Electric car vendors: bundle in short-term gasoline car rentals, with charging

Looking at new electric cars like the Nissan Leaf, we see that to keep costs down, cars with a range of 100 miles are on offer. For certain city cars, particularly in 2-car families, this should be just fine. In my particular situation, being just under 50 miles from San Francisco, this won’t work. It’s much too close to the edge, and trips there would require a full charge, and visits to other stops during the trip or finding parking with charging. Other people are resisting the electrics for lesser reasons, since if you ever do exceed the range it’s probably an 8 hour wait.

An alternative is a serial hybrid like the Chevy Volt. This has 40 miles range but a gasoline generator to provide the rest of the range and no “range anxiety.” Good, but more expensive and harder to maintain because electric cars are much simpler than gasoline cars.

Here’s an alternative: The electric car vendor should cut a deal with car rental services like ZipCar and Hertz. If you’re ever on a round trip where there is range anxiety, tell the car. It will use its computer and internal data connection to locate a suitable rental location that is along your route and has a car for you. It will make all appropriate reservations. Upon arrival, your electric car would transmit a signal to the rental car so that it flashes its lights to guide you and unlocks its doors for you. (The hourly car rental companies all have systems already where a transmitter unlocks the car for you.)

In many cases you would then pause, pull the rental out of its spot and put your electric in that spot. With more advanced robocar technologies, the rental would actually pull out of its spot for you. Zipcar has reserved spots for its vehicles and normally it makes no sense for the renter to have just pulled up in a car and need the spot, but it should work just fine. At Hertz or similar companies another open spot may be available.

Then off you go in your gasoline car. To make things as easy as possible, the negotiated contract should include refill of gasoline at a fair market price rather than the insane inflated price that car rental houses charge. Later come back and swap again.

Ideally, some basic number of these quick rentals would be included in the price of your electric car. That way, if you only use it occasionally you will suffer no range anxiety — not even anxiety about the extra cost of the rental. Multi-day rentals and highly frequent rentals would require a cost — this is not something you can give for free to a commuter doing it every day.

On top of all this, the contracted rental companies would put charging stations in their spots, so that you can charge your electric car while you have the gasoline one. This would mean a serious increase in effective round trip range with minimal delay. Of course, the rental companies could have electrics of their own, and use these charging stations for those. There is no reason you could not be swapping your empty electric for a fully charged rental electric either — a different way to do a roundtrip-only form of “battery swap.” For example, I could drive 35 miles to the SFO rental car center in a 100 mile range car, grab another 100 mile range car for an active day of driving around San Francisco, and come back to swap even if there was no charging station in the parking space. But even somebody 95 miles from SFO could do this if there were a charging station.

This can’t do everything. It doesn’t readily permit circle trips that don’t come back the way they came. That’s pretty common for me, with two highways to choose going to SF, chosen based on traffic, and 5 nearly equivalent routes to Oakland. The vehicle swap will start out less seamless and improve, but of course the big thing is finding a rental that is on your route.

This can be made cheap if you don’t absolutely guarantee it to be free or cheap. Ie. it could come from unused inventory of the rental car companies, who will sell that for less. When inventory is tight, they will want to charge a bunch more.

Two Futures

Pres. Obama should have made the bailout money for G.M. and Chrysler conditional on them making nothing but completely electric cars by 2011, and with Ford made to comply by telling them that if they don't also build all electric cars by 1 January 2011 then a tax of $20,000 will be levied on every internal combustion engine car that they produce, making it cost prohibitive. Likewise any imported cars and cars made here in foreign-owned plants would be subject to the $20,000 tax. Certainly we would then see practical and affordable electric cars being made available and a gradual phasing out of fossil fuel car engines. And coal-burning power generating plants need to be replaced on at least a one for one basis with renewable energy plants regardless of how physically large the renewable plants have to be to have an equivalent output.

Remember, U.S. oil production peaked in the early 1970s and is now less than half of what it was then while the country USES a lot more than it ever has, about 20 million barrels of oil every single day (and domestic production is around 6 or 7 million barrels/day so most of the ~20 million has to be imported.) In the U.S. and worldwide even, all the easy-to-find oil has already long since been found and is in the process of being exploited which is of course why they explore into increasingly less accessable areas looking for it and frequently settle for oil that is heavier and more sour than they would have bothered with when oil was easier to find. We are entering the last epoch of the oil age and the sooner humanity completes its conversion to the next stage of motor development beyond fossil fuels the better off we'll all be. Left up to the big oil companies we'd end up waiting until it's almost completely gone and then it's too late so everyone goes back to coal fired steam engines because coal is still abundant and because of the population sizes now versus in the 1800s it could very well finish off earth's climate. As well as animal-powered vehicles like carts and there might even be wars to capture slave labor. This dystopian future can be avoided by converting to renewable energy sources before it's too late to make the change.

