EV charging service provider FLO could have done better

I recently had reason to use EV charging service provider FLO for the very first time.  This provider deserves several kinds of praise for its corporate goals.  But its user-facing systems could have done better. 

When you are planning your charging solutions for an upcoming EV car trip, several things can be important.  For one thing, you will want to know how much you will have to pay for the electrical energy being pumped into the battery of your EV.  For another thing, you will want to know what preparations are required, in advance, so that when you arrive at the charger you can get it to work.  FLO flunked both tests.  But first, a few positive comments about FLO.

FLO is based in Québec, Canada.  Around half of its public EV chargers are located in Canada, with the other half in the US.

FLO emphasizes its high standards for reliability of its public EV chargers.  Drivers of Tesla cars are well aware that Tesla charging stations are almost never broken, and that if a Tesla charging station does get broken, Tesla almost always gets it fixed right away.  In contrast, consumer groups have tested non-Tesla chargers and found many problems.  One consumer group found that only 70% of charging attempts at non-Tesla chargers were successful.  With some service providers, such as Electrify America, in my own experience it is typical for one out of every four charging kiosks to be broken, often for days in a row.  Consumer groups have had similar findings.

It would not surprise me if it were turn out that the second-place charging service provider in North America, in terms of reliability, after Tesla, is FLO.  One consumer group tested a bunch of (non-Tesla) public EV chargers and in their test, not one of the FLO chargers was broken.  In contrast, most of the other service providers in the test had significant percentages of broken chargers.

Yet another positive thing to say about FLO is that (a) they post a phone number on the kiosk, and (b) a call to that phone number gets answered instantly, and (c) the person at the other end of the call actually solves the problem.  In contrast, I have had service problems with Electrify America and with EVgo and with Chargepoint where the call took many minutes to answer, and where the person at the other end of the call completely failed to solve the problem.

Here’s another good thing about FLO.  There are people who study maps of the places where an EV charging service provider places its chargers.  Some of these people criticize some of the providers for failing to install chargers in places that would benefit poorer populations.    FLO, to its credit, has installed thousands of chargers in curbside urban locations and in poorer parts of cities and towns.

It turns out to be no easy trick to figure out how many public chargers FLO operates.  Mostly FLO touts the number of charging stations that you can use if you have an account with FLO.  This leads to a really big number because FLO has negotiated roaming arrangements with many other charging service providers.  And they tout the total number of chargers that FLO has manufactured and are now in service, but that number includes non-public chargers including lots of privately owned at-home chargers.  If you dig and dig you can work out that FLO operates about 8500 public chargers.  My guess is that very few of these chargers are broken.

Having said all of this, let’s turn to the ways that FLO could do much better.

Knowing how much you will have to pay for the electrical energy being pumped into the battery of your EV.   When an owner of an EV charges at home, a typical cost per kilowatt-hour (kWh) is 13½ cents.   With a DC fast charger, the cost might be 25 or 35 or 50 cents per kWh.  This might seem like a lot of money, but if you compare this with the price to purchase gasoline, the cost per mile even for expensive DC fast charging electricity still works out to be no more expensive than for gasoline, and sometimes cheaper.

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Still, it is quite understandable if an EV driver would like to know what things will cost at a public EV charger.  When I was planning a recent trip to Charlottesville, VA, I sort of stumbled upon the fact (blog article) that there were a couple of public Level-2 chargers within a five-minute walk of the hotel where I was planning to stay.  As you can see from the screen shot, the charging station has two plugs, each said to charge at 6.24 kW.   This is pretty slow, but if you get lucky you might be able to start charging before going to sleep for the night, and it might work out that by morning the EV is fully charged.  And, as a bit of welcome news, these chargers are free of charge.  According to the screen shot, the cost per kWh is supposedly zero.  It did not, however work out that way, as I will describe.

What preparations, if any, are needed.  The EV driver will also want to know what preparations (if any) are required, in advance, so that when you arrive at the charger you can get it to work.  This is never a problem for the driver of a Tesla car who is using a Tesla supercharger.  It just works.  You plug the charging plug into your car and it starts charging.

For other DC fast charging service providers, you cannot assume that you will be able to “plug and charge”.  And for non-Tesla EVs, you likewise cannot assume that you will be able to “plug and charge”.  See this table.   (By the way, another good thing about FLO is that FLO has implemented “plug and charge” in Canada for General Motors EVs.)

