Electric vehicle adoption and public interest in EVs is surging in the United States. In the race to keep up with demand and set market expectations for the future, automakers have been making near daily announcements about going electric. Several have indicated they will be phasing out internal combustion engines (ICE) completely. General Motors was among the first to commit to making only battery-powered vehicles by 2035. GM later joined Ford, Mercedes-Benz, Volvo, Jaguar, Land Rover and BYD in signing a United Nations Climate Change pledge to end sales of gas and diesel-powered cars worldwide by 2040. The waves of companies making “headliner” commitments are set to continue, as executives contemplate how to align their operations to global decarbonization and sustainability movements.

Americans tuning into last year’s Super Bowl were treated to nine different EV commercials, something many students of popular culture recognize as reaching true national “hype” status. Automakers have also been getting creative with their EV rollout strategies. Last summer, Volvo launched a partnership with Starbucks to install ChargePoint fast chargers at stores across western states with the goal of creating a seamless network for well-caffeinated road-trippers to enjoy. This partnership strategy struck a chord with a group of Accenture’s Chicago-based innovation leaders, who were conducting field research into commercial opportunities in public charging and reaching the conclusion that multiple industries would have to collaborate to create new products and services that appeal to EV drivers in unique ways. The market investigation essentially revealed that companies will need to think beyond installing more charging equipment and extending EV networks to enabling a variety of new commercial transactions that can be conducted in and around public charging experiences.

The Modern Public Charging Landscape – What’s the Problem?

The best description of the current state of the US’s public charging is that it is not good enough. Investors and entrepreneurs who identified the potential for EVs and took financial risks to build and install the charging equipment that exists today were able to achieve “acceptable” volume to satisfy demand in states like California, where regulations have long been stable and supportive of clean energy technology. Still, across the rest of the country, there are thousands of road miles between the coasts that are woefully lacking reliable, publicly available charging infrastructure.

Recent federal legislation addresses the charging infrastructure challenge, head on – while also injecting historic amounts of stimulus into EV adoption and domestic parts manufacturing. The Biden administration’s $1.2 T infrastructure law, passed in November of 2021, puts $7.5B into action to create a fast-charging national EV network. Coupled with last summer’s Inflation Reduction Act (IRA), which increases and reups e-vehicle and charging rebates, these funds represent game changing stimulus for eMobility acceleration and vehicle fleet decarbonization.

Today, however, the experience of public charging falls into the “MVP” (minimal viable product) category. Even Tesla chargers and their related digital experiences, widely considered the best and most cutting-edge, were designed to get equipment into the market quickly and then experiment and learn. The technology and communications systems underpinning electric vehicles, and the software that powers them, still have a long way to go to reach peak performance (e.g., improved driver communications, wayfinding, and cross-selling of new products, services and experiences while charging).

To assist clients with the development of those technology systems, Accenture acquired German-based digital engineering firm Umlaut in 2021. Christian Sussbauer, Engineering Director for Umlaut in North America, says one of the more unpleasant experiences of the nascent public charging market, is that of being stranded when vehicles run out of charge because drivers are directed to equipment that is offline. Sussbauer indicates that today, when clients ask the Charge Point Operator (CPO) (e.g., ChargePoint, Electrify America, Shell Recharge Solutions, etc.) why chargers aren’t working, they often do not know this is happening at all. He notes, “They (the CPO) may have problems in the software and back-end that cause them to advertise the charger as functioning, when it is down.” He acknowledges that outside of the Tesla network (which had near 100% uptime last year), many drivers can be frustrated with reliability issues of EV networks. Then again, he warns that there are even more egregious problems in the market today. “We see instances where the charging cable is too short to use for charging. It’s kind of ridiculous, but even today 5% of all installed charging cables are too short to connect to different vehicles,” says Sussbauer.

Some individuals who have tested out EVs as rentals learned the hard way about charging pitfalls. Accenture’s EV driver research uncovered stories of people who ran out of battery power on the way to important meetings or events, as well as rental customers feeling compelled to take vehicles back to the airport, in exchange for ones with gas-powered engines. Negative experiences from underdeveloped infrastructure can damage business growth, particularly in the information age where purchases are often strongly influenced by peer recommendations. That said, it is worth noting that in Accenture’s study, none of the people interviewed said they regretted purchasing their EVs, nor would any of them go back to driving ICE vehicles.

Another element that comes in clear through ethnographic research data amassed to date, is that the EV driver of today is looking for reliability and consistency on displaying the level of charging, anticipated time to charge, and the expected cost of the energy itself. When customers are blind to basic commercial transaction data, even undesirable gas station experiences may be considered far superior to public charging of EVs.

What Does Next-Gen Charging Look Like?

When pondering the ways EV charging experiences are likely to evolve, Shawn Gancarczyk, an innovation designer for Accenture, indicates that a lot of the challenge today is getting both customers and providers to think beyond the basic experience of the hardware itself. If having a charger available where and when EV drivers need them and getting the essentials right on how much and how long the charge will take is the “minimum viable standard” for the industry to achieve today, where is industry innovation headed?

