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German Startup Ubitricity’s New Way to Recharge Electric Cars


A Tesla Roadster electric sports vehicle is charged at the automakers' showroom in San Jose, California

Photograph by David Paul Morris/Bloomberg

A Tesla Roadster electric sports vehicle is charged at the automakers' showroom in San Jose, California

A startup in Germany called Ubitricity is attempting to make electric-car charging ubiquitous with a mobile electric meter that drivers can carry around in their trunk. The company is making its first thousand plugs available this year.

The expansion of electric cars has been anything but spectacular, and a major constraint has been a lack of charging infrastructure and “range anxiety” getting the better of consumers. Late last year luxury electric sports car manufacturer Tesla Motors (TSLA) began tackling at least that perception with solar powered charging stations where Tesla drivers can charge for free.

Berlin-based Ubitricity is trying to tackle the problem of increasing charging options for electric cars in a different way altogether. The company wants to do away with what it says are bulky and expensive charging stations and replace them with a mobile electricity meter that will stay in the trunk of your electric car and allow you to charge at Ubitricity sockets, whether they be at your home, your office, or at the mall.

The advantage that Ubitricity claims is that the sockets themselves can be provided at a fraction of the cost of a conventional charging station, and its business model is to subsidize the price of a socket, making it competitive with the price of a standard power plug installed in a garage or at a parking place. The company says it will be able to do this because the intelligence will be in the meter that stays with the car.

If you plug in at home and at work, that’s two sites,” Ubitricity co-founder and Chief Executive Knut Hechtfischer told us during an interview recently. “So why should you install the full intelligence on two sites instead of bringing it with you?” He explained the benefits as: “It saves half of the intelligence, half of the respective costs, and half of the operation costs.”

To charge a car using the Ubitricity system, a standard charging plug is plugged into a white Ubitricity socket, which is about the size of a large brick. The mobile meter, which is attached to the charging cable, tells the plug to close the circuit and allow charging, and the meter keeps track of how much electricity is used. Once charging is complete, it sends the total back to Ubitricity via a cellular connection. Ubitricity then passes the info on to the relevant utility.

The system works very much like cell phone infrastructure and billing. The customer has a billing account with an electric utility, and Ubitricity simply keeps track of the electricity usage between the grid operator and the utility. Ubitricity then charges a surcharge for each transaction of about €0.10 for the service.

The density of the network will be key to the success of Ubitricity’s model, and CEO Hechtfischer said the cost advantage over charging stations will be crucial in attracting organizations and businesses to install Ubitricity plugs, rather than more expensive electric car charging stations.

“We think that it is very unlikely that municipalities, which means the taxpayer, will invest in that type of equipment,” said Hechtfischer. He said there’s not a clear business case for how electric vehicle charging stations can make a profit at this point, and he pointed to European utility RWE (RWE:GR), which has reported that the utilization rates of the few charging stations it has installed in Germany are very low—especially when compared with the high cost of installation and maintenance.

The Ubitricity hardware itself is nothing out of the ordinary, and the startup has been cognizant of keeping to existing standards when working with naturally conservative utilities and the automotive industry. The startup has worked with the German equivalent of the U.S. National Institute for Standardization in Technology to ensure this and has received a German federal government grant to do so.

The socket itself is standard, with power, voltage, a fuse, and RCD, with the add-on being access management, to communicate with the meter to authorize charging. The meter itself is a fairly standard smart meter, with a mobile communication gateway, to allow access to the utility backend system. If the mobile network is temporarily unavailable at the end of the charge, the data are stored for later transmission.

One patent for the technology has been granted, and others are pending. As for European competitors, there is activity in mobile metering in Sweden. An ongoing research project at Sweden’s University of Gothenburg is working on this technology, and Ericsson (ERIC) has collaborated with both a local utility and Volvo (VOLVB:SS) on its Elviis project. The Elviis project also places the communications and meter in the car and not the charging station.

The smart grid was actually the original starting point for Ubitricity in 2007. Founders Hechtfischer and Frank Pawlitschek were interesting in exploring what role electric cars could play in the smart grid with renewable energy. One consequence of the billing model that has emerged is that consumers are able to remain with utilities they trust and favor those that sell electricity from renewable sources if they chose to do so.

Households with rooftop solar panels can even access the electrons converted on their roof at remote locations, so virtually. “You will be able to get your PV electricity out of the socket at your employer’s site,” said Hechtfischer.

Ubitricity closed a series A round of VC financing in 2010 and hopes to close a B round in the first six months of 2013. It has evaluation pilot projects with a number of European utilities, and it’s exploring data implications with an unnamed U.S. Internet player. It hopes to have 1,000 sockets installed by the end of the year.

At present Ubitricity has the hardware manufactured locally, but in October 2012 it announced a partnership with TE Connectivity to mass-produce the components.

Fabienne Herlaut, the managing partner of the French corporate VC Ecomobilité Ventures, learned about Ubitricity at a recent Cleantech event in Düsseldorf. She told GigaOM that she thinks it is likely investors will be interested in the technology-based solution. “When you see a solution like Ubitricity, which is technology driven, then I think it is very attractive for an investor, because it is not only based on the number of users you will have,” Herlaut said.

Whether Ubitricity can succeed in getting the density of sockets needed to spell out the utility of its service to consumers will be demonstrated this year.

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Gifford is a freelance radio, online and magazine journalist for the Gigaom network.

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