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Summary:

How important will the design of some of the first charging stations be for the success of plug-in cars? Here’s how GE, Better Place, Ecotality, AeroVironment, and Coulomb Technologies stack up.

GE raised the bar on hip plug-in car charger design last week with the announcement that it plans to sell an electric vehicle charger called the WattStation designed by Yves Behar, the famous designer behind the One Laptop for Child Project and the Jawbone headset. The news made me think just how important will the design of these first plug-in car chargers be for the successful proliferation of electric vehicles.

Behar told me he designed the WattStation so that the experience would be the complete opposite of pumping gas at a gas station. While gas stations are dirty, noisy, and harsh, Behar said, he tried to make the WattStation “friendly,” simple, welcoming, silent and “more like the greenery in the urban environment.” The WattStation’s rounded, angled screen, and changing LED lights echo an Apple gadget much more than the standard auto gear, a gas pump or a parking meter.

Gadi Amit, the founder and principal designer for San Francisco-based NewDealDesign, which is helping design Better Place’s charging stations, told me a similar sentiment to me back in 2008. He said NewDealDesign is taking a cue from the user experience of gadgets and cell phones for Better Place’s plug-in chargers and that means including familiar aspects like blinking LED lights and making the charging experience a couple-click “painless” process.

Both Amit and Behar emphasized that the design of the plug-in chargers could be a crucial aspect of getting consumers to embrace and use the stations, given how nascent and unfamiliar the technology and marketplace are. There’s very few plug-ins on the roads today in the U.S., but large automakers and startups are introducing the first mainstream vehicles over the coming 12 to 18 months. As Amit said to me, these chargers are for “mass deployment, not just for the rich and famous.”

Here’s 5 plug-in car charger designs. Weigh in on what design elements of the chargers you like best and why:

 

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  1. Katie, I’m more concerned in how uniformly the stations work: are they all using the SAE J1772 standard for the connector? If not, what is each one using?

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  2. Skip, Standards have already been approved. See article “SAE approves connector standard for EV charging” at http://www.examiner.com/x-3721-Detroit-Automotive-Technology-Examiner~y2010m3d20-SAE-approves-connector-standard-for-EV-charging.

    Most people traveling away from home will want the convenience of fast 10-minute recharges, as provided by the ecotality system that is operated similar to familiar gas pumps; but, instead of pumping gas, it pups electricity.

    For commuters, a home charger will most likely be preferred. And, public charging stations will be a dismal failure. Why? Because, it will be impossible (and cost prohibitive) to “install” AND “maintain” them everywhere where they are (allegedly) needed, they are unsightly and the same will happen at a very quick pace (catching big arrogant lumbering companies off guard) as has happened in the beginning with computer technology: — recharging and battery technology will advance at an exponential pace over the next few years. As Apple and Microsoft did for personal computers in the beginning, the smaller nimble agile companies will control this new emerging techno field.

    I predict that the public charging stations will be obsolete within the next 18 months and no one will want their community streets, parking garages/lots littered with such eyesores. People will fast discover that public charging stations will not be as convenient or practical as advertised.

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  3. waltinseatle Monday, July 19, 2010

    Jo, farmers once kept gas on the farm and filled cars there. Now they fill up at stations like the rest of us, just the oil is kept onsite. Safety issue then, but there is a cost issue now for electricity in the two car garage…and I think that stations will consinue. Renters are not going to install charge stations unless they can be pulled up and unless there is a proper outlet already there. Landlords won’t spring for acommidations at their own expense. Apartments and condos have similar issues as well as the socially disruptive issues of whos first in line and who left their car hooked up and I did not get a charge last night. Folk with commons laundry facilities already know the sort of things that happen. So costs are a big issue as well as access. These tell me we will have public outlets for a long while. Just like ‘rent to own’ furniture and payday quickloans have found a niche.

    As far as streets “littered” with chargers…that’s in the eye of the beholder, or more likely the non-user. Perhaps some think the new taller parking tab vending machines are more eyesore than the rows of individual meters. Lots of parking lots are indoors now that ground space is so precious. Some cities have extensive commuter parking so there are places for vending electricity that won’t ‘litter’ the view.

