Northern Ireland last month became the latest region of 15 to express an interest in the government’s Plugged in Places scheme.
Plugged in Places is a £20 million government fund which aims to build recharging infrastructure in different parts of the country to kickstart the uptake of electric vehicles (EVs). Work to install charging infrastructure is already under way in parts of London, Milton Keynes and the North East. Results of the second round of bidding, applications for which ended last month, will be announced in the spring.
But most automotive engineers are undecided on the form that recharging infrastructure should take, its size, and indeed whether or not it is needed at all.
Running concurrent to Plugged in Places, the £25 million Cabled study is trialling 350 vehicles in Birmingham and Coventry, to assess driver behaviour and establish the exact requirements for EV infrastructure. The study is scheduled to finish in April 2012, and will be followed by a £4.5 million ETI project to better understand the likely roll-out of EVs.
Peter Young, director of advanced technology research for Arup, leads the consultancy’s involvement in Cabled, and doubts that lots of charging points will affect the uptake of EVs in the short term. He says: “We can tell from the data so far that people aren’t using electric vehicles differently to the way they use a petrol car. It’s not likely that an abundance of public charging points would cause them to use their vehicle differently, except perhaps for long-distance journeys.”
Range is where battery vehicles fall down when compared to the internal combustion engine. Although it is anticipated that most early purchases of EVs will be as second cars for short journeys, a well-established infrastructure is seen as necessary for EVs' long-term viability.
A straightforward way to solve this problem is being pushed by Better Place, a company set up three years ago to “accelerate the transition to sustainable transport”. Better Place’s idea is to swap the depleted battery for a fresh one – a network of strategically placed “swap points” would enable drivers to make long journeys. Better Place last month announced a deal with engineering multinational General Electric (GE) to incorporate its proprietary Watt Station charging points into their plans. GE is also developing a finance programme with Better Place which will pay for the 10,000 batteries that Better Place plans to put out to hire in Israel and Denmark, the first two countries which will receive the swap points. An alternative to swap points is wireless charging. Many engineering firms have an eye on this developing market. Delphi recently announced it would be using technology from Witricity to develop wireless charging products for hybrid and full electric vehicles. Witricity’s highly resonant magnetic coupling technology can transfer more than 3,300W through up to several metres without cables. Edmund Erich, Delphi’s e-mobility EU manager, says: “A magnetic charging infrastructure running along an autobahn which
recharges you car while you drive is technically feasible, but needs comprehensive standards and effort from politicians to happen.”
Erich is vaguer over when these futuristic, computer game-esque recharging zones could appear, but nevertheless, perhaps the time when regulators and politicians need to standardise and create legal frameworks for such things isn’t so far off in the future.