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    Electric motoring: What's down NW roads?

    Advocates of electric cars and public charging stations are caught in a conundrum, and it's not just about money.

    The Nissan Leaf electric car

    The Nissan Leaf electric car Nissan

    The Tesla Roadster electric car

    The Tesla Roadster electric car Tesla Motors

    No one has used the Lopez Island electric-vehicle charger since it was installed in June.

    No one has used the Lopez Island electric-vehicle charger since it was installed in June. Rebecca Andera

    "Sort of a chicken-and-egg situation," says Tonia Buell, a manager with the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT). She's describing the challenge her office faces in installing charging stations for electric vehicles: People are reluctant to buy the vehicles absent any infrastructure to keep them charged conveniently, but installing the infrastructure makes little sense until more electric cars are out there.

    Still, Buell and many like her are toiling to bring electric cars into the mainstream of national life. As project development manager for WSDOT's Office of Public-Private Partnerships, her immediate job is overseeing the installation of 12 to 14 charging stations along I-5  — from British Columbia to Oregon — by the end of 2011. The $1.32 million program will begin with two chargers that will welcome people arriving in Washington from Canada and Oregon: one at the rest area in Custer, north of Bellingham, and the other at the Gee Creek rest stop, just outside Vancouver, Wash.

    Charging will cost nothing for consumers, and a sponsor will maintain the equipment. But these are so-called "level 2" chargers, and they will take four to eight hours to replenish a car's battery fully, with little for the driver to do in the meanwhile save take a nap or read a book. Otherwise expressed, each hour of charging time will give the car no more than 25 miles of driving range. Of course, the driver may only need 25 miles of power to complete the day's errands and get home, where the vehicle can be put on a household circuit to charge fully. 

    The other 10 to 12 devices to be installed along I-5 will be faster, "level 3" chargers, which use a higher voltage and promise much more convenience. Charging will take 15 to 30 minutes, and each device will be located on private property and owned by a profit-making business. The driver will pay whatever that business feels it can charge. 

    There are “very strict” federal laws, Buell said, that constrain retail business activity at freeway rest areas, so the high-speed, for-pay chargers are a natural fit for freeway-accessible malls and travel plazas, where eateries and shopping opportunities will beckon electric motorists to spend some money — or, probably, additional money — while their cars drink their juice. 

    “We want the travel centers and shopping centers to benefit from this equipment, in drawing customers,” she said. 

    She stressed that the program will “fill in the gaps” left by other charging-station initiatives already underway. Those included the EV (for “electric vehicle”) Project and the ChargePoint Network, both of which are managed by private companies with funding from the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) and private sources. The EV Project covers six states, mostly in the West, while ChargePoint has stations operating in 22 states from coast to coast.

    “We're trying for technical compatibility with their projects and others across the country,” Buell said. “Our electric highway will support the mass-produced electric vehicles, such as the Nissan Leaf.” Tesla Motors, whose Roadster is the only highway-speed electric car now on the U.S. market, is planning to make an adapter that will let its cars use the I-5 chargers, which will adhere to a new, industry-wide technical standard established since the Tesla's debut in 2006.

    Buell's project is being administered by WSDOT and the state's Department of Commerce energy program, under the terms of DOE funding. Gov. Chris Gregoire has trumpeted the effort as part of the West Coast Green Highway project, whose reach extends the full length of the I-5 corridor from Canada to Mexico. 

    But what are drivers heading east and west through Washington expected to do? According to the Idaho Transportation Department, that state's 83,557 square miles contain not one public charging station. Using DOE information, a July report in The Charlotte (N.C.) Observer put the nationwide count at “fewer than 1,000 stations, mostly in California.” While thousands more are planned, their total, for the near term, will be far less than the nation's 160,000 gas stations — which, moreover, provide fuel for a much longer drive. When will an electric vehicle become more than an I-5 corridor vehicle? 

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    Posted Mon, Oct 25, 5:31 a.m. Inappropriate

    While I think that moving from gas power to renewable energy to power vehicular transportation, this is a classic example of why the State of Washington's budget is in the tank. To build stations and give power away while the poverty level rises and tax hikes are needed to balance the budget is rather deplorable.


