SemaConnect Blog


February 6, 2012

Charging into Change A New Urban Landscape, Thanks to the Electric Car?

By Martin Leggett
2011 saw a few wobbly moments in the charge of the EV (Electric Vehicle) into the consumer auto market. Sales of the Chevy Volt and Nissan Leaf have nudged up to targets, rather than leaping over them. Safety concerns have been piqued by a battery fire, during crash testingof the Chevy Volt. And federal tax credits for EV owners have been paused during the budgetary ping-pong on Capitol Hill. So plenty for EV skeptics to grumble about. But teething troubles in adopting new technologies are nothing new – and the last 12 months have seen much difficult groundwork being done. In fact, the next twelve months may witness the urban landscape shifting rapidly in response to rise of the EV – a rise that many in the auto industry are now heavily betting on.

Trickle to flood
While 2011 was a toe-dipping exercise by GM and Nissan, 2012 will see the trickle of auto-industry commitment to EVs become a flood. Toyota, Honda, Mitsubishi and Ford all plan to join Nissan and GM in seriously pushing the EV option. Indeed, John Gartner boldly staked out a forecast unit shift of 100,000 EVs for 2012, in the recent Pike Research report on the EV sector’s prospects.
That forecast may turn out to be on the optimistic side, given the way some 2011 fell short. But what is not in doubt is the long-term momentum building up behind the electric car. It’s less a question of ‘if’ the electric motor will be the replacement for the internal combustion engine, but ‘when’.
Fossil fuel risks
That because today’s automobiles are hooked on a fuel source whose liabilities are dangerously outweighing its benefits. Place to one side the tackling of greenhouse gas emissions – a fickle commitment likely to be held hostage in Congress for some time to come. It is cost and insecurity that are the worrying flash-points from relying on gasoline. The prolonged spike in oil prices suggests peak oil is already upon us, and the era of cheap oil looks unlikely to return.
Then there is the political instability of the world’s major oil producers, which ramped up significantly in 2011, with little sign of abating. And the appetite in the US for financing access to the tightening global oil supply –  through costly military action – has been dulled by the deficit crisis. When looked at in that longer and broader context, the switch to clean, cheap and domestically-produced ‘electric fuel’ for auto-mobiles looks more like an inevitability.
And the EV transition won’t just change the way the nation buys and drives its cars. It is also likely to see a radical reworking of the urban landscape, through which EVs will be traveling. With EVs, fuel supply no longer needs to be tethered to the hardened facilities of the gas station network. In the cities and suburbs of the US, electricity is as ubiquitous as the parking lot. So EVs are as likely to get their electric fuel topped up from a restaurant’s parking lot, as they are from purpose-built new charging stations.
Different beats to jolt the urban scene
Of course, the charging technology for EVs (EVSE, or Electric Vehicle Supply Equipment) is still taking shape. Purpose-built networks of charging stations will be needed to ease ‘range anxiety’ for longer journeys. They could be based on battery-swapping stations, using innovative technology to robotically change batteries. Or they could be based on Level 3 charging technology, using fast-charging bursts of 480V DC, which can fully charge a battery in minutes, rather than hours.
But while a form of dedicated EVSE network will certainly be needed, these technologies are still at a nascent stage – costs are high, and standards still being formed. A cheaper alternative  in the may be had in denser the urban environment,. much of Here, the base infrastructure is already in place – in the parking facilities of commercial properties and businesses. Level 2 charging stations, using 240VAC chargers connected to the mains, can be easily deployed to existing parking lots and garages. With costs relatively low, and an in-place feed of drivers parking their cars, rolling out the new EVSE infrastructure to urban drivers may be much simpler than some currently project.
Property investors take note

There are parallels to the internet revolution here. That saw the closed networks and data silos of big computing opened up to the masses – sparking a tumult of change, innovation – and opportunity. Powering cars electrically similarly offers up opportunities, with a flattening and dispersing of the auto-fuel network. And because the new EV supply infrastructure can be woven from existing commercial properties, owners and investors are sitting up and taking note. A whole new revenue stream – from EV-based servicing – may be about to come online. The urban commercial property landscape may never be the same again.

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