I eventually figured out that the conveniently located charging plugs near the hotel where I was planning to stay are operated by FLO.  So as I was planning this EV road trip to Charlottesville, I clicked around on the web site of FLO.   The FLO web site made clear that the price for the energy was “zero”.   Given that the price was zero, maybe there was no need for any tapping of a card or fiddling with a smart phone app.  I was pretty thorough in my clicking on the FLO web site, and I am pretty sure there is nowhere on the FLO web site that actually came out and said that you must use a tap-to-pay card or a smart phone app to get the charging station to work.  FLO handled this poorly, as I will describe.

The charging experience.   I arrived at my hotel in Charlottesville at the end of a very long travel day, and even before checking in at the hotel, I went directly to the charging station which was next door (a walk of perhaps five minutes from the hotel).  I did this because at this station there are only two charging plugs.  I would not want to check in at my hotel and only then go to the charging station, perhaps finding that all two of the charging plugs were in use.  Maybe I would not be the only hotel to think “I ought to take advantage of the free electrical energy that I can get from this charging station that is next door to the hotel”.  And if two other hotel guests were to think of it that evening, they might get there before me.

So I went straight to the FLO charging station.  Sure enough, one of the two plugs was already in use.  It was a Tesla Model S.  I immediately backed my car into the other remaining parking spot.  I looked at the kiosk and it said I needed to tap to use the charger.  I pulled out a tap-enabled credit card and tapped in the indicated place.  Nope, no good.  The kiosk displayed some error message.  There was a display screen flashing something along the lines of “welcome to FLO”, but nothing on the screen shed any light on how to get the kiosk to work.  But yes, there was a telephone number, so I called it.  Instantly the call was answered, which is a good sign.  (Other EV charging service providers sometimes do very poorly about answering calls promptly, or at all.)  The person at the other end of the call asked if I had a FLO tap-to-pay card, and I admitted that I did not.  (I later stumbled upon a place on the FLO web site where they say that there is such a card, and if you keep clicking, eventually you learn that the card costs $13.)  She then said I would need to download the FLO app to my smart phone.  I pointed out that this kiosk charges a price of zero for the energy, and I asked if I would need to “create an account” in the app.  She cheerfully explained that I could use the app “as a guest” and then I would not need to create an account.  I thanked her and rang off.

I downloaded the FLO app and indeed saw where to click to use the app “as a guest”.  The app instantly used my location to figure out, correctly, which FLO charging station I was at.  The app instantly figured out that at this FLO charging station, the number of charging plugs was two, and it figured out that one of the charging plugs was already in use.  I should emphasize that just like having the tech support phone call answered instantly, which gave the impression of things being under control, I likewise found to to be very encouraging that the app instantly figured out things like one of plugs being already in use and the other plug being available.  (I contrast this with a charging experience at an Electrify America station, where the app completely played dumb about where I was located and it make me pursue a treasure hunt within the app for a place to enter information about which charging station I was at.)

The FLO app then required me to enter a credit card number, which sort of seemed unnecessary since the electrical energy was free, but it said I had to do it so I did it.  After one or two final screen taps in the app, the kiosk started charging my rental vehicle.

It was after this that the kiosk, for the first time, let slip with a message on its display screen that there would be a 50¢ charge for this charging session.  This seemed wrong given that the web site said (see screen shot above) that the charging would be “free of charge”.  But if I were to end up with a fully charged vehicle, even with a 50¢ charge I would be better off than driving around and doing a charging session at some location that was far from the hotel, and would charge a lot more than 50¢.  So I decided to proceed.

I then went to my hotel and checked in.  Eventually I realized that there was no easy way for me to know what the progress was in this charging session.  If I were driving my own EV, I would be able to look at a smart phone app to get the charging status of the EV.  And I imagined that if only I had gone to the extra trouble to “create an account” in the FLO app, rather than using the FLO app “as a guest”, then maybe I could click around within the FLO app and it might tell me how the charging session was coming along.  Maybe it would eventually tell me that the charging current had dropped to zero, and I would know that the rental vehicle was fully charged.

So I decided to “create an account”.  This required picking and attempting to memorize a password, and then required the customary intermediate step of receiving an email message with a secret code, and keying the secret code into the FLO app.   And it required entering the credit card information all over again.  But yes, eventually I had “created an account”.

I then sort of cringed to imagine that if I were to go out to my car at this time, and stop the “as a guest” charging session, and then commence a new charging session using my newly created account, I would probably get charged this 50¢ fee again.  But I figured it was worth paying another 50¢ to be able to monitor the progress of the charging session.  So I returned to the charging station, ended the “as a guest” charging session, and commenced a new account-based charging session.

