Phil Patton | Report

Charging Double

Will WattStation (left) and Blink (right) change how we feel about electric cars?

The year 2010 may be remembered as a watershed for the electric car: that’s when the Nissan Leaf and Chevrolet Volt, the first mainstream electrics, were introduced in the U.S. But another 2010 innovation may turn out to be more important in the long run: two electric car chargers have arrived representing radically different design approaches to a whole new category of product.

When it comes to recharging batteries, efforts so far have been focused on providing home units for electric-car owners; there are fewer than 500 public electric charging stations in the U.S. The company SPX supplies home chargers for Chevrolet’s Volt at a price of around $2000 including installation. Aerovironment performs a similar function for Nissan’s Leaf.

But increasingly the electric car story will shift to chargers in public spaces. That was the message this summer when Blink, designed by Frog Design for ECOtality, and WattStation, designed by Yves Béhar and Fuseproject for General Electric, made their first appearances.

These chargers have much in common. Both work not just for Volt and Leaf but also for developing EV models such as the Mitsubishi i-Miev that I tested last summer for Change Observer. Both have corporate support, which means they are likely to show up in good numbers in 2011. And both have made a technological leap forward.

The most basic chargers are essentially extension cords from 120-volt house current. Classified as Level 1 by the Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE), they juice up most electric cars in eight hours. Blink and Watt Station are Level 2, which means they use 240-volt current to charge vehicles in half that time. (Think of higher voltage as something like higher water pressure.) On the horizon are Level 3, or 480-volt, chargers, which would bring a Nissan Leaf to 80 percent charge in half an hour.

Installed on main streets or at malls, Level 2 and eventually Level 3 chargers could ease “range anxiety” dramatically. The ability to recharge during a lunch date is likely to change the way people think about electrics and add a whole new measure of practicality to the cars. The catch: the use of higher voltage may wear batteries out faster and the equipment is more expensive.

Despite their identical purposes and problems, the contrast between Blink and Watt Station couldn’t be more striking.

Blink's home model (left) and commercial model (right).

Blink is a simple, practical, and adaptable design that emphasizes the charger’s networked nature. Described by Frog as a "new icon for a smart EV ecosystem," the unit comes in a wall version to fit garages as well as a freestanding model for public spaces. For the wall version, Frog devised a connector set flush to its mount to prevent breaking or scratching in a crowded garage. In the public version, the top is tilted to shed rain and discourage users from parking a coffee cup on the unit, risking a spill into the electronics.

Frog chose black-and-white for Blink, a reassuring, sober approach that literally transcends local color. The point was to create a highly recognizable, lasting image. "Blink was designed to be timeless, not trendy,” the company’s product prospectus says. “Understanding that the charger will live in both residential and public locations for years to come, we created a design language that will last.”

It is as no-nonsense as an airport way-finding icon. If the formal approach is “functional architecture,” the graphics and interface are derived from a basic monochromatic aesthetic and the design language from consumer electronics. The interface includes a light to signal drivers that a unit is available, and a full-color touch screen.

Blink has been adopted by the ambitious EV Project, a $230 million public-private initiative funded by Department of Energy and stimulus money, in which more than 15,000 chargers are being installed in 16 U.S. cities. The goal is to provide chargers for free as a public amenity and to expand the places they can be used to include movie theaters, shopping malls and coffee shops.

WattStation comes in an array of candy colors for both commercial (top) and residential (bottom) use.

Whereas Frog aimed at universality with Blink, Fuseproject has varied and personalized its Watt Station charger for General Electric. Instead of reassuring consumers with sober, buttoned-down looks, this charger, which is also available in a home or garage version, emphasizes its friendliness with candy colors. These not only make the units seem more welcoming but also could easily inspire mayors or CEOs to order chargers in their civic or corporate hues. Never underestimate the appeal of a good ribbon-cutting ceremony.

Variability doesn’t end there. In an interview with Fast Company’s website, Yves Béhar referred to “the ability for different cities to customize the finish of the materials depending on their identity, on the street, and on their look.” Just as there are many different designs for streetlights and benches, he suggests, “in the future, electric vehicle chargers will be so commonly available that people will be able to fashion them after the environment they want to live in."

