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AeroVironment Takes on Home Charging for Nissan Leaf

The charger also will be compatible with other EVs, including the upcoming Chevy Volt and Ford Focus.

California-based AeroVironment Inc., better known in military circles as a maker of unmanned aircraft systems, is partnering with Nissan Motor Co. Ltd. to make home-charging units for U.S. buyers of the upcoming Leaf electric vehicle.

The charger also will be compatible with other EVs, including the upcoming Chevy Volt and Ford Focus electrified vehicles.

“It’s a very good charger, (and) it will work for any car,” Kristen Helsel, vice president-EV Solutions for AeroVironment’s Efficient Energy Systems, tells Ward’s.

“So whoever owns the home and owns the Leaf, if they sell and move out and a new EV owner purchases that home, the charger will work reliably for years.”

AV is not a newcomer to the vehicle-charging world. The company’s first association with automotive came when it partnered with the former General Motors Corp. in the late 1990s to develop the GM Impact electric-vehicle prototype, better known as the EV1.

Since then, AV has supplied its Power Cycling and Test Systems (formerly named Electric Vehicle Test Systems) to the world’s leading automotive, battery, and fuel-cell companies, utilities, universities, defense contractors and government agencies.

In more recent times, AV worked with GM to design and build the breakthrough solar-powered Sunraycer to compete in the inaugural 1,950-mile (1,529-km) World Solar Challenge road race.

While AV makes the Leaf’s home charger, the connector is being manufactured by another company Nissan has yet to name. Some suppliers have shown prototype plugs. Yazaki Corp. displayed an EV connector at last year’s SAE World Congress in Detroit, but it is unclear if the company plans to manufacture units for retail.

The January agreement on a connector standard, J1772, by the Society of Automotive Engineers makes the Leaf’s charger compatible with any EV, AV’s Helsel says. However, the plugs will have to be UL-certified before chargers can be retailed. That process slowly is occurring, with a handful of suppliers already announcing certification.

The home charger for the Leaf will be installed by electricians trained by AV. Although AV will not require these electricians to install the Leaf’s charger exclusively, Helsel believes there will be such strong demand for installation in certain cities that “a given electrical contractor will have dedicated people.”

The process to become “AeroVironment-certified” will be elaborate, with metrics that have to be met. Once certified, the electricians will have access to AV proprietary installation tools for the home charger.

So far, about 1,000 electricians across the U.S. have signed up to train to install the home charger, which will require a 220V line. It’s not known how many Americans already have a 220V line in their garage, but new installation likely means costs will be higher.

Nissan will have a custom installation plan for those folks, says Brian Carolin, senior vice president-sales and marketing, Nissan North America Inc. The auto maker recently announced the cost to install the home charger for the Leaf will be $2,200 before a 50% federal tax credit.

Carolin says that’s the standard installation price, but those living in older homes with older wiring will require the more costly custom installation. He says AV will conduct a survey of Leaf buyers’ homes beforehand to determine which installation plan is required.

Helsel says at least one homebuilder has announced it will pre-wire with lines for $250.

“It’s not going to take effect immediately, but five years from now you might see a lot of homes come EV-ready,” Helsel says.

The Leaf’s charger can be installed outside if a municipality prohibits electricity to be run to a garage or an EV owner lives in an apartment.

AV hopes to be installing units ahead of the Leaf’s late-2010 debut, but not by much. “It’s still pretty early – we don’t anticipate thousands of people are going to feel a need for a (charger) yet,” Helsel says.

That’s also a reason why AV has not begun advertising for its home chargers. While the home charger for the Leaf will be branded Nissan, and Nissan will funnel Leaf buyers to AeroVironment, AV also will install home chargers for any EV.

As the calendar draws down to early next year, following the launch of the Leaf and Chevy Volt, an ad campaign “may make more sense,” Helsel says. She calls AV the “hidden helper” to Nissan, saying the supplier is engaging in many of the Leaf’s pre-launch activities.

“The customers who are getting engaged with the Leaf are doing so online,” she says. “So we are very involved in that, but more looking like Nissan.”

AV feels an “obligation” to make sure people are educated and comfortable in how to charge their EVs, and also to aid in their proliferation, Helsel says.

With that in mind, the company knows home-charging overnight with a 220V line, which takes about eight hours, is unlikely to please many car buyers who are used to quickly refueling their gas-powered vehicles.

A recent study from consulting-firm Accenture reveals 50%-72% of respondents, depending on their country of origin, want to be able to charge an EV in under 20 minutes.

“We’re not going to ever be able to do that with a (home charger),” Helsel says.

With that in mind, AV is chairing the SAE committee on creating a standard for 480V, level 3, DC fast chargers.

“A quick resolution of that will be important to the ultimate success of EVs,” Helsel says, noting she has seen an increased interest in DC charging by the auto industry.

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