That's not going to happen

Nor should it. The government should not dictate what will be made in this fashion. If burning oil is the problem, then address the oil. Let the companies figure out how to make cars that need less oil, or need none at all. Electric cars are more efficient but not an answer on their own, it’s much more complex. What type of battery they use matters. How much they weigh matters. When they use electricity matters.

Fast Charging and Ubiquitous Charging

This system just seems logistically difficult and (except for probably some fringe cases) unnecessary.

Firstly, the whole concept of EV's is that you almost always DO start your journey with a completely full charge. Initially their might be some exceptions as people forget to (or don't bother to) plug in, but eventually either behaviour or (cheap) technology (robotic plug or contactless charging plate) will make it the norm.

Secondly, it's already perfectly feasible to 80% recharge a car in 25 minutes, not 8 hours. This is not with "magic" batteries or chargers, but with the standard battery in the Leaf and already-standardised chargers (CHAdeMO type). These are not free, granted, but at a ratio of one fast charger per 100 cars it's by no means prohibitive. Deploying fast chargers throughout any major city would be simple and take very little space, and would be vastly cheaper and more convenient that deploying a car swap infrastructure such as you describe above (considering the necessary idle fleet to ensure suitable availability of cars for 100 mile commuters or whatever).

Do the above two soon-to-exist and existing technologies change your feelings re: adoption barriers?

I generally fully endorse the idea of Robocars by the way, it's only the "vehicle swap" concept that seems cumbersome and unnecessary.

Fast chargers

Many people resent the 5 minutes of a gasoline fill-up, and while they will of course take a fast charge if they can get it, they will not want to sit 25 minutes on a trip, not when they are comparing the electric to the gasoline or hybrid car. They will like that they can get a pretty good charge at somewhere they already wanted to stop, or an emergency charge if they were stupid, but I don’t see making a plan to drive to a more remote town and stop mid-trip for a fast charge.

If the fast chargers were there, which they are not. Car rental facilities are already everywhere, and most of them are now computerized to the level you don’t have to actually do anything at the location except show your ID to the exit guard, and a fair number (the car shares) are computerized to the level you don’t have to talk to anybody, just get in the car and go. This is not something to build out, this is something already present. (Charging stations at rental car lots is something that would need to be built but they don’t have to be rapid charge.)

Now perhaps the particular situation of Silicon Valley and San Francisco is unusual, but one reason I proposed this plan is that the distance to SF is sufficient as to put a serious negative on my buying a Leaf or similar range car, and it’s a negative that this plan could fix with a smooth interchange. Everybody’s range anxiety is different. Some might be satisfied with a charging station at the transit hub, for example, and I expect those to appear as well.

Robocars are what inspired me to consider vehicle swap. I think that robocars have the potential to make swaps super-painless and thus more productive. You might do a swap because you have a short range robocar available immediately and it takes you to a parking lot (covered if raining) where you just grab your bag and walk 5 feet to the long range car. I also think it’s a great idea for the social carpool — 4 single person robocars converge from individual homes upon a 4 seater comfort ride (face to face with meeting table) which does the long run into town, where it meets 4 single person robocars for a quick change to 4 destination. In this case the people ride together not just for efficiency, but for social reasons. These could be planned or ad-hoc based on social networks. The social network could notice 4 friends all going the same way, and ask if they would tolerate a few minutes delay to ride together.

I also foresee mode swaps from car to plane or boat.

Granted, fast charging does

Granted, fast charging does not address the issue of long range travel... at least not effectively (yet).

I was considering only your scenario of living approx X distance from your destination, where X is only slight less than the range of the electric car with a full starting charge. Fast charging provides a simple and practical solution here. I can't imagine anyone driving from Silicon Valley to San-Fran AND back and at no point being prepared to stop for 25 minutes - consider that fast charge stations could readily be added to coffee shops, supermarkets, parking buildings, office blocks etc etc.