Judging from Watt Station’s shape, Béhar and his colleagues locate chargers somewhere between street furniture and parking meters. The design is a sturdy-looking column with an angled head. (It may remind some of a thinner version of the British pillar mailbox, a dependable symbol of public amenity.)

The screen is heated for winter weather. A ring of LEDs signals the unit’s status: white means available, yellow out of order. The ring glows red while charging and turns green when charging is complete.

Payment systems are still taking shape: Frog’s prospectus highlights Blink’s color-screen interface, the ability to operate a charger remotely, by mobile phone or web and the potential of “the monetization of the charging space.” (Indeed, analysts estimate that the EV charging market will be worth $1.5 billion by 2015.)

The design approaches of both chargers have their appeal. We are still struggling for metaphors to understand what an auto charger means. How well designers shape that understanding is likely to regulate the pace at which we move toward electric cars. As with any new technology, design needs to overcome fears and highlight conveniences. Is a charger a simple, dull utility like a wall plug or a fireplug? Should it be thought of as a theatrical selling spot, like a gasoline station with bright graphics and bold forms? (Think of Landor's BP, Loewy’s Exxon, Teague’s Texaco.)

Or are chargers descendents of an older device, familiar to us from Hollywood Westerns: the hitching post?

Posted in: Product Design, Social Good

Comments [6]

the frog design is so much more superior than fuse projects. Which is very gimmicky.
I am glad that there are companies like frog out there making statements through the decisions they actually make rather than the what is now the standard. We have designed it to be adaptable in terms of final finish. I am tired of hearing that from creative consultancies - that is sidestepping their responsibility, clour is a design choice that shoudl be able to be jusified. Well done frog. Intelligent and as stated an iconic design that will last - councils won't replace these every five years. Fuse projects the equivalent of a clam shell ibook.

Great article!. Specially for the mention of market numbers.

See my article of those devices, written months ago on my Blog:

EV Energy for electric vehicles: suppliers and persistence of the form


(it is written in spanish. You can use the Google Translator tool that comming inside)
Ignacio Urbina

Happy New Year it's 2005! Wait this isn't an ipod nano/shuffle circa 2005 and mac mini 2005 blog post is it? Someone at Frog must've had these on their image board from back then and forgot to take it down. Why recycle the print-out when you can reuse. Or maybe it's another client-consultant catastrophe that went something like "you guys made the first Apple mouse? Well, can you make my EV station look like an Apple product from 6 years ago? My little daughter has a shuffle I bought on eBay and just loves it".

Not that Mr.Behar's gigantic modern dildo is any better. Although I'd rather have a colorful sculptural pleasure toy out in public space. Maybe it'd lighten up Americans from being so angry all the time. It would give me the giggles every time I walk by some streetartist's piece where they've spray-stenciled on the sidewalk, a woman spreadeagle at the foot of the charger, or a man with ... well you get the picture.

This is a new era, at least a new decade, I demand new forms to celebrate this time period, especially with a revolutionary movement in transportation happening today. The pretention of even claiming such an attempt at a "Timeless" design is such nonsense said with careless pride; I smell free-range fertilizer and it makes me want to vomit.
Koan Nepistem

These lovely products work wonderfully with the project to further conceal the true gobs of energy that we use on a daily basis, working hand in glove with electric vehicles to pretend that electricity generation is somehow value-free, or in some way even good for the earth - congratulations!

At least a gas pump gives off fumes and, like it or not, occasionally spills the gasoline blood of the western world on drivers that grow increasingly removed, via technology, from the global cost of this consumption.

Designers involved in automobile production and support are certainly well meaning, but combine the 40,000+ road deaths every year with the enormous environmental & political costs, and one wonders how they sleep at night.

If one of these electrical jack designs spewed the coal fumes needed to deliver that electricty (or the desert sands destroyed, bird feathers chopped or waters of the dammed silted rivers for those who believe the myth of "clean" energy sources) i'd be more interested.

Until then, this project, like the Chevy Volt itself, is nothing more than a last-ditch effort to cling to and conceal the facts of an unsustainable enterprise, not unlike the southern states efforts at nice-ifying slavery in the waning days of that unholy American way of life.

Mr. Downer

Maybe a smile? On your profile "picture?"

Joe Moran

so this is an electric car so does it mean it still has the water pump part of the car? it wont get short circuit inside? just asking and wondering how does it work?

Jobs | June 16