The charging infrastructure will be a crucial factor for the success of electric mobility. Alongside conventional pillars and fast charging systems, the latest generation offers more and more new functions. Check out these innovative solutions.
A nationwide network of charging stations is a weighty argument for getting an e-car. But Germany still lacks sufficient charging infrastructure along highways, in rural areas and in metropolitan areas. In March 2021, there were 20,000 public or partially public charging points – an increase of at least around 10 percent within a year, and numerous charging options are also being installed in the private sector thanks to government funding. But for a better and more convenient infrastructure, more and more alternative ideas are sprouting up alongside conventional charging stations. Here's a selection.
They are gray, stand at the end of the street, and are sometimes covered with illegal posters that gradually peel off: Telekom’s approximately 380,000 distribution boxes for telecommunication and internet. Each of them has an electricity supply, a battery buffer and a digital metering point. In the future they could be turned into charging stations for e-cars. According to the Telekom subsidiary Comfortcharge, the total number would come to around 12,000. Each such charging station can supply two vehicles with 11 kW. The new charging points will provide enough power within one hour for a range of 50 to 75 kilometers, depending on the vehicle type. Using the existing infrastructure would render additional charging pillars unnecessary in towns and cities.
Just recently gas-station attendants have been celebrating something of a comeback – but will they soon face competition from charging robots? How would it be if the driver parks the electric vehicle and then the charging pillar comes to the car– in multistory car parks or on public parking lots in the city? This is Volkswagen’s concept concept for a charging robot that operates fully autonomously. It brings a mobile energy storage unit to the car, opens the charging socket flap, connects the plug and finally disconnects it again when charging has been completed – without the aid of human hands. The charging robot is fitted with cameras, laser scanners and ultrasonic sensors so that it can detect its environment and carry out the charging procedure. It is started either from an app or via V2X communication. While the car is being charged with up to 50 kW, the mobile robot sees to other electric vehicles.
Two years ago VW and the robotics specialist Kuka from Augsburg, Germany, presented the prototype of CarLa, a mobile charging assistant. This developed into a solution for domestic garages: the carla_connect robot arm is permanently installed on the wall and can carry out the charging process for any electric car or plug-in hybrid vehicle, either fully autonomously or at the press of a button. The robot has a camera for detecting the position of the socket and aligns the plug with maximum precision. But the very first alternative to the mass of leads came from Tesla. In 2015, an autonomous robot hosepipe caused a stir that moved like a snake toward the socket flap on a Tesla Model S and started the charging process, all by itself. The concept was then consigned to a drawer, but Elon Musk had gained publicity.
The startup Ubitricity has developed a socket for street lamps, which it says can be installed in existing lamp-posts. It will cost about 1,000 euros. Compare this with a conventional electric charging pillar that costs on average up to 15,000 euros. Ubitricity has already installed 300 such charging points in the London borough of Kensington and Chelsea. For billing, a mobile electricity meter has been developed that is integrated into the charging cable. Users only have to conclude a mobile electricity contract with the provider of their choice. However, the project is experiencing delays. Alongside problems with the masts for installation, in some cases the electricity supply in the lamp-posts is insufficient to charge an electric vehicle.
Temporary charging stations that function like a power bank for your smartphone? Volkswagen and the energy utility E.ON have together come up with a mobile fast charging pillar that works like a power bank and is basically a gigantic battery. The large pillar can charge two electric vehicles simultaneously at up to 150 kW. The battery in the charging pillar always has sufficient capacity because it receives energy from a conventional electricity connection. Second-life batteries from electric cars are also expected to be used in the future. The advantage is there is no need for a connection to the medium-voltage network and the associated underground work. If necessary, the charging stations can even be transported by trucks, and then returned after charging. That could be useful in remote locations where a charging network for electric vehicles is not yet available. This year, the first “Drive Boosters” are expected to go into operation on the freeways.
The basic idea behind eTree is that instead of the customer looking for a charging station, it will come to the customer. For instance, during a visit to the theater or a stroll through town. The location is sent to the provider via app, and the provider comes directly to the car with one of its - of course - electric vehicles. As things currently stand, two battery modules with a total of 200 kW are installed in the vans, which can charge two cars at the same time. As the owner of the car to be charged, you only have to open the charging flap beforehand. Billing is done by the kilowatt hour via app. eTree is scheduled to launch in 2022, with the electricity to be "delivered" via franchisees such as cab companies, energy providers or parking garage owners. For the latter, too, the system could be worthwhile: instead of installing wall boxes everywhere, they could use eTree as needed, where electricity is actually needed.
Charging pillars and domestic wall units for electric cars have one thing in common: they depend on the electricity grid. But green electricity is not always available. And if there is a power outage, it becomes impossible to charge the vehicle. The British firm AFC Energy has spent over ten years developing the world’s first charging pillar that works independently of the electricity grid and instead gets its power from a hydrogen fuel cell. An inverter makes the electricity produced by the fuel cell available to a charger and then ultimately to the electric car. The system goes by the name of “H-Power EV Recharge” and fits inside a standard container. The modular system can provide up to 100 charge points at a single site. It can be used with all EV charging standards and includes a storage tank for hydrogen.
Inductive charging is used for cars parked in a garage and is already familiar from other everyday applications, e.g. electric toothbrushes and mobile telephones. To charge electric vehicles, induction coils are installed both at the parking bays and in the car. Electricity flowing through a coil creates a magnetic field. If the two coils are placed the right distance apart, an electric current is created in the car’s coil which charges the battery. Together with the engineers from BMW, the supplier Brusa has realized the first series production of wireless chargers. The Swiss company is now planning the second generation, which can be used with the same base plate for various ground clearances and with various charging capacities. Continental already developed its own system some time ago. A micro navigation solution helps guide the driver to a parking spot with an inductive charging station, which communicates with the car while it is approaching.
The ultimate stage of development remains “dynamic charging.” This enables electric cars to fill up while in motion. Tedious stops at the filling station become a thing of the past and vehicle batteries could be a lot smaller if they are constantly recharged. The Israeli company ElectReon has successfully charged a Renault Zoe inductively during a journey. The process required a 20-meter section of the roadway to be fitted with coils. Copper wires are buried in the road surface just a few centimeters below the asphalt, after which the surface is closed again, all of which is done by special machines. Vehicles can be retrofitted with an inductive receiver. This system makes charging stations at the roadside superfluous, and it would operate with much smaller batteries. The results of the trial run will be important to a large-scale public-private project in Sweden, where the technology from ElectReon is to be realized over a stretch of 1.6 kilometers – between the airport and the center of the town of Visby on the west coast of Gotland, a Swedish island in the Baltic Sea.
(Stage photo: © Volkswagen)
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