Things Are Heating Up At Ionna, The Tesla-Challenging Charging Network From Seven Automakers

Ionna, the new North American EV charging network, has been eerily quiet since the announcement of its formation in July 2023. The alliance was formed by seven automakers—many who have expressed frustrations with existing charging partners behind the scenes—to create “an unprecedented new charging network joint venture that will significantly expand access to high-powered charging in North America.” But since the initial announcement, very little about the company has been revealed, other than the appointment of its CEO, Seth Cutler, in February. 

Now, we finally know more about where things are going. Today, the company announced it will be headquartered in Durham, North Carolina, and its top ranks will be staffed by veterans from the charging and e-mobility sectors.

Charging is a pain point

Mass EV adoption won’t happen until public charging is widely available, but both automakers and charging companies have struggled with reliability, uptime and more. Ionna brings those efforts in-house between seven different car companies. Can they get ahead of this curve and accelerate EV growth?

“We are thrilled to call Durham home,” Cutler said in a statement. “The area’s established history of research, innovation, and its vibrant growing community, make it the perfect place for Ionna to join, thrive, and pioneer. I’m excited to grow a cross-industry team that will deliver the Ionna vision from our new home base.”

Ionna aims to install at least 30,000 high-powered DC fast chargers along major highway corridors as well as in urban locations “to ensure customers can charge whenever and wherever they need.”

Today’s announcement is the first one that offers any substantive information about Ionna. In addition to revealing its Durham headquarters, it explains a little about how the company’s engineering R&D will work.

Mercedes Benz DC Fast Charger

The Quarterback Lab

With DC fast charging, compatibility testing is necessary, and it’s part of the reason why public high-speed charging has been varying degrees of unreliable. Every new EV needs to undergo extensive testing on every different charger—and there are as many different DC fast chargers as there are different EVs on the market—to make sure they can plug in, communicate and charge properly. 

I’ve visited Electrify America’s testing lab on a few occasions and have had engineers explain how difficult it can be, especially since an over-the-air software update can make a vehicle that had been compatible now fault when the owner plugs in. To make matters worse, different automakers have different approaches to software, unlike the totally in-house approach that has helped make Tesla’s Supercharger network so first-rate. 

Ionna is setting up a central lab it calls the Quarterback Lab, as well as seven other labs at each of the founding member’s engineering facilities. The labs will all share technical information which will relieve the stress of any one lab having to run compatibility tests on every EV on the market. 

The labs play “a pivotal role in accelerated deployment, interoperability testing, and continuous improvement of features that work from day one,” the company said in a statement. “A framework that will set new standards and benchmarks in the industry. Poised to grow forward at ‘Ionna-Speed’ as new partners join the movement.”

I’m particularly interested in the “as new partners join the movement” statement. That sounds to me as if Ionna is hoping other automakers will join the partnership and add to funding the network.

I also found it particularly interesting that Ford wasn’t one of the companies included in the initial announcement. This release sounds like Ionna has left the door open for others to jump on board. 

SK Signet DC fast chargers at the grand opening of an SK Signet manufacturing facility in Plano, Texas (June 5, 2023).

SK Signet DC fast chargers

New Appointments

Today’s news also included the announcement of three key positions in the company, the CFO, CPO, and COO.

Derek Rush joins Ionna as its new Chief Financial Officer. Rush was previously the CFO of BP Pulse and will oversee all financial operations and strategies at Ionna. Ricardo Stamatti will serve as the Chief Product Officer and was previously the Global SVP of Stellantis Energy. Shankar Muthukumar, previously the General Manager of Mortenson’s e-mobility division, will take on the role of Chief Operating Officer.

And they’re led by Cutler, who previously served as CEO of network EVConnect and was also chief engineer at Electrify America. In other words, it’s leadership team that seems to bring a lot of knowledge and firepower to the table. 

Better Times Ahead?

So will Ionna be any better than the current DC fast charging networks? That’s the billion-dollar question. The state of public fast charging in North America has been a point of contention for many EV owners. There aren’t enough sites, there aren’t enough plugs per site, and often the chargers are either broken, blocked, or in use when someone pulls up to use them. 

Tesla’s Supercharger network has been by far the most reliable, prolific network in North America but, now that the automaker has opened it up for EVs from other OEMs to use, there’s concern about how rapidly it will continue to expand and how well the sites will be maintained

Will Ionna learn from the mistakes that other charging networks have made? Will its equipment be more reliable? Will they install enough plugs at every location? And when something breaks will they repair it in a reasonable timeframe? Time will tell—and so will we, as we’ll be following Ionna very closely as the network takes shape.

The first sites are scheduled to open up this year, so it shouldn’t be long before we get our answers.