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Tipping Point

Industry giants start the EV revolution.

Fortnightly Magazine - June 2010

Cars such as the Volt can travel 40 miles on electric charge alone, then the gas-electric engine kicks in. But fully electric vehicles don’t have a back up fuel source. If depleted far from home, EVs need either a speedy charge, or a new battery.

Outwardly at least, car companies and utilities both favor the former option. A 240-volt Level 2 charge takes about 3 hours, far too long to spend at a roadside station. But new direct-current fast-charge technology enables a dead battery to get an 80-percent charge in less than half an hour.

“We believe that DC fast charging is the solution,” says Nissan’s Perry. “We’ll be demonstrating DC fast charging in six states beginning in December.”

As impressive as such a fast charge might seem, however, pulling over for 30 minutes every 100 miles would make that trip to grandma’s house a bit of an ordeal. Option B envisions pulling into a station where the spent battery is swapped for a fresh one in less time than it takes to pump a tank of gas. But that scenario raises a key question: who owns the battery?

Utilities certainly don’t want to own them any more than they want to own a customer’s refrigerator. And automakers resist the idea of battery swapping due to the warranty issues it might raise. But at least one company is betting big on the concept of third-party battery ownership.

Better Place’s business model is a combination of infrastructure—remote charging and battery swap stations—and software that supports communication among car, driver and utility. It’s a support service that ostensibly allows the EV to become more than just an urban runabout.

“Somewhere between 60 percent and 75 percent of all the energy that the average driver needs will probably be delivered at the home,” says Hugh McDermott, vice president for utility alliances at Better Place. “Another 10 percent to 20 percent can be delivered at the place of work.”

The swappable battery, he says, is the last piece of the puzzle.

“I’m in San Francisco,” McDermott says. “I want to know I can get to Tahoe for the weekend and not get stranded, so locating battery swap stations along key transport corridors is going to be part of the eventual deployment.”

Better Place has begun massive projects to bring its system to Israel and Denmark—both small, highly developed countries with strong state support for EVs. (Israel, in fact, is aiming for 100-percent EV adoption by 2020—about 2 million vehicles.) The company has projects announced for California and Hawaii, as well as Ontario, but McDermott admits the U.S. regulatory patchwork is a major problem.

“It’s challenging for us to operate in the U.S.,” he says. “There’s no coherent national policy on energy.”

Another problem is the system requires cooperation from automakers. Vehicles must be designed with batteries that are easily swapped from below. Nissan, through its alliance with Renault, has a relationship with Better Place in Israel and Denmark; Renault will deliver 100,000 battery-swappable EVs to Israel between 2011 and 2016. But at this point, Perry says