ubitricity’s mobile EV charging intelligence

The German start-up wants to make public charging deployment more efficient.

 

In a perfect EV world, every parking spot would be equipped with access to charging. Instead, we’ve seen charging points trickle into the public sphere, mainly in concentrated areas as part of publicly funded rollout programs.  

Within the industry, many believe that to effectively eliminate range anxiety, and encourage widespread EV adoption, access to charging should exist at a three-to-one ratio – three charging points for every vehicle. If that idea proves to be true, the industry has a big problem to overcome: installation cost. 

To put a million vehicles on the road in that scenario, we’d need approximately three million charging points. At $2,000-$3,000 a pop, plus installation costs, the infrastructure investment would approach $15 billion.

That math is hard to swallow, and has prompted the German start-up ubitricity to rethink the charging kiosk. Co-founder Knut Hechtfischer explained to Charged that the implementation cost of the charging infrastructure is far too expensive based on existing technology.  

One for you, one for me

The company plans to reduce rollout costs by removing the “intelligence” from the charging access point, because the intelligence – billing, metering, access control, cloud connection, etc. – is what makes charging points expensive. 

“The idea of ubitricity is to make use of abundantly, ubiquitously available electricity,” explains Hechtfischer. “To charge their vehicle, a person only needs a modified socket – that switchable, identifiable access point.” Instead of removing the functionality of smart charging, ubitricity wants to make the intelligence mobile, as part of the cord set (and eventually internal to the car).  

Moving that hardware into the mobile part of the equation allows the individual charge points to be greatly simplified. Take a simple outlet, put in a relay and some electronics to identify yourself and control the relay. ubitricity thinks that’s all that’s needed at the individual charge point. The rest of the intelligence for communication and data manipulation can be moved out of the stationary infrastructure. 

“If you take the intelligence with you,” says Hechtfischer, “everyone needs only one unit. This allows you to log in to a smart grid anywhere there is a modified socket. This makes charging extremely efficient, with the perfect logic ratio of one. One billing logic per user, no more. It is an intelligent interaction between cloud-based services, mobile electronics, and a smart but simple socket that only knows its name and has a control switching.”

“It is a great opportunity to remove cost,” explains Uwe Hauck, Director of Technology, Innovation and Battery Connectivity at TE Connectivity (TE), which teamed with ubitricity to develop the new charging system. “This technology delivers the same functionality at a fraction of the cost. With it, you automatically reduce the rollout cost for public and semi-public charging points.” 

By driving down the marginal cost on the infrastructure side, ubitricity hopes to enable the deployment of a dense charging access grid designed to allow more charge spots than there are users.

Currently, TE and ubitricity are producing prototype “smart” cord sets, developed for trials and demonstrations. Even at these limited quantities, it claims major savings, around 30 percent below systems with competitive functionalities. “Even using the prototype cable and the prototype wall socket, you still end up paying much less than the price of current industrialized products that deliver the same functions,” says Hechtfischer.

At scale, ubitricity believes it can offer a charging ecosystem with up to ten times more access points than conventional solutions for the same cost. “In Berlin, for example, there is a public project for around 800 charge spots,” says Hechtfischer, “and they have set aside five to seven million Euros for 800 charging spots. That is about 8,000 Euros on average per charging spot. For this price, we could deliver around seven to ten times more charging spots.”

With the intelligence comes the cost

With the potential to reduce the overall investment in a charging ecosystem, the burden of charging intelligence cost is transferred to the consumer. Plug-in vehicles already carry a high price premium. Will potential car buyers accept a higher markup? ubitricity points to the proliferation of WiFi and the end of the phone booth era as indications that they will.

“It’s a bit like WiFi in hotels,” says Hechtfischer, “Ten years ago it was the exception, and now it is abundant. There was one Internet-connected computer shared in the lobby, and now everyone brings their own device. Which means you have to have a little bit more functionality on the consumer side, but far less on the stationary side, and that allows efficient access.“

“We [also] like to use the analogy of the telephone booth. Once upon a time, there was one telephone booth for thousands of users. That was deemed to be sufficient. But then came mobile technology, allowing consumers to make calls wherever they are.”

Technology bridge

ubitricity wants to use its connected cord set as a bridge to moving the functionality into the vehicles. In the long run, the company sees a tremendously high cost savings by utilizing the components that are already built into the vehicles. “You just need to use them differently,” says Hechtfischer. “Each EV or PHEV has a very precise energy management system, and communication functions are already there. The OEMs will have to bring them together to support the metering functionality. Then put communication protocols on top, via GSM or other communication capabilities of the car to deliver information to the cloud.”

This is where teaming with TE comes into play. At this point TE’s end is mostly hardware – the connectors and cables. But it also brings long-standing relationships with automotive OEMs, charging infrastructure manufacturers, and the utilities. The energy and auto industries both extensively test new technologies before going public – it takes a while to introduce new technologies. So teaming with TE was a smart way to reach into its customer base and build on those relationships and their 800-million-dollar energy business.

For the time being, ubitricity thinks the best way to help the OEMs see the big picture is to give them a cable that they have to use for conductive charging anyway. By putting the functionality in the plugs, the OEM sees no difference. Car buyers can use this cable wherever they would like to charge – at traditional charging spots or at ubitricity access points. It’s a backwards-compatible solution.

On the other hand, a rollout of the outlets has to be pushed as well. “That is where we have heard very positive feedback, especially in the semi-public areas, with customers who are struggling with the rollout cost of infrastructure.”

Where can I get one?

By the end of 2013, ubitricity and TE will begin marketing their solution in Germany. “The idea is not to install our sockets and then sell cables,” explains Hechtfischer, “it’s more simultaneous. And in the adjacent market, employers who would like to give employees access to charging spots at work will need access control, maybe some smart grid functionality, metering, and billing service. We want to be their charging solution of choice.”

With success in one area, ubitricity believes the concept of mobile charging intelligence will spread like wildfire. “All the major automakers are very much global, and as soon as one region experiences a positive operating system they will do their part to help market and rollout in other regions.”

That, they can count on. This industry has a number of yet-to-be-answered tough questions, and access to charging is one of them. Any successful (read: profitable) model will surely be copied worldwide.

Do we really need a dense public charging grid?

There is a dirty little secret in the EV charging industry: real EV owners rarely use public charging. The folks at ubitricity and TE readily admit it. “There was a study in Germany that showed up to 95 percent of the charging events happen at home or at work,” said TE’s Director of Technology, Innovation and Battery Connectivity, Uwe Hauck. “Which means, from the logical perspective, there is not a reason to have a large-scale public charging infrastructure.”

Despite this well-known truth, public charging access points serve an important purpose. They are high-visibility cures for range anxiety. They help people feel safe, like insurance or an AAA membership. 

In a way, a dense public charging grid is more of a solution for EV adoption than it is a solution for EV owners. 

However, cities and utilities are struggling because of the high initial investment cost. And in the semi-public areas, like supermarkets, malls, and parking garages, a few thousand dollars of installation cost is hard to justify (except for the occasional demonstration project). 

Hauck believes that with a lower-cost alternative, semi-public areas could see a real business case. “If you’re going shopping and you get access to charging energy, after two hours of shopping your car can be recharged with you paying only a little amount of money when the retail location is sponsoring the charging spot. That is something ubitricity can make happen because their infrastructure costs are only a fraction of traditional installation costs.” 

Issue: JAN/FEB 2013