Recharging EVs

by Christopher Paul on July 19, 2010

Suppose, for a minute, that the cost of EVs were not more expensive than your average Volkswagen Passat. What would be your biggest reason for not purchasing one? Would it be range? What about charging times? Or the lack of charging facilities in your home or place of work? Why is it that America seems to love the idea of EVs but doesn’t love it enough to buy one? I thought about that question the other day I came to realize its that we’re creatures of habits and we can’t get used to the idea of charging a car.

We’ve always known that charging our cell phones is a fact of life; we were introduced to them with charging as a requirement. Motorola and others made it easy, though, by including an adapter that fit their phone and the existing plugs in our homes. But EVs aren’t as user friendly. They voltage required to charge them is greater than your usual wall outlet can provide; special outlets – the kind your stove or dryer use – is more in line with what an EV requires. Most homes don’t have this kind of outlet in their garage and if they do, there’s only one and already in use. To install new or additional high amp & voltage outlets in existing homes is prohibitive on so many levels I won’t even try to suggest this as a way to increase EV adoption.

So how to go about increasing the adoption of EV? Simple: take the responsibility of charging away from the consumer.

Easier said than done, I know but if we were to come up with a way to charge the cars without the owners having to worry about it, I think the adoption rates would skyrocket. And if you understand the “creatures of habit” remark I made earlier, you might be pondering
what I’m pondering.

Currently, we drive as far as we can on a tank of gas and go to a gas station when we need more fuel to move us forward. We don’t have to drive home to get more gas and we don’t have to look for special places to get petrol. Any gas station regardless of emblem can supply a standard grade of fuel using a standard pump that works with all cars in the US. Honda owners don’t go to Honda only gas stations; they go to Exxon or Shell and get same basic stuff that a Bentley runs off of.

For EVs to be successful, we need to replicate that same experience across all manufacturers. We need to come up with a system where people can drive their electric cars as far as the battery will let them. Then, we need to offer them a place where they can charge their car in about the same amount of time as it takes to fill a tank of gas. Without a similar routine to what we have in place today, no convenience loving American will ever adopt an electric car – no matter how good for the environment or wallet it might be.

The key to replicating the classic experience is to standardize the battery as much as possible and make it removable. Just like the AA and C cell size disposable alkaline batteries, the US (or the world at large) must come up with a battery that’s the same size and voltage no matter who makes it or the car it goes into. With a standard battery in place, drivers of EVs can simply pull into their “gas station” of choice and replace their nearly dead battery with one that’s been pre-charged. If its efficient enough, the car could actually be recharged in a fraction of the time it takes a pump to squeeze 15 gallons of gas through a 1.5″ pipe.

What about costs?

Well, what about them? Batteries of this type will have a real dollar value; so will the actual cost to charge them. The charging station credits the driver for the net value of the battery with the cost of their fully charged one and add the convenience fee of swapping it out for the owner. Done. If the price to “refuel” nets to about the same as it does to fill a tank of gas, people won’t care that its electricity propelling their cars forward and not petrol.

For example, say the owner of a Chevrolet Volt doesn’t have a charge to get from Washington DC to Boston. She drives as far as she can on the current battery but when the remaining charge dips to 10%, she pulls off the highway and into a “gas station of the future” to refuel. She pulls into one of the 4 lanes assigned to EVs and waits for an attendant to swap out her car’s battery. She selects her “grade” – the one that should give her about a 300 mile range – and the person manning the “pumps” unlocks the battery compartment, removes the old battery, slides a new one in, and locks the battery door. Because she had a 300 mile range battery in there already, the cost of the two batteries net to nearly zero and the charge fee of $25 and a $5 exchange fee. She pays for the new charge and pulls out of her lane just like she would have done had she pulled into a lane for legacy car owners. The whole thing took 5 minutes or less and she’s happy to be back on the road before the traffic gets really bad.

By making the experience of owning an EV the same to that of those who own the cars of today, we lower the barrier to acceptance. And we don’t alter the traditional business landscape too much, either. Oil companies can still refuel America but using new technology – and along side the older methods until the markets dictate otherwise. If they want to compete with “grades” they can; those who pack more charge into a standard battery will be favored over someone who can’t pack as much into the same space. Car makers can focus on making their engines better performing & more efficient – like BMW and Toyota do today; they each have a different focus that appeals to a certain consumer and that doesn’t have to change. Plus, car companies can continue to market their cars using traditional methods of style, affordability, efficiency, and brand image – just like it was 50 & 75 years ago. The overall landscape doesn’t have to change that radically if you break it down into the human element and not focus on the propulsion methods.

There are practical considerations to contend with, though. The batteries of the current Volt & Prius are heavy. The lack of cooperation on standards also has to be overcome. But with the right incentives, these will be worked out and government incentives via tax breaks or direct reward like the DARPA challenge might be needed. But I can conceptualize the solution in a weekend so I imagine the geniuses of the big corporations & universities can figure the whole thing out in a few weeks or months. In 5 years, this could be a reality – not 20.

Perhaps 5 years is too aggressive a goal but it can be sooner than we think. With costs spread over a greater population, supported by public and private financial incentives, standard parts would allow
the automotive & transportation industries to boast of their impact on the environment and do what they do best – keeping America moving with freedom and style. We wouldn’t do it any other way and replicating the gasoline experience and applying it to EV owners will let us enjoy the open road just like we do today but without the harm done to our
health and the environment.

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