An ingenious solution to charging multiple electric vehicles powers the first joint startup of Imperial College London and University College Dublin.
More people will need to drive electric cars to mitigate climate change and reduce urban air pollution, but that won’t happen unless charging becomes easier. That’s where Go Eve comes in, a startup that makes it easy to create more charging points.
The company is commercializing a system originally developed by Professor Robert Shorten and colleagues at University College Dublin. He is an early adopter of electric vehicles and has been working on the sharing economy and strategies for years to make electric driving in cities more attractive.
In Dublin, around 2015, the main barrier appeared to be insufficient charge points to support an electric vehicle fleet. “But if you looked at the data, that was not entirely correct,” Professor Shorten recalls. “At the time, the Irish government had a scheme that installed a charge point at your home if you bought a plug-in vehicle. So, there were a lot of electric charge points in Dublin, they just happened to be sitting in people’s driveways.”
His first idea was to create a device that could turn these private charge points into public ones. “And a natural extension of that was to have multiple sockets on the device, so you could plug in several vehicles and not just one.” This would also address the ‘charger anxiety’ experienced by electric vehicle drivers, then and now, where charge points are often inaccessible because other vehicles are blocking them. “The idea was to create a system whereby you don’t need to move cars to have access to the charge point.”
Unfortunately, you can’t just plug an extension cord into a vehicle charging station. Electric vehicles exchange information and electricity while charging. The Charger talks to the car, declares it has the right to give, and the car replies that it has the ability to take it, provided it’s a one-to-one relationship.
So UCD researchers found a way to show the charger that it’s only connected to one vehicle at a time. Likewise, the car may be third or fourth on the power cord, but is said to connect directly to the charger. This allows current to flow and automatically switch from one car to the next, topping them up all at once. At no time will two or more cars be charged at the same time, which makes the design easier from an electrical standpoint.
The researchers built and tested a prototype they called DockChain and filed a patent application. Time passed, and in 2019, Professor Shorten moved to Imperial’s Dyson School of Design Engineering with two colleagues who had worked on the project: postdoctoral fellows, Pietro Ferraro and Masters student Andrew Cullen.
The innovation was archived at UCD until it caught the attention of Hugh Sheehy and John Goodbody, two startup entrepreneurs with an interest in electric vehicles. They liked the idea of charging multiple cars and asked if the system could be scaled from low-power alternating current (AC) for home charging to high-power direct current (DC) for roadside charging. The answer is yes, and Go Eve was launched in early 2021 to commercialize multi-vehicle charging for fleets and locations such as offices, hotels and airport parking lots.
“With DockChain, you get a high-power DC charger, with a series of terminals coming off it that look a bit like traditional AC slow chargers, but which are capable of 150-kilowatt high-power charging,” says Mr Goodbody. “That will allow you to wire a whole car park and run it off an existing high-power charger, effectively reducing the cost about 10-fold from the way people are doing it today.”
Go Eve has also developed software to offer different charging configurations for different kinds of customer. “Some people want the average charge to be raised across all their vehicles. Others want certain spaces to be designated as one-hour-only rapid charging spaces, leaving the rest to charge only as and when the power is available.”
In 2021, the company became the overall champion of VentureLaunch, UCD’s dedicated accelerator program for the commercialization of intellectual property developed by a new startup.
“Go Eve’s vision is to enable rapid DC charging for parking spaces at little more than the cost of the current slow AC charging infrastructure,” says Mr Sheehy, who is now the company’s chief executive. ”To support the implementation of this vision, we are currently seeking to raise £2.5 million in seed funding to run a number of pilot programmes later this year, to further accelerate product development and to support expansion of the team, especially in the US market. We aim to have our first production chargers available by the end of 2022.”
For Mr Goodbody, the experience of working with the two universities has been extremely positive. “After graduating I went into industry, and I had no further connection with universities until now,” he says. “And I’m still wondering: why didn’t I? There must have been some great opportunities, ideas and innovations that I should have latched onto, 20 years ago. You guys have got the solutions we are looking for.”
And Startup Go Eve maintains close connections with the universities, both of which are shareholders in the company. At UCD, researcher Ammar Malik is working full time on the DockChain prototype. And the three researchers now at Imperial remain involved, Professor Shorten as Head of R&D, and Dr Ferraro and Andrew Cullen as research engineers. “There are a lot of possibilities and opportunities here to do really interesting things, and we want to look into them,” Professor Shorten says.
One of them is that electric vehicles connected to the DockChain system can be used to store excess electricity that is fed into the grid during peak renewable energy production. This stored electricity can then be fed back to the grid. Convincing drivers to support this approach has to do with Professor Shorten’s current research on cyber-physical systems.
“Ironically, as battery capacities grow, it becomes harder to use electric vehicles in this way, because you can’t put energy into a car unless it is plugged in. So, you have to incentivise people to plug in their vehicles, even when they don’t need to charge them, so that they can absorb energy,” he explains. “The work I’ve been doing at Imperial has been focused on distributed ledgers and the infrastructure you need to employ digital tools like that, to incentivise and help orchestrate the interaction of humans and technology.”
The research is in line with Imperial’s Transition to Zero Pollution initiative, which aims to create innovative technologies and policies that go beyond individual environmental issues to improve the system as a whole.
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