2013: The year electric vehicles turned the corner

TOSA bus, ready for its 15-second charge

It was a big year for ABB in the world of electric vehicle charging, and this is only the beginning.

Perhaps because they’re so silent, the steady encroachment of electric vehicles (EVs) onto the world’s roads has gone largely unheard. But 2013 may go down as the year the EV made a real noise, based on early enthusiasm for BMW’s funky  i3 and Tesla’s sleek Model S, the two most conspicuous newcomers.

The German group’s EV has enjoyed positive reviews, while sales of the Model S have accelerated almost as fast as Tesla’s share price. Quite when electric vehicles will outnumber those with internal combustion engines – if ever – remains to be seen. But 2013 is already looking like a watershed.

The surge has three causes. Car makers are taking EVs increasingly seriously, devising their new vehicles, like the i3 and Model S, from the ground up for electric traction, rather than just modifying conventionally powered models. Battery prices, a key cost, are still coming down, while, weight and performance are improving steadily. Further eroding drivers’ “range anxiety” – the fear of being stranded with a flat battery – is the growth of fast charging stations, whether privately owned in home garages or at steadily expanding public infrastructures.

Charging is where ABB comes in. The group has been pushing technological barriers on the speed and convenience of replenishing EV batteries. Instead of overnight (or even longer), the latest devices can pep up depleted batteries in minutes.

Short of inventing higher capacity batteries, faster charging holds the key to making electric travel more popular – and hence commercially viable. If ABB’s latest equipment can recharge a battery in less than half an hour, “range anxiety” should be mitigated.

That’s because speedy charging could make national charging networks as familiar in future as the gasoline or diesel filling station is today. If a battery can be pepped up during, say, a motorway rest stop, or while at the convenience store attached to a recharging station, flat battery fears should abate.

In a sign of the times, Estonia last February became the world’s first country to launch a nationwide fast charging network. The Baltic state’s 165 outlets are all in towns of more than 5,000 people or on major roads, meaning no driver will be further than 60 kilometers from the nearest charger – close enough to allow travel anywhere in the country without running flat.

The latest fast chargers are not only speedy, they work on all three globally agreed technical standards. Connected to the internet, they can do everything from giving a private owner remote access to allowing a charging group or power utility automated payments, instant diagnostics or even access to the latest software updates via cloud computing.

In July, the Netherlands followed Estonia with plans for the world’s largest fast charging infrastructure, involving more than 200 outlets.  Deliveries have already started and the entire scheme should be ready by 2015, putting a fast charger within 50 kilometers of all the country’s nearly 17 million inhabitants. Even workhorses like buses are switching on. In May 2013, ABB revealed a project with Geneva pioneering “flash” (ultra-fast) charging for urban trolleybuses. The new technology provides a brief 15-second recharging “boost” at selected bus stops, supplemented by full recharges during the 3-5 minutes buses halt at the start and end of every route. If successful, the innovation could prompt the removal of the complex and unsightly overhead cables needed by conventional trolleybuses – one of the main handicaps for what is already a relatively green form of transport.

Editor’s note: this article was written by freelance writer Haig Simonian and published by Ilona Braverman. The views expressed in this post do not necessarily reflect or represent the views of ABB or its employees. 

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About the author

Ilona Braverman

I am the Newsroom Manager with the corporate communications team. Prior to moving to Zurich, I spent over a decade writing, producing, marketing and production coordinating for Fox News in New York City. When I am not working, or enjoying all of the beautiful cities around me, I am busy dancing, cooking or probably making everyone around me howl with laughter.
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