Charge it!

Just before President Obama took the stage at the Charlottesville Pavilion on October 29, Congressman Tom Perriello delivered a well-honed stump speech about successes from his first (and only) term. Among these was bringing electric vehicle (EV) tech jobs to Charlottesville. The crowd responded with rapturous applause. Even if Perriello never spelled out exactly to whom or what he was referring, there can be no doubt that the Department of Energy’s recent $500,000 grant to the City of Charlottesville and Aker Wade Power Technologies for the development of two EV fast-charge battery stations in Charlottesville was the project in mention. 

Bret Aker, left, and his brother John, hope Charlottesville will become “the next major hub” for engineers who want to develop EV technology.

“We’re hoping to become the next major hub for engineers who want to develop electric vehicle technology,” says John Aker, president and chief technology officer for Aker Wade, whose company is set to work with the city on the project. The Aker Wade facility is a stone’s throw from the Charlottesville-Albemarle Airport north of town.

The project was approved through a Congressional Directed Project, with the Department of Energy supplying the large portion of the grant and the City of Charlottesville contributing another $134,000. “It’s nice to have the earmark from the city and the federal government,” says Aker, “but it’s a very small portion of what we are actually investing in the project,” which he suggests will be in the millions, all said and done.

“I was surprised when the grant was approved,” admits Kristel Riddervold, the city’s environmental administrator from the public works office. “Congressman Perriello convened a meeting about 18 months ago as an open call for business opportunities in the Fifth District. Now that we have the grant, we have one year to fulfill the research, which is basically to investigate the applicability of zero-emissions technology within smaller urban areas.” The city will also purchase four plug-in vehicles for the research in addition to the charging stations. Unfortunately, neither the vehicles nor the charging stations will be available for public use at this stage. “The dispensers will look something like a regular gas station pump with two outlets,” says Aker. “The driver will be able to pull up, plug in and be re-charged in a half-hour.”

“What we’re creating here is meant to be self-serve,” says John Aker.

How serious is the city about the future of EV technology? As recently as October 18, City Council met to discuss permits for home installation EV chargers, predicting that as electric vehicles become more common, an increase in requests for chargers at one- and two-family residential units is to be expected. In an effort to encourage citizens to purchase these vehicles, councilors have suggested a simple low-cost permit fee of $50. 

Aker Wade, whose company tagline is “The World’s #1 Industrial Fast Charge Manufacturer,” has been in the technology business since 2000. “We started out creating fast charge for industrial equipment,” says Bret Aker, John’s brother and Aker Wade’s co-founder and CEO. “The forklift has been battery-run since, what, the 1920s? What we’ve managed to do for that industry is create fast charge technology that allows the batteries to be re-powered while the operator is taking a lunch break.” 

Aker Wade moved into EV technology, says Bret Aker, because “in the ’90s, the state of California had an electric vehicle initiative that said by 2004 10 percent of all on-road vehicles were going to be electric. Well, they were a bit too aggressive with those goals, but what happened was they created all these cottage industries. And one of those was these charging stations. We came in right about the time that they were beginning to say, ‘You know what? This isn’t ready for the EV market, but the technology works perfectly with things like forklift equipment.’ GM, in particular, felt that it was something that could ultimately save them millions of dollars, and GM was our first major contract, catapulting us into this business where we have now delivered over 10,000 fast chargers all built right here in Charlottesville.”

Inside their mid-sized hangar warehouse, the Aker Wade operation maintains a solid industrial equipment business, which is how it funds its venture into EV technology. The prototype for the EV fast charge station sits in the south end corner. From a distance, it looks much like a regular gas station consol, even boasting a typical-looking pump handle to plug into the vehicle. But upon closer inspection, two of Aker Wade’s technicians open the structure to reveal what looks like a large computer inside. 

“That’s basically what it is,” confirms John Aker. “What we’re creating here is meant to be self-serve. We envision these in more modern places, very much the gas station model. You couldn’t have this in your home; you couldn’t afford it. You wouldn’t have the power and the structure to support it. It takes over 50 kilowatts to run it. So it’s a big powerful machine.” 

Financially speaking, the Aker brothers have put their entire business on the line to do this. “There’s no turning back at this point,” says Bret. “Now that we’re coming into the EV market, we’re really starting our base from lessons learned with our forklift technology.” 

Any discussion of the electric vehicle and GM demands a look back at the automaker’s first attempt to manufacture and market these cars during the mid-to-late ’90s.

There’s that pivotal scene in the 2006 documentary Who Killed the Electric Car? when GM spiritlessly crushed and stacked thousands of EV1s like a cord of firewood, then shredded them into a million pieces. The film portrays GM, which spent more than $1 billion in development of the electric car, as ultimately choosing to focus on the vehicle’s few weaknesses, while in collusion with the oil industry to spell certain doom for the EV.

“According to a poll released in May 1994 by the American Automobile Manufacturers Association,” writes Joseph Weiss in his book Business Ethics: A Stockholder and Issues Management Approach, “there was 60 percent support for the [EV] mandate, and nearly 30 percent of those polled were interested in buying an electric car if it were on sale for $20,000 to $30,000.” Yet, GM stands by the company line that says EV1 was discontinued simply because of lack of demand. 

