Tim Lipman, University of California, Berkeley; U.S. Department of Energy
That infrastructure is starting to emerge in scattered places around the world, especially where governments are encouraging it. In Israel, a country with expensive gasoline and short driving distances, a California-based company called Better Place has constructed more than a thousand charging stations; next year it hopes to begin building a similar network in the San Francisco area. Under the Better Place plan, the company owns and tracks the use of the expensive lithium-ion batteries in its subscribers’ cars; they pay a fee to recharge, even when they’re recharging at home. That lowers the cars’ initial cost by a third or more, but customers must buy from manufacturers that have agreed to use Better Place’s standard batteries; so far only Renault-Nissan has signed on. To allow extended highway travel, Better Place will also build switching stations where robots swap out drained batteries for charged ones in a few minutes.
Alternatively, the future may look more like the present, with drivers of any brand of car able to pull into any brand of service station. Coulomb Technologies, another California start-up, claims it could build high-speed, 480-volt charging stations that would allow highway travelers to fill up in 20 minutes—about the time it takes for a rest stop. With 117,000 gas stations in the United States today and fewer than 500 charging stations, many not even open to the public, the scale of the transition to an electric-car world is daunting. But so are high gasoline prices and a warming climate. Says James, “It’s going to happen quicker than you think.” —Karen E. Lange