Navigant Research Blog

Don’t Get Too Fired Up Over Tesla Mishaps

— November 14, 2013

Despite being named 2012 Car of the Year by Automobile Magazine and Yahoo! Autos, and chosen as one of Time magazine’s best inventions of 2012, recent media headlines in 2013 haven’t been quite as kind to Tesla Motors’ Model S.  Over the past two months, three fires in Tesla’s vehicles have gained widespread attention.  The fires have significantly contributed to the 20% slide in Tesla’s stock price this month, although the stock is still up more than 300% since the beginning of 2013.

Pushing aside the media hysteria, let’s take a look at the facts.  On average, 17 automobile fires are reported every hour in the United States (194,000 on average every year between 2008 and 2010), killing an average of four people every week.  Of particular importance, mechanical or electrical failures or malfunctions were reported in roughly two-thirds of automobile fires.  As for the Tesla fires, all three involved car crashes; the fires did not begin spontaneously as the result of electrical failures or malfunctions, and in all three incidents the driver walked away without injury.

Technology Comparison

For a deeper comparison of electric and internal combustion engine (ICE) vehicles, it’s useful to analyze the safety of the vehicles more generally.  This can be achieved through analyzing vehicle fires and deaths per billion miles driven.  EVs are approaching 1 billion miles driven.  The Chevrolet Volt (300 million), Nissan LEAF (323 million), and Tesla Model S (100 million) represent the majority of these electric miles driven.

According to the U.S. Federal Highway Administration, roughly 90 highway vehicle fires and 0.15 highway vehicle fire deaths occur in ICE vehicles per billion miles driven.  Conversely, EVs have had a total of four reported fires and zero fatalities for the first near one billion electric miles driven.  Thus, ICE vehicles are 22.5 times more likely to catch on fire than EVs.  It’s also important to keep in mind that EVs are the first models of their kind, essentially experimental vehicles, and have still been able to far surpass the safety record of ICE automobiles.


So why is there so much attention and scrutiny on Tesla? Considering the frequency of car fires, perhaps the fact that Tesla went so long without having any is the main reason for the Model S making headlines.  Consumers may also hold EVs to a higher safety standard than traditional vehicles, due to the absence of gasoline in EVs.  However, not all are expressing distrust or skepticism around the Tesla fires.  Panasonic, manufacturer of battery cells for the Tesla Model S, has recently come to the aid of the automaker, and the company’s chief financial officer expressed confidence in Tesla and the performance of its batteries.  Panasonic ranked as the fourth best overall lithium ion battery manufacturer in the world in Navigant Research’s Leaderboard Report: Lithium Ion Batteries for Electric Vehicles.

Regardless of the recent media concern over EV safety, one issue remains clear : if your car does go up in flames, having an electric battery under the hood is much safer than a tank of gas, any day of the week.


Variety is Critical to Growing EV Charging Market

— November 14, 2013

To increase sales of EV chargers, should the equipment be speedier? Slower? Smarter? Simpler? Smaller?

These are the questions that electric vehicle supply equipment (EVSE) companies are addressing as they design the second generation of chargers.  With plug-in electric vehicles (PEVs) selling by the thousands each month in the U.S., EVSE companies are exploring new options to spark demand for residential and commercial charging equipment, and to differentiate their equipment from their competitors’.

Navigant Research’s recent report, Electric Vehicle Charging Equipment, which forecasts that more than 400,000 charging stations will be installed by 2015, highlights two areas where manufacturers are embracing variety: how quickly they can charge a vehicle and the level of built-in intelligence.

Not Too Slow, Not Too Fast

The first wave of DC fast chargers emphasized the fast aspect, with most companies offering 50-kilowatt (kW) chargers that could provide a battery electric vehicle (BEV) with an 80% charge in 15 minutes.  However, high speed charging can have serious financial implications for the building owner, if it occurs during times of peak power.  To avoid these demand charges, which can cost a company hundreds or even thousands of dollars for a single ill-timed EV charge, several EVSE manufacturers are offering “fast-enough” chargers.  These DC chargers can provide power at up to 20 to 25 kW, and are significantly less expensive to purchase and install, which will make them attractive to a larger audience.

Even at these slower rates, most people will be able to get back on the road in 20 minutes or less, since EV drivers generally don’t wait to be running on empty to recharge.  For example, according to the latest data from the DOE-funded EV Project, the average 20-minute DC charging session in the state of Oregon provided a smidge less than 8 kilowatt-hours (kWh) of energy, which is about one-third of a Nissan Leaf’s battery capacity.

Simpler is Better

ABB will be among the vendors at the EVS27 conference in Barcelona next week, which I’m attending, showing off a 20-25kw DC charger, with their new Terra 23 unit that can charge vehicles that use either the CHAdeMO or SAE’s combined charging system (CCS) standards.

Tesla Motors, on the other hand, has gone with uber-fast charging with its Supercharger network, which offers 120-kW charging.  Tesla is using its 32-station U.S.  charging network as a marketing tool that’s free to Model S owners – but not available to other EV owners.

For consumers who are looking to buy an EV charger for their home, the options are getting simpler, smarter, and less expensive.  The price of simple Level 2 home chargers, which eschew advanced networking communications features that add significant cost, has dropped from more than $1,000 to $500 or less.  Bosch and Clipper Creek are among the companies currently offering sub-$500 Level 2 EVSE chargers.

