The field of companies looking to establish networks of electric vehicle charging stations has become quite the horse race. And a relatively recent addition, Coulomb Technologies, has taken on reigning Silicon Valley firm Better Place with a new, grassroots business strategy targeting gas stations, government agencies and shopping centers.

Campbell, Calif.-based Coulomb is in the spotlight today, having raised $3.75 million in a first round of funding from German backer Estag Capital — a round expected to close between $5 and $8 million. But even this sum is dwarfed by the $200 million that launched Better Place in 2007, not to mention the $1 billion in projects the Palo Alto, Calif. company says it has lined up in the Bay Area alone.

But despite the disparity in cash, Coulomb seems to be closer to actually commercializing its flagship device — a curbside plug-in charging machine that works when users scan a special “ChargePoint Smart Card.” Called “Smartlet Charging Stations,” the devices cost about $3,000 — not including installation fees — and are usually mounted on street light poles. Earlier this month, it launched several demonstration systems in downtown San Jose, Calif. They haven’t seen much traffic so far — probably because there are less than 300 vehicles that could use them in the U.S.

This early experiment foreshadows Coulomb’s plan to roll out 40 of its charging devices along major California highways and at regular fueling stations before the end of the quarter (chief executive Richard Lowenthal said the company already had the distributors and customers queued up for this goal back in November). A map of current stations can be found at when you click “Find Stations.”

This model departs from Better Place’s dual emphasis on plug-in electric charging and battery swapping stations. The latter — a tactic that some promote because it would slash the time needed to refuel at a station — has been criticized by others as logistically infeasible considering the highly variable standards between makes of cars and batteries. Perhaps for this reason, Coulomb has tossed it, choosing instead to focus on compact and efficient charging stations.

Though the bulk of its revenue still comes from selling, installing and servicing the stations themselves, the company’s web site also gives individuals and organizations the option to sponsor a ChargePoint station by donating $3,000 to $6,000. And like Better Place, Coulomb plans to supplement these streams by selling consumers “subscriptions” to its stations. Membership includes a ChargePoint Smart Card, allowing subscribers to charge their cars at any Smartlet Charging Station around the world.

This actually means something, considering both companies’ roadmaps for global expansion. Coulomb’s partnership with Estag is expected to give it a toehold in Europe, particularly Germany. And while Better Place has yet to initiate a project there, it does have several in the pipeline for Israel, Denmark and Australia. It has also scored a valuable partnership with the Renault-Nissan Alliance, which could advance work in Switzerland. In Germany, Coulomb faces another foe — utility RWE, which just struck a deal with Daimler to set up a network of at least 500 electric car charging stations (slated to launch in Berlin where Estag is based). In the meantime, Better Place is looking to raise equity for its overseas projects, with a little help from Macquarie Capital.

In addition to Estag, Coulomb is in talks with plug-in innovator V2Green to help develop software that could better manage the flow of electricity between power grids and hybrid-electric cars. See below for a breakdown of how Coulomb’s stations work.