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-1Electric vehicles have come a long way in the last two years. Tesla Motors and Fisker Automotive have proven that EVs can be fast and decently ranged, even sexy. Nissan is promising to make them fairly cheap. General Motors is working on something any flag waving urban American would be proud to drive. But there’s still one hitch: battery technology — we don’t have anything better than the lithium-ion cells currently in use, and only questionable strategies for recharging them.

If you were driving an EV or plug-in hybrid today, where would you fuel-up? How about in two to five years?

One charging station provider, Coulomb Technologies, has ChargePoint stations in the Bay Area, Sacramento, Iowa and Houston (starting today in partnership with Reliant Energy!), but you can’t drive from San Francisco to Iowa on a single charge. They essentially limit cars to city driving.

Even if this changes and Coulomb’s stations become as ubiquitous as Exxon’s, it still takes a while to top off a car battery — not exactly convenient on a busy day. Coulomb’s charging products include a 120-volt (wall plug) and a 240-volt (dryer plug) variant. You still have to physically plug your car in and wait. With the 120-volt system, you wait 8 hours. With 240 volts at 30 amps, you wait 3 to 4 hours. This is assuming you have a Chevy Volt-sized battery, which has a 40 mile range. And all of these times only give you an 80 percent charge.

Better Place has their own system for recharging, again with 4 to 8 hours being the typical time frame to fully charge a 220-volt unit. Still requires wires, still takes a while – still not practical for all users, though some will do just fine with a 100-mile range and a Better Place charging system.

Startup R2EV‘s Fuel 2.0 system sounds cool. It uses modular and scalable battery blocks that you can put together and change out manually, exchanging live ones for deads on the charge rack. Their web site makes mention of exchange stations that trade batteries out for you while you wait. Full tank in ten minutes or less, the company promises.

But there are problems with that model — also used by Better Place — too. First, there is the Jiffy Lube syndrome – the frequency with which combustion engines blow up due to service station error is alarming. An improperly charged, damaged or connected battery is a dangerous thing for the safety of the hardware and the people driving it.

Quality is also going to suffer as batteries circulate forever, nobody wanting to eat the cost of getting them replaced – even if it falls exclusively on the shop to do so. It won’t happen until the last minute. You won’t be getting a peak condition battery, and you won’t be getting your car’s rated range. Ever seen the safety practices of an average mechanic’s shop? How about a 4×4 post keeping an auto lift supported? The idea of an in-and-out battery swap is scary.

Nissan may be onto something with its wireless recharging system debuting with their EV, the Leaf. In it’s current iteration, the technology is limited to that car model. But imagine this:

You live in rural Utah, where a trip to the grocery store is 60 miles one way. Then you have to drive further away from home, 45 miles, to Richfield to pick up school clothes for the kids. Your car has a 100-mile range when its brand new, probably 85 miles these days – so you aren’t even getting to Richfield on a single charge.

Fortunately, the Food Town in Loa got its subsidy money and a brand new weatherproof 240-volt, 80-amp wireless charging pad. Six of them, actually, in the parking lot. So you zip on up through Capital Reef National park, cruise through Torrey and Bicknell and Lyman on up to the grocery store. It’s a sunny weekend day, so power is cheap because of Richfield’s regional solar plant.

You swipe your pass key over the charging terminal and accept the current power rates, enter Spot Number 005 and hit the green button. By the time you get out from the week’s grocery shopping, you have a fully charged car and you still haven’t touched a cable. You make it to Richfield and do the same thing at the Wal-Mart. From there, back to Food Town for the perishables, and then home. You’ve spent almost zero time thinking about your car’s battery. Less time, in fact, than you’d normally think about your old Toyota’s gas tank.

The point is that wireless charging could let you top off the battery without taking up valuable parking space with wires and clunky infrastructure. It also avoids the battery swap, which may make sense for fleet vehicles, but not for the average consumer. Wireless charging in everyday places: coming soon to a parking lot near you?

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