Accenture’s research revealed a handful of essential insights that are now guiding the design work to conceptualize ideal charging station locations for commutes of various durations and align new services that are connected to retail Point of Sale (PoS) systems. Shawn believes the most important insight is that, for at least the next 10 years, most EV drivers will primarily charge their vehicles in homes. Therefore, the basis of the early adopter experiences and expectations for charging when they are out traveling in the public domain will be shaped by home experiences.

What are those experiences looking like and feeling like so far? According to Shawn, “Charging at home is perceived as simple, safe, and reliable. It doesn’t matter if someone is using fast charging if they have other things to occupy the time,” he says. A simple idea to try creating more of the experiences and conveniences of “at home” charging while on the road, Shawn believes, would be a source of inspiration for brands that really want to embrace and serve the growing EV-driving audience. The idea also opens the possibility that a variety of brands might collaborate to provide charging experiences that are safe, well-lit, clean, simple-to-use, ergonomically effective, and have a more personalized and upscale assortment of product and service offerings associated with it.

One company that has been thinking and experimenting a lot with ways to extend their unique customer value propositions beyond hardware is Electrify America. The company’s public announcement in March 2022 of its “Charge Stations of the Future” revealed a new fleet of flagship charging stations the company will be building through 2023. Some will get an upgrade to include solar-powered awnings. Others will have solar and battery storage facilities, operating as microgrids and providing customers a choice of powering up with a visible source of clean energy. Electrify America are also experimenting with large-scale charging stations and high-visibility impact stations in busy traffic locations like Manhattan, complete with pull-through options for larger vehicles like the Ford F150 Lightning. All the concepts are designed to enhance visibility and commercial impact of EV charging, and to signal prospective EV drivers that the market is ready for them to go electric.

Since digital technology is the supporting backbone that facilitates the next generation of charging experiences and transactions, we must continually evaluate its maturity and development. On that front, Accenture’s Umlaut team is quite confident that EV-charging technology systems are on a rapid trajectory for maturation. In the short-term, innovations will be focusing on displaying information better and linking that data to the PoS systems at businesses with chargers. That way drivers can order food and other retail items from their vehicles while the businesses can work on integrating the data into the back end.

The transactions associated with EV charging, including for the energy itself, must become simpler and more intuitive. The internationally harmonized standard for communications systems for a range of EV equipment, ISO 15118, will facilitate the processing of transactions at the back end (much like ATM cash stations reconcile accounts for people across different banks) so drivers can purchase energy in a more seamless way than today’s independent networks allow for. Accenture is working with a range of federal and corporate clients to ensure that any recipients of federal funding to improve the nation’s charging infrastructure networks effectively address consumer usability issues and push forward the interoperability of transactions behind-the-scenes to make things easier for EV customers to transact freely across the country.

Opportunities for Corporate Collaboration in the Emerging eMobility Industry

It is impossible to think about the future of eMobility charging stations without considering the traditional gas station model to fuel ICE vehicles. The assumption is typically that EVs will be the same, and driver attributes will be similar, it is just that EV drivers require a different type of energy. This may be true on its face; however, new commercial opportunities will be created by identifying the unique characteristics, needs, and desires that appeal to this growing customer segment.

In terms of exploring commercial opportunities with EVs, Shell plc is one energy player that is not sitting idle. The company has been working since at least 2017 to explore strategic opportunities to participate in electrical energy generation and distribution processes. Shell acquired New Motion – one of Europe’s largest EV networks – to facilitate fast charging for people at home and at work. In 2018, Shell invested in Greenlots, a technology company that brought a CPO network with its own electrical charging stations. In February of 2021, the company acquired Ubitricity to provide streetlamp charging to target drivers without access to home charging solutions. Shell also recently acquired Volta, a network of EV charging stations that have a distinct marketing business model, with its iPhone-like screen technology. Shell’s initial strategy to ensure it would have an end-to-end offering to charge EVs is now rapidly emerging in the North American market.

Lisa Carr, GM of Mobility Marketing and Digital for Shell in North America says the company’s vision for the future of charging is most evident today in their Fulham Road station in the UK’s central London area. There, Shell gutted the old fueling station model and evolved it into a fully electric charging station. The “X station” is a stand-alone operation where the shops connected to it are a grocery store, a coffee shop and a convenience retail store. There are 9 powered 175KW charge points. Customers can go in, sit in the café, and enjoy a coffee with free Wi-Fi, or do their grocery shopping while they are waiting the 20 minutes or so that it may take for a charge,” says Carr. The station also has a partnership with FedEx so customers can take care of their personal or business correspondence needs. Now Shell is working out the kinks to allow customers to make reservations to charge-up at the X stations.

When Carr thinks about how these models may take shape in the United States, she admits that the company is still very much in a data-gathering and an education stage to help customers and potential business partners understand how people want to spend their time while they are charging their EVs. Carr notes, “We are well aware that reliability is the priority of the day, but getting beyond that, we are thinking deeply about extras that we could provide like loyalty and rewards programs, or incentives to drive EV customers to our stations and stores.” The breadth of the Shell retail network allows a lot of opportunities for commercial experimentation that aligns well to the digital journey that the company has already been on for decades, as vehicles have morphed into computers on wheels.

