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How Electric Car Charging Networks Work


Life with Electric Cars
Mike Howard holds an electric-car charger outside his service station in Elk Horn, Iowa. Elk Horn has four of the devices ready to power up any electric vehicles that venture through western Iowa.
Mike Howard holds an electric-car charger outside his service station in Elk Horn, Iowa. Elk Horn has four of the devices ready to power up any electric vehicles that venture through western Iowa.
AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall

Imagine that it's five to 10 years in the future. You're in the driver's seat of your brand new electric car. It looks like every other car on the road, though perhaps it's a little more stylish looking. After all, it's brand new. You bought it not just because of its looks but also because it's cheap to drive -- the electricity isn't costing you nearly as much as gasoline used to -- and because it's non-polluting. You're on your way home from work and you're about to park the car for the evening. However, a meter on the dashboard tells you that the battery is running low. You'll need to power up before the car is ready for tomorrow's commute.

What do you do? There's no charging station at home in your garage because you don't own a garage. You live in an apartment or a small house. So, while stopped at a traffic light you pull out your Internet-enabled touch-screen cell phone (or use an interface built into your GPS) and surf to a familiar Web site. On the screen you see a map of the area around your home with red and green dots showing where the local recharging stations are. These stations are small boxes that sit next to the road like parking meters, waiting for you to park next to them. The red dots on the map represent charging stations that are already occupied. The green ones are free for you to use. You tap on the green dot that's closest to where you live and a box pops up asking whether you want to reserve that station for the evening. You press the button that says "Yes." The traffic light turns green and you drive off in search of the charging station, using the on-screen map to find your way.

Minutes later, you park. You pull your keys out of your pocket and wave the fob at a small box -- the charging station --next to the road. You proceed to drag an electric cable out of a recessed panel in the rear of your car, pop open a door on the charging station, and plug your car into a socket inside. Then you make the short walk home. When you get back to your car the next morning, the battery will be fully charged and ready to take you back to work or wherever you need to go.

The station you just plugged your car into is part of a charging network. You pay a monthly subscription fee to use the network and in return you get to plug your car into available chargers every evening. The recharging may take anywhere from 15 minutes to three or four hours, depending on the charging station and the type of battery in your car. Heavy duty batteries that can go hundreds of miles between charges will probably take longer to charge than light-duty batteries suitable for a short commute. But since you've timed things so that you won't need your car again until tomorrow morning, the length of the recharge doesn't really matter. And at the same Web site that lets you reserve the charging station, you can also decide what time your car will begin to charge. That way, you can take advantage of cheap, off-peak time electricity rates.

Sounds great, doesn't it? So what are the chances that you'll have a network of charging stations in your own neighborhood sometime in the near future? We'll talk about that on the next page.


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