Monday, September 28, 2009

The devil is in the infrastructure

If you talk to most people about EVs and ask them why they think there aren't really any available to purchase (unless you have $110,000 for a 2 two seat Tesla) chances are you'll get answers like, "Battery technology isn't there yet" or "Because big oil has spent tens of millions of dollars to keep them from being made available" or even "EVs require such little maintenance that auto manufacturers won't make them because they'll lose so much money on repairs." Over the past few years I have had a lot of conversations with friends and acquaintances on the very subject so I know what people think. Personally, I think all of those reasons have some degree of legitimacy, but having now been part of the MINI-E program I realize that perhaps the biggest hurdle is the infrastructure. MINI is struggling with different state and local electric codes and getting chargers installed for all of the participants has been more difficult than they anticipated. The auto manufacturers know this is going to be a big issue and require a lot of time and resources. This is going to add to the already high cost of making EVs because of the high cost of the batteries. Last week I posted about how New Jersey in particular has been a tough state for MINI to get the chargers approved for use in. It's such a new industry that I think some of the inspectors are being overly cautious when they inspect the chargers. In reality, the chargers are really not much more than a 220V outlet like you already have in your home for an electric range of clothes dryer. All the electronics that control the charging are built into the car. This is just one aspect of the infrastructure challenges the auto manufacturers will face as they develop and manufacturer EVs

Last week, at the California Air Resources Board's 2009 ZEV Technology Symposium, Richard Steinberg the MINI-E program manager made a presentation that detailed the program. Richard spent a lot of time on infrastructure issues, and one of the most telling lines of the presentation was "BMW/MINI is in the car business; BEVs placed us in the infrastructure business." Talk about leaving your comfort zone! The presentation talks about how quickly the program moved along. BMW only started talking about making a MINI-E in the Spring of 2008. They engineered, built and shipped 500 electric MINI-Es in less than 12 months! Clearly making the cars is not the big problem, it's going to be charging them. I do give BMW a lot of credit now, more than I initially did. Nobody else has put an EV on the road for real world testing since GM's EV1 and Toyota's RAV4 EV, and both of those projects ended quickly without the manufacturers committing to continue EV production. BMW has created the Project i program with the sole purpose of building and selling EVs. The MINI-E is the beginning, not the end, as was the case with the EV1 and the RAV4.

The good news is that BMW isn't going at it alone. Just about all of the major auto manufacturers are working on EVs and while they won't be sharing secrets about the cars they plan to produce, they are working together on Infrastructure Standardization. Public charging stations will need to be usable by all EVs and have 220V and 110V capabilities. Issues like should the chargers have an attached cable or should the cable be portable and carried in the car? Recently it was announced that
SAE standard J1772 plug would be used as the industry standard, but it doesn't seem like all the auto manufacturers are on board with that decision and discussions are ongoing.

As with all new technologies, there is a learning curve and a tremendous amount of time and investment needed in the very beginning. I'm sure BMW didn't think this would be a walk in the park, and I don't think they started Project i only to terminate the program before they bring EVs to the market for sale. I do hope they see the amount of interest the MINI-E program is generating and realize most us in the trial lease program understand it will be a difficult process to develop the necessary infrastructure to make BEVs a viable option for the masses. Just like the manufacturers will have hurdles, the people who buy the first round of EVs available for sale in the next few years will have difficulty finding places to charge. That being said, I think there are enough people willing to deal with the inconveniences that will exist, to provide the demand for these vehicles, providing manufacturers the need to continue to invest in them. Just about everyone I meet and talk to about the car asks me when will they be able to buy an EV. I'm certain there is a tremendous market for EVs out there just waiting for some manufacturer to mass produce them and offer them for sale (no more closed ended leases!). The infrastructure problems will be sorted out in time and BMW will have a head start from the information gathered from the MINI-E program. I just hope it doesn't take too long. After my short while driving this car I know I don't want to go back to an ICE, and I won't if there is an electric option when my time with the MINI- E is up. I'll deal with the lack of available chargers, just sell me the car.


  1. You're right. The car companies are used to just selling cars and leaving the refueling up to the consumer. With electric cars, they have to spend time and money on helping the consumer obtain fuel for the vehicle. Makes you wonder why they would ever want to make EV's.

  2. I won't be going back to an ICE either Tom. Enjoyed your post. Today (Oct 1) Southern California Edison has dropped their TOU-EV-1 rates for folks who charge off peak between 9pm and Noon 7 days a week. See my blog for the rate breakdown. It's a bargain to say the least.

  3. Sorry, newbie here. Can you please tell me what the acronyms ICE and BEV stand for. Thanks!

  4. Sure. ICE is "internal combustion engine" and BEV is "battery electric vehicle" I hope you enjoy the site, please feel free to ask any question you'd like or email me directly.