Several companies are vying for an opportunity to put to rest this last concern, which they refer to as "range anxiety." While plug-in hybrids could be successful recharging via a 220-volt outlet, or even a standard 110-volt connection, Monrovia, Calif.-based AeroVironment, Inc., is betting that all-electric vehicles will need their own fast-charging infrastructure in order to be successful. Such an infrastructure would include kiosks that look something like today's gas pumps but could produce 400 to 600 volts, enough electricity to recharge an electric vehicle battery pack in minutes, says Kristen Helsel, AeroVironment's director of electric vehicle chargers.
AeroVironment has met with some success in its plans to develop these kiosks. The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office earlier this week granted the company a patent for technology designed to gather data from an electric car or its charger and use the data to determine whether the rate of charge is optimized for the vehicle's performance, the battery's long-term health and the local utility company's power availability. In May, Washington, D.C.'s Department of Transportation, Nissan North America and AeroVironment announced a partnership that they expect will lead to at least 100 fast-charging kiosks throughout D.C. by 2011. The district is also pledging to add Nissan's Leaf to its fleet.
AeroVironment, which helped GM design the ill-fated EV-1, thinks the time is right for electric vehicles and is even working with GM again, this time to develop its all-electric Impact vehicle ("Impact" was also the pre-production name for the EV-1). "Working in electric vehicles' favor this time around is a political environment that appears to be encouraging the use of greener modes of transportation," Helsel says.
Palo Alto, Calif.-based Better Place promises a different approach to creating an electric car infrastructure by proposing to build drive-through battery exchange stations that use robots on an automated track that slide under the car to swap out weak batteries for newly charged ones within minutes. (The company has produced a video demonstrating this procedure.) Better Place would own the batteries and be responsible for recharging them, taking that responsibility out of drivers' hands, says Sven Thesen, director of Better Place's utility operations and sustainability strategy. According to the company's plan, a driver would sign up for access to this service at the time he or she purchases an electric vehicle and would be charged for a plan similar to the way cell phone services are structured.
Better Place also sells charging posts that could be installed at homes or businesses. "We, as the infrastructure provider, will own and operate these charge stations and swap stations," Thesen says. He claims that the company has already installed 1,000 charge posts in Israel and signed up 30 companies, including IBM and Nike, in that country to provide its charging services to their employees. Israel Railways earlier this month announced that it will install 220 Better Place charging stations at various train stations throughout the country.