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  4. waltinseatle,

    Home chargers (or chargers at apartment complexes) will be mere convenience/luxuries, just like being able to rent an enclosed garage at some apartment complexes. (When I lived in an apartment complex some years ago, I paid an extra $150 a month for the convenience and luxury of a private garage — of which there was a limited number and a waiting list to get one.)

    Likewise, personal charges at an apartment complex will see the same fate.

    Landlords do not keep gas on-site for renters, and will likewise not (necessarily) keep the convenience of personal (so called “public”) charging stations. (By the way, “public” is a misnomer anyway, since they will be for the use of renters, only, assuming that such a convenience/perk is offered by a landlord of an apartment complex.)

    In any case, as I mentioned in my post, it will be a short time before such so-called public charging stations will be obsolete and become a mere luxury; because, just like the farmer you mentioned, everyone will simply fill up at an “electric” pump station just like the rest of us.

    One driving force that will make it a bit more expensive to “fill-up” at home is that there will most likely be an electricity surtax (a licensing fee, or stamp tax or whatever) for the luxury and convenience of having and using a home charger — i.e. the use of electricity for the purpose of “filling-up”. The electric company (ComEd, etc.) will automatically charge you the additional taxes, which will show up on your conventional home-electric bill.

    Besides other things, determining who is using what in an apartment complex will be too complicated or involved for a landlord — i.e. who gets billed and who does not, etc. On top of that, there is the maintenance of the units, etc. Most likely, you won’t see “public” charging stations at apartment complexes unless your landlord happens to include such a perk with the rental of a private garage, in which case it will be for your one private/personal use.

    Then there are more issues, such as the cost of installing a system for personal use — especially if it is intended to be used during peek hours.

    So, unless you are willing to pay for the installation of a home charging “system” along with the added surtaxes, etc. for the connivance and luxury of filling up at home, the rest of us will be using the (public) electric pump station, which will most likely tax you the same as you are taxed now for each gallon of gasoline.

    Most likely, all existing gas stations will eventually offer electricity in additional to gasoline, etc. It will just be a matter of time before the “liquid” pumps are completely replaced with “electric” pumps.

    For the electric charging, this will be the most realistic and feasible way to implement the whole system and replaced all liquid pumps without impacting the current grid and electric transmission infrastructure.

    For example, instead of gasoline tankers or underground pipes being used to re-fill underground gasoline storage containers, the stations will install banks of storage batteries, which will be filled (charged) during off-peek hours. Then, during peek hours, the storage batteries will be used to fill vehicle batteries — transferring the charge from the station’s large battery banks to the smaller vehicle batteries.

    This needed “much more structured” and “controllable” process will not be possible in a city littered with individual charging stations along streets, in parking lots, etc.

    Back to the “personal” home charging station….

    Now, you can see that a home charging station can get much even more involved — especially when municipalities, cities, etc, require that certain kinds of charging stations (e.g. 220V systems) in a home may require additional technology in order to make sure that if used during peek hours that it does not adversely impact the grid. This means more expense for the home owner (or apartment dweller), thus making it cost prohibitive for most of us to have private home charging stations — especially ones that can be used during peek hours; and, thus, will be a luxury for most.

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  5. BTW — It will be the increasing and overwhelming demand to charge during peak hours that will drive the demise of “simple” unsophisticated public charging stations. You simply can not plug everyone into chargers at the same time during daytime (or other) periods when the demand for electricity is at its highest. Cities that schedule rolling brownouts, for example, know this better than anyone. No doubt, charging vehicles WILL be regulated so as to protect the grid and electrical distribution infrastructure and reduce the (unnecessary) need for additional power generating facilities.

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  6. I wonder if anyone has thought of wireless charging, e.g. you pull into your parking spot, the podium on the sidewalk detects a car, you input a code/pin number or something and away it goes…

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  7. I’m not sure the world is aware that in Australia, 220 volts is the standard for ALL domestic power points. I’m assuming therefore that here in Sydney there will be no such thing as home charging “stations” (“charging cables” yes) – all the hardware will be in the car – plug in anywhere.

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