Planning for the Electric Car Infrastructure

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The future is almost here, but are we prepared for it? After years of research and development, several of the world’s largest automakers are preparing to deliver the next gen electric car to showroom floors in 2010. But they’re going to have to contend with a lot more than simply changing the mindset of a public addicted to the gas pump. Delivering upon the promise of all that clean, efficient motoring will necessitate significant adaptations to our current infrastructure – from smart grid technology to charging stations to communications networks. And for the companies that can provide workable solutions to these roadblocks, it’s gonna be big business – but only if they can meet the projected needs of an as-yet-untested technology.



Israel’s Electric Infrastructure

Ironically, one of the industries that stands to gain the most from widespread adoption, also has the most to lose. As electric cars hit the blacktop, the resulting strain on the nation’s utility companies could have customers seeing red. Without significant upgrades, analysts predict that even a moderate electric adoption could lead to regional brownouts, power shortages and added pressure on an unprepared power grid. Additionally, if the utilities are not converting to renewable sources of energy, the potential environmental boon from switching to an electric vehicle could be all for naught, as companies race to meet the growing need by burning more fossil fuels.

To lessen the impact of these likely problems, electric car-makers are hoping to take advantage of smart grid technology – allowing drivers to know not only how much they’re consuming per charge, but the best times (i.e. off-peak) to plug in. However, with the first car expected to arrive in less than a year, there’s not a lot of time for utilities to wise up. Small-scale smart grids have already been embraced in select cities around the country, but in times of economic uncertainty the new can often take a backseat to the known.

It’s not just the how of charging, but also the where. And with a marked lack of vehicle charging stations, it will take a substantial financial investment to reassure drivers who are used to the convenience of corner gas stations. (Though it is still undecided as to who will be footing the bill for the surely exorbitant expense of “volting” America.)  The technology used in creating the necessary lithium-ion batteries has developed to the point that cars can offer up to 300 miles per charge – but travel beyond that will require the availability of charging stations to ensure drivers won’t face ‘range anxiety’ and the fear of losing power in inclement weather.

Better Place, a Silicon Valley startup, is currently testing a design that will allow a quick battery replacement option. Instead of hooking the battery up to an outlet, owners would be able to drive into a ‘swap station’ and have the running-on-empty battery replaced with a fully charged one. The concept is garnering attention in foreign markets, but U.S. automakers are concerned that the proposed solution won’t be able to address the unique intricacies expected in the new vehicle designs. (And likely would not want to share the engineering specifics of each car, a requirement for such a specialized system.)

For a greener future, the dream of electric seems to be the answer to our oil-dependent problems – but the reality may be more difficult than anticipated. Following the demise of the mid-90′s EV1, General Motor’s first entry into the electric car industry, automakers are understandably cautious about how these vehicles will fare in the market. And with a public who has grown to expect convenience, the electric car could be a tough sell. Fortunately, government incentives and investments in upgrading infrastructure could set the stage for electric vehicles to finally come into their own.