The U.S. automobile industry of the 20th century flourished based on a gas station infrastructure that at one point numbered in excess of a quarter-million locations. For electric vehicles (EVs) and, to a lesser extent, plug-in hybrid vehicles (PEVs) to succeed, three different networks outside of the automakers’ control are required: communications, charging, and smart/electric grid infrastructures.
The wireless infrastructure is in place for communications with the vehicle. Cars simply can take advantage of the existing cellular companies’ widely distributed cell towers. The Ford Focus, the Nissan Leaf, and the Chevy Volt all have a telematics solution with an embedded modem as well as smart-phone apps. Drivers can link to their vehicles and read the charge status and stop and start the charging cycle whenever they please.
“Once the car has a modem in it, you can have an app on your computer or on your phone or anywhere you are,” says Mark Fitzgerald, associate director of automotive electronics at Strategy Analytics. “As long as the car is connected, you can be connected to the car.”
It seems like embedded modems and smart phones will be an integral part of carmakers’ strategy to give vehicle owners more control and access to critical information about their vehicles. “The idea is that you can’t launch successfully a purely electric vehicle without telematics in it of some sort,” says Fitzgerald.
Still Required Infrastructures
While the wireless infrastructure may be in place to handle vehicle communications and just needs the right applications, the other missing pieces have a long way to go. The charging infrastructure and the variety of batteries represent several challenges to carmakers and consumers. Ian Riches, director of the automotive electronics service at Strategy Analytics, sees some major issues for EV success based on current limitations in the charging infrastructure.
“All of the fast-charging infrastructure projects out there are, in the scheme of things, tiny,” he says. “There is one point here and 10 points there. They are talking about 1000 locations across a country of 300 million people, give or take a few.”
As a result of the limited number and widely distributed charging stations, drivers will be forced to rely on recharging at home.
“Initially it’s going to be home charging,” says Riches. “Because that’s simple, that’s low cost, and you know it’s going to be available when you get home.” This will certainly limit the range that people travel.
With a PEV, the story changes. A driver can plan a long trip. “You just run until the battery’s empty and you keep filling it up with gas. You have that option,” he says. Unfortunately, this strategy underutilizes the electric capability of the vehicle.
The type of battery being charged in the vehicle is a work in progress, too. The lithium-ion (Li-ion) category encapsulates a broad range of battery technologies. Strategy Analytics has compiled a list of 201 variations of batteries in past and current production EVs as well as future concept EVs (see the table).
For many vehicles, the only data is “lithium ion” and nothing more specific. While the lead-acid batteries are mainly for past models, small, low-cost EVs for emerging markets may use lead-acid technology in the future.
“It’s all different types of chemistries that they are developing and testing,” says Kevin Mak, an analyst with the automotive electronics service at Strategy Analytics. He points out that the different chemistries are being investigated to increase energy densities, to make the battery more stable, and to minimize cooling systems that add weight.
The final infrastructure item is the electric utility distribution system. “No one has yet explained to me a viable business model for selling electricity to electric cars other than through your home outlet, through your regular domestic electricity company,” laments Riches. To address this issue, electric utility companies need to hasten the development of the Smart Grid infrastructure.
The aging grid in the U.S. has many problems all by itself. Charging PEVs and EVs that draw as much as 7.7 kW (for the SAE AC level 2 220-V charger) will only add to the problem. And, the level 3 fast-rate dc chargers will draw significantly more to charge a discharged EV in a half-hour or so.
The power requirement could make fast-charging more of a headache than a revenue opportunity for utility companies. “Once you get to level 3 fast charging, you are looking at 50 kW,” he says. “You don’t need too many of those and you’re looking at a local substation.”
Charging away from home is probably the most critical missing piece to the EV infrastructure puzzle. “Going back 100 years or so, it made sense to people to build gas stations because they could make money and the government didn’t have to fund them,” concludes Riches. “We have to get to this same point with EVs for them to be a viable alternative.”