Despite the effort that AeroVironment, Better Place and others are putting into selling the idea of electric cars, "the electric vehicle business is a little premature at the moment," says Andrew Frank, a University of California, Davis, professor of mechanical and aeronautical engineering, adding that the main reason for this is the lack of a sufficient charging infrastructure and an unclear plan for who will end up paying for it. Frank cautions that car companies should not expect the public to pitch in. One way to kill the electric car (again) is to ask the public to invest a lot of money in the infrastructure, he says.
Even though Better Place's battery-swap strategy doesn't need to tap into the grid, it still suffers from a lack of resources, namely batteries, Frank says. For Better Place to offer the battery swap-out stations that they're proposing, they're going to need a lot of batteries, he adds, and these batteries will need to fit a variety of car makes and models.
The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) has taken steps to alleviate the battery backlog, this month awarding $2.4 billion in funds for 48 advanced battery and electric drive projects. Johnson Controls, Inc., based in Milwaukee, Wisc., is getting nearly $300 million to make nickel-cobalt-metal battery cells and packs. On the infrastructure side, the DOE is giving $99.8 million to a project led by Electric Transportation Engineering Corporation (eTec), a subsidiary of Scottsdale, Ariz.-based ECOtality, for installation of up to 12,750 charging stations across five markets: Tennessee, Oregon, San Diego, Seattle and the Phoenix/Tucson, Ariz., region. The project also includes the deployment of up to 1,000 Nissan Leaf electric vehicles in each market.
Despite these gestures, Frank is outspoken in his support for plug-in gas-electric hybrids in the near term because they will cut fuel consumption without requiring a massive charging infrastructure. The prime alternative to the high-power, quick-charging stations that AeroVironment and others propose is to use the existing infrastructure of 110-volt outlets that offer low power and take much longer to charge, a situation that fits very well with the current crop of hybrid cars already on the road, Frank says, adding, "plug-in hybrids are good for the short term, which could be 50 years."