Andrew Moseman has covered science, technology, and transportation for publications such as The Atlantic, Inverse, Insider, Outside, and MIT Technology Review. He was previously digital director of Popular Mechanics and now serves as online communications editor at Caltech. He is based in Los Angeles. Read MoreRead More
Mercedes’ Vision for Luxury EV Charging
Plug reservations and retail therapy are coming to “upscale” charging stations.
Gas stations aren’t fancy. There are a few quirky or pretty refueling stations scatted around the world, but the typical roadside stops amounts to a few pumps that reek of gasoline, the air pump that only takes quarters, and a convenience store stocked with Zingers. The experience is more or less the same whether you drive a new BMW or a 1980s Dodge Caravan. Nobody at the Chevron is coming out to your car with a hot towel and a glass of cucumber water.
A lot about the car ownership experience will change in a country of EVs, though, and that includes refueling stops. As we’ve covered at Heatmap, the charging stations that exist now don’t look much like the Conoco on the corner. They could be the couple of plugs at your local Whole Foods or the big Tesla Supercharger at an outlet mall next to the interstate. The fact that car charging is still in some ways a blank slate also creates an opportunity to invent the “upscale” charging experience, which is what Mercedes-Benz is now up to.
Courtesy of Mercedes.
The German automaker is trying a few different ways to make sure its luxury-minded clientele feel comfortable going electric. Mercedes adopted the Tesla plug (now called the North American Charging Standard) so its future EVs could visit Elon Musk’s Superchargers. It joined a group of major automakers who promised to build 30,000 new chargers across the country, to try to convince buyers that reliability will be there. And now, Mercedes has announced its vision for luxe charging “hubs,” starting with one in Atlanta and a handful overseas. These fancy flagship charging stops will be protected by a canopy of solar panels, be situated next to an “elevated” retail experience, and feature charging speeds of up to 400 kW, which would be the best in America.
What does a lovely charging experience actually look like? Given the state of America’s charging infrastructure — featuring lots of busted plugs and broken interfaces — it starts with basic, seamless competence. “This is maybe at the risk of undermining my job, but charging done well fades into the background,” says Andrew Cornelia, formerly of Tesla and Volta, who is now president of Mercedes North America High-Power Charging. “People always kind of dwell on this: How long does charging take? For me, charging should take five seconds. It should take the time that you get out of your car, plug your car in, and walk away.”
To that end, Mercedes says it is working to make sure its chargers reach the level of reliability mandated by the National Electric Vehicle Infrastructure (NEVI) program through which the federal government is funding new charging stations. Cornelia says Mercedes also will target the level of ease familiar to anyone who’s stopped at a Tesla supercharger: The driver plugs in and the charger automatically recognizes them and bills their card on file for the electricity, no extra steps or logins required.
In addition, the brand plans a few perks for its signature charging stations. Mercedes EV drivers will be able to reserve a plug in advance, potentially avoiding the very real annoyance of navigating to a charging depot only to find a line for a spot. That feature will roll out to non-Mercedes drivers later, Cornelia says, though they will be able to charge at the hub from day one.
Another part of Mercedes’ new deal to build chargers at the Simon brand of retail outlets is the plan to make these locations bright, safe, and welcoming, with solar-panel canopies in place to ward off the weather and to remind customers they’re charging with renewable energy. “We want to be in well-lit, well-marked retail integrated locations,” Cornelia says. “We don't want to be in the back of the parking lot next to a dumpster. It’s kind of dingy and kind of scary to plug your car in.” (Elon Musk’s Superchargers have made it possible for Tesla drivers to traverse much of the country, but many are built in dark corners of parking lots where stores, and their bathrooms, are not necessarily open late at night when the well-caffeinated traveler might need them.)
Courtesy of Mercedes.
Mercedes’ move could be a step toward making EV charging stops destinations in themselves rather than crappy chores to be endured. Tesla tried this early on with its big station in Kettleman City, California, a halfway stop between Los Angeles and San Francisco. The dozens of plugs there gave drivers the confidence they wouldn’t have to wait for one to open, and the welcoming structure on site included a dog relief area outside and a little coffee counter where you could get your cup of joe with a Tesla T logo drawn on top. Perhaps Atlanta drivers will make a habit of passing up a closer, less luxurious charging depot to visit Mercedes’ hub so they can get their favorite latte while their car gets its juice.
“What’s big for us is making sure that we are attenuating the charging experience to the actual location,” Cornelia says. “So this isn't putting slow charging right next to your coffee shop. This is not putting fast charging next to your movie theater. This is high-power charging, which will take about 15 minutes to fuel your vehicle, matched to the right retail partner, and really thinking intentionally about that pairing.”