Sparks Will Fly
Neil O'Sullivan investigates the rise of the electric car charging market
After decades of development, 2011 looks set to be the year of the electric car. And electric cars need self-service charging points...
The vehicle technology has been in place for a number of years. Now, car manufacturers and governments must ensure that the infrastructure is in place in order for electric vehicles (EVs) to become commonplace on European roads. This could present a very interesting opportunity for the kiosk industry.
The mass take-up of EVs will necessitate the creation of a network of road-side charging stations. These self-service charging terminals are already starting to appear in European cities, but a standard user model has by no means been defined.
EV use is currently low, but it is predicted to balloon in the next few years. GfK Automotive has predicted that there will be 300,000 EVs on UK roads by 2014. Pod Point, a major manufacturer of charging terminals, has predicted that 13% of new car sales will be electric by 2020 in UK, basing their figure on an average of various surveys. This rise will be driven in part by the development of the supporting infrastructure. EVs have a shorter range than comparable petrol/diesel vehicles and the problem of charging has been a major barrier to the greater uptake of the cars.
This is changing, however, and a number of local authorities are now putting into action plans to develop the charging infrastructure. A city-wide charging network called Source London is currently being created in the UK capital. 1,300 public charging stations will be in place by 2013.
The project is being driven by Mayor of London Boris Johnson, who wants London to become the electric capital of Europe. The mayor commented: “The time for simply talking about electric vehicles is over - we need real action on the ground to make the electric vehicle an easy choice for Londoners.”
Elektromotive is the largest producer of charging terminals in the UK. Calvey Taylor-Haw, the company’s Managing Director, commented: “There is definitely a need for more on-street charging stations in London and across the UK. Two thirds of Londoners don’t have the luxury of private off-road parking. The number of on-street charging stations will need to grow significantly to support demand for EVs.”
The Kerbside Kiosk
A roadside charging station bears more than a passing resemblance to a self-service kiosk. The user interacts directly with the unit, typically via RFID or touch technology. One kiosk manufacturer has already got involved in making the units. Rittal builds the outer casing for the terminals, and also consults on design, after suppliers have submitted their ideas to the company.
Although local authorities are among the first to invest in charging infrastructure, they are not charging terminal manufacturers’ only customers. There is growing interest from retailers and other businesses. Supermarkets, for example, want to attract drivers of electric cars to visit their stores. At the moment the typical profile of an EV driver is an individual with a high disposable income, likely to spend more money on higher value products. Supermarkets have already positioned themselves over the last 20 years in the energy supply chain for motoring by selling petrol, often as a loss leader to draw drivers into their shops. They will want to maintain this position in the age of the electric car. Elektromotive is predicting a large increase in sales of roadside units to B2B customers as government funding for the charging infrastructure reduces.
These two different types of customer, government and private enterprise, demand different things from the charging stations, and the manufacturer must consider both when developing the terminal.
Better by Design
This begs the question, who thinks about the design and usability of these terminals? At the moment, the majority of companies who produce charging terminals typically have a background in engineering and the car industry. But given their experience in producing user-friendly self-service machines, which have been accepted by the public, kiosk manufacturers are well-placed to offer their experience to this burgeoning industry.A typical charging station consists of a narrow body, with a screen and/or RFID card reader, and a cable to connect to a car. However, no standard model exists and a number of design and usability considerations still need to be addressed.
Firstly, there is the issue of how users pay to charge their vehicles. RFID technology similar to that of the Oyster card in London is one possible solution. RFID cards can be connected to an account, which can either be topped up in advance, or billed after a certain period.
One such company which chose to integrate RFID technology was Chargemaster, which has rolled out units in several British cities. Monika Pietrowski, Marketing and Communications Manager at Chargemaster, explained: “There have been two evolutions of the product over the last two years – the RFID screen was developed based on the EV motorist’s needs – we listened to what would make their charging process simple and convenient.”
Elektromotive took a similar approach with its Elektrobay. Taylor Haw explained: “Each user is provided with an electronic key fob when they register to use the units. This key fob contains the individual’s personal information and allows the user to access the three-pin socket, which is located under a secure, weatherproof door. The door locks shut when charging is in progress and can only be reopened using the same key fob, preventing interference by a third party. Positioned at the top of the unit is a strip of LED lights that change colour to indicate when charging begins and ends. Further information about the progress of the charge is provided on the LCD screen located on the front of the unit.”
In the future, contactless technology or even apps in Smart Phones may be used for payment.
Safety is another important consideration. Installers and end-users must be sure that the equipment they are using can withstand anything.Rob Walden, Business Development Director at Pod Point, commented: “Transport for London has very extensive specifications for street furniture and what it has to be designed to accommodate and cope with. It’s probably not a lie to say that our terminal is like a piece of battlefield equipment. It can withstand impact from most vehicles. If it gets hit by an articulated lorry at speed (and this has happened once) it will break, but it will break in the right places.
“We went through some interesting design discussions thinking about how the unit could be abused, either inadvertently, or by someone intent on doing themselves, someone else, or the post harm. For instance, if someone cuts the cable while the car is charging, earth leakage protection would identify that there’s an earth fault and the resultant shock would only be the equivalent of whacking someone across the arm with a cane. Not pleasant but not lethal.”
There is also the possibility of integrating a touch screen onto the terminal. This is not an option that is currently being pursued by many manufacturers. Pod Point chose not to integrate a touch screen, with the displays on their terminal only delivering information.
“The number of decisions the user actually wants to make on street level is very small. Adding extra elements simply adds cost and decreases reliability. Our view is that minimising the cost is the factor that will maximise the infrastructure on the street,” explained Walden.
However, other designers may decide that the potential for interactivity is worth exploiting to a greater extent. There is certainly considerable potential for integrating digital signage into the unit. Because the user is giving information about themselves to the unit through their RFID card, highly targeted content could be delivered. For Walden, “it is all about market pull. We can easily do it but we need someone to want it.”
Elektromotive is working on a project to integrate digital signage into its Elektrobay charging station and plans to launch this later this year.The development of charging infrastructure is not limited to the UK.
Chargemaster’s Monika Pietrowski commented: “We are already active in France, Holland, Belgium and Spain, and expect the European market to grow significantly over the next five years- especially in places such as Portugal and Germany. Amsterdam is expecting to install 1000 charging posts over the next two years and we are the primary provider of charging infrastructure for them.”
The new market of EV charging infrastructure has not yet really been penetrated by the self-service sector. But the importance of the technology is obvious, and the potential size of the projects is huge. If kiosk and digital signage players get involved now, the rewards could be great.The time to act is now. As Rob Walden concluded, “EVs and the infrastructure supporting them are at tipping point, and 2011 is the year the market will explode.”
Thursday, April 14, 2011