I had my first up close and personal confrontation with an electric vehicle charging station this past weekend. Having lived in Vancouver and having Ballard Power Systems be the darling little tech company that could change the world….and hasn’t…yet….leaves me with a wee bit less optimism than I would have otherwise had when it comes to alternative fuel systems for vehicles. It has little to do with the fact that I don’t believe electric vehicles can elicit a change in driving and fuel possibilities. It has more to do with the fact that I have a much better understanding of the limitations of distribution of new fuel systems.
There are some serious flaws in the use case from top to bottom of the electric vehicle (EV) that I don’t think most people think about when talking about how amazing electric vehicles are. The first is purely the convenience of use for the end user. At the end of the day, a vehicle is an object of convenience. Until batteries are able to be topped up in 5 minutes or less like a traditional gasoline engine is capable of, it will always be a novelty. Five minutes might be a bit too low of a tipping point, but it absolutely has to be less than 10 minutes. We’ve all been trained for the past 50 years or so that if that if I’m running late for a meeting and that fuel light comes on, I can swing into a gas station and be on my way again in 5 minutes. Even faster if I don’t fill the tank all the way.
The next issue to overcome is infrastructure. This is where the EV has an advantage over hydrogen fuel cells. We already have a solid distribution grid that is able to fuel up our soon to be herd of electric vehicles. But can it handle the load? Imagine it dinner time rolls around and 25 electric vehicles pull into driveways up and down your block. Every driver jumps out and the first thing they are going to do, after they shake the kids off their legs, is plug in their vehicle. That is 25 high amperage charging stations pumping from the grid all at once….on your block alone. Imagine this is happening on every block in your neighbourhood, in every neighbourhood in the city, in every city in north america. Trust me, I am no electrical engineer, but I have enough understanding to see the flaw in the plan here.
The charging station I saw was at Thompson Community Centre in Richmond, BC. It was just sitting there in the corner of the parking lot. It felt a bit random. I’m guessing that there must be someone in the neighbourhood that owns an electric vehicle and it made some sense to have it there. But the humor I found in the situation was that the two parking spots that could be serviced by the charging station were occupied by two not-so-economic vehicles:
What I found the most intriguing about the set-up was the company behind the charging station. They have an interesting business model. The company is called Charge Point and they are building a charging station platform. They’re less focused on the hardware of the charging station, and more focused on the monitoring and data that is extracted from the charging station as it is being used. Their website graphically shows all the locations of the EV charging stations they’re hooked up to, and how many times they’ve been used. I have to admit to being a wee bit underwhelmed at the usage. At quick glance, the highest number of charges one of their stations has had was 962 at the time of writing. Considering the amount of vehicles on the road, that is a VERY small percentage for usage.
Alternative fuel is fantastic in principle. I want to see us all driving around in vehicles that don’t cough ozone depleting emissions into the air with every kilometer. But we are much further from alternative fuel Utopia than I think most people realize. We’re currently rushing towards a world that is going to have a gazillion electric vehicles sitting as status symbols in garages with nowhere to go because it simply isn’t as convenient to drive as my gas guzzler.
I’m not writing this to say that EVs are a bad idea or that we should stop developing them. What I hope is for people to realize that there is far more work to be done to make these vehicles a wide spread reality than just better battery systems or more vehicles. I want to see more companies like Charge Point solving the infrastructure from a human centric perspective beyond doing it in an “If we build it, they will come” manner . Building another vehicle to plug into the full system is the easy part. How we solve the real problems of distribution, that’s the hard part. As a designer, I also believe that’s the fun part.