Aker Wade and the City of Charlottesville can thank Tom Perriello for a Department of Energy grant totaling $500,000 to develop two electric vehicle fast-charge battery stations in town.

“I know the guys who worked on the EV1,” counters John Aker, “and they claim it was Rick Wagoner, the CEO at the time, who made the call to kill the EV1. Remember, GM was selling literally thousands of SUVs per day then, and the decision was made to get the EVs out of the way. They could have kept them and used them for municipal purposes until technology progressed, and then they would have been at the forefront. Instead they have to play catch up now.” 

And yet, “this time around, electric cars may even play in Peoria” writes Karen Lange in National Geographic. She also claims that between 2010 and 2012, the auto industry has plans to introduce dozens of new vehicles, both hybrid and fully rechargable EVs.  

Of course, Central Virginia has never played a traditional role in automotive development. And that’s what makes Aker Wade and other like-minded companies outside of Detroit so exciting.

Earlier this year, Central Virginian Oliver Kuttner was awarded $5 million by Progressive for his Very Light Car (a.k.a. Edison2), which debuted at Detroit’s big auto show in January. While still run on gasoline, Edison2 was able to record an unbelievable 100 miles to the gallon. 

In July, the DOE funded a propane Autogas vehicle conversion program that boasted the first of 1,189 emission-cutting cars. Administered by Virginia Clean Cities at James Madison University, the program is set to deploy vehicles that will drastically reduce air pollutants such as carbon monoxide, soot and smog-causing emissions when compared to traditional gasoline vehicles.

More recently, UVA held a two-day symposium and exhibit where experts in engineering, sustainability and auto marketing discussed the future of fuel-efficient cars, and in particular, hybrids.

The Aker brothers, who are self-ascribed “Army Brats,” came to Charlottesville with their parents in 1972. John graduated from Virginia Tech and Bret from UVA. While optimistic about the future of EVs, they are more conservative in their estimation of when we might start seeing these charging stations along freeways. “Five years,” says John Aker. “Governments around the world are waking up to fast charge technology, but it’s been much slower in America.” 

In fact, Aker Wade’s EV fast chargers are currently used by Better Place in Japan and Israel. Additionally, Aker Wade has also supplied EV fast chargers for Chrysler’s ENVI line of electric and hybrid vehicles. That company has proposed a parking lot installation of Aker Wade fast chargers for their employees.

And yet, the ever-present critique known as “range anxiety”—the fear that EVs will leave drivers stranded on the road with a depleted battery—still persists in the minds of many potential consumers. So in early 2010, Coulomb Technologies and Aker Wade announced plans for the development of charging stations enabling drivers to charge their cars in 30 minutes. This announcement helped Aker Wade forge a serious relationship with the auto industry in Tokyo, Detroit and Europe. As such, Aker Wade now has chargers capable of energizing the Nissan Leaf and Mitsubishi iMiEV in around a half-hour, as well. 

“The question remains: When will you buy an electric car?” says Bret Aker. “When will your mom buy an electric car? Answer: When you know you can get from here to Richmond without being stranded. That’s where these fast charge stations come in. When you can stop in Culpepper and get another 50 miles of range in 10 minutes on the way to D.C., that’s when it will reach its peak market. We’re just at the beginning right now.”

The Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) has already proven the benefit of having fast chargers in Tokyo from 2006-2009. As an example of the technology’s power over the nonbeliever, according to TEPCO, when it allowed employees to drive Mitsubishi iMiEV electric cars, usage at first was low due to fear of running out of power. After deploying several fast chargers around Tokyo, vehicle usage went up 50 percent. Today, there are more than 150 fast chargers in Japan, with plans for another 1,000 to go in the ground in 2011.

“EV is going to be one of those tempering technologies,” John Aker predicts. “As gas shoots up, people will buy more EVs and that’ll keep gasoline from going crazy, right? And it’ll be see-sawing back and forth. You’re going to see a mix of vehicles on the road over the next 20 years. But, eventually, by the middle of this century, you’ll be seeing primarily electric vehicles out there. You’ll have the ranges up. You’re going to have 400 to 500 miles per vehicle and you’ll be able to re-charge within 10-15 minutes, just like you do with gasoline now. The next step after that is to make sure the electricity is coming from renewable resources.”

At the Project Get Ready Technical Adviser meeting on May 13 of this year, the Society of Automotive Engineers claimed they were prepared to evaluate new charging standards for the U.S. market. In states like Arizona and Oregon, state legislators have begun creating statutes for EV parking enforcement and are looking to fund new signage for guiding EV drivers to fast charge stations. Signage examples like this presently exist in Cambridge, Massachusetts, while in Amsterdam, diesel vehicles parked in EV spaces are already being towed.

“It boils down to the price of gasoline,” concludes John Aker as we walk back through the front office. “In Europe, it’s almost $9 a gallon. China is now buying more cars per year than the United States, which means there’s going to be considerable competition for the limited resources in fuel. With EVs, it’ll be much less: a fraction of the costs. We’re in the infancy stages right now, but what will continue to drive this is simple supply and demand, and we think the future is now.”


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