. The garage company executive concurred when apologizing for his clueless employees, telling me the poor fellows only encounter a plug-in car about once a month.

Besides, when it comes to electric car "infrastructure," public charging is probably the last thing that's going to get sorted out, Hazimeh said. For starters, most people are probably going to charge their cars at home or at work. Second, there's not enough business there to attract big companies, which leaves a patchwork of little companies. It will probably stay that way, he said, until someone figures out how to make money at this and that won't happen until there are more electric cars.

"The business model centered purely around charging is a very tough one," Hazimeh said.

With little access to charging outside the home, car shoppers will remain wary of plug-in cars.

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