SJ unveils hybrid plug-in stations

January 6, 2009 6:43:57 PM PST
A metal box attached to a light pole could be the gas station of the future.

It does not have gasoline in it, but the box does have electricity for plug-in hybrid or all-electric cars.

"Plugging them in at home is not enough," San Jose Mayor Chuck Reed said.

San Jose's first public plug-in station is across the street from city hall. The project was a collaboration between the city and Coulomb Technologies. The station is really a test to see how well the concept works.

"These stations are designed to operate down to minus 40 degrees centigrade and up into the hundreds, in rain and salt spray and kids spraying graffiti and baseball bats, so they have to be rugged for one thing," Coulomb Technologies CEO Richard Lowenthal said.

Subscriber fees structured much like the ones used with cell phones will be where Coulomb makes its money. It will then pay the city, in this case San Jose, who is paying the power bill, Lowenthal said.

A swipe of a smart card gets the user in and lets a wireless network know the station is in use; since filling up can take four hours or more, that's an important feature.

"Most people ask us, 'why does it only have 200 miles,' and feel constrained by it," Tesla owner Sam Perry said.

Perry is a self-described small investor and a Tesla advisor. His roadster gets 200 miles on a full charge. On a 110-volt outlet, filling up can take nearly 8 hours.

"If I'm going to LA for instance, I'd like to have a bunch of these along the way and know exactly where I'm going to stop, and what I'm going to do along the way and currently I'd have to stop and ask someone to pass a line through a window or something like that," Perry said.

No one is willing to guess when or even if there might be enough electric cars on the road to make public plug-in stations a necessity.

Aside from San Jose's launch, the company will be extending its Smartlet charging stations into 28 states nationwide. The cost of plans will range from $10 to $50 a month, depending on usage. But for a limited time, subscribers can sign up for the basic access plan for free through 2009.

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