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Think Plug-in Cars Will Charge Up at Home? Think Again

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Updated with clarification from Schurr: If nothing else, many players in the plug-in vehicle ecosystem — entrepreneurs, EV enthusiasts, lawmakers, automakers, utilities and others — can agree that electric cars won’t go anywhere close to mainstream without a reliable way to recharge the batteries. As IBM’s Vice President for Energy & Utilities, Allan Schurr, put it today at the Opportunities in Grid-Connected Mobility Conference in San Francisco, Calif.: “People don’t buy cars to stay local.” But if you’re expecting plug-in cars to juice up overnight in home garages in significant numbers — a common vision of the “ideal” scenario, Schurr said — you may be disappointed.

“Overnight charging in fact is likely to be the rarity rather than the most common,” Schurr said. That’s mostly because it’s a very small fraction of vehicle owners that park their car in a garage that they own overnight. The bulk of the market is made up of people who don’t own garages — apartment dwellers and many urban homeowners, for example. “I don’t know any automaker that is going to throw away [a sizable share] 80 percent of the market opportunity and sell cars only to those that have access to garages,” he said, adding that as a result, he expects much more investment in public charging infrastructure to occur in coming years. Update: Schurr says 80 percent is the portion of vehicles that are not parked in a garage owned by the same person that owns the car. They could be parked in rented spots, on the street or in driveways.

But public infrastructure, and even charge points at workplaces, is much more complicated than private residential installations, Schurr said, echoing a point raised by General Motors earlier this year. It’s not about permitting or safety hurdles, Schurr said in an interview this morning. There’s just so many players to coordinate, he says, including utilities, billing system developers, cities, hardware companies and automakers. And the network has to allow drivers to travel across energy distributors’ service boundaries, plug in and get a bill at the time of sale. “You don’t want to get a bill next month,” like our current electricity bills, when you recharge, he said. “You expect to see what you’re getting.”

IBM, of course, wants to help manage this coordination as part of its “smarter planet” initiative. Schurr said the company is working to grow small companies with innovative technologies to help solve this problem, and wants to see the federal government support standards development and open architecture. Schurr expects the “first wave of problems” for electric vehicles and grid operators to start cropping up as early as 2011, long before plug-in vehicles make up a significant portion of the U.S. fleet, as a result of “clustering” — small numbers of vehicles concentrated in early-adopter communities or places with strong incentives — which could put extra strain on a local network. So the clock is ticking.

15 Responses to “Think Plug-in Cars Will Charge Up at Home? Think Again”

  1. Bob Smarzinski

    I have been reading articles for the last 4 years about how all of these cars of the future are going to spare us from the future high oil prices. Whether we are talking about “air cars”, better battries using esstor’s techology or the all electric vehicles with over nite charging, there never seems to be anybody actually mass producing any of these vehicles for the public to buy at a reasonable price. At this point in time, before I start believing all of the hype coming out of the car manufactures, I think we need an actual vehicle that people can put their hands on in order to make this fantasy believable. Deadline after deadine seems to pass with no cars of the future. Frankly, I am exhausted from all of the clever hype.

  2. Anonymous

    While it might not be 80 percent, a good fraction of people do live in apartments and condos. While some may cobble a solution (cord out the window) most can’t. So, the Volt’s gas mileage is 250mpg for homeowners and probably 50 for apartment dwellers, about that of the Prius. A big improvement yes, but it defeats the purpose. Also, if you use the A/C or heater at the battery-only portion of your mission, you prematurely cause the gas engine to start. So, make that 250mpg for homeowners with space suit! Car companies ALWAYS inflate gas mileage figures!

  3. The strain put on utilities that cover areas with high plug-in adoption can be managed with tiered pricing systems as well.

    Companies, such as Pacific Gas & Electric, have already implemented plans where they charge electric car owners up to 6 times less (5 cents/kH) between midnight and 7 a.m. This is also a convenient time for most car-owners to charge, and can be done with a timer built into the car itself.

    Then, just to throw in a new angle, there are businesses (Better Place, Zipcar ) who are questioning the need to even own cars, let alone garages.

  4. Dwane Anderson

    The title of this article does not match the info in it. The article says that 80% of cars are not parked in garages, but that doesn’t mean they couldn’t still be charged at home. They simply need a plug where the car is parked. In many cases, an extension cord could suffice. I live in an apartment. If I get an electric car, you can bet I will work out a way to charge my car at home.

    I would have no problem with getting a monthly bill for my electric car charging. What’s wrong with that?

  5. Adding to what Brett and Rickfish said, you must also consider the portable batteries. I really believe that people are going to carry a portable battery (like the one you replace at the stations) upstairs to the apartment and charge it over night.

  6. Rockfish

    I don’t know – a few things don’t add up here:
    “The bulk of the market is made up of people who don’t own garages — apartment dwellers and many urban homeowners”
    I’d like to see the stat that says 80% of the vehicles in the US are sold to urban (whatever that means) homeowners and apartment dwellers. I look at this country and see millions of square miles of endless suburb, all of it equipped with driveways (you don’t actually need a garage) and many with 2, 3 or 4 cars per household. If any “clustering” is going to happen it’s in suburbs that are an easy battery-only commute from an employment center – say 10-15 miles each way – that has no public transit option.
    In addition, there will be almost NO plug-in only vehicles on the road by 2011. Keep in mind there are a few hundred pure plug-ins on the road right now and no major manufacturer plans to offer one for sale in the US at any specified date. At best, there will be a few thousand plug-in HYBRIDS, and those vehicles do not need constant access to a plug for long drives.
    It is really annoying to hear everyone while about the coming crisis in grid-crashing plug-ins that die mid-trip leaving helpless drivers wandering the interstates all over America. It will be DECADES before the plug in hybrid (which runs mainly on gas) is even the majority of vehicles in the US, and longer than that until pure, dedicated, electric-only plug-ins are any proportion at all.
    Please more critical of the sensationalist nonsense you report.

  7. Brett

    Not really a problems for anyone who lives in Canada or some Northern U.S. states, as even most apartment dwellings have a 110 volt outlet available at their parking space for keeping the block heater going, bring the EV’s to Canada!