General Motors still has a lot of open questions about the best way to build out a comprehensive charging infrastructure for plug-in vehicles like the Chevy Volt, and it’s working with utilities, policy-makers and other stakeholders and “enablers” to answer them. But at least one thing is pretty clear at this early stage, according to GM’s Britta Gross, who heads up infrastructure commercialization: Automakers need more help setting up charging than GM had for the EV-1. In particular the industry can take a cue from the proliferation of cable and the Internet, by making it relatively affordable, timely and convenient for customers.
Speaking at a workshop Monday ahead of the Plug-in 2009 conference taking place this week in Long Beach, Calif., Gross said that with the EV-1, GM “held every customer’s hand,” walking them through the process of permitting and installing chargers for their vehicles. “We ended up footing a lot of the bill,” she said. “That can’t be sustained if you want to get to 10,000 or 100,000 vehicles.”
Noting President Obama’s target of having a million plug-in hybrids on the road by 2015, Gross said installation and coordination of charging infrastructure “can’t be done the way we did it a few years ago.” More than 2,000 public chargers were installed in California and Arizona between 1996 (when the EV-1 became available) and 2008, according to Enid Joffe, president and founder of infrastructure installer Clean Fuel Connection, who also spoke at Monday’s workshop. While virtually all of those installations were subsidized by government, she said, “GM was extremely generous in funding many of those locations, as were Honda and Ford.”
This time around, GM hopes to cut costs and create a smoother process for consumers through increased teamwork among utilities, governments, regulators, automakers, local employers, universities and other groups. Consumers should have a single point of contact for residential infrastructure assistance, Gross said, noting that having a 24/7 operator to answer EV customers’ questions is among GM’s top priorities for utility support. Gross also suggested having a repository of industry-wide information about plug-in vehicles.
Ultimately, the idea is to make charger installations more like cable or Internet installations: cheap, quick and low maintenance. Part of the solution, Gross said, could be for utilities to offer a warranty on home charger installations similar to the warranties now available for home electrical work. “It’s not such a big leap to offer this through your utility,” Gross said. “We have a precedent and a very healthy dialogue with utilities in some areas getting consumers ready.” (However, putting utilities in charge of answering consumers’ questions could present another problem: “It’s hard to believe how difficult it is to get customers to call the utility,” Joffe said at today’s workshop. “Sorry guys, but they don’t like calling you.”)
Lessons from the EV-1 rollout aren’t all proving easy to apply. According to Joffe, whose company was contracted to install chargers for the yearlong Mini-E pilot program (a launch beset with complaints about installation delays), “We’re seeing history repeating itself.” In 2002, Joffe said, it took an average of 30 to 45 days for electric car buyers to get a charger installed. While that “seems astronomically long for just installing a plug,” Joffe said, today the process actually takes about the same amount of time or longer.
Putting in a plug may not be rocket science, Joffe said, but there’s a very complicated process for a simple job because of the amount of coordination that’s required. “The country has never successfully transitioned to an alternative fuel,” Gross said. “The easier it gets, we’ll move flocks of people over to this technology.”