GM’s new charging network is less than it seems

By David Ferris | 08/21/2020 07:27 AM EDT

The nation’s ad hoc electric vehicle charging network currently is unequal to the task of meeting the industry’s growth, experts say. But a recent commitment by General Motors underscores how difficult building an EV charging network really is.

Last month, General Motors Co. and EVgo unveiled an electric vehicle charging network that is still coming into focus. An EVgo charging station is pictured.

Last month, General Motors Co. and EVgo unveiled an electric vehicle charging network that is still coming into focus. An EVgo charging station is pictured. EVgo

General Motors Co. got a lot of headlines a few weeks ago after announcing it would collaborate with EVgo to create a constellation of 2,700 electric vehicle fast-charging stations in cities around the country.

On its face, it’s one of the biggest commitments ever to a U.S. charging network by an automaker. Looking deeper, though, GM’s role is less than it might seem — and underscores how difficult building an electric fueling network really is.

GM, America’s largest automaker, won’t own or operate the stations. It won’t subsidize the electrons they deliver, or receive any of the charging revenue. GM’s customers won’t have special access to them, and their vehicles won’t fuel any better or worse than a Nissan or a Ford. The stations might not even have GM’s name on them.


GM’s electric plans have been under the microscope lately. On an investor call late last month, an analyst asked CEO Mary Barra whether she would consider spinning off the automaker’s electric business, to which she replied, "Nothing is off the table."

That option has excited some on Wall Street, who see an investor hunger for GM’s EV business in the wake of soaring valuations for Tesla Inc. and Nikola Corp., as well as a wave of fledgling EV makers moving to become publicly traded companies, including Lordstown Motors Corp., Canoo and Fisker Inc. Even Barra’s mild suggestion of an EV spinoff has sent GM’s share price higher in recent weeks.

Whether it intends to spin its EV business off or not, GM has committed to spending $20 billion on building EVs. It won’t say how much it intends to put toward constructing this new fueling system. The automaker has pegged the deadline for both the vehicles and the new fueling network at 2025.

But it has made it clear that it expects governments and utilities to take a big role in a charging investment that could cost hundreds of millions of dollars or more.

Charging stations are expensive to build and, with EVs still a sliver of the autos on the nation’s roads, are far from a sure-fire investment. That has companies like GM and EVGo leaning on others’ largesse to create the electric fueling network that could enable EVs and curb climate change.

It is also "not the only part of the puzzle," as Alex Keros, GM’s lead architect for EV infrastructure, said in an interview, referring to the weighty task of charging the millions of electric vehicles on future roads. Plugs and wires in residential garages, at workplace parking lots, and at depots for commercial trucks and buses all need to be scaled up.

In California alone, for example, as many as 279,000 charging stations are needed in the next five years, according to a California Energy Commission report. Nationwide, the charging network is an ad hoc system that is unequal to the task of charging millions of vehicles (Energywire, Nov. 13, 2019).

So what exactly is GM’s role in building these stations? And what does it want?

"GM knows they are bringing a ton of [electric] models to market, and chargers are key to selling EVs," said Jonathan Levy, a vice president at EVgo. "They can pay to do it all themselves, they can wait for it to happen, or they can find a teammate and find a way to build the infrastructure."

GM’s teammate, EVgo, wins big with the deal. The deployment would triple the size of its network, a vast expansion for a decade-old company whose growth until now has been slow and steady.

For GM, charging is a difficult but necessary component of a growing electric lineup. The company is constructing a factory to fabricate its own EV batteries, and has committed to vehicles including an electric Hummer and a new line of e-Cadillacs (Energywire, Aug. 7).

GM says its role in electric fueling will be to provide usage data from its cars to figure out where to put chargers — and make them blindingly obvious to any drivers who wonder if EVs will work for them.

"We want to make sure the infrastructure is there and that people can see it," said Keros of GM. "They can envision themselves, where they live and where they go the most, and say yes, there is charging all around me."

A data flood

Though automotive and charging experts acknowledge that most EV drivers will fuel at home or at work and that public charging stations are often redundant, they argue that those stations must be built anyway — an expensive, high-voltage advertisement of sorts, to persuade the doubtful.

