Hawaii is about to become the second state where it will be possible to pull into a special stations catering to drivers of electric cars, according to an article published on December 3, 2008, by CNET . Governor Lingle decided recently that Hawaii will partner with the company Better Place to provide the service stations.
Swapping stations for electric car batteries are similar to gas stations, except instead of filling up the tank with petrol, drivers with electric vehicles will be able to pull into an automated system that swaps out exhausted lithium ion car batteries for fully-charged ones. The stations will also offer drivers the ability to recharge the exhausted batteries with excess electricity generated from renewable sources during off-peak electricity hours.
(Illustration by David Simonds; courtesy of the Economist)
Hawaii is the second state in the U.S., and the fifth place in the world, to adopt the Better Place electric-car infrastructure. Better Place stations have already been implemented in Denmark and Israel, with Australia and California recently announcing intentions to add them. According to the governor’s plan, Better Place will pull permits for its stations in 2009, offer electric cars within 18 months, and make both available for the mass-market in Hawaii by 2012.
Critics of battery swaps argue that it is a time-honored approach, but not necessarily the best one. A recent article in the Economist magazine suggests that vehicles using lithium ion batteries, including hybrids, may be only transitional because a better technology is coming along in the form of the fuel cell.
According to greentech consultant Julian Sweet of San Francisco, California, there are other technologies coming along that could be more practical and just as promising as fuel cells. These include fast charge, no overheating lithium chemistries likely available in the next year or two and super capacitors with instant charge in about 5 years.
Sweet says that lithium ion battery swapping is the best solution today, but it’s an expensive one to roll out, requiring byzantine logistical considerations that may become a victim of its success. The more widely the technology is adopted, the more tied car manufacturers become to it. The combustion engine is a classic example of how difficult it is for manufacturers to escape a hugely successful but increasingly outdated 100-year-old technology.
It remains to be seen how manufacturers will standardize the battery packs for different cars and how they will deal with new, more efficient battery technology — even if it works against this swapping model.
One solution is to rethink how society uses cars in general, suggest Sweet. A zip-car type of electric car business model would mean that individuals don’t own cars, but instead have access to a pool of cars in a pay-as-you-go fleet. Each parking space of public meter would have inductive loop charging so the cars are always topped up and ready to drive.
This business model would allow fleets to introduce the best cars as needed, and high utilization rates would keep the incentive to replace aging or outdated vehicles frequently. It would also add a common infrastructure that would make it easy to adopt national standards. This vehicle charging infrastructure would resemble street lights now: they would be on every block. You would be charged only for speed or the amount of energy consumed and would receive a credit when not using the car.
With most islanders commuting less than 100 miles per day on a relatively small network of roads, this more forward-looking business model for cars could go a lot further toward eliminating car pollution and improving the efficiency of vehicles.