ECOtality Unveils "Swiss Army Knife" of Telecom for Electric Car Charging

Blink commercial charger

Will a pair of simple shapes — a circle and a square — become the iconic symbol of smart charging for electric vehicles, the way a box topped with a pitched roof is instantly recognized as a house? That’s the hope of electric vehicle charging infrastructure developer ECOtality and industrial design firm Frog Design. On Tuesday at the Plug-in 2010 Conference in San Jose, Calif., ECOtality (s ETLY) unveiled what it’s calling Blink smart charging stations for electric vehicles, including designs for residential and commercial installations.

Based in Scottsdale, Ariz., ECOtality has already installed about 6,000 charging stations around the country for vehicles like warehouse forklifts and ground-support vehicles at airports, ECOtality CEO Jonathan Read told me in an interview that the Blink chargers have been designed from the ground up to link with communication networks and smart grid services. In an interview recently at Frog’s offices in San Francisco, ECOtality CEO Jonathan Read described the Blink stations as a “Swiss army knife of telecommunication,” designed to connect with local area networks, Wi-Fi, Zigbee and cell phone networks. Most of the Blink software and networking technology, he said, has been developed in-house.

With more emphasis on function, simplicity and opportunities for multiple revenue streams than the kind of pizzazz seen in General Electric’s recently unveiled WattStation, Frog and ECOtality may be onto something. Paul Bradley, Frog’s executive creative designer, said that he drew inspiration from familiar forms ranging from a computer power button and touch screen to a utilitarian hose rack for the Blink units, and the team worked with mock-ups of gas stations to see how they might fit in the real world.

The first Blink charging stations will be installed as part of the so-called EV Project, an infrastructure buildout in 16 cities supported by $114.8 million in stimulus grant funds from the Department of Energy. By around this time next year, ECOtality is slated to install 15,000 charge points through that project, with installations beginning in October or November and reaching the half-way point in January, said Read.

ECOtality plans to allow one-off charging, and offer subscription plans for tiered access to the Blink network, ranging from $25-$55 per month depending on the driver and vehicle technology (all-electric cars have bigger battery packs than plug-in hybrids, for example, and will need to draw more juice). Read said “some adjustment” should be expected for these pricing schemes between now and late 2012, similar to the way cell phone plans have changed over time to provide options for unlimited minutes.

Blink residential charger

The company hopes its Blink network will generate revenue beyond subscriptions. Read said ECOtality is now “working actively” with big box stores and national chains, with the idea that Blink stations could serve as retailers’ and brands’ first point of contact with electric car-driving shoppers. ECOtality also hopes to sell screen-time to media and advertising companies, and form a partnership with a cell phone provider. The company is currently in talks with at least five automakers in hopes of “working with them while they’re interested in selling chargers” — during the very early days of plug-in vehicle sales.

Long term, however, Read commented that it’s “not lucrative being a first or second tier provider” to the major automakers. Utilities, said Read, will be “the ultimate customer.” ECOtaility aims to use the smarts in its Blink stations to manage electricity demand from plug-in vehicles in a way that minimizes stress on the power grid, and Read said utilities would potentially pay a fee to access data about when and how people charge.

ECOtality is one of a growing number of companies hoping to provide smart charging infrastructure for the upcoming generation of plug-in vehicles. Read commented that we’ll see “a plethora of people who will make chargers and sell them,” but he argued that Blink will offer something different. Coulomb Technologies, a competitor as well as a partner in the DOE-backed EV Project, offers charge points that Read described as “extremely practical,” and “really designed for city streets.” The problem with that, he said, is states and cities don’t have the money to support a real boom. He dismissed GE’s WattStation as little more than “really pretty,” and Better Place as “the mythical competitor.”

With Blink, ECOtality hopes to spur viral adoption of charge points in the private sector by meeting retailers’ needs, making equipment convenient for consumers, and providing tools for users to connect with a social network of electric car drivers.

At the end of the day, however, these stations need to provide a basic function: deliver electricity. To make that as easy as possible, Bradley’s team at Frog, with clear guidance from ECOtality, wrestled with elements like the weight and length of the cord. For the residential unit, they opted to separate the “smart part” of the gear from the actual plug, so the user interface can be installed at a comfortable height and convenient location in the garage, for example, and the section that holds the cord can go close to the car’s charging port.

Uncle Sam may already be on board at this point, but only time will tell if ECOtality can win over retailers and utilities, and if consumers will flock to electric cars in large enough numbers to sustain the smart charging business long term.

Images courtesy of ECOtality

Related content on GigaOM Pro (subscription required):

IT Opportunities in Electric Vehicle Management