Sorry for abandoning you all last week, I decided to take my vacation days. But if there’s anything I love more than vacation days, it’s mass transit or electric vehicles. Bonus points if it’s both. I’m not actually wild about the act of driving because it’s mostly a time when I could either be reading a book or taking a nap, and I dig not using fossil fuels because The Environment.
Anyway, Switzerland, the peace-loving, cheese-connoisseur, fancy-watches-and-knives capital of the world has come up with a brilliant solution for localized mass transit that runs on electricity: Flash charging.
FLASH! AH-AHHH! SAVIOR OF THE UNIVERSE!
So flash charging is pretty much exactly what it sounds like. It’s the equivalent of when you’re about to leave work and you notice your phone is crazy low on battery, so you plug it in for fifteen minutes (just to get enough juice to make it home) and then you charge it all the way when you get home. You’re charging it in a flash (get it?).
Except in this case, the phone is a bus.
Strictly speaking, this method is something of a combination of buses and trolleys (they call them “trolleybuses,” which is sensible but not very clever), in that trolleys are usually electric, and these devices are built more like buses in terms of size and seating. The city of Geneva has partnered with power company ABB, bus manufacturer Hess, and their local utility company to show off this concept in practice. Currently, the route runs from the Geneva airport to Palexpo, the city’s major convention center, with hopes to expand.
How Does One Flash Charge?
Flash charging, or TOSA (Trolleybus Optimisation Système Alimentation) according to ABB, is accomplished by installing charging points in bus stop shelters every two or three miles. The 400 kW charge is delivered to the vehicle via a laser (lasers! Finally!) arm above the shelter, and puts about 5-10% juice back into the vehicle. This amount of power is delivered in about 15 seconds, which, if you’ve ridden a bus recently, is about 105 seconds less than it takes the mass of flesh you’re fighting with to disembark/embark. This enables the vehicle to get from one charging station to the next without stopping to charge, or at least stopping long enough to disrupt the flow of the schedule. The buses also can be fully charged in 3-4 minutes at the end of their routes, enabling a quick turnaround and the powering of onboard systems like overhead lights.
A large part of the benefit of the overhead charging stations at bus shelters is that it eliminates the need for overhead power lines running through the town to power the trolleys (picture San Francisco). That’s a lot of infrastructure to buy and install, as opposed to a couple of laser arms (LASER ARMS, YOU GUYS).
Flash Charging + Water = No Carbon Emissions
Perhaps the most interesting part about this system, dubbed TOSA (Trolleybus Optimisation Système Alimentation) by ABB, is that it’s a zero-carbon-emission system. All of the energy for charging the trolleybuses comes from clean hydro power. Somewhere, Elon Musk is salivating and wishing he had come up with an environmentally friendly bus to go with his fleet of roadsters.
The Future of Buses?
I don’t know how I keep coming back to the future of buses in this column. It’s only been like, five or six weeks, and I’ve already done two. I tend to think it’s because there’s a push to make public transport more widely available and more responsible. Many city bus fleets run off cleaner fuel than your standard car (including our fair City of Cincinnati, which uses ROUSH CleanTech propane autogas), because it turns out transporting hundreds of people in loops around localized areas all day isn’t great for the environment when you’re driving regular old unleaded or diesel.
So I suppose when I see things like this flash charging system, my hope is that they are able to scale them down to commercial availability. Imagine having one of these charging systems in your home. You could flash charge your car if you just needed to run to the store and back, or if you have to go across town, you can fully charge in a few minutes. It sounds like the process of fully charging the battery takes the same, if not less, time than standing at the pump filling a tank would, so the real question would become range, the old nemesis of electric cars.
Tesla has been wrangling with the distance issue for months, first condemning an article in the New York Times claiming their distance figures weren’t accurate, now putting CEO and eccentric billionaire Elon Musk on a cross-country road trip to prove it can be done in a roadster. Americans still trust fossil fuels because we know exactly how much we have left and a pretty good idea how far that will get us when we look at our fuel gauges. For some reason, electricity either a) can’t get us far enough or b) get us to the nearest charger when we need it, since, let’s face it, there’s not exactly a lot of Pilot truck stops with charging stations.
If this turns out to be a cost-effective way to circumvent those fears, it could help lead to a widespread acceptance of electric vehicles. And that would be pretty crazy cool.
Look! A Promotional Video!
Check out this (English-dubbed) video about the TOSA program below.