"When you look at those who don’t have an EV yet and want to get into that system … the charging is a concern," said Stephanie Brinley, an automotive analyst at IHS Markit.

Indeed, those 2,700 stations that EVgo hopes to build are also meant for two sets of drivers who might really need them: apartment dwellers who don’t have garage spaces to charge in, and ride-hailing drivers who drive a lots of miles and need to fuel often.

Keros said General Motors will make available to EVgo a trove of data on where owners of GM vehicles drive, stop and shop.

The information comes from OnStar, an opt-in subscription service of GM that taps a car’s telematics to track a stolen vehicle, do onboard navigation and run over-the-air diagnostics. EVgo and GM say the data will be scrubbed of any driver identity.

That will be used to figure out in what high-traffic areas, like big-box stores or busy neighborhoods, stations should be placed.

And the stations that eventually get built will be larger and more powerful than most today.

The plazas will have four to eight plug points, Levy said, and be designed to draw attention to themselves, though how that will occur is unclear.

They will fill a car battery faster than most fast chargers now on the roadside. Today’s fast chargers typically deliver 50 kilowatts of power, but the future network will juice at 100 to 350 kW. The Cadillac Lyriq, due to hit showrooms in three years, will charge at more than 150 kW.

The chargers will run on 100% renewable energy, the companies pledged.

Forty metropolitan areas in the United States are supposed to receive the chargers, though EVgo and GM are cagey about exactly where, other than mentioning California, Texas, Illinois and Florida.

Levy of EVgo said the footprint will be very widespread.

To guess, open a map "and go to the top 40 MPAs" — metropolitan planning areas — he said. "It wouldn’t be one-for-one, but it would be pretty close."

In each of those cities, the network will be intended to serve the whole, patching the gaps where existing charging stations are now. They are also likely to be numerous. "There isn’t one city where there’s going to be one charging station," Keros added.

‘Will this happen?’

GM’s new partnership also reveals how the automaker sees the network of EV charging evolving.

It is not following the tire tracks of Tesla, which has established a proprietary Supercharger network, meant only for Teslas. The network will be available to all makes of electric cars.

"Part of the reason it is open, and not part of a GM network, is we want to ensure that a sustainable business model means having an open network that anyone can utilize," Keros said.

Whether the network will actually be built is far from certain, since some of GM’s prior charging initiatives have gone cold.

In 2019, GM garnered attention with its announcement that it would build thousands of charging stations across the United States with Bechtel Corp., the construction giant.

That apparently fell by the wayside in the new romance with EVgo. "We strongly value our relationship with Bechtel and will continue to explore opportunities to work together," said Maureen Bender, a GM spokesperson.

Similarly, EVgo found itself in the lurch in a prior partnership with a GM subsidiary called Maven. A car-sharing platform with a focus on electric cars, it struck a deal with EVgo to build dedicated charging plazas in San Francisco and Los Angeles (Electric Road Trip, Oct. 28, 2019).

That partnership fizzled when Maven folded in April, a victim of the coronavirus downturn. "EVgo is working with GM to evaluate options for the Maven-dedicated stations," Levy said in an email.

Another problem is that siting chargers is a heavy lift. The right site requires a stellar alignment of approval from business owners, property managers and utilities, which sometimes need to build expensive new infrastructure to serve them.

Complaints about those difficulties are often heard from Electrify America, one of the largest charging networks put forth by an automaker.

Electrify America was created by Volkswagen AG as compensation for its diesel emissions-cheating scandal. Now in the third year of a decadelong commitment to build a $2 billion nationwide charging network, it currently has 457 charging stations and just over 2,000 fast-charging plug points.

While Volkswagen’s network is being built with required dollars under court order, GM’s is being made mostly on goodwill, with the hope that governments, utilities and others will chip in.

"The biggest question is, will this happen? Will they get to 2,700 [chargers]?" said Stacy Noblet, a senior director of transportation at consulting firm ICF. "That’s a lot to do in five years."