The American Automobile Association, more familiarly just AAA, knows a lot about road service, after more than 96 years of offering it to its members. And a survey shows that 12-15% of the 53 million members have expressed interest in the idea of having an electric vehicle (EV).
When it gets this kind of response, the organization that performs road service 30 million times a year realizes it has to be ready to offer its signature service to them, explained John Nielsen, AAA’s Director of Auto Repair. However, today it’s mostly dealing with keys left in the locked car, flat tires, out of fuel, and of course, a dead 12-V battery in conventional cars. But along with the membership interest in the EV, AAA also sees the reinforcement of government bodies “putting money behind it,” Nielsen said. He referred to both federal and state tax credits for EVs and the backing by governments at the state and local level for charging stations. Nielsen spoke at a recent meeting of the International Motor Press Association in New York.
When AAA came into existence in 1902 as a motorists’ rights advocacy organization, Nielsen said, a large percentage of the cars on the road were electrics. And if the batteries ran down and the vehicle was stuck, it might be towed by a mule to a garage that featured battery recharging. “We can tow any vehicle, but (today) who wants to be towed,” he added.
As a result, AAA has begun an EV road service research initiative. This includes training for safety and proper technique. So when a technician possibly encounters something specific to an EV with which he might not be familiar, he can take proper precautions. But the primary objective is being able to get the EV recharged sufficiently—and quickly—to be able to reach a fixed recharging station. He said the analogy is to a gasoline or diesel engine car for which an AAA road service provider may install a gallon fuel, or more if needed, for the car to reach a service station. That’s the type of service that the AAA member wants, Nielsen added, but AAA hasn’t an answer right now for EVs. “Things that seem so simple, aren’t,” he told the press group.
At this time, he said, AAA sees little need for it to be able to offer mobile fast charging. “After a week, the driver knows how far he can go with an EV, except for an unusual event,” Nielsen said. Even in areas where EVs have been sold, AAA has not received more than two requests for road service in a month, so there isn’t enough demand to justify deploying a fast-charge system. However, as the volume grows significantly, the more diverse ownership and the prospect for enough unusual events mean that AAA has to have a system ready to work. He admitted that the low demand to date means that AAA will not be rushing into any large investment, which at this time would not be economically viable.
The likely future need does mean that some form of fast-charging system will be required. Few EVs now have any fast-charging capability on board, such as the type that meets the Japanese standard CHAdeMO, and even that went to a 2.0 level, “which is not backwards compatible,” Nielsen said. AAA expects onboard fast-charging capability to become a widely installed feature as EV volume grows. The 2014 to 2015 period is when AAA believes the U.S. will see its first significant volume for EVs that meet a fast-charge standard, “but we want to know that what we do will not quickly be obsolete.”
“We’d like to be able to give you 15 mi (of electric vehicle driving range) in 15 min” with fast charging. The 220-V charging is okay, but at roadside it’s pretty slow,” Nielsen said. A road service provider can’t stay for 30 to 40 min, he added.
“No one built anything for mobile fast charging, so we built our own,” Nielsen said. He noted that generator systems that can do the desired rate of fast charging do exist. AAA’s preference is for a way to use the existing road service fleet of light-duty or heavy-duty pickups and small panel vans such as the Ford Transit Connect.
At first, the fast chargers that AAA tried just didn’t work, Nielsen said, but recently it found the AeroVironment Inc. equipment satisfactory and now has located other systems that appear promising. AAA would like to have an environmentally friendly power source and has been testing a CNG system (compressed natural gas), a lithium-ion battery pack, a PTO hydraulic system (power takeoff), and even a generator run by a diesel engine. A 20-kW generator would do the job, he said.
Of course the actual time for mobile fast charging would have to be tied into the distance to a fixed charging station. “We (AAA) are not going to be putting electric charging stations all over the country,” Nielsen said. In addition to charging stations funded by governmental bodies, many of the AAA’s road service providers may choose to have charging stations installed on their properties, he told the meeting. But he added, AAA’s own priority would be to go beyond knowing their locations by “improving the depth of the information. Is the station actually working? Is it in use? Are there three people waiting in line to charge their cars?” A smartphone app would likely be AAA’s approach for providing this level of detail, he added.
AAA has EV mobile charging research under way in six areas at present: Washington State (Seattle area), Oregon, southern and northern California (Los Angeles and San Francisco areas), eastern Tennessee, and Florida (Tampa area).