The Berlin-based startup has developed a system using a portable cable, which means drivers no longer need to use the traditional electric vehicle charging stations that are so expensive to install and maintain and take up lots of space.

Electric Vehicles: Ubitricity looking to enable recharging anywhere

Although Electric Vehicles (EVs) are still being driven by very few people, a number of companies are working to make it easier to use them.  One of the companies in this field is Ubitricity, a startup founded in Berlin in 2008. The Ubitricity concept is based on a portable cable and mobile electric meter which allow users to recharge their EVs more or less anywhere and everywhere. The system provides for two approaches: a) low-cost electric sockets that could be installed in most buildings, either by the local authorities or private companies; and b) an option to plug directly into a  street lamp-post. “There are some necessary criteria,” explains Ubitricity’s Director of Communications, Nina Keim. “The position of the lamp-post must enable the vehicle to connect to it, which means for instance that the car has to be parked on the right of the street. The lamp-post also has to have enough power itself to be able to charge up the battery.” Then the only thing that is required is to fit the specially made socket, a simple, low-cost operation. “Between 1% and 2% of all lamp-posts in Germany fulfil the criteria. That may seem a small number, but given that there are around 10 million lamp-posts in the country, it does represent a substantial number,” underlines Nina Keim. The Ubitricity website points out that if all these lamp-posts were equipped with sockets, this would meet the government’s target for installing EV re-charging infrastructure. Moreover, as 300,000 lamp-posts are changed or modernised each year, installing the special electric sockets could be incorporated into the maintenance schedule, argues Ubitricity.

Creating savings for the user and local authorities        

The Berlin startup’s system also enables users to choose their electricity supplier and opt for the type of contract most suited to their needs so that they can get the best available rates. Nina Keim says this is just like the mobile phone billing system. “In the same way as you choose a payment plan and a telecoms operator, who then sends you a bill at the end of the month, with Ubitricity you select your electricity provider and choose a contract type and you will receive all the details on your bill.” This system is more flexible and will cost less than the approach currently in use, which works on the basis of fixed-price re-charging terminals. Local authorities stand to gain considerably from the new system, as the current terminals are very costly to install and run. In addition there would no longer be any need to reserve space specifically for electric cars. They could be parked in the same spaces as petrol-using vehicles, providing there is a suitable socket nearby.

EVs central to Smart City initiatives

Ubitricity seems to have attracted considerable attention from both local authorities and private investors. The company has enjoyed the support of the Federal Ministry of Economic Affairs and Energy since 2010. It is also working alongside French utility EDF, German green power provider Grundgrűn and US manufacturer Tyco on pilot projects in Germany, which will see 100 charging stations set up in Berlin and 60 around Lake Constance. The company is planning to launch its system on the market by mid-2015. Meanwhile a number of other ‘smart city’ initiatives aiming to spread EV ownership by making it easier to use them are currently running. A year ago L’Atelier reported on a partnership between auto manufacturer Toyota and WiTricity, a US startup specialising in delivering electricity wirelessly over distance. The system uses induction charging, whereby electricity is converted into a magnetic field to be transmitted to the vehicle so that it does not need to be connected to a power source. In January 2014 L’Atelier also highlighted new technology developed by Ford working in tandem with the Georgia Institute of Technology in the United States. The concept is alternative solar energy powering for hybrid and all-electric vehicles based on roof-top solar panels plus a ‘smart’ parking/re-charging canopy. Also worthy of note is the embedded communication platform developed by Norwegian firm SINTEF, which calculates the shortest journey to nearby charging stations, thus removing anxieties about batteries going flat. Last but not least, Gogoro is about to launch its electric scooters on the market, encouraging young people to buy them by setting up a network of battery-swapping stations in cities. The company says that when the batteries become too old to be used in the scooters it will donate them to the general public for household use.

By Guillaume Renouard