Fast-Charging EVs: Time to Get Down to Business

Last Updated Jul 22, 2009 1:43 PM EDT

You may never have heard of California-based AeroVironment (founded in 1971), but it's the company that brought you the first version of the General Motors EV-1, and a whole host of ultra-cool sun-powered lightweight racers, including the Solar Challenger and the Sunraycer. AeroVironment's Gossamer Albatross completed the first human-powered flight across the English Channel in 1979. The company's recent innovations include a tiny unmanned aircraft powered by a hydrogen fuel cell and a very high-altitude plane that can stay in the air for a week.

AeroVironment has 650 employees, and $247 million in revenue in 2009. It works on unmanned aircraft, efficient energy systems and more--and has a thriving business fast-charging forklift trucks. Dr. Paul MacCready, the company's late founder (called "one of the greatest minds of the 20th century" by Time) told me that, in 1986 dollars, driving the average new car 25 miles cost $4 in 1929, $3 in 1949, $2 in 1969, and $1 in 1989. Extrapolating that data to 2009 yields a net cost of zero, which didn't quite work out.

Dr. MacCready told me, back in 2001, that solving transportation problems isn't all about the car: "A Ferrari sport-utility vehicle running on cold fusion or hydrogen might have many benefits, but it won't do much about traffic and parking problems," he said.

All this is to establish that when AeroVironment talk about the future of EV charging, people should listen. The company joined the ranks of charging leaders Better Place, ECOtality and Coulomb in May when it announced a deal with Nissan and Washington, D.C. to bring a network of fast-charging stations to America's capital city. Metro stations are likely to get EV charging, as well as bus stations and possibly federal buildings.

Kristen Helsel is director of Electric Vehicle Solutions for AeroVironment, and she sat down with BNET Autos this week to offer a condensed version of a talk she gives around the country. With prices projected at less than $15,000 with rebates, the EV is set to take off in the next few years, she says, and that means it needs a global network of fast-charging stations (adding up to 10 to 30 percent of currently existing gas stations). She projects that Washington will need 150 to 400 stations, with the ability to recharge a car in 10 to 15 minutes. Here's Helsel talking about EV charging on video:

"We need open architecture, so everybody can charge at the same station," Helsel said. She hopes to see pay-at-the-pump systems with standard connectors (already in the works), and charging in minutes, not hours. She is discouraging about the prospects for battery swapping, which is part of Shai Agassi's Better Place model for long-distance travel. "It's messy and expensive," she said.

"People will lose confidence in EVs if we don't have our ducks in a row," Helsel said. "If we put forward schemes that are not fully thought out, it would be disastrous."

Expectations and range anxiety have a lot to do with our EV future. Switching to a car that can only go 100 miles on a charge is a game changer. Helsel told an amusing anecdote about the experience of Tokyo Electric Power Company, which uses fast-charging for its EV utility vehicles. Drivers complained they couldn't cover their entire route with just one charging station, so some areas were not getting serviced. The company added a second station, and suddenly the whole area was being covered--but the second station was rarely accessed. Knowing it was there was, it appears, enough.