"We believe the cars will be here," says Jonathan Read, CEO of Ecotality, which is working with BP to roll out more than 15,000 charging stations for electric vehicles. "We're in a turf battle." Just like conventional gas stations, location counts, and the land grab for the best spots is heating up. But unlike almost all gas pumps, design matters too. These stations won't necessarily be on the corner but rather located at movie theaters, malls, coffee shops, and your office parking lot. Each of these players has worked with A-list designers to use a combination of style and features to introduce drivers to this new refueling method. We look at five of the emerging brands vying to power your EV cruiser.
Power player: BP
Rollout: Partner Ecotality is using its $115 million Department of Energy grant to install 15,085 Blink charging stations by July 2011 between Seattle and San Diego on the West Coast, as well as in Arizona, Texas, Tennessee, and Washington, D.C.
Design: Slick black-and-white style developed in partnership with Frog Design. Quick chargers include 32- to 40-inch screens; slow ones have a 7-inch. All will be able to stream TV, advertising, or other content.
Cost to fill 'er up: Wireless-plan-style subscriptions, with prepaid minutes and unlimited options. Approximately $20 to $50 a month, with the average charge $1.50 to $2.50.
Charge time: Two to six hours with a slow charger; 20 minutes with a fast one (expected to debut in October).
Frequent charger: Members will get exclusive and highly targeted location-based coupons and offers on the Blink screens or on their smartphones. "We know who you are, where you are, and when you're there," and can change the ads accordingly, Read says.
Misfires: No on-the-go offering for nonmembers and no credit-card machine to sign up at the pump.
Power player: General Electric
Rollout: Pilots at Purdue University and UC San Diego by the end of this year. Public stations worldwide next year.
Design: Über-hip stations fashioned by Yves Béhar in a variety of bright colors. Includes retractable cord, an ergonomically angled screen, and a glowing LED status ring. A built-in heater defrosts the screen in snowy weather. Station owners can add upgrades such as a credit-card payment system and smart-grid connectivity.
Cost to fill 'er up: To be determined, but initially $3.50 to $4 per charge.
Charge time: Four to eight hours. Developing a fast charger with Nissan.
Misfire: With a design that looks more like a giant iPod than a street structure, GE may have some trouble convincing station owners that its WattStation will be robust enough to withstand the elements — and that it won't get stolen as urban art.
Brand: Better Place
Power players: Nissan and Renault
Rollout: First North American charge spots coming out in California this year; dozens more and "several" battery-swap stations expected in the next 12 to 18 months in California, Hawaii, and Ontario, to be in place when compatible cars become available in 2012. Already has hundreds of public charge spots in Israel.
Design: Blue and silver triangular shape developed by Gadi Amit and NewDeal-Design to stand out in the urban landscape. Smart-grid capabilities let them share information with utilities. An LED light indicates charging status. Drivers also get route planning and navigation assistance to find the most convenient charging and swapping stations.
Cost to fill 'er up: Drivers will lease their batteries, signing up for mileage plans. Charging and battery swapping will be included in the price, which has not yet been determined.
Charge time: Four to eight hours; one to five minutes (switch station).
Misfire: Better Place has not clarified whether it will offer alternative-payment options for EV owners who don't have swappable batteries.
Power players: Nissan and Think EV
Rollout: Seven cities in South Carolina this fall.
Design: Simple, futuristic design for single-car commercial chargers; functional mini-gas-pump design for multiple-car chargers — both developed with Lunar Design. Breakaway cord protects the charger from being ripped out of the wall in case something bumps a charging car. Internet-enabled, both wired and wireless. Payment options as well as RFID technology to recognize users.
Cost to fill 'er up: Probably free at first, at least for slow chargers. Quick-charge pricing is not set, but it's expected to run somewhere between $5 and $15.
Charge time: Six to eight hours (slow); 26 minutes to charge a Leaf to 80% (fast).
Misfires: Detachable cord is not as neatly stored as a retractable one. Also, more likely to be stolen.
Power player: Coulomb Technologies
Rollout: Chargers already in 14 countries, with major operations in Dallas, London, and Hong Kong. Raised $15 million from the U.S. Department of Energy and plans to supply 2,600 public stations by October 2011.
Design: Most reminiscent of a gas pump, but ChargePoint, by Interform, won a spot in the Cooper-Hewitt design museum in New York. Internet-enabled, with a billing system that allows users to register on the spot with a phone. Stations will text-message drivers with status updates.
Cost to fill 'er up: Free, because station owners such as high-tech companies (Netflix, Dell) and retailers (McDonald's, Starwood Hotels) are using chargers to build loyalty. But that won't last, says CEO Richard Lowenthal. He thinks consumers will pay up to $2 per day, or half the price of gasoline per mile.
Charge time: Three to eight hours (slow); 26 minutes to power a Leaf to 80% (fast).
Misfires: No retractable cord. Having trouble meeting demand, delaying several planned installations.
A version of this article appeared in the November 2010 issue of Fast Company magazine.