The Big Idea
Published: October 15, 2009
Art: eBoy. Sources: Art James, Oregon Department of Transportation; Tim Lipman, University of California, Berkeley;
Richard Lowenthal, Coulomb Technologies; Brian Purchia, Office of the Mayor, San Francisco
The Future of Filling Up
This time around, electric cars may play even in Peoria. But they will require a new infrastructure to replace today’s filling stations—one that dispenses electrons rather than gasoline.
In the future most cars will run on electricity from sun, wind, and water. Plug-in electric vehicles will hum along streets, giving off no exhaust. Oil imports and greenhouse gas emissions will fall. Smog will lift. At least that’s the vision many people are hoping will become reality. But first there are a few logistical problems to work out, including this one: Just where are all these revolutionary new cars going to plug in?

Between 2010 and 2012, car manufacturers are planning to introduce dozens of models that are either partially or completely powered by rechargeable batteries. Plug-in hybrid vehicles like the Chevy Volt, which will have a gasoline engine to fall back on after about 40 miles, will take up to eight hours to charge on ordinary 120-volt household current; some all-electric vehicles, with larger batteries designed to provide a range of 100 to 200 miles, will need 10 to 12 hours. Many homes have 240-volt outlets (used to run clothes dryers) that could in principle cut the time in half, and much charging can be done overnight, when electricity is relatively cheap. Still, in order for lots of people to adopt electric cars, there will have to be a network of charging stations—places where apartment dwellers, commuters who want to top off at work, and highway travelers can plug in. “You don’t want to put out too much infrastructure if you don’t have the vehicles,” says Art James of the Oregon Department of Transportation. “But you won’t get the vehicles until you have the infrastructure.”

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