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Friday, November 5, 2010

I was reading an automobile magazine today and the author of the article that prompted this was lambasting President Obama and government intrusion into business because he thinks that light rail is a bad idea.  Two thoughts:  One, who the fuck is this douchebag anyway; Two, if there are ever any more bailouts or TARPs or stimuli, I damned well better be getting the bulk of it/them.
But what the article about EVs did was to get me thinking.  I'm sure that oil companies are in a dither about their business models what with Peak Oil having been reached, EVs hitting showrooms, and the general attitude globally (minus the US where we still have our collective heads up our collective asses) concerning humankind's contribution to global warming.  But, I have a plan...and it will require that a consortium of oil companies and automobile manufacturers coalesce to form a new infrastructure paradigm OR it will require massive government intervention.  
I recognize that the EV battery market is new, still in its infancy.  But now's the time to set standards for commonality of battery forms the same way that the electronics industry has standards for, say, hardware interface.  In that industry you have HDMI, USB 2.0, Firewire and a host of other connection standards.  If they can do it, so can the automotive industry with batteries.  Clearly there exist standards today for automotive batteries, tires, motor oil, fuels, windshield wipers, and a host of other components.  Narrow the battery size/shape/voltage/connection types to a handful and you're set to go.  Over time, allow new types into the market, loosen restrictions, and let market forces dictate design.
Let's take another industry as an example:  Propane grill gas.  Your BBQ grill probably uses a propane gas tank, if it's like most peoples' grills.  What do you do when you need more propane?  Do you take your tank to have it filled?  Probably not.  Not anymore.  Now, you take your tank to Walmart, Kroger, Lowes, or...a gas(oline) station and swap it for a pre-filled tank.  Blue Rhino is very well known and has kiosks all over.  It's fast, safe, easy, and relatively inexpensive.  You take YOUR empty tank, give it to Blue Rhino or another propane company, take THEIR full tank, and off you go.  A swap.
And that's exactly how the battery issue for EVs should work (*See Comment 1 for clarification).  We don't need battery CHARGING stations all over the country.  We need battery SWAPPING stations all over the country.  Here's the secret to how oil companies are already positioned to be early adopters:  They're already exactly where motorists who need a fully charged battery need them to be.   Here's the double plus ultra bonus:  It will require attendants!  Extra labor in the workforce to swap the heavy batteries for people who don't want to dirty themselves doing it, CAN'T do it themselves due to physical limitations or lack of automotive expertise, or those of us who're just too damned lazy to do it ourselves.  It seems that the technology might be made in such a way that a person who can today fuel her or his own car might also be able to swap the batteries themselves, so like many gas stations there might be both full-serve and self-serve islands with a price difference reflecting the labor needed for full-serve.  (I realize that the current designs bury the batteries in the middle of the cars for several reasons, but future designs might be made to allow quick changing; this would be in the automobile MANUFACTURERS' best interests, too, to make EV range extension attractive)
Here's another plus for oil companies:  Their "product" - electricity - doesn't have to come in on a truck; it comes to every gas station already.  No shipping costs, no delay waiting for the truck to come, no cluster as the tank truck fills the underground tanks.  For that matter, no underground tanks!  (OK, some stations already have those and there might be a tax incentive instituted to help offset the cost of having them removed or safely deactivated in situ).  There'll probably be some necessary changes to the wiring connecting them to the power grid in order to handle the necessary additional electricity, but that's a one-time deal.  The beauty of that, if it's actually needed, is that there are how many tens of thousands of gas stations across the country, meaning how much work for electricians? 
So, how does it all play out in practice?  Two cars pull into a "gas" station (call it what you will, but I like 'swap shop').  Car A driven by The Little Old Lady From Pasadena pulls into the full-serve island.  An attendant steps to her window, asks what she needs/wants, and takes payment.  He can slide her card at the pump or she can use the digital, encrypted hand-reader that sends her payment request to her bank for processing, eliminating the need for her to get out of her car.  That done, the attendant opens the hood/trunk/vehicle-side panel and pulls out X number of drained batteries that are docked there.  He puts those on the waiting cart, wheels it over to the battery bay, slides them into the charger, grabs X number of charged batteries, returns to the customer's car, slides them in, and thanks her for shopping at XYZ Swap Shop.  Off she goes.  Time lapsed:  5-7 minutes.
Car B is driven by a strapping 19-year-old jock who jumps out of his ride, slides his card, punches in the battery type and number of batteries he needs, gets the approval, grabs a cart, removes his drained batteries, wheels them over to the battery bay, hands the attendant the white copy (the customer keeps the yellow copy, just like now) of the receipt printout showing the type and number of batteries and the approved payment (the attendant would also have a screen so he could have the battery order ready), gets his batteries, returns to the car, slides the new ones in, and off he goes.  Time lapsed:  4-5 minutes.
[The Car C scenario - In the event that batteries must be serviced from under the car (surely at some point that would change), quick oil change companies like Jiffy Lube become the new 'swap shops' as they already have the work bays and drive-over work pits.  A customer would drive in, get out, walk in to the attached convenience store, make his purchases there and pay for his batteries which will have been identified and put into the system by then (the customer could be given a number or a token to identify his order), and by the time he gets back to his car, it's ready to go with fully-charged batteries.]
Most of the swap shops would also have a convenience store, some would have a car wash, some fast food...just like now.  The only major change is the type of "fuel" sold, with the minor change of delivery and storage infrastructure.  Just as with the swappable propane cylinders, you leave your property, take their property, pay for the "fuel", and off you go.  Quid pro quo.  
Down the road (Punny!), I can envision 'instant charge' stations which would flash charge batteries.  And at any time, your car could be charged at home using your standard charger.  Swap shops would be there for those occasions when you forgot to charge, didn't have time to charge, are going on a trip, or like many of us are just too damned lazy to do it ourselves.  Over time, I believe that charging will become less and less of an issue and the number of swap shops will dwindle, not grow, but they'll get us over the hump as we convert to a new technology.  I can see where they may always be needed for trucks which might not be able to make a long-haul without swapping batteries or making long charges.  
The future is bright!  I'm excited.