In terms of how traditional electrical utilities respond to or take advantage of market opportunities, it varies quite a bit state-to-state. According to Brandi Turner, an Accenture eMobility strategist with experience building utility EV programs, even though utilities stand to gain from the expansion of vehicles who rely on their electrons, the process for all of them has been turbulent. Turner indicates that in California and in other progressive states, the utilities often perceive Public Utility Commissions (PUCs) as suggesting they want to shrink the utility role. According to Turner, “Public Utility Commissions across the nation are really asking the utilities in many cases to shift the nature of their roles, to collaborate more effectively with private and competitive players, and to provide more network orchestration to allow for new EVs, chargers and distributed systems.” This is a new and fast-moving environment for utilities to be in, and can be culturally challenging for them to navigate, especially considering the complexities of the existing utility regulatory system.

Is there room then for newer entrants to the electrical energy world, including credible players with potential to scale to dig in and partner with utilities, or take on traditional utility roles? It seems to be an inevitable conclusion, particularly in underserved locations and markets around the country. Shell is considering the tactics of how to expand streetlamp charging in North America through the enablement of tapping into the utility grid network and strategically placing the equipment. Lisa Carr explains, “In Texas, something like 80% of people have their own garages. However, only about 40% of people have them in New York. In big cities, more people are living in multi-family dwellings where streetlamp charging makes a lot more sense. We are thinking critically about this.”

Focusing on The Growing EV Customer Base is the North Star for Next Generation Mobility

While much commercial thought and activity has gone into the emerging eMobility industry over the last 5 years, the market still needs to get its arms around who this EV buyer really is today, what kind of cohort the EV driver market segment really is, and who they are going to be tomorrow.

EV drivers are increasingly regarded as a distinct customer set, but this is not well defined today because of how difficult it can be to research and analyze. As Gancarczyk points out, “We know for sure behavior around charging is going to change with EV drivers, and some of the changes are forced on the drivers, based on the realities of supporting infrastructure. With an EV, a lot of people are now charging at night in their garages. This is a distinct change in behavior from the past. How does that reality alone impact their overall time on the road and how people are thinking about public charging?”

While attempting to answer the question with the data that Accenture amassed on public charging from the consumer perspective, Gancarczk realized that this is a moving target for customer segmentation. He notes,” Everybody today thinks the EV transition is about white, male, and privileged Americans driving expensive cars. But in examining this more deeply, we learned that isn’t what the segment is going to be in the next 3-5 years. When availability of models and types increases and prices inevitably come down, moms and road warriors and road trippers of different ages will be the ones who emerge to redefine the segment, paving the way for new business creation.”

When thinking about working on the future of eMobility and unpacking the EV driver segment and their needs and desires, Accenture finds there are many things to continue studying. The initial inquiry focused a lot on the charging elements of eMobililty and where that is lacking and needing to evolve. Moving forward, new research into the elements of driving EVs that owners most enjoy, for instance, will uncover the types of personalized data that automakers, retailers and others can draw from to appeal to this growing set of customers in new ways that shape overall transportation networks.

Considering some of the brands that are in position to significantly impact the development of the EV market, if they were to dial into evolving commercial possibilities, our Accenture colleagues most often pointed to McDonald’s, because of the company’s physical infrastructure footprint and ability to service a large swath of highway drivers across the country. Tesla was also frequently cited as having such a commanding leadership position in the market, they will continue to shape the industry direction and trajectory in different ways. That said, Ford’s F150 Lightening model is also widely viewed as having the market influence to shape attitudes and approaches to developing the future of transportation more broadly, including their battery generator, or Vehicle-to-Grid (V2G), experiments with utilities across the nation.

While Lisa Carr of Shell agrees that Tesla and auto OEMs will surely influence the future EV market – she says nobody should underestimate the ability of large technology providers to make an enormous impact. “I wouldn’t underestimate Amazon, Google, and others who could surprise us all with what they show up with in the market. With Amazon buying grocery stores and experimenting with their cashless retail models, who is to say they aren’t already strategizing getting into the EV charging space?”

Technology companies will certainly play a large role in developing the wayfinding capabilities that will be required to help customers with their driving journeys to locate stations and services that will best accommodate their journeys. Amazon, Alphabet, Apple, and others are wading into the automotive space and making strategic investments, including in start-ups like Rivian and Waymo. Eric Mokrenski, Accenture’s North American Auto Strategy Lead, says the auto market feels like the Wild West right now. “There are so many different operators and interest groups out there, but” he notes, “we will see significant consolidation in the future. Energy companies and others are all leaning into auto and wanting to get into the action, causing all kinds of flux,” he says. Mokrenski’s advice to the players wading into the EV game today is to not ignore the importance of the home, and they should be trying to create desirable experiences for customers to integrate into their daily lives.  As in other consumer-facing industries, making the energy transition more intuitive to navigate will help EV drivers focus on things they want to think about, offering them increased freedom and mobility in the world.