EVSE provider Etrel is pushing for greater sophistication with its charging equipment.  The company will premiere a new home charger at EVS27, a web-enabled system that can be programmed online or via a mobile phone to charge when electricity is favorably priced.  Also during EVS27, the CHAdeMO association will hold a meeting to discuss the latest advances in intelligent fast charging applications.


EV Charging Networks Start to Unify

— October 18, 2013

For EV drivers to use public charging equipment to its fullest (and for charging networks to make money providing the service), the experience must be simple and uncomplicated.  While today’s public charging experience is quite the opposite of that in most locations, there is considerable industry movement toward open standards that will someday enable drivers to plug in almost anywhere.

Currently, many EV charging networks have proprietary systems that require a personal identifying device, such as a fob or contactless card, to initiate charging.  The networks have legitimate business reasons to push customers toward signing up for membership plans.  However, based on the lackluster usage rates of public charging so far, a common framework for sharing data and customer authorization that exists apart from payment schemes is needed.

The Open Charge Alliance, which started in Germany and spread throughout Europe, recently landed in North America and aspires to unite all chargers globally.  The 50+ participating companies use the Open Charge Point Protocol (OCPP), which enables charging stations to connect with each other within a network or data to be aggregated across networks.  Interoperability is important because it allows charging equipment to be centrally managed regardless of the hardware.  It also enables charging station information to be aggregated and shared with drivers regardless of the software and systems used by each network provider.

Pay as You Go

The Open Charge Alliance made its U.S. debut at Plug-In 2013 in San Diego.  The group announced that an updated OCPP 2.0 standard would soon be out, supporting “pricing, smart charging, and charging station health and maintenance, including device event notification and statistical reports.”

U.S.-based companies, including Greenlots, ChargePoint, Eaton, and EV Connect, have gotten on board with the standard.  As a result, data about the concentration of EV charging events across networks can be tracked for the first time and vehicle data can be passed between networks.  This is important for utilities to be able to understand how the proliferation of EVs is affecting load.  If the standard becomes ubiquitous, it will enable hardware to be easily swapped out, making the market even more competitive.  Fleets can buy EV chargers from multiple suppliers and not have to worry about being tied into a single vendor’s software solution.

On top of this basic communication are payment systems, which can share personal account information and transaction data.  In Europe, Hubject is emerging as a common payment platform.  In the United States, the poorly timed Collaboratev venture (between networks ChargePoint and now defunct ECOtality) has been challenged by a new system from Recargo.

EV drivers can’t wait for the day when initiating a charging session at any location is as consistent and simple as withdrawing cash from an ATM.  Once this happens, the motivation to plug in whenever a charger is close by will increase significantly.


Why Recargo’s EV Charging Payments Service Is Free

— October 11, 2013

If you want to flummox a pair of research analysts, tell them you are launching a new product that no one has to pay for.  At last week’s Plug-In 2013 conference in San Diego, electric vehicle (EV) software and services company Recargo announced a system to let users of its charging station finder app, PlugShare, pay for their charging sessions through the app itself.  As Forrest North, Recargo’s chief operating officer, explained to my colleague, John Gartner, and me, the company is offering this service for free – not only to EV drivers, but to any EV charging network operator that agrees to participate.  Its first partner is U.S. EV charging company SemaConnect, which has 300 public stations accessible through this app.

Why would Recargo offer this for free? One reason is that PlugShare’s customers are EV drivers, not charging equipment companies or site hosts.  The company says that a key part of its mission is to make EV driving as easy and seamless as possible, and this new service helps to do that.  Recargo gave a demonstration of the system, Pay With PlugShare, at the Plug-In show.   The interface is clean and simple.  Once drivers have entered credit card information, it remains available for any charger.  Drivers simply select the charger they wish to use and begin charging.  The app shows how much the station charges drivers, how long the car has charged, and the total fee.

Forget About It

If Recargo can sign on more network operators, this app has the potential to address the major barriers in the EV world: charging network accessibility and ease of use.  Today, drivers must carry a separate access token for each network of charging stations.  For non-members, many stations have a phone payment system or a phone number a driver calls to get an access code.  Even a slight inconvenience in accessing a station will turn off some drivers, and, as we have discussed, public stations really need to maximize usage to make any kind of business sense for the operators.

Some companies argue that the easiest solution to this problem is simply to equip public chargers with credit card readers.  Indeed, this is already happening, and the new Pay With PlugShare app will not replace that as an option.  But, there is an attractive simplicity to using the same app to find the station to pay for charging at it, as well.

Rich Data

The app is designed to work with the payment scheme configured by the network operator and the charging station host.  It is easy to see why participating in this payment app would be attractive for companies that are competing against the two giants in the U.S. EV charging market, ChargePoint and ECOtality (although the fate of ECOtality’s Blink network, in the wake of the company’s bankruptcy, is not clear).  Ironically, Pay With PlugShare will be competing with CollaboratEV, the venture launched by these two companies to establish cross-network access for EV drivers.

While Recargo is not charging for the Pay With PlugShare service, North was quick to note in our conversation that it aims to be a revenue-generating venture.  The company says PlugShare has more than 20,000 charging stations in the United States and Canada and 30,000 reviews from users.  This gives it a tremendous amount of data on EV charging habits, which should have real value to the industry.  Pay by PlugShare may drive more users to its app and add to this valuable data stream.


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