November 19, 2010 {authors} {/authors}

Looking at how consumers use charge cars

Studies examine the relationship between drivers and their plug-ins

{authors} By Looking at how consumers use charge cars {/authors}

The push to bring more electric vehicles to the road won’t just rely on technology, price and politics. 

Changes in human behavior will play a large role.  Studies are underway to see how electric and plug-in hybrid vehicle drivers adapt to the new technologies. 

Numerous electric-vehicle charging companies, carmakers and government agencies are offering free or discounted home chargers in exchange for information such as how often and what time of day drivers charge their vehicles. 

In Boulder, Colo., Toyota Motor Sales U.S.A. Inc., Xcel Energy and the University of Colorado’s Renewable and Sustainable Energy Institute recently announced a two-year study with 18 Prius plug-in hybrid vehicles to be rotated among 108 homes. 

The study will collect data on how participants drive and charge the vehicles, and gather feedback on what they liked and disliked, said Barbara Farhar, senior research associate at the University of Colorado. 

The unique aspect of the Boulder study is the added benefit of Xcel’s SmartGridCity. The recently-installed advanced electrical grid in Boulder will provide consumers with daily household electrical use information, including that of their vehicle.  

“We’re interested to see how people will view their car as part of their home energy use,” Farhar said.   While the study temporarily provides the car and charger for free, participants will pay for the electricity and gasoline. 

Xcel’s smart grid will allow for select tests with time-of-use pricing, meaning variable electrical rates based on the time of day the vehicle is charged.  For example, cheaper rates will be available when overall grid demand is low and more expensive when demand is high. Researchers will then compare the electric-vehicle charging habits of participants using time-of-use pricing versus standard pricing, Farhar said.

The 18 vehicles being used in the field study are part of a 150-vehicle demonstration program that Toyota is conducting throughout the United States.  The Prius plug-in hybrids can be charged in approximately three hours from a standard 110-volt electrical outlet, or one and a half hours with a 220-volt electrical outlet. They can cruise in electric-only mode for approximately 13 miles. For longer distances, the vehicle reverts to its hybrid mode and operates like a regular Prius. 

The Toyota study in Boulder is just underway, and results are expected within about two years. 

The latest long-term electric vehicle consumer behavior test results come from the United Kingdom where Aston University researchers revealed in October that electric vehicle drivers have become more confident about driving longer distances halfway through their year-long study. 

“The phenomenon known as ‘range anxiety’ – concern about battery life when undertaking long journeys – is falling as drivers become more familiar with their vehicles,” project leader Neil Butcher said in a press release. “While there are technical challenges ahead – extending vehicle range and preparing for increased demands on the national grid – our results show that even current vehicles are more than capable of meeting users’ day-to-day needs.”

 The study showed that participants – which drove Mitsubishi’s i-MiEV all-electric mini vehicles – could get about 80 miles per charge, and on average spent between 25 pence and 1 pound (about 64 cents and $1.60) per day to charge their vehicles with an average charge time of two hours. 

The study found that drivers habitually charged their vehicles, whether the battery was half full or nearly empty, much in the same way people charge a laptop or mobile phone. The most popular time to charge vehicles was overnight.

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