Tackling the hard problem of electric-car recharging

7 March 2010

Nissan LeafNissan’s plans to bring electric cars to market continue to take shape, with the launch this week of a new promotional web site - Electric-Mobility.com. This joins the Sustainable-Mobility.org site offered by Nissan’s electric-car partner Renault. The new site is backed up by Twitter, YouTube and Facebook pages.

The online push is an attempt to get information into the hands of people who might, perhaps, be persuaded to buy a Nissan electric car when they go on sale next year. According to Christian Costaganna, EV product manager for Nissan Europe, only 21 per cent of the public are inclined to believe that an electric four-wheeler might meet their transport needs, but that the number rises to 47 per cent after suitable “education”. Success in persuading less than half of the sample might not sound overwhelmingly positive, but Costaganna is clearly a glass-half-full kind of guy. He prefers to point out that a consumer awareness programme might more than double the potential market for the upcoming Nissan Leaf.

The sceptical 53 per cent, who remain unconvinced by electric cars even after Nissan has bombarded their neurons, presumably have noticed the dearth of places to plug in a depleted EV. This is a malady dubbed “range anxiety”, the main symptom being an acute distrust that your battery-powered ride will get you where you want to go and, crucially, back again. Fortunately this complaint is being cured, in various ways and in various places. On Wednesday, Nissan invited GreenMotor.co.uk to the Geneva Motor Show to learn about these efforts first-hand. We met spokespeople from the many places that are investing in EV infrastructure, from Monaco to Milton Keynes.

Smith Electric VehiclesIt’s heartening to hear that the city of Barcelona will have 190 charging points by the end of the year, and that Portugal will have 1,300 ordinary charge points plus 50 fast-charge points on major roads by the end of next year. The Dutch city of Amsterdam has 50 charging points today but expects to have 200 by Christmas and 2,000 a year later. Milton-Keynes expects to have the infrastructure to support 1,000 electric vehicles by 2014 – most of which the city expects to be public service vehicles. It’s also for funding to trial inductive charging – which uses cables buried in the road to send power to an electric car while it’s still in motion.

Ireland, with a clear view of the Atlantic to the west, is a great place to harvest wind power, we learned. By 2012, it expects its growing population of windmills to reap more power at night than the country currently needs. EVs would provide the perfect way to suck up that excess capacity – particularly in a country where 80 per cent of the population own their own homes and most have a driveway or garage.

One North East – the regional development agency for the North East of England – expects to have 710 smart charging points, 350 standard points, 12 rapid chargers and 240 domestic points within two years - all within the 20-by-45-mile oblong that contains Newcastle, Sunderland and Middlesbrough. This area also contains the Washington factory that will churn out EV batteries for Nissan and NEC from 2012 and may – if the decision goes the way of Nissan’s Sunderland plant – be responsible for building the Leaf for Europe.

Dr Colin HerronOne North East is already thinking well beyond the need to install plug-in points. The organisation’s Manufacturing & Productivity Manager, Colin Herron, explains plans to spend £8m on a college to train 1,000 people per year in electric-vehicle skills.

“It’s not just the skills to build EVs,” Herron says, “we also need to train breakdown services, ambulance and emergency services.”
Herron adds that efforts to think ahead have already paid dividends. “If there is a car crash, there are standard ways of cutting the car to get occupants out. The fire service tend to lift people out backwards and Smith Electric Vehicles, for example, changed the routing of cables in their vans after learning that the fireman’s first cut would have gone through a high-voltage cable.”

As Herron goes on to say, we are just starting to understand the questions that we will need to answer as the world moves towards zero-emissions motoring. “In the future, if there’s a pile-up involving battery cars, petrol cars, and hydrogen cars – what do the fire brigade put on the fire”

It’s clear that producing electric cars, and providing a means to recharge them, are only two pieces of a more complex puzzle. We hope to see more of the picture completed in the near future.

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