A/D/O by MINI | Is our infrastructure ready for EVs?

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Environmental/Landscape

Is our infrastructure ready for EVs?

As electric vehicles begin to populate the world’s roads, an outdated refueling and highway system struggles to keep up with demand.

Despite what you may have observed during your morning commute, energy and fuel-efficient cars have never been more popular. There are currently 1 million EVs on the road, with hybrid and full-electric cars anticipated to account for 14% of the market by 2025. By 2025, most mainstream car makers will have all released EV models. Despite growing demand driven by shifting consumer tastes and the global turn from fossil fuels, our infrastructure has proven woefully unprepared.

The US Department of Energy has reported 20,000 EV charging stations in the US, compared to hundreds of thousands of gas stations nationwide, and the International Council on Clean Transportations recommends that the current global infrastructure expand at least 20% to match increased demand. Recently the government of Sweden implemented road surfaces that charge while driving outside Stockholm, while parking garages with built-in charging stations are already in activation throughout the US – but what other improvements could be made to integrate EVs into our urban fabric better? And what would success look like?

The history of the electric car is long and storied, but models have become more affordable, more energy-efficient, and given the much sought-after halo of social consciousness – with lawmakers taking notice. "We are at a critical moment in history where the infrastructure for electric vehicles is accelerating to enable widespread EV use, improve air quality and slow climate change,” said Bill Loewenthal, SVP of product at ChargePoint, one of the nation's leading providers of EV chargers.

Loewenthal explained that the transformation of our "mobility footprint" will require a collaborative effort across public and private sectors, with a tremendous responsibility shared among municipalities, the energy industry, consumers, vehicle manufacturers, and society at large. But the pay-off would be enormous: a cleaner, safer source of energy with the added benefit of priming our current infrastructure for the inevitable roll-out of driverless cars (or autonomous vehicles), which are already in testing in Arizona and Dubai.

Studio Roosegaarde's Smart Highways project envisions Electric Priority Lanes and Glowing Lines.

There are currently 2.6 million miles of paved roads in the US, and while "charging roads" can extend the range of EVs, for them to become a significant part of American car culture, it requires a rethink of our entire system. According to the US Energy Information Agency, construction of the 46,000-mile Interstate Highway System took almost 40 years and cost trillions of dollars.

It's believed electrifying this same system would likely be similar in terms of time and scale, yet cost significantly more. "Electrifying" roads would also require a major investment in electrical power production and storage, as EVs traveling at highway speeds can use over 20kW of power. Experts point to the possibility of sizable electrical storage facilities, which could act as de facto batteries and live adjacent to highways, but this would also require copious resources. 

"Cities across the US and Western Europe are planning for deployment of publicly-accessible curbside charging infrastructure," said Paul Lipson, president of Barretto Bay Strategies, who points to Paris, London, and several Scandinavian and Canadian cities already actively deploying infrastructure at the curb for "in the wild" or opportunistic charging. Lipson also points to the wireless charging infrastructure for electric transit buses already piloted in several cities. 

"But the broad adoption of inductive or other forms of wireless charging is at least seven to ten years out," he estimated. "There will likely never be as many chargers as there are gas stations. At a realistic EV rate of 25 kWh per 100 miles, replacing all US vehicles with EVs would require on the order of 750 trillion watt-hours of electricity per year, which is roughly equal to 20% of all current U.S. electricity production." This would mean a considerable investment in both stations and electrical generation, with a substantial portion of this electrical generation coming from low emission sources such as wind, solar, hydro, or nuclear power.

Volta’s electric vehicle chargers are located in areas like sports stadiums and grocery stores.

"[There is much promise] in proposals for roads using inductive charging, or non-contact charging using magnetic fields, rails, and cables," said Patrick Currier, associate professor and associate chair of mechanical engineering at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, who points to discussions in the field over more speculative technologies such as solar-powered roads and maglev lanes that have the ability to actually lift a vehicle using magnetic fields and “propel it like a train."

For now, the bulk of charging stations are contained within parking garages, stores, and restaurants, but with Royal Dutch Shell acquiring two different electric vehicle charging companies, the European EV charging company NewMotion and GreenLots, and BP rolling out charging stations in the United Kingdom, it appears the oil industry has taken notice. "The most practical approach to improving EV infrastructure is the increased construction of static charging stations," said Currier. "These are likely to be a combination of home chargers, public parking lot and parking garage chargers, and high rate charging stations located in commercial areas." 

“For electric vehicles to go mainstream, we need to adjust our thinking from ‘I need to spend time fueling my car’ to ‘how will I spend my time while my car fuels?’” said Scott Mercer, founder and CEO of Volta Charging. “We aren’t trying to replicate the gas station experience, we want to reinvent it – it’s the 21st century and people shouldn’t need to waste time waiting for their car to fill up.” To make the experience of charging more accessible, Volta’s electric vehicle chargers are located in areas like sports stadiums and grocery stores – combining entertainment and necessity with a superior charging experience. But will consumers really opt for this choice?

One thing worth mentioning is that electric cars don't necessarily need constant access to chargers – the vast majority are able to charge at home or work. Fast chargers, also called “quick chargers” – the most popular of which are CHAdeMO, SAE Combined Charging System (CCS), and Tesla Superchargers – allow for a maximum amount of electricity to be transferred in the shortest period of time, but are not necessarily needed for the average EV driver. "Most, or about 80%, of charging, currently takes place at home," said Michael I Krauthamer, managing director at EV Advisors, an industry thought leader.

Volta's chargers are positioned to combine necessity and entertainment.

As EVs evolve we may begin to see people drive longer, more frequently, and the need for charging stations to increase, but for now, a substantial percentage of EVs are parked at spaces where the owner can self-install a charger. Organizations such as Tesla and Electrify America are also experimenting with quick chargers that can “fill” vehicles in 20 minutes or less, which may change the need for a charging station infrastructure altogether. 

Regardless, most major cities in America are at various stages of encouraging an electrification infrastructure. Last June, the Michigan legislature introduced a bipartisan package that would increase access to EV charging by enabling the state to install EV charging stations throughout parking lots and state parks, and it’s safe to assume other American states are currently working on similar legislation.

"Today, many cities have the unique opportunity to not only motivate change by accelerating the shift to electric mobility for their fleets but transform infrastructure to support the transition," said Bill Loewenthal of ChargePoint. He points to the initial roll out of the cable car system in San Francisco as an example of how the municipal government, by requiring a transformation, not only accommodated but spurred change. "Decades later, the same municipality rolled out electric buses powered by overhead lines, orchestrating a change in mobility and infrastructure simultaneously.”

And ambitious strategies like this are exactly what we need from both our government and socially conscious organizations to be prepared for our ever shifting world. “Moves like this create a forcing function – that helps to motivate changes in expectations and behavior," Loewenthal said.

This article is part of a series exploring the impact of electric-vehicle technology, created to celebrate the launch of the MINI Cooper SE.

Text by Laura Feinstein.

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