E-mobility development can be addressed in many ways, subsidies being one of the simplest (though not necessarily the most cost-effective) solutions.
Subsidies for electric vehicles, subsidized infrastructure, subsidized electricity tariffs. These all sound good. But Germany, for instance, opted for a more frugal approach. While on paper it all sounds very promising--a million electric vehicles on German roads by 2020--the reality is different. A few days after we spoke to Dr. Ronald Krüger, who is a Ford representative in the ColognE-mobil project, Germany once again came out empty-handed--at least for now. Because such matters require (another) careful analysis, as politicians explained.
WHAT IS COLOGNE-MOBIL?
Launched in 2009, the project was conceived by four partners: Rhein Energie (one of the biggest electricty suppliers in Köln), Ford, University of Duisburg-Essen and the city of Köln. Why? To analyze the potential and development of electric mobility. Kicked off through a network of charging stations and electric cars, the newly set-up system was designed to collect and analyze data when suddenly, in 2011, the project ran out of funding.
To keep the project going, the team decided to expand and seek new funding for research. Upon initial expansion from electric cars and charging stations to other forms of electric mobility, from public transportation (electric trams) to carsharing, electric taxis and the like, new partners, in the form of taxi services, carsharing companies and photovoltaics specialists joined in. Ford was in charge of the plug-in vehicles used by the project participants, and telemetry, used to retrieve and analyze data on car usage. "Aside from Transit Connect Electric cars from the first stage of the project, we also use newly-added Ford Focus and plug-in hybrid C-Maxi Energi cars," says Dr. Krüger. "Currently we have 56 cars equipped with a handful of sensors and a data tracking system. Every second we retrieve from 200 to 300 pieces of information per vehicle, all of which is stored in our server. That is a colossal database of useful information, such as how and when the cars are in use, what they are used for, their actual electricity and gas consumption, what percentage of the consumption in plug-in hybrids is electric. Hard to collect otherwise, this information is crucial for car manufacturers, as it is for all who work on mobility systems."
Available to other partners in the project, the data served as a basis for a mobile application developed by the university whereby, upon inserting the start and end point of your travels, the application calculates the most efficient and eco-friendly mode of transport--by car, train or bicycle. "Because the numbers were low, the research did not include privately-owned electric cars, the cars owned by the research partners' employees. Still, some profiles, especially those of carsharing users, matched the profile of an ordinary, independent user. For a limited time, some partners let their employees drive the cars on a daily basis, also outside of their work," Dr. Krüger explained. "At a further stage, we may expand to also include individual users. Ford already collaborates on such a project in Great Britain, in carsharing, which makes use of a classic Focus as well as Focus Electric. In this way, we can also get our hands on control data, and since this is carsharing we're talking about, most cars are used to satisfy private needs."
And what have we learned from this data analysis? The users can quickly adapt to using plug-in vehicles, and lose their fear of running out of electricity, the so-called "range anxiety." Once the charging stations were installed at the companies that participate in the project, Ford very quickly observed interesting charging patterns. "We see two peaks: one in the morning, when the users get to work, and one in the afternoon, before they leave. Such practice allows the users to circumvent the expenses of charging at home, and since they gradually start to feel comfortable with the battery not being fully charged, the savings can be even bigger," Krüger explains. Needless to say, regular users cannot expect that a charging station awaits them at work. Most of the charging should be done at home, or via public charging stations. It is for this reason that, as illustrated by our interlocutor, "the retrieved data will be interesting for companies with more electric vehicles in their fleet, and more charging stations, as a result. This information also is a clear indicator that, despite the fact that electric cars are much cheaper to drive, the users continue to behave economically by exploiting the possibility of free charging."
Some data, however, did not differ much from what we already know. "Ninety percent of all car rides are shorter than 20 kilometers," Krüger continues, though the number has been picking up. "The number of daily rides has increased dramatically since the project was launched. In the early days, the users drove around 20 kilometers a day, whereas today the average is 54 kilometers." Even so, the data indicates that the fear of empty batteries diminished by the day. "In the beginning, the users charged the battery by around 20%, keeping its state of charge (SOC) as close to a 100% as possible. Now they charge the battery by 50% on average, which suggests that they've gotten used to the idea that it's not necessary for the battery to always be full." Dr. Krüger is well aware that the path to widespread usage of electric vehicles and infrastructure set-up will be steep. "We need a clear development strategy. We'll also have to work on expanding the network of charging stations, or else we might end up with well-developed regions, and regions that may very well be blank. Of course, other forms of mobility will have to be included, like in the ColognE-Mobile project. Because, in the end, we always arrive at the same question: what is the system that will be widely used, that will be more cost-effective than driving on gas or diesel, that will be more practical and that will allow everybody involved, from charging station managers to car manufacturers to service and public transportation providers, to do well, business-wise?"
Finally, the business model must ensure the survival of everyone, not only users. Otherwise, such a system can live only on state (or international) support, or else it will perish, even if it's been accepted and adapted to.