May 31, 2024 - Technology

Charging "trees" could solve cities' biggest electric car problem

Rendering of a New York streetscape feature Gravity's charging "trees" for electric vehicles: tall poles with a maneuverable arm that swivels out of the way when charging is completed.

Gravity's patent-pending charging "trees." Image courtesy of: Rangr Studio Architecture and Gravity, Inc.

A New York startup called Gravity hopes to plant a network of high-powered electric curbside "trees" across the city that can recharge electric cars in as little as five minutes.

Why it matters: EVs make sense in congested cities like New York — where transportation is a major source of greenhouse gas emissions, air pollution and noise — but charging is a gigantic hurdle.

  • Even leading EV markets like Los Angeles have urban "charging deserts" without enough publicly accessible, fast-charging stations to meet demand, according to data from commercial real estate giant CBRE.

Driving the news: Google Ventures-backed Gravity, which recently opened what it claims is the country's fastest EV charging site at a Manhattan parking garage, now plans to bring the same technology to curbside plugs.

  • Working with design architects at Rangr Studio, Gravity just released a new concept for curbside charging.
  • Called "DEAP Trees" (for Distributed Energy Access Points), they're sleeker and taller than other curbside chargers — without messy cables that clutter the landscape and trip up pedestrians.
  • Instead, their charging cable pivots down from a hinged swing arm, and raises back up after charging. That flexibility means the system is compatible with any EV, no matter where its charging port is located.

Friction point: Curbside charging could help boost urban EV adoption, but it needs to be fast enough to keep turnover high in neighborhoods where drivers are often vying with one another for spots.

  • EVs take many hours to charge at a typical Level 2 charger, which means they're sucking up valuable real estate while sipping electrons.
  • DC fast chargers can replenish an EV battery in under an hour, but they're far more expensive to install and often require significant utility upgrades.
  • DEAP Trees are available in two speeds, providing 200 miles of range in either 13 minutes (200kW) or 5 minutes (500kW) — increasing the number of EVs that can charge there each day, a boon for widespread adoption.
  • Gravity says they can tap into existing power supplies, and provide fast charging without sapping nearby buildings.

The intrigue: Gravity is designing its chargers to be bidirectional, so in the future, vehicles that already have a charge but are still plugged into the system could supply power to nearby buildings during periods of peak demand.

Yes, but: Most EVs aren't yet ready to handle bidirectional charging, or even charging speeds faster than 350 kW.

State of play: New York's current largest network of public fast chargers is operated by Revel, the ride-hailing company known for its fleet of bright blue Teslas.

  • Revel has 54 public charging stalls in Brooklyn and Queens, with more locations coming soon — including 48 plugs at LaGuardia Airport.
  • The city has also partnered with another charging company, FLO, on a four-year residential curbside charging pilot.
  • FLO has installed 100 plugs along streets in all five boroughs, and reports high utilization and reliability.

Zoom out: New York's goal is to reach carbon neutrality by 2050, with 80% of trips done by walking, biking or mass transit.

  • That'll require 1.6 million EVs, supported by nearly 160,000 Level 2 chargers and 60,000 fast chargers.
  • Following the early pilot with FLO, the city soon plans to solicit bids for 10,000 curbside chargers.
  • Gravity hopes its fast-charging trees will be considered, and that the city won't limit itself to only Level 2 curbside plugs.

What they're saying: "There's a big opportunity to get this right," says Gravity co-founder and CEO Moshe Cohen, who wants cities to future-proof their charging infrastructure so they're not saddled with obsolete tech a decade from now.

Editor's note: This story has been updated to reflect that Gravity is backed by Google Ventures, not Google.

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