How to charge up the use of electric cars on our roads

This week, Singapore will see the launch of its first electric vehicle (EV) public car-sharing programme, with an initial roll-out of 80 vehicles hitting the roads.

How it works looks simple enough : The service depends on a network of 30 stations equipped with 120 charging points located across the island. These are to be found in Housing Board estates, the city and within industrial and commercial estates.

Users can book a vehicle via a mobile app, pick the car up at one of the charging stations and return it at the station nearest to their destination. They will be billed per minute with a minimum of 15 minutes and can choose between a yearly and weekly membership.

The operator, BlueSG, aims to grow its fleet to 1,000-strong and have 2,000 charging points by 2020.

Meanwhile, a taxi firm, HDT Singapore Taxi, is also operating a fleet of 100 fully electric cabs, another example of Singapore's push for greener transport.

The interest is certainly there but for EVs to be fully adopted in Singapore, more thought should be given to its Achilles' heel : its charging infrastructure. To have an effective public network of EV-charging infrastructure, several factors must be considered.

These include the right car-to-charger ratio, a network of strategically located and accessible charging stations, a smart billing system and good driver etiquette.

BlueSG aims to grow its fleet of electric vehicles to about 1,000 and have 2,000 charging points by 2020. Users can book a vehicle via a mobile app, pick the car up at a charging station and return it at a station that is nearest to their destination
BlueSG aims to grow its fleet of electric vehicles to about 1,000 and have 2,000 charging points by 2020. Users can book a vehicle via a mobile app, pick the car up at a charging station and return it at a station that is nearest to their destination. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

For EV drivers, the fear of having their car batteries run flat on them if they travel too far is of considerable concern. Therefore, the strategic deployment and wider distribution of fast chargers will go a long way to encouraging people to switch to EVs.

Singapore made a good start with EVs when it issued guidelines for interoperability, safety and other relevant specifications that will guide the industry.

But for wider adoption (not to increase private car ownership but to change the mix), we need to decide on the right number of charging stations per EV. It is 14.10 in Norway and 2.99 in Germany. We need to find our own balance, taking into account local conditions. Getting this right is crucial if we are to rev up the number of EVs in use because of the "chicken or egg" problem - while car growth drives infrastructure deployment, insufficient infrastructure results in stunted growth.

Why is having a dependable and easily accessible network of charging stations so important?

For EV drivers, the fear of having their car batteries run flat on them if they travel too far is of considerable concern. Therefore, the strategic deployment and wider distribution of fast chargers will go a long way to encouraging people to switch to EVs.

In a study across 30 countries by Delft University in the Netherlands in 2014, it was reported that the assurance of access to such charging stations was considered a greater inducement for many people to buy electric cars than a US$1,000 (S$1,360) cash inducement. The study found that it would increase EV market share by almost two times.

Under the present pilot EV programme, the plan is to combine new business models with infrastructure deployment. The key shortcoming is that the car-sharing/rental model addresses point-to-point travel, which means the distribution is based on specific travel routes; this makes sense for the business model, but is likely to limit the growth of the network of charging stations.

What can be done then to boost the number of stations and also help EV drivers locate and get to them quickly and top up with minimal fuss?

Locating these EV-charging stations, checking for availability and even booking the station can be done through smart systems. The ease of tracking down the stations will in turn increase the utilisation of the charging infrastructure, which will make the EV system more attractive.

And where are good places to locate charging stations? One ready answer lies in the location of petrol stations.

Petrol stations are already strategically sited along routes that vehicles travel the most, hence co-location in the strategically distributed network of petrol stations would naturally provide the highest level of accessibility to EV-charging stations. It is no wonder that in Russia, petrol stations are mandated by law to install EV-charging stations.

SMART BILLING SYSTEMS

Another challenge is how to encourage carpark owners to specially set aside lots to EVs, which have low population numbers. However, the problem is not insurmountable - a smart card billing system can help the carpark owner earn money through the sale of electricity on top of the usual parking fees.

Similar use of smart tech can also be applied to roadside parking, which is under the Urban Redevelopment Authority or other parties. Already, the switch is being made to do away with coupon parking. Payment via special codes for the use of electricity at designated parking lots is one possible solution.

Finally, we have to consider driver etiquette. When we have limited spaces and charging infrastructure, by leveraging on smart technology, a signal can be sent to the driver to inform him of the estimated time of completion of charging. With a tiered pricing system, the driver can leave the car in the charging space and pay more over time, or move the car and re-park, thus vacating the space for other users. This builds towards a greater sense of community living, helping us optimise the limited infrastructure deployed.

Getting people to switch to EVs is by no means an easy task. But if we have a sense of forward-thinking, we could leverage smart technology and common sense to simultaneously address key issues of distribution, access and payment that would otherwise be roadblocks to wider EV adoption.

•The writer is programme director of Nanyang Technological University's Energy Research Institute, as well as member of the Sustainable Energy Association of Singapore council and chairman of the Sustainable Infrastructure Committee.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 11, 2017, with the headline 'How to charge up the use of electric cars on our roads'. Print Edition | Subscribe