ABB is not known as a traditional player in the automotive industry, but has been involved in robotics, energy, heavy electrical equipment and automation technology since its inception. The Swedish-Swiss multinational corporation identified the mega trends that we are starting to see today, such as the overwhelming demand for cleaner and more efficient transportation, heavily investing into smart infrastructure in order to support the growth of electric mobility. ABB has taken the step into the automotive world, aiming to lead the race with fast charging rollouts around the world alongside global automakers and mobility providers. I speak to Frank Muehlon, Managing Director, Electric Vehicle Charging - Infrastructure, to find out how ABB is adapting to the automotive and transportation markets in a time of significant disruption.
He tells me that there has been a huge change in the automotive industry: “You can look at new brands such as Tesla which have been game changers in this space and, now, the traditional OEMs are trying to catch up, or even leapfrog it with new technologies.” This has opened up a market for many EV charging businesses to capitalise on a rapidly growing market, which is why ABB has been so quick to develop and provide some of the quickest charging systems in the word. The company has brought to market an ultra-fast rapid DC 350kw charging station, which Muehlon tells me is the highest you will find in the market today. Although charging times vary according to the vehicle and its battery, I ask how quickly ABB’s rapid charger could charge the Porsche Mission-E, following ABB's collaboration with the automaker. “The goal is to charge the revolutionary Porsche Mission-E 80% in under 15 minutes, which is a great benchmark to set in such an early stage of future mobility.” It is incredible to see how far EV charging has come in such a short space of time and this is down to the coming together of the technology and automotive worlds, which has propelled alternative fueled vehicles into the market - albeit we are still some time away from a majority market share.
It is evident that the main reason for people not buying EVs is down to the fact that petrol and diesel cars are significantly quicker to recharge, have much higher ranges and, ultimately, are more attractive than the idea of moving over to e-mobility for now. Muehlon agrees that there are multiple reasons for this: "Looking at it from an infrastructure point-of-view, it is simply down to EV charging taking much longer than a five minute refuel at a petrol station, which are located all over the place. However, do not undermine the psychological topic as well, which is due to the lack of EVs that are out there today,” he says. “When buying an EV, the choice you have is still very limited. If you walk into a dealership, 90% of the cars on sale will be petrol and diesel, with one or two EV models available. This will change dramatically in a couple of years, but right now this is the problem we have.” It is only a matter of time before EVs take off, with more global players debuting new production models and concepts that will eventually replace conventionally-fuelled alternatives, but there needs to be a push from both ends if we want to see e-mobility take the lion’s share of the market.
The next thing to analyse is the kind of EV that is being offered by the automakers at present. Now, of course, this is all down to perception - some people like the futuristic-looking EVs, some say that they like the quirky style - but these products are very particular for consumers, which can be a problem for mass production. In addition, apart from a few cars that had 90-100 kW batteries, the initial EVs in the market all had very small capacity, such as 20 kW batteries with very small ranges due to high battery costs. Now that the cost of batteries is decreasing significantly, we will start to see more attractive cars with extended reach which will remove the range anxiety that has been a problem for most. The next issue is the time that it takes to charge the EV, which is what ABB is addressing with its high-powered charging station - however, Muehlon also tells me that the company has already rolled out 50 kW chargers for today's cars, which can be fully-charged in half an hour. This works well for the initial stages of e-mobility, whilst larger and more efficient batteries are developed.
However, Muehlon believes that there is a bigger problem that needs to be addressed: “There is still a need for more charge points to be rolled out, but we also need to look at how customers will pay for the service,” he adds. Although ABB is the supplier of these lower voltage chargers and enables all types of payments and connectivity, it is down to the operators to address the problem. "There are many different ways to pay for charging, such as RFID and services, but this is limited to certain operators and regions that can be an issue for customers." In most countries, there are several cards that you can use to charge your EV, which is annoying for consumers who will need to subscribe to different services.” This highlights a need for standardisation not of the chargers themselves, as this has been overcome by the industry standard of AC and DC charging, but the services needed to access the stations. With ranges increasing, people will want to travel longer distances to different cities and even countries, which is impossible with a flood of different payment methods across regions. "We have many regional operators which is a problem; as soon as we get these systems to operate across borders and regions it will make it a lot easier for everyone. In Germany, we have already seen a collaboration between the automakers, in order to build an alliance of charging networks that allow one type of payment and I hope this happens elsewhere,” says Muehlon.
