Fast charging is beginning a slow rollout for electric vehicles in the United States.
Although fast charging -- also called Level 3 charging -- faces obstacles such as high prices and uncertain standards, it could make EV charging much more convenient. And that could help pave the way to broader use of EVs.
"Without Level 3, it's going to be hard to have wide adoption of electric vehicles," says Kristen Helsel, vice president of EV solutions for charger maker AeroVironment Inc. of Monrovia, Calif. "It's a key component."
Level 3 chargers provide 480 volts and recharge a battery to 80 percent of full charge within 30 minutes, although charger companies are targeting shorter times. Other EV charging options are less expensive but take longer.
Despite high prices, the convenience of Level 3 charging intrigues automakers.
The ideal scenario would be: An EV driver with a low battery pulls into a filling station, plugs into a Level 3 charger, and while waiting the 15 to 20 minutes for a charge, goes into the station to spend a little cash on snacks.
A few Level 3 chargers are to appear around the United States this year, largely subsidized by automakers and government programs. Chargers can cost $50,000 or more, compared with the roughly $2,000 to install a 240-volt Level 2 charger in a home. Low initial volumes make Level 3 prices steep, says John Aker, president of Aker Wade Power Technologies, a charger maker in Charlottesville, Va..
"Right now, production is in the hundreds," Aker says. "That's almost a hand-built rate. Once we start hitting the thousands and the tens of thousands, I can see prices in the $25,000 to $30,000 range."
Tanvir Arfi, president of SPX Service Solutions in suburban Detroit, says that his company plans to have a Level 3 charger on the market by year end. The technology is "not earth-shattering," having been used in industry to recharge machinery such as forklifts for years, Arfi says.
Innovation and scale will lower the price, Arfi adds: "If we were eager to introduce a Level 3 unit today, we could. But I'm not interested in introducing a $70,000 unit."
Two major questions -- one marketing and one technical -- must be resolved before Level 3 chargers are used widely.
1. Marketing question: Who will buy them?
Aker argues that Level 3 chargers will go into existing service stations, where operators will make money from selling electricity -- perhaps along with food and other products -- to motorists.
"We can't ignore over 100 years of how energy has been dispensed so far," Aker says. "The model works, so let's use it."
Arfi isn't sure that's viable, at least until many more EVs are in use. He says the likely initial buyers of Level 3 chargers are businesses trying to attract customers or promote a green image, as well as employers providing charging for employees.
2. Technical question: Which plug will be used?
SAE International is developing a national standard for the Level 3 connector -- the plug and receptacle -- but probably won't decide until next year.
"I don't think that helps investors to make a big investment in fast-charging," Helsel says. "You could have multiple infrastructures."
Mike Muller, SPX product manager for EVs and a member of the SAE panel working on the standard, says that SAE is testing equipment and plans to propose a standard in the first half of 2012.