Yes, infrastructure build-out is required. But the service has value and is economically viable (assuming electric cars actually make it this time) which means that build-out is only a matter of time. I'm prepared to bet that there will be widespread fast chargers before there are widespread robo-cars (obviously with various qualifications on "fast" and "robocar", and also with the proviso that electric cars take off).

I think the inconvenience of a 25 minute (or less) incidental charge at some point during a trip (aligned with some other stop, e.g. lunch or meeting or errand etc) will be a substantially lower hurdle to user acceptance than a model that necessitates a vehicle swap... to say nothing of the fact that for the vehicle swap concept to work chargers would also be required (they're likewise not their yet) and would mean two cars were required for one job (unless you consider fast charging the EV would not be available for microrental while the ICE was being used).

Much more useful application of Robocar technology in this case would be, in the event that there was no fast charger where you wanted to park, driving itself around the block to where there was one and charging up for you.

Car swap for long distance trips is still a good (and well developed) concept that doesn't need robocar (or at least not anymore than EVERYTHING needs robocars). My point is that for relatively mid-distance trips (i.e. more than 98% of daily trip distances) it's no longer necessary now that we finally have the fast-charge capabilities of Lithium Ion and aren't hobbled by Lead Acid.

When to charge

I do agree the fast chargers can be deployed before the robocars, though one of my strong feelings about the robocar vision is that it’s about vehicles that need no new infrastructure. They thus go everywhere without waiting for infrastructure to be built. So in fact the day you can get your first robocar and it’s legal, it suddenly does things for you everywhere, while the charging stations will still not be in some places 50 years from now.

But indeed, the fact that the robocar (or even the whistlecar) can charge itself for you is a huge win. It means you no longer have to place chargers conveniently.

I think you underestimate the resistance to the 25 minute stop, but perhaps I overestimate it. Today people will regularly make the transit vs. car decision based on transit taking 25 minutes longer even though it is cheaper, does not require parking, allows you to read while riding and greener. But it could be that if people just “get used to it” and always bring something to do during the charging wait, they could accept it. Wifi at the charging station would help.

But knowing us humans, we are often late, and we will really hate a 25 minute charging delay when we’re late. Yes, we should plan better. But we don’t. That’s why we’re late. Traffic we blame on others. The charging delay we will blame on our car.

Curiously, I think that while a car swap will take about 5 minutes, it will all be activity and thus not seem the same as sitting and waiting, knowing you are late.

I will agree that it also makes sense for an electric car company selling shorter-range cars to build fast-charge depots and offer them to customers, and this probably will happen. We will see if it’s enough.

Exchange batteries

When the gas cylinder on my BBQ has run out I simply go to a gas station and swap it for a full one.
The swap and go service is a bit more expensive but a lot more convenient than physically owning and refilling the same gas cylinder.

Could a similar service be offered for batteries?
Could large flat batteries fitted under the car be automatically swapped over for fully charged units? (Nothing that a standardized system and basic robotics could not do). Perhaps it could be a drive-thru service attached to a normal gas station. If a fast food drive-thru can feed you and take your money without you needing to get out of the car, then why not the same with exchange batteries?

Battery swap

Indeed, many people want this, and the company “A Better Place” is built around the idea.

It has many merits, but a few issues. It requires standardization of battery module sizes and puts design limits on where the batteries can go. It means you would not own your batteries, but in some ways that’s a good thing not a bad one. And swap stations will have a lot of physicality, unlike charge stations which can be just a box on a pole.

Down the road many people think swap stations are the answer, and some thing fast charge (or supercapacitors) are the answer. They may be, but they are not here yet, so “swapping” for a gasoline car may make some sense.

I don’t think anybody has suggested it but it might also be possible to swap your battery for a module with a battery and a gasoline engine and tank, depending on the size and position of the battery unit. You would use this for trips outside the region where swap stations are common.

self charging or jump start

There are chargers now that you can plug up to battery and outlet in auto that "jump starts" auto from alternator. Would this be possible for electric vehicles. Also curious about solar charging and where auto makers stand on this subject.

Not yet

There is no correspondence to a jump start for electric cars but people are working on super capacitors that can be recharged very quickly. They would need special circuits, not what you can get from house power.

Solar is orthogonal to electric cars. Solar panels can provide power to the grid. Cars charge from the grid. You would not want to hook up solar panels directly to an electric car without connecting to the grid, that would be quite wasteful as the panels would be throwing away their power when the batteries are full (or the car is not connected.)

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