Due to the rapid expansion of EVs, we have seen a substantial amount of charging and payment operators all trying to capitalise on the emerging market, which has created an overwhelming presence of services that confuses EV consumers. Muehlon believes that this will lead to an EV turf war, where we will see the survival of the fittest. "It will happen with the operators and charging manufacturers, as we are in a booming market. At the moment, we have an electrification rate of 1-2%, depending on the country. As this increases, you will need more charging infrastructure, which means that everyone who works on power modules and electrification will be looking to get involved,” explains Muehlon. Building an EV charger is not too difficult, so it is logical for a lot of companies to go in this direction, aiming to exploit the market. However, these different power modules and methods will not work for everyone, so it is important to bring in more applications and interoperability, whilst looking at warranty, endurance testing and servicing, which can only happen with a large company or operator. "If you are a regional operator in a city, you may see great success within your boundaries, but you will never be successful outside of that area,” warns Muehlon. “If a customer buys a new EV, they will have to make the decision whether to sign up with their local city or a global player - and most will go with the provider which has the most coverage."
He also believes that, in the future, the industry will regulate itself, especially since most of the industry has selected CHAdeMO and Combined Charging System (CCS) for vehicles, making it easier for consumers to charge at multiple stations. By going down this route, automakers will take the same approach to petrol and diesel vehicles, not limiting EV drivers to certain charging stations - which would be an extremely inefficient method of rolling out the infrastructure. “The standardisation out there in terms of the charging protocols - the interface between the charger and the vehicle - will be okay as we already see stations with CHAdeMO, mainly used by Nissan and a few other Japanese car makers, or CCS which is used by virtually everyone else,” says Muehlon. “This will not only regulate the pin types but also the protocol on how the charger and the car talk to each other."
Another issue in dense city areas is the lack of space to instal these charging stations, which is another reason why many people are put off by the idea of owning an EV. Most people in city centres live in flats with nowhere to put the chargers, forced to use roadside charging which is time consuming and difficult. Muehlon tells me that it is easy to instal AC home chargers, especially if you have it for residential use cases and for one car type if the OEM is delivering it with the vehicle. “It is a big market but there are definitely difficulties found with the installation of the chargers when there is no garage or space at the front,” he says. “In order to overcome this you would travel to a forecourt just like you do with a petrol station, however people will only go if it is fast enough. The nice thing about having your own home charger is that you do not need to go to a forecourt if you do not drive too far each day, which is easy. But with a mass EV market, you need to have stations where you can fill up your battery and be fine for the next 300-400 miles. This means that these stations need to be fast in order to be convenient and accessible.”
An alternative to this, which would be highly beneficial in areas that do not have much space to instal wall boxes, is inductive charging. By utilising a wireless charging solution, there would be no need for wall boxes, but we are some years off of seeing it on a mass scale. According to Muehlon, the power that you can transmit effectively is low at the moment: “It is easy with 3-6 kW; up to 11Kw is okay and you can even exceed this, but the higher you go the more ineffective the charging becomes.” There are different levels and generations of inductive charging. ABB already has generation one technology and is now developing generation two, but Muehlon tells me that only in the third generation will it be completely interoperable with different models. He predicts that we should start to see this innovation in 2025.
This illustrates how far the industry has come in such a short amount of time, with innovations being introduced to the market at a staggering rate. It is an exciting time for everyone involved, who are all preparing for the next decade of future mobility. It seems that everyone is publishing their own studies on the different outcomes of e-mobility, which can only drive further development in the area and create a cleaner and more efficient society. Although progression depends on the country, region and segment, the annual growth rate of EVs is skyrocketing. This will have a knock-on effect on EV charging which will follow a similar trend. Muehlon predicts that we will see an EV boom over the next five to ten years: “Some say that this will happen between 2022-2025; till then, it might be a modest 20-30% of the technology - which other industries would be extremely happy with.”