Designer EV Chargers to be Sold in Big-Box Stores

At the public unveiling of his companys first electric vehicle charger in Manhattan Wednesday, Coulomb Technologies CEO Richard Lowenthal told me that in San Francisco where half the cars are parked on the street his pole-mounted public units are sliding right into the holes once occupied by parking meters.
There is a certain synergy between these two urban devices, because they both take money and provide a service. But the parking meter has always been a civic entity, utilitarian and largely unchanged from one decade to the next. The EV charger, on the other hand, is fast evolving into a mass-market consumer product (youll buy one to install in the garage)and that explains why cutting-edge designers are making them cool.
bloombergandsmartcar.jpgOn Tuesday, General Electric and the first-call designer Yves Behar of San Francisco-based fuseproject unveiled the WattStation EV charger, which they hope will soon be appearing on a street corner near you. Given its smooth surfaces, rounded shape, color-coded LED ring and snappy Hello! greeting, it could be a welcome sight. Theres a lot more Apple  cell phone in its DNA than parking meter.

The Coulomb charger is fairly good looking too, though functionality seems to have dictated its shape more than design. Form does follow function, after all.

Michael Mahan, a senior product manager at GE, said the initial public version of the WattStation will cost $3,000 to $7,000 and will be sold to municipalities and businesses next year. He said the modular unit is designed to be readily upgraded as connections to the smart grid get more sophisticated. Megan Parker, a spokeswoman for GE, said that the residential, wall-mounted version of the WattStation, to cost $1,000 to $1,500, will be introduced in a few months and could be sold in big-box retail stores. GE is talking to them, she said.
If so, that would be an interesting approach. As it stands today, most chargers are being sold in partnership deals with carmakers and municipalities. For instance, if you buy a Nissan Leaf battery car in the U.S. next year, youll be directed to a Nissan-branded home charging station made by AeroVironment. But nothing stops you from getting a better deal for a home station on your own, and thats where the WattStation and others to follow in its wake could come in. It could become quite a competitive market.
ge-bloom-context-city-streetsmall.jpgLowenthal told me in New York that Coulomb is, like GE, talking to big-box retailers and is indeed is close to signing a deal with one. Were all talking to them, he said, and some will be sold that way. GE is a little late to the party. But the EV charger is a bit of a different product because it needs expert installation. Its kind of like putting a 220-volt dryer in your garage. Of course, cell phones are a highly lucrative retail product and they need to be activated.

Many of the EV chargers in place today are three and four decades old, and about as up to date as a dial telephone. But Coulombs Manhattan installation is a beachhead on the way to changing that situation. The Coulomb unit was provided free to a New York City parking garage as part of the Department of Energy-funded $37 million ChargePoint America program, which has targeted nine regions around the country.

The parking garage is called Edison Properties, and perhaps thats appropriate because Thomas Edison created what amounts to the first electric grid in the U.S. in 1882. EV charging is designed to work best with Version 2.0 of the grid, with telematics enabled to make it easy for owners to plug in late at night, when rates will be low and excess capacity available. Coulombs chargers are accessed with a smart card and can be activated with your cell phone.

Unless I missed it, parking meters that can be fed with smart cards are thin on the ground, and I never paid one with my cell phone. The EV charger will be a digital designer product from the get-go.
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