I’m daydreaming of a road trip.
To be precise, a drive to Calgary next month.
Planning it got me wondering when I’d be able to undertake the journey in an electric vehicle.
That, in turn, got me thinking about Better Place, the California company that, to date, offers the only near-term prospect of cruising the open road on battery power.
Its key concept is a network of stations where, in about five minutes, a depleted battery can be snatched from under an EV and a fresh one installed.
To understand this concept’s significance, I calculated how long it would take to get to Calgary on a schedule determined by a typical battery’s needs. The only way to make it manageable would be to drive whenever the battery had life and rest while it recharged, ignoring day and night.
The round trip is about 7,200 kilometres. Most EV batteries have a real-world range of around 120 kilometres. With that, we’d need 60 charging stops.
With a 120-volt outlet, a full charge takes 12 hours. With 240 volts, it’s about six. So, assuming an outlet was available whenever required, the trip would take 11 to 18 days.
Fatigue wouldn’t be an issue: Every 70 minutes or so of driving would be followed by six to 12 hours of downtime. But the journey would face challenges, in addition to being far longer than under gasoline power. Where to sleep? What are the odds of finding a plug-in along, say, Lake Superior’s remote north shore at 3 a.m.?
Fast chargers fill batteries to 80 per cent of capacity in half an hour. Even if they were available on the Toronto-Calgary route the drive would still include about 30 plugged-in hours.
With Better Place stations spaced across the continent, the 60 or so stops would occupy only a few more hours than the nine or 10 gasoline fill-ups the trip requires.
So, I was hoping for “better” from Better Place.
It arrived in Ontario three years ago with considerable promise, signing an agreement with the provincial government that, proclaimed founder Shai Agassi, “will move Ontario toward a new era in personal transportation.” It’s the “all-important first step in an expected electric-car charging network rollout for Canada, and we look forward to working in partnership with the Ontario government on it.”
A high-powered firm came would help in “developing a network rollout plan and investment timeline for Ontario.”
Alas, Better Place has quietly disappeared from the Canadian scene. Its “initial” venture, a charging-station demonstration project, has ended and the company “has no near-term plans for Ontario.” says spokesperson John Proctor.
Both sides say this was the plan all along.
“The project was scheduled to run for a year,” Proctor says. “All involved were pleased with it.”
“The province provided $1 million in financial support … to assist Better Place in establishing (a) demonstration centre and pilot charging station and then to keep them operational for one year,” says a spokesperson for the Ministry of Economic Development and Innovation. “Better Place delivered on those commitments.”
Still, what happened to that forward-looking talk?
Meanwhile, Better Place is expanding, slowly.
In its scheme, drivers buy or lease an EV, sans battery, then, subscribe to a “membership” package that takes care of the power plant, including charging and swaps, for a monthly fee starting at $250. Proctor says “hundreds” have signed up in Israel and Denmark, with 10 switching stations in commercial use and another 45 completing tests. The goal is 100,000 customers by 2016.
For now, only one car — Renault’s Fluence Z.E. — is designed for switching. Work is underway in Australia on applying the concept to GM’s Holden.
Busy, but not here.
Sadly — unless, like the first cross-Canada journey of Mitsubishi’s iMiEV, the car is followed by a quick-charger on a truck — an EV trip to Calgary remains a distant daydream.
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