08 Feb 2021 • Mobility
Will the charging station be the design challenge of the decade?
With charging stations bottlenecking EV uptake and end-of-decade deadlines for phasing out combustion engines, the 2020s will transform our roadside infrastructure.
A story doing the rounds of the British media a few months ago gives you an idea of the infeasibility of owning an electric vehicle (EV). A couple, who had just taken receipt of a new EV, went on a trip to the coast. Thanks to a series of closed, broken, or overburdened charging stations, the journey home, some 130 miles, took them 9 hours. It should have taken 2.5.
While that experience can be attributed an unusual level of misfortune, it still highlights the fact that mass adoption of electric vehicles isn't being held back by the cars themselves, but rather the infrastructure that serves them. Indeed, while ‘range anxiety’ – the distance an EV could travel on one charge – used to be many early adopters' key concern, now it’s ‘charging anxiety’: how easy is it to find a charging point, how seamless is the experience when I get there, and how long will that experience last?
EV sales in the EU have increased by 110 per cent over the past three years
The cause of that anxiety could get worse before it gets better. In its annual study of EV charging point availability, ACEA found that the sale of EVs in the EU increased by 110 per cent over the past three years, compared to just a 58 per cent growth of the number of charging points. ‘This is potentially very dangerous, as we could soon reach a point where growth of electric vehicle uptake stalls if consumers conclude there are simply not enough charging points where they need to travel, or that they have to queue too long for a fast charger,’ ACEA director general Eric-Mark Huitema explains.
In short, this isn’t simply a numbers game; scaling available units and coverage is necessary, but insufficient by itself. Even the current fastest (and scarcest) charging units take 20-30 minutes per cycle. There’s an urgent need for qualitative improvements to match the quantitative. These have been promised in the past. In 2018 Elon Musk tweeted: ‘Gonna put an old school drive-in, roller skates & rock restaurant at one of the new Tesla Supercharger locations in LA.’ An outlandish idea, perhaps, and one that hasn’t come to fruition, but the industry is of a broadly similar mind. Many will be familiar with COBE’s charging forecourts for Danish e-mobility brand Clever and energy provider E.ON, which use various biophilic strategies to enhance users’ wait time. The first of these began operation in September of last year, with plans for over 40 more along Scandinavia’s highway network in the near future.
While COBE’s tree-like, modular wooden system certainly offers improvements over a charger placed at the edge of a concrete forecourt or car park, it still lacks much in the way of comfort and distraction. Another E.ON project published last month, this time with architecture firm GRAFT, pushes the concept further. Again modular in nature, the proposal focuses on creating a ‘high-quality stopover environment’ that ‘breaks new ground by placing emphasis on user experience’. At its centre is a customer lounge, powered by photovoltaic cells on the station roof, that provides a sheltered rest area and media centre. Larger stations could host a whole range of amenities, Graft suggests, such as shops and food provision, but also spa and fitness centres.
The parking problem
Highway-based stations present one set of problems, but mass adoption of EVs will pose quite another in urban centres. The Boston Transportation Department recently set a target of ensuring all residents are within a 10-minute walk of a charge point by 2030. One of the most ambitious municipal EV plans in the US, that 10-minute radius will still likely represent a significant inconvenience for many users given Boston’s already limited parking supply. Add in the visual impact of charging points in residential streets and you can expect further pushback. Boston’s historic Beacon Hill neighbourhood has just approved a series of charging points disguised as ‘common gas or water ports embedded in the sidewalks’. Such contextually sensitive solutions often come with trade-offs in cost, functionality and accessibility, as well as being harder to upgrade in line with a fast-developing market.
A solution might be to dispense with fixed infrastructure altogether. In December VW shared designs for a mobile charging unit that could operate within existing parking garages. The system works from a centralized charging point which powers a suite of battery packs. These are delivered and wired in to each vehicle by a courier robot, which will return to collect them again once charging is complete. ‘Setting up an efficient charging infrastructure for the future is a central task that challenges the entire sector,’ says Volkswagen Group Components CEO Thomas Schmall. ‘We are developing solutions to help avoid costly stand-alone measures’.
Expect to see variations on all of these ideas with increased frequency over the course of the decade. McKinsey forecasts that as many 130 million EVs could be on the road the world over by 2030. That’s the same year that Britain will ban the sale of new petrol and diesel vehicles in a bid to reach climate targets. It’s also the point at which China aims to have made a quarter of its car market electric through credits and subsidies. Meanwhile, the new Biden administration has just set out plans for 500,000 new EV plugs across the US by the same deadline.