One of the most intriguing ideas to emerge from New York's contest to transform its thousands of semi-obsolete payphones was turning them into charging stations for electric vehicles. City officials have taken notice. Technology commissioner Rahul Merchant recently told the New York Times that converting public phones into EV stations was "a great idea we should absolutely entertain."
The concept would address a major barrier to the use of electric cars in big cities: locating chargers. Part of the reason so few EV stations exist in urban areas is the scarcity of parking. But another big reason is that tearing up city sidewalks to run conduit is extremely expensive, says Jay Friedland of Plug In America. Using old phones for this new purpose takes that cost out of the equation.
"The great thing about telephone booths is there's power to them," he says.
To hear Friedland describe it, the lack of urban charging locations has had a big influence on the spread of EVs. Initially, he says, people thought pure electrics would thrive in cities, where the compact environment would reduce range anxiety. Hybrids, meanwhile, were predicted to reign in the sprawling suburbs, where their gasoline back-up engines could get drivers out of a charging jam.
That prediction turned out backward, says Friedland, "because urban charging is harder to come by."
The surprising outcome makes sense in hindsight. Suburban homes all have garages where an EV owner can charge the car all night. Few central city homes offer that luxury; even residential buildings that provide off-street parking can't guarantee the same parking spot every night, let alone a spot beside a charger. As a result, says Friedland, city EV owners tend to power up at work for the evening commute.
So converting payphones into charging stations could expand the urban EV market considerably. New York isn't the first city to recognize this potential; Spain and Austria proposed similar plans for their payphones several years ago. But in very dense cities parking remains a big problem — as does the strength of the power that currently feeds the phones.
Right now, says Friedland, public phones typically run on standard 120-volt power. The EV world considers that "Level 1" charging, sometimes called a "trickle charge," which can take 4 or 5 hours just to power a hybrid and many hours more to fill a pure electric. That's a rather long time for a car to occupy a city parking space.
With that in mind, he says, many experts instead have turned their sights to "quick-charging" stations. Though far more expensive to install, fast chargers can power an electric about 80 percent in just half an hour. The average commuter, who only drives about 40 miles a day, will be able to handle that distance after just 15 minutes at a quick-charger.
Some cities have already joined the party. Fort Collins and Tucson recently unveiled their first public quick-chargers, and 7-Eleven recently became the first retailer in New York to offer one. Tesla wants its exclusive network of fast-chargers to reach most U.S. metro areas by this fall, and some auto researchers believe 200,000 quick-chargers could exist worldwide by 2020.
"This is going to become very popular in urban environments," says Friedland. "I think you're going to see it in urban environments and deployed along highway corridors — say, 50 miles from the city."
A vast network of urban quick-charging stations would certainly encourage electric converts, but a public infrastructure system that expansive will take a long time to develop. Until it does, cities hoping to promote EVs would be wise to focus on cost-effective intermediary measures like transforming payphones. They may not be the future of urban charging, but for now they feel like a pretty good call.