by Cindy Waxer

Can a Smartphone App Juice the Market for Electric Cars?

Mar 25, 2011
Car TechConsumer ElectronicsSmartphones

A maker of charging stations bets a mobile app will help convince consumers and business partners to put faith in new vehicles

Consumers have been slow to embrace electric vehicles, despite their cool factor. One obstacle to adoption is that the battery-powered cars can typically travel only about 100 miles before requiring a recharge. And there are just a few thousand public charging stations in the United States. But Richard Lowenthal thinks he’s discovered a way to quell consumers’ “range anxiety,” or fear that their cars will run out of juice before reaching their destinations.

As CTO at Coulomb Technologies, which makes electric-vehicle charging stations, Lowenthal helped design a mobile app, ­ChargePoint, that lets consumers find and reserve any of its stations in North ­America.

Available for the iPhone and BlackBerry, the app lets drivers learn whether a nearby charging station is available. Once drivers plug in, they can use their mobile devices to start and stop charging sessions remotely and receive notifications when their vehicles are ready. “Mobile communications is a great way to solve the historic consumer problem of range anxiety,” says Lowenthal.

But Coulomb Technologies has greater ambitions than just reassuring consumers, 71 percent of whom say that the potential for a dead battery is a major disadvantage to cars like the Chevy Volt and Nissan Leaf, according to a recent Consumer Electronics Association survey. (The March 11 earthquake and tsunami in Japan disrupted Leaf production.)

By directing drivers to its charging stations, Coulomb Technologies hopes to gain an edge over big-name competitors such as General Electric and Panasonic.

Pike Research estimates there will be almost 1 million charging stations in the United States by 2015. By demonstrating it can lure customers to its stations, Lowenthal says his company has increased by 15 percent the number of vendors, such as Dell and McDonald’s, that are willing to install them.

The ChargePoint app has been downloaded 33,000 times—proof that the company is targeting the right market, says Darin Stahl, an Info-Tech Research Group analyst. “Folks who buy an electric vehicle are probably the same folks who would buy an iPhone.”

Electric-vehicle makers still have to address other obstacles for consumers, such as charging times that can stretch as long as 12 hours. “An app isn’t going to fix that,” warns Ron Pernick, managing director of research firm Clean Edge.

Cindy Waxer is a freelance writer based in Canada.