In the early days of the automobile, travel required careful planning. There were no convenient places to fill up your car—gasoline had to be obtained at “bulk depots” located outside of the cities. In 1905 the first gas station was born. Early adopters of the automobile had what we now call “range anxiety,” a fear of running out of fuel. By 1930, the number of gas stations increased to 100,000, AAA was offering emergency roadside assistance to stranded drivers, and range anxiety seemed a thing of the past. Now, with the move to electric vehicles, range anxiety is appearing once again.
Though in the U.S. 95 percent of all single-trip journeys by car are less than 30 miles, well within the range of most EVs, manufacturers are sensing reluctance to purchase all-electric vehicles due to range anxiety. Yet various strategies are emerging that can put people’s range fears to rest. From already available quick-charging stations to futuristic charging coils built into the road, companies are trying to figure out how to get people over their range anxiety.
Making batteries go further
Current research efforts to increase range include improved battery technologies such as IBM’s lithium-air battery that could lead to an EV with a 500-mile range and Phinergy’s aluminum-air energy storage device that could increase an EV’s range to 1,000 miles. Another way to increase range is to lighten the vehicle. From Mitsubishi’s motor-inverter combo pack, which is half the size and significantly lighter than the company’s existing motor and external inverter, to RMI’s work on carbon fiber composites, there are many ways people are working to lightweight vehicles.
Charging stations surge
Another solution is the expansion of fast-charging stations. A report from information firm IHS expects the number of charging stations available worldwide to grow to 10.7 million by 2020, up from the 135,000 available today. New York alone is hoping to add at least 10,000 public spaces with access to chargers over the next seven years. Also expected is a growth of employer-owned chargers to serve their workforce and an increase in for-profit charging facilities such as the network being established by Texas-based eVgo.
A fast-charger network was recently installed in Estonia, with 165 quick-charging EV stations, no more than 60 kilometers apart, throughout the country. According to Jarmo Tuisk, head of Estonia’s EV program, in Forbes, the stations were installed “to give a safety net to the early (EV) adopters so nobody is left on the road.”
Reciprocal charging rights
One of the shortcomings in the expansion of charging stations has been the multiple charging networks; if you showed up with an empty battery at a Blink charger with only a ChargePoint card, for example, you could be out of luck. Fortunately, that is changing with Collaboratev, a joint effort between ChargePoint and ECOtality that will enable reciprocal charging and billing between the two charging networks. They are actively encouraging other charging network providers to join as affiliates in order to create a single, unified, nationwide system for charging EVs. An IBM-spearheaded effort in Europe is likewise working to enable access to the continent’s network of charging systems, regardless of the EV owner’s home service or network, as the European Union in parallel approved a common charging standard and plug, which should enable greater access to charging networks.
Dealers offer: the charge is on us
Lucky owners of the Tesla Model S can charge their EV for free at Tesla’s Supercharger stations, which can provide half a charge in twenty minutes. As of today there are networks on the West Coast and East Coast, linking California’s cities as well as the Washington, D.C.-New York City-Boston corridor. However, Tesla is predicting to triple the number of Supercharger stations by the end of June, and to cover 98 percent of the U.S. and Canada with Superchargers by 2015. Elon Musk, founder and CEO of Tesla Motors, hopes to make “the entire country within the range of a Supercharger,” by installing Superchargers every 80 to 100 miles on major routes throughout the U.S. and Canada. These Superchargers will eventually have solar panels charging large-scale storage, making it possible to travel the nation even in the event of a “zombie apocalypse,” jokes Musk.
Nissan is also planning to expand its network of battery chargers as well. The goal is to triple the number of Level 3 chargers to 600, and to double the number of Level 2 chargers to 22,000 in the most LEAF-heavy cities.
Skip charging, swap the battery
An alternative solution to chargers is battery-swapping stations. The most advanced program was from a company called Better Place, which filed for bankruptcy this past week. For a fixed membership cost, Better Place customers received a home charging station and could visit any Battery Switching station in the network to have their battery swapped out in about the same amount of time that it takes to fill a conventional gas-powered car. Although it had 2,000 users in Israel, the company released a statement declaring, “Unfortunately, after a year’s commercial operation, it was clear to us that despite many satisfied customers, the wider public take up would not be sufficient and that the support from the car producers was not forthcoming.”
Renault was also drawn to the battery swapping idea. Its Fluence Z.E. was built so that its battery can be swapped out for a new one in a matter of minutes. However, the company sold so few it opted to concentrate on improving battery technology instead of building cars that can take advantage of battery-swapping stations. Tesla has also toyed with the idea of battery swapping, recently reporting that it plans to introduce public facilities to rapidly swap out the Model S battery pack.
EV roadside assistance
AAA has put another model in place in a handful of cities in the U.S. in the form of a mobile charging station. Seattle, Washington recently received a Level 3 roadside EV-charging truck that can provide five miles of driving range with less than ten minutes of charing time. In theory that’s (hopefully) enough charge to get you to the closest of the 375 publicly accessible charging stations in the region. AAA has other types of mobile fast-charging trucks in San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Portland, Oregon, and plans to introduce them in Tampa Bay, Florida and Knoxville, Tennessee.
The aid of apps
Some companies are leveraging in-vehicle navigation systems and connected technologies to allay range anxiety. The Nissan LEAF’s in-vehicle digital system called EV-IT uses communication networks and a dashboard to keep the driver constantly updated about the range of the vehicle and the closest charge point. Pressing a button on the LEAF’s steering wheel displays the available range of the car, both what is optimal and the absolute outer limit. Another tab on the dashboard shows the top three closest charging stations and directions to the charge point.
There are also a handful of smart phone apps that will help a driver identify the nearest EV charging stations. iPhone and Android apps such as PlugShare and CarStations show a map of all the public electric car-charging stations and tap into the device’s GPS to locate the nearest one and provide directions.
BMW and Audi have taken a different approach. Both of these car manufacturers will provide owners of their electric vehicles a gas-car loaner for trips that exceed EV range. BMW’s field-testing of prototype EVs revealed that 90 percent of daily trips are less than 100 miles. While the EV can be driven on a daily basis, this model, according to Rolf Stromberg, BMW’s vice president of business environment and public affairs strategy, “offers a fallback solution in case you purchase this car and then need to go on a 500-mile trip.”
Road-integrated charging on the go
And then there are more radical ideas, such as the one being proposed by the Korean Advanced Institute of Science and Technology. It has developed a road-integrated EV charging system that uses inductive coupling and wireless electromagnetic transmission. Pick-up coil sets are implanted under the bottom floor of the EV in order to receive electromagnetic fields from power cables installed under the road surface. The EV would charge as it traveled down the road. The World Economic Forum selected OLEV as one of ten most promising technologies in 2013. Obviously there are high costs and infrastructure needed to set up a wireless charging system for our nation’s EVs, but some of South Korea’s buses and trams are currently using OLEV technology.
Is the end of EV range anxiety in sight? Quite possibly. Perhaps the most exciting aspect is that the automakers themselves are getting in on myriad strategies to alleviate the range issue. Just as it has become for gasoline-powered cars, range anxiety for EVs will soon be a thing of the past. In fact, for some early EV adopters—who’ve learned to integrate their lifestyle and driving habits, EV, and other modes of transit—it already is.