Killer App for E.V.’s: 30-Minute Recharges
FOR electric car naysayers and doubting consumers, range anxiety is the
This notion — that buyers may shun the electric cars set to start
arriving in showrooms late this year because they can drive only 75 or
100 miles before needing a recharge — is a powerful argument.
Of course, range would not be an issue at all if the car’s batteries
could be conveniently recharged in about the same time it takes to top
off a gas tank. An ability to replenish batteries in minutes, rather
than spending several hours (or overnight) within reach of an electrical
outlet, could silence the debate over whether electric cars will ever
Many proposals have been forwarded, including plans for quick-change
battery packs; this concept, like some other inventive solutions, raises
serious questions about infrastructure and investments. Lately, though,
there has been a greater focus on high-voltage quick chargers that could
refill a car’s battery in a half hour or less.
Most charging, experts say, will be done at home and at the workplace,
where electric vehicle owners will have hours to connect their cars to
high-power units, known as Level 2 chargers, that operate on 240-volt
circuits. (Level 1 uses 120-volt household current.) Apartment buildings
are also expected to offer Level 2 capability as a perk to attract
eco-conscious tenants, though providing more than a few chargers per
building may prove to be a challenge.
Still, there will be times when electric cars will be out on the road,
running on the electrical equivalent of fumes, and looking for a charge.
The good news is that the top class of chargers, Level 3, includes units
that can boost a typical electric car most of the way to full in just 30
minutes using about twice the voltage of a Level 2 charger. The logical
place for fast charging would be stopover locations — a Starbucks coffee
shop or a big-box store, for example.
Safety, an important consideration for consumers and regulators alike,
becomes a more pressing matter as the electrical current increases.
Underwriters Laboratory, the product safety organization, is working
with a charger company, ECOtality, and the federally supported EV
Project, as well as with others, on certifying the safety of fast
charging. According to Gary Savin, vice president and general manager of
the laboratory’s power and controls business unit, “We have to consider
how the chargers are going to be used and what kind of environment
they’ll operate in.”
Safety is an issue that fast-charge advocates are eager to move beyond.
ECOtality’s chief executive, Jonathan Read, said the coming fast
chargers would be overengineered and overdesigned to ensure the safety
“We couldn’t be more comfortable with fast charging,” he said. “We have
deployed more than 5,000 fast chargers around the U.S. and never had an
injury. We’ve had people charging in snowstorms and in pouring rain
without any issues.”
ECOtality recently unveiled a new Blink Level II charger developed with
Frog Design. ECOtality, also a partner in the EV Project, will roll out
a public fast charger in the fall, and Mr. Read predicts that it will be
easy for consumers to operate.
Mr. Savin is among those asking if fast chargers will need the same kind
of attendants once employed at gas stations. That is not just a safety
question: Mr. Savin said the thicker, heavier cable needed for fast
charging could be most easily handled by a trained attendant.
Andrew Tang, senior director of customer care at the California utility
PG&E, says he also thinks attendants may be necessary.
Fast charging commands a large power draw even when compared with the
needs of an average home. While a Level 2 charger draws up to 60
amperes, the demand of a Level 3 unit is some four times greater.
“Homes are equipped with 200-amp fuse panels,” Mr. Tang said. “That’s
for the whole house.”
But PG&E is supportive of E.V.’s and of fast charging. It has installed
a free public Level 3 charger along Interstate 80 in Vacaville, Calif.,
and it is conducting tests with a Mitsubishi i-MiEV, one of the Japanese
E.V.’s (another is the Nissan Leaf, also tested at Vacaville) that uses
a Japanese fast-charging standard developed by the Tokyo Electric Power
Company. That standard has been finalized for Japan and could be applied
in the United States, but separate guidelines for Level 3 are also
evolving in this country.
The Tokyo Electric charging standard is licensed in the United States by
Aker Wade Power Technologies of Charlottesville, Va. The company, which
has built 9,000 fast chargers for forklifts, airport vehicles and other
commercial applications, says fast charging is safe.
“We’ve never had a single safety incident,” said Jeff Taylor, the
company’s chief operating officer. “We’ve never shocked a single person.”
Earlier this year, Aker Wade announced that it had partnered with
Coulomb Technologies, based in Campbell, Calif., to produce a 480-volt,
125-amp public fast charger. Coulomb’s chief executive, Richard
Lowenthal, did not expect a large initial market; he said he would be
thrilled if the company sold 100 of the approximately $40,000 chargers
(which could require a $20,000 installation) in 2011.
Mr. Lowenthal said that he did not expect to see fast chargers in gas
stations soon, that even a half-hour wait would be too long. “Gas
stations are designed to move cars out in 90 seconds, he said. “Fast
charging isn’t appropriate there.”
A more likely location would be truck stops along interstates, he said.
“If, for instance, you were driving from San Francisco to Los Angeles,
you could stop, get a bite to eat, then be on your way.”
But Mark Perry, director of product planning at Nissan North America,
said that gas-station charging should be looked at differently. Instead
of filling up, he said, drivers might “pull in, grab a latte from the
machine, take care of nature and come back to a car that has now added
25 miles of range.”
A five-minute recharge time might speed up the gas station model, but
Mr. Lowenthal said that cell chemistry made that speed unlikely anytime
soon. Best Buy recently announced that it would offer E.V. charging at
some locations, the first big box to make such a commitment in recent
times. (Costco installed some chargers in the 1990s.)
According to Rick Rommel, a Best Buy senior vice president for emerging
business, the company planned to offer primarily Level 2 charging, but
it might have Level 3 at some stores. Mr. Rommel said that the chain
envisions consumers briefly topping off their cars using a Level 2
charger, not necessarily going from almost empty to full.
“Level 3 is optimal for consumers who have something else to do for 20
to 30 minutes while waiting for their cars to recharge,” he said.
The high initial cost of fast chargers is an issue, Mr. Rommel said,
especially if they needed to be staffed. “We’re hearing $50,000 for the
chargers, and when you add the cost of an attendant to that, it really
gets challenging,” he said.
The degradation of battery packs from repeated fast charging is an
issue, but some in the industry say they believe enough safeguards are
The Nissan Leaf will have an eight-year, 100,000-mile warranty on its
battery pack, and Mr. Perry of Nissan said that while there was a
detrimental effect from fast charging, it wasn’t large. “If you do it
only once a day or once a week, there will be very little impact,” he said.
Nissan’s charging partner in the United States is AeroVironment of
Monrovia, Calif., which like Aker Wade has long experience with rapid
charging of forklifts and airport vehicles. According to Kristen Hensel,
an AeroVironment vice president, “The car is in control, and it will ask
for the power it needs.”
Mr. Taylor of Aker Wade adds, “The charger is a slave to the vehicle’s
computer, which understands the battery conditions and how much it can
take on without damage.”
AeroVironment is also cooperating with Think, the Norwegian E.V. maker,
and the partners say they are working on technology that can charge a
small Think City vehicle from depleted to an 80 percent charge in 15
Rachel Carroll, a vice president of Think’s battery supplier, Ener1,
said “a whole array of solutions,” including thermal management, could
be worked into battery design and control systems to adapt for frequent
fast charging. “If these design solutions are not built into the battery
systems from the outset,” she said in a statement, “fast charging runs
the risk of degrading battery life to the point where it becomes
difficult to meet the warranty requirements that customers expect.”
Service Guarantees Citizenship