Soon to Be a Commodity: Electric Vehicle Charging Stations

A dozen or so companies have launched slick-looking electric vehicle car chargers over the past year, angling to sell hardware to the new wave of electric vehicle owners. But is there all that much variation to these new devices? To Watson Collins, who runs business development for utility Northeast Utilities, not so much.

The equipment pricing of the electric vehicle chargers is very high right now, and utilities are used to buying equipment and meters at commodity prices says Collins. But electric vehicle charging stations are inherently a commodity, says Collins. “I know equipment vendors don’t want to portray it as a commodity, but there’s nothing unique about anyone’s approach or equipment. Companies are just trying to position themselves as having something special.”

That’s probably not a sentiment that startups like Coulomb Technologies want to hear. A commodity business — with low margins that just competes on lower and lower prices and not technology — is a place where generally bigger companies thrive. In contrast startups usually emerge into a space because they’ve developed an innovative technology and intellectual property that can disrupt commodity-based industries.

It’s common for startups to emerge at the very beginning of an industry — like EV charging — that will eventually become a commodity business. In that case the startups have a couple options. First off they can race to grow big fast, and move to the front of the pack before the big players move in. They can also partner with large hardware makers, and for example, Coulomb Technologies is working with Siemens on a joint reseller deal and Better Place recently partnered with GE Better Place.

Another option for startups in the EV charging space is to concentrate a lot more heavily on the software, which can add value and manage the rate and time of the charge. That’s what Juice Technologies has done and is the software brains behind GE’s new WattStation.

I’ll also be interested to see if the design element alone convinces any customers to the purchase of the charging station. GE invested in having famed eco designer Yves Behar design the WattStation.

At the end of the day commoditizing EV chargers is a good thing for the overall electric vehicle industry. As a commodity the prices of the chargers will drop and more customers will buy them.

For more research on electric cars check out GigaOM Pro (subscription required):