Weekly Brief: VW Behind Robot ‘Gas’ Attendant

Robots won’t just drive our cars in the future, they’ll ‘fill’ them up too.

That’s the vision that Electrify America put forward last week when it announced plans to deploy robotic electrified vehicle charging solutions for self-driving vehicles in San Francisco. Electrify America, which is a wholly owned subsidiary of Volkswagen, is partnering with the city’s electric charging company Stable Auto to bring the vision to reality. The pair plan to have their first robotic charging station open by early 2020.

So how will it work? Picture your standard service gas station. Now swap out the fuel pumps for 150kW DC fast-chargers and replace the human attendant with a robotic arm that can autonomously insert the charger into a vehicle’s charge port. All the self-driving has to do is pull into the station, park itself inside a standard parking space and the robotic arm will take care of the rest.

This won’t be a zip-in, zip-out operation. Fast chargers take from 20 to 30 minutes to charge BEVs from zero to 80% battery life. Additionally, the first station in the pilot will only have two fast chargers, which could lead to log jams if a full fleet of BEVs were to roll through. Electrify America and Stable Auto aren’t worried about that right now. They say the goal of the initial pilot isn’t scale but rather to see how the technology performs with real BEVs and other electrified powertrains day in and day out and to analyze how to optimize the business and operations side of the concept. “Autonomous vehicles will play an important role in the future of driving, particularly with fleets and tailored charging options for self-driving EVs will be critical to develop that effort,” says Wayne Killen, director of infrastructure planning and business development at Electrify America.

However, here’s my problem: while the vision seems idyllic – robo-cars cruising around on their own, independent of all human intervention, freeing us up to do better things with our time – the reality is that turning gas stations into robo-chargers is just one more human job washed down the drain of the automation revolution. Sure, it takes engineers to create and oversee innovative robotics and software solutions but their numbers pale in comparison to, say, all the truck and taxi drivers whose livelihoods are set to be decimated by robo-taxis and robo-trucks. Self-driving cars will rarely get into accidents, which is great for saving human lives but bad for auto body shops that survive by fixing up busted cars. Self-driving cars don’t speed. What happens to highway patrol officers in an autonomous vehicle future and first responders who respond to accidents? Robo-taxis won’t park on city streets. What about all the people who make their lives as parking enforcement agents?

I’ve seen the statistics and I know some companies, especially those in the automation business, like to say that automating our lives will create more jobs than it eliminates. Of course, that requires a bunch of education and up-training of employees and, even then, many pundits believe the net effect will still be a dramatic loss in jobs. Which is a long way of asking: VW, why do we need a robotic arm at our charging stations, rather than a human one?

One comment

  1. Avatar Rod Wilson 5th August 2019 @ 11:47 pm

    Why add the complexity and maintenance headaches of using Robotics ,why not have wireless charging pads in the ground. This is the now available and being installed in a number of venues with wireless systems fitted to a number of vehicles like BMW. Wireless is the future and can be installed and utilize all existing parking spaces thus eliminating the need to purchase expensive land holdings to provide dedicated plug in charging compounds, can you imagine the nightmare waiting to get access to a charging station. Wireless will allow snack charging where ever you go and with the future take up of dynamic highway wireless charging all range anxiety fears are eliminated. Let’s go forward not back ward to plug in, just look at your mobile phone it is now wireless.

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