A Car Without a Plug is No Car At All

By dancurranjr On March 3rd, 2009

plug-in-hybrid-phevAn increasing amount of attention has been paid of late to electric and plug-in hybrid cars. Gearheads, regular folks and, lately, Congressmen wonder aloud: Who will make them? What technology will they use? And will their fancy lithium-ion batteries overheat, creating an uncontrollable plasma fire that burns down the entire neighborhood? (Related query: Will Geico cover that event?)

Much less scrutiny, however, has been given to a topic that’s arguably far more critical to the future of electrified transportation: Where the heck will we plug these things in?

EV Charging Station In order for electric cars to succeed, they need a wide-ranging network of places where they can be recharged. Charging at night in the family garage isn’t enough — beyond the fact that many people don’t have garages to begin with, charging stations are necessary for people to make long road trips, charge while at work, etc.

But developing that infrastructure is a huge challenge, one that would likely cost billions of dollars and require careful planning and standardization. How that issue is confronted, as much as perfecting the chemistry and costs of high-energy-density batteries, is likely to dictate whether electrons will ever truly replace carbon molecules when it comes time to get from point A to point B.

That’s the concern of a new group, Project Get Ready. Announced this week by the Rocky Mountain Institute, a sustainability-focused think tank based in Snowmass, Colo., it’s an initiative designed to coordinate, develop and promote efforts to prepare for a plug-in infrastructure.

Among the group’s concerns: Who will pay for the installation? How do drivers get billed for charging? And how do we make sure that every car will be able to charge at the same locations?

Rather than a national approach, Project Get Ready operates on the belief that this matter is best dealt with on a local level.

“Each community is unique — they have different commuting patterns, parking concerns, demographics, local businesses and cultures,” said Laura Schewel, who manages the Project Get Ready program and works on RMI’s Mobility and Vehicle Efficiency Team. “Instead of battling this diversity, Project Get Ready welcomes it, allowing communities to get ready in their own way.”

To that end, Project Get Ready has enlisted three cities — Portland, Ore., Indianapolis and Raleigh, N.C. — as original members. The cities will keep the group abreast of the work they do to prepare for the arrival of electrified vehicles, and will contribute business plans and other developments to databases on the Project Get Ready site.

The goal of the organization is to get at least 20 cities to join up, using their collective efforts to develop a benchmark or other certification program that would establish the readiness of a particular area.

The overriding point here is clearly that local governments must play a role in developing the infrastructure needed to make electric vehicles a viable option. At the same time, however, there is a clear message that private industry can and perhaps ought to play a role as well. To wit, the group is working with Portland General Electric, the city’s power company, which plans to install and test charging stations.

The group takes the point of view — put forward by General Motors, which also is collaborating — that automakers need proof of a real market for their vehicles before they can truly commit to building the things. That’s another area where local governments can play a role — by pledging to buy plug-in vehicles for their fleets.

So what progress has been made? Baby steps. Raleigh, for example, has one plug-in electric vehicle so far. But it hopes to get more. A lot more: Project Get Ready hopes that a million electric and plug-in hybrid cars will be on the road by 2015.

To date Tesla has sold about 100 of its electric cars — the only electricity-powered, highway-legal production vehicle on the market today. Only 999,900 to go!


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