So to enumerate the service lapses thus far:

    • FLO, on its web site, ought to have come clean about the absolute necessity of having a FLO tap-to-pay card or downloading and installing the FLO app.  FLO failed to come clean about this ahead of time.  The only way I learned of this absolute necessity was by showing up in person and being unable to get the kiosk to work, and placing a telephone call.
    • FLO, on its web site, ought to have come clean about in advance about charging 50¢ to be able to get the “free” electricity.
    • FLO, in its app that had such detailed information about the exact charging station that I was using, ought to have come clean in advance about charging 50¢ to be able to get the “free” electricity.

Having returned to the charging station, I did successfully get the account-based charging session to commence.  And yes, the Tesla car was still plugged in at the other charging plug.   And yes, the app said that charging was going on, and it said how fast the charging was going on.  (It was a very disappointing 3 kilowatts (kW).)

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I returned to my hotel room.  Checking my email, I saw that my first charging session (the “as a guest” charging session) had cost not 50¢ but $1.50.  This seemed wrong but that is what the email from FLO said.

As you can see from the report at right, I had received about 4 kWh of energy, at a cost of $1.50.  This works out to about 38¢ per kWh, which is not inconsistent with prices charged at many DC fast charging stations.  But the charging was agonizingly slow, a mere 2.7 kW.  My normal charge-at-home speed is about 11½ kW, which is more than three times faster.

What one must not lose sight of, however, is that other than the per-session fee of $1.50, this electrical energy was being provided free of charge.  My best guess was that this electricity was being provided by the owner of the office building where the charging station is located.

I later complained to FLO about the $1.50 charge.  Here was their response:

We have refunded $1 to your credit card. We confirmed that $1.50 was mistakenly billed to your credit card instead of $0.50.

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What I later found is that at this charging station, if a customer uses the FLO app for an account-based charging session, there is no 50¢ charge.  The charging session, if account-based, is actually free of charge as promised.  You can see this in the report at right.  This session provided about 25 kWh of energy to the rental vehicle, which charged it up all the way.  This charging was also agonizingly slow, taking eight hours and charging at a mere 3.2 kW.

But all of this charging happened at night, when I did not need to go anywhere.  And during most of this charging session, I was asleep.

Why was the charging so slow?  The FLO web site, and FLO app, had promised charging at 6.2 kW.  But FLO is not able to control how much power a property owner provides to a charging kiosk like this.   Here, the owner of the office building only provided a 30-amp circuit (at 208 volts), namely a ten-gauge power line.  The FLO equipment had no choice but to divvy up that 30 amps between the two cars that were plugged in.  The Tesla that was parked next to my rental vehicle was getting about 15 amps, and my rental vehicle was getting the other 15 amps.

I suppose an ungrateful driver could complain to the owner of the office building about the mere 30 amps being provided, at which point the owner of the office building could offer to refund the money that the driver had paid (which is zero).  The ungrateful driver could also complain to FLO about the slow charging, but again this is not something that FLO has any control over.   If the owner of the office building only provides a single ten-gauge power line, then FLO is left to do the best that it can with that power line.

Returning to the charging session.  Indeed by clicking around in the FLO app, I was able to monitor the progress of the charging.  When I saw that the charging current had dropped to zero, I knew that my rental vehicle was fully charged.  I then unplugged my vehicle and parked it elsewhere to free up the charging plug for others.

As a last swipe at FLO, I quote the following FAQ item from the FLO web site:

How much electricity will the FLO Home charging station use to charge my vehicle?  On average, each kilometre of EV travel requires 200 W of energy in an electric vehicle.

Here we see the frequently made mistake — getting confused as between power (measured in watts or kilowatts) and energy (measured in watt-hours or kilowatt-hours).  What the FAQ answer should have said was “200 Wh”, not “200 W”.

(Update:  In response to this blog article, FLO has corrected this to say “Wh”.)

To sum up, FLO actually did provide electrical energy as promised.  Other charging service providers sometimes fail at this seemingly simple core competency.  FLO actually provided most of the electrical energy for free!  FLO provided this electrical energy at a place what was extremely convenient to my hotel.  I was able to find out, from the FLO app, when the vehicle had gotten fully charged.  But yes, FLO could have done better.  FLO could have come clean ahead of time about the need to have a tap-to-pay card or smart phone app to get the charging to work, despite its being “no charge” for the energy.  FLO could have come clean ahead of time about the 50¢ fee.  Flo could have limited its fee to the promised 50¢ instead of charging $1.50 and putting me in the position of having to ask for a refund of the excess charge.

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