    Posted Mon, Oct 25, 8 a.m. Inappropriate

    If you think about this for, say, a minute or two, it becomes obvious that modeling electric car fueling on the existing gasoline car fueling is totally insane. And, by extension, this whole thing about establishing 'electric fueling stations' is just another of our mindless boondoggles.

    Just as we molded our society to meet gasoline fueling standards, the electric car society will be molded for electric cars.

    Why, after all, would you even want to drive your electric vehicle the length of I-5? Nothing here works. The electric car is as small and light as possible, to increase the range- not your first choice for a road car, and not good for hauling everything home from college on the east coast either. Even a recharge time of a half hour every 300 miles- two goals, each of which will take years to achieve- makes the drive impossibly long compared with the train.

    Then there is the huge number of people who, today, hardly ever drive more than 25 miles with their cars. These people, and most especially the Boomers, who need not commute, could use off-the-shelf electric cars that charge from ordinary household current overnight.

    Probably the worst thing about all this, though, is the effort to make the electric car just like the gasoline car, when we know already that gasoline cars have created some major problems in how society is spatially organized. For the cost of the electric car effort you could probably house millions in new buildings that didn't need any energy to heat and cool themselves- built in walkable communities on transit lines.

    It's time to stop asking the car what it wants us to do for it.

    Posted Mon, Oct 25, 11:10 a.m. Inappropriate

    A charging scheme for electric vehicles will easily sort itself out because the distribution grid already exists. Designs, sizes, weights of vehicles will also evolve as they always have. Why does the conversation always assume that advances only occur in one technology and not another?

    I would also submit that cars didn’t make anything happen in our society. People who acquired the mobility of the automobile made some choices based on the alternatives that they provided. People do things because the want to.

    For every person who wants to be closely packed with millions of their neighbors who walk and take the train, there is someone who enjoys the freedom to drive the length of I-5. Electric vehicles will enable them to continue to have that freedom.

    I don’t know about asking cars to do anything, but I do think that social engineers should stick to hosting motivational seminars and writing science fiction.


    Posted Mon, Oct 25, 12:48 p.m. Inappropriate

    Uh, I hate to point this out, but the automobile hasn't 'evolved' much at all in the past 60 years. Some modest advances in longevity and suspension, coupled with major improvements in wrist tvs, and hey presto! the illusion that all is new and revolutionary. In reality, they get about the same mileage, and are constrained by the same speed limits, but may actually take longer to get you to a less attractive place, because there are so many more of them.

    Posted Mon, Oct 25, 1:11 p.m. Inappropriate

    How come I have to pay for my fuel and the electric guys are getting a free trip. Actually I know. Thats just the way things are. But I bet in 1920 the farmer had to feed his horse and the fella with new jalopy had to pay for his gas.

    Posted Mon, Oct 25, 2:15 p.m. Inappropriate

    What I read between the lines of this story is: If social engineers were gifted at predicting the future we would all work for the government. I predict it will take a lot more than arm-twisting for that to ever happen in the United States. I most likely will not be around to find out if I am wrong. Or at least I hope not.


    Posted Mon, Oct 25, 2:19 p.m. Inappropriate

    Perhaps we could look more closely to the development of the infrastructure of the internal combustion automobile for guidance. After all, when Henry Ford's automobiles went into mass production, there was scarcely the infrastructure of filling stations or interstate highways that exists today. The first gasoline powered automobiles existed many years before Henry Ford's assembly lines, and those developed out of the infrastructure that had previously been built for horse carriages.

    Even though the internal combustion infrastructure developed out of what existed previously, it took decades of private development and focused public policy for the national landscape to adapt. People easily forget that the "freedom" of the automobile culture would not have happened were it not for the massive road building campaigns of the Coolidge years and then the Eisenhower years.

