In just a few years, Juice Technology from Zurich Unterland has become one of the world’s leading providers of portable charging stations. It all started in 2014, when company founder Chirstoph Erni had to deal with a toaster plug in a Tesla Model S. Today his company has more than 200 employees, and his products like the Juice Booster mobile phone charger or Wallbox Charger Me are a hit. In an interview, Ernie spoke about the secret to his success, the “next big thing” for electric mobility and his past as a petroleum captain.
Car showroom: In just a few years, Juice Technology has grown from a small start-up to an OEM for Mercedes, among others. International expansion is in full swing. What is your secret?
Christopher Ernie: Get up early and go to bed late!
So from the juicing technique?
On the one hand, we got to the right place right from the start. We just listen to what the customer needs and then do it. The second factor is that we have been able to provide the right quality right from the start. That’s why we also found acceptance with car manufacturers. Then another important point is that we were lucky enough to be there at the right time. And we understood that it’s not just about the hardware – it should be perfect anyway – but the software makes the difference.
Launching a good product once is one thing. However, succeeding in doing so frequently is another thing entirely. Is innovation getting harder and harder?
Not for us yet, because we also think it’s just the beginning. A lot of people still don’t really understand that after all, it’s all about software, even when it comes to charging stations. It is somewhat similar to cars. When Musk went out with Tesla, everyone laughed. But today, every automaker realizes that software makes all the difference. Then there are the networks, not only in the house, but also with the power supply. So it will still need a lot of smart software.
What you mean?
There should be no huge peaks in the net when everyone gets home at seven in the evening. The network operator has to ensure that everyone who has this network has urgent access and is willing to pay more for electricity. Next, we leave it to the network operator to ramp up the charging current at night so that all cars are fully charged by six in the morning.
At what stage should this problem be resolved? Are network operators facing a challenge?
This is a very complex topic and in the end everyone has to work together. By the way, it does not require more electricity. We calculated that if we converted all cars, trucks, and buses to an electric motor, that would make up only about nine percent worldwide. Refining a liter of gasoline here in Switzerland requires about a kilowatt hour and a half of electricity. If I have a car that needs ten liters, I need 15 kWh of electricity for refining. This means that I can drive 100 km in an electric car.
But the refinery can use electricity when the whole network is not used.
They can, but of course the refineries also run around the clock. But that’s exactly the point: we have to create a grid in which there are no vertices. The key is that it takes a lot of charging points and you can charge as much as possible. With solar, for example, you could say electricity is half the price once the sun comes up because it’s there anyway. As a network operator, I am glad that I can sell electricity. I think that will be the key going forward. Then you can do it without extending the network.
Doesn’t that make it totally unexpected for the customer how much will shipping cost? It’s very messy today.
It is a real mess of what is happening today and what is sometimes needed. In the case of electricity, we will get used to the fact that there will be an increase in prices anyway. But it will not be unexpected. You can imagine different models, for example a fixed price for electricity. You pay a flat rate annually and that just covers everything. More will also be produced and stored locally. This is perhaps the biggest change since the creation of the power grid. But this is not only because of electric cars.
When will the last combustion engine be sold in Switzerland?
There is now a kind of avalanche effect: When I owned my first electric car in 2013, it was still very polarizing. But everyone who drove it enjoyed it. Also, the larger selection of different car models available now enhances the switchover. Most people make the switch when they realize the quality of life it offers them. Today you just want to swim with the traffic, you don’t want any trouble, you want to arrive relaxed, which is great. And if you want to pressurize the gas, it’s cold, too. Everything gets easier, you just float there.
And there’s something fun about driving efficiently.
Yes, anyway. I used to be a real petrol engine, and you couldn’t do anything with less than eight cylinders. But driving with electric is simply better. And travel is getting better, too. If I’m driving to Piedmont, I figure an extra half hour so I can take a break or two. But I have something from the trip again, it’s comfortable, I can already eat my first aperitif on the way. Or if I’m on a business trip, I can stop two or three times and send my emails at the same time. Otherwise I’m too stressed out in the evening because I have to catch up all day. I lost no time and gained quality of life. Life is better.
Travel time also depends on the charging capacity. It is getting stronger and is currently around 300 kilowatts. How far are we developing there?
In my opinion, 100-150 kW is already enough. This means that 50 to 60 kWh is possible again in half an hour. You don’t need more. I can’t drink coffee and answer emails that fast, so it helps. From the network’s point of view, it’s also not attractive if there are peaks again. I think the charging performance is a race that won’t matter very soon.
Will scale anxiety go away soon?
People are really bad at rethinking something. Today we have a very rigid picture of what the gas station looks like and we are trying to transfer it to the charging stations. But if we take a step back, no one will say that the gas station should be far from the residential area, somewhere there I have to drive to. No, you want to charge wherever you are, and while you’re there anyway.
How is this rethinking?
It has worked very well in other areas, such as cell phones. But even then, it took a few years before fans accepted him. Long before iPhones existed, there were still people who wanted to keep using buttons and phones that only needed to be charged once a week. Humans are creatures of habit. But then all of a sudden, when a landslide hits, he takes everyone with him.
Are we already there?
Yes, this is the famous hockey stick: it develops very slowly at first, then there is an obstacle and it goes very fast. kink has already happened already. If the Tesla Model 3 is the best-selling car even in the automaker country of Germany, an American car that makes you laugh about the gap, it says a lot. People have matured for something new.
Germany is greatly supported. In a market that is not completely distorted, this may not be the case either.
Switzerland is the best counterexample. Fortunately, we’re not familiar with this kind of extreme support here. So leave it to common sense. Obviously, this works because it is sustainable. If you look at development, you will find that this transformation has long been unstoppable.
However, there is still the problem of standing lanterns who cannot charge at home. What are they supposed to do?
This will be a service that can be provided in shopping centers, etc. It would, of course, be to have a charging connection in a parking lot. And of course that’s attractive too, because you can use it to lure people who wouldn’t otherwise be able to charge. You probably won’t make a lot of money from it, but it will be a service to get people here. Or the employer offers its employees the opportunity to charge their car during the eight hours you are parked anyway. This also has a huge advantage that you can use solar energy in real time.
Then there’s the whole problem of paying at public charging stations.
distasteful! We used the credit card from the start, which was technically challenging. But it was the right decision. And in Germany, fortunately, its introduction will now be mandatory. This is the only right thing. Installing a hitch there would really be the dumbest thing. We also made a lot of enemies with it, because not everyone who ran such a system was happy that we introduced credit card payments.
You’re used to having nice old cars on your own. They are all sold out now. Do not miss this?
I still feel happy when I see a great car with a combustion engine. Just because I drive a Tesla doesn’t mean I think everything else is bad, it’s not a debt to me. But I sold my cars and did not regret it once. It is more convenient in general. It starts with the fact that I came to the garage in the morning and simply had it fully charged. That’s what it is. It should be uncomplicated, otherwise life is complicated enough.
What is a big project that you haven’t been able to implement yet?
What excites me the most is the concept of comprehensive load management. It’s what most people have in mind: What would we do if everyone was driving with electricity? If we can take control of the network and if we have a few dead batteries, then it will work. Then everyone on the balcony has two solar panels and a few batteries. We have many opportunities to produce locally and reduce our dependence on battery suppliers and oil producers. If we could do it ourselves, we would become truly independent from the rest of the world.
Christopher Ernie He is the founder and chairman of Juice Technology AG in Bachenbülach ZH, one of the world’s leading manufacturers of electric vehicle charging infrastructure. He is also a co-founder or investor in several startup companies in the field of electric mobility and renewable energy.