    Proponents of electric cars may be too optimistic about the timeframe involved in their project. They are, after all, taking about the conversion of an infrastructure that took decades to build. There is also the behind-the-scenes infrastructure of the requisite energy production. Since the driving force, if you will excuse the pun, behind the electric car is to preserve fossil fuels, there must be a wholesale conversion of the power generation and distribution systems in order for the project to be meaningful.

    Getting back to chickens and eggs, the key to public buy-in to a new technology is that the technology must offer something that cannot be provided by any other means. Environmental concerns will fulfill a niche market under ordinary circumstances, but the recharging problem demonstrates that electric cars can only succeed through mass market penetration. What do electric cars offer the consumer that cannot be fulfilled by any other means? The E-85 market is struggling because, despite the force of public policy, there is no answer to this question for E-85. Likewise, no number of recharging stations will lead to widespread acceptance of the electric car until the electric car provides clear advantages over the internal combustion engine.

    Posted Mon, Oct 25, 5:43 p.m. Inappropriate

    $100,000 per charging station! Wow.

    Why don't the manufacturers agree on some kind of a battery standard which would allow battery replacement? Rather than filling my tank at a gas station, I could swap my battery in about the same time and proceed on my way. The station could re-charge the battery and swap it to the next user.
    Certainly an inventory of charged batteries would involve less investment than a reservoir of gas feeding the pumps.


    Posted Mon, Oct 25, 8:38 p.m. Inappropriate

    Analysis to paralysis. No one needed cars until the trolley's were bought and destroyed....and the national freeway system certainly didn't hurt car sales any either. I guess the point is BUILD IT AND THEY WILL COME. (also known as leadership)

    Posted Mon, Oct 25, 11:34 p.m. Inappropriate

    How about some incentives from the city to buy electric cars? For instance, if it was free to park electric cars at metered spots on the street, I would buy electric (not hybrid) car. I'm close to buying an electric car in the next 2-3 years if there are enough incentives.


    Posted Tue, Oct 26, 5:20 a.m. Inappropriate

    A city could actually incentivize the electric car by marking and providing free short term parking for ultra-mini electrics you can buy off the shelf today. Because the distances in a city are so short, there'd be no problem with range, and a high speed would be unnecessary. The parking could be designed so larger vehicles simply couldn't use it.

    The major problem here is state and federal laws that require you to buy a lot more car than you may need. It might be possible to allow electric ultra-minis to use only streets that the city owns. They couldn't be licensed for state roads or maybe even county roads. But if you own a farm or factory you can drive whatever you like on your own property and that might work for a city too.

    Posted Tue, Oct 26, 6:44 a.m. Inappropriate

    Can somebody please inquire into why "charging stations" need to be so costly? If I bought an electric car, I'd expect to be able to plug it into a standard wall socket in my garage, or a standard 3-prong dryer socket if it took 220-volt power. Away from home, I'd expect to plug it into a similar socket accompanied by a power meter and a credit card slot. Yet every video I see shows some sort of fancy, very non-standard plug either plugging into a charging device or plugging into the side of the car.

    Why is something so simple being made so complicated, and so very expensive?

    Posted Tue, Oct 26, 10:25 a.m. Inappropriate

    R on Beacon Hill -

    From what I've read about some electric cars you can use those outlets, it just takes a lot longer to charge the vehicle.


    Posted Tue, Oct 26, 12:13 p.m. Inappropriate

    I can't believe the "swapping batteries" idea would work. If you make it easy to exchange batteries, then it would be easy for thieves to steal batteries out of cars. Since those batteries would be worth several thousand dollars apiece, I don't think you would ever be able to park an electric car on the street over night without great risk of the very expensive battery being stolen.

    The entire re-charging "problem" discussed here will take care of itself. The first owners of electric cars will simply recharge at their homes. Once there are enough electric cars on the road, private for-profit recharging stations will start to pop up along major routes. Just think of the possibilities of selling food and other stuff to people while they wait 15 minutes or longer to re-charge their cars at your re-charging station. Re-charging stations along highways would certainly attract people to restaurants which provided them, for one example.

    You may not be able to drive an electric car east-west across the country, or even WA state, for several years, but so what? The first owners of electric cars will have another, gasoline-engine car for those trips.


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