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Using the curbstone as a charging point

18. December 2023 - from Dr. Felix Stracke

The need to provide charging solutions for electric vehicles is presenting local authorities with a multitude of challenges. A pilot project involving Rheinmetall, TankE and the City of Cologne is demonstrating how charging infrastructure can be integrated in curbstones using a technique that is low maintenance and takes up minimal space.

From 2035 onwards, the EU will be enforcing its ban on the registration of new internal combustion engine (ICE) cars. This will bring us inexorably closer to a time when these cars are phased out entirely – and when there will be almost no choice but to switch as quickly as possible to local-zero-emission, environmentally friendly electric vehicles across the board. The accompanying political target to put 15 million electric cars on German roads by 2030 is creating a tremendous sense of urgency given that the current figure is just 1.1 million. Up to now, the revolution in drivetrain technology has been driven mostly by individuals with private charging facilities. The majority of the population does not have these facilities available to them, however, with most people living in apartment blocks without designated parking spaces and without access to the relevant charging equipment. This makes the hassle-free operation and ultimately the purchase of electric vehicles heavily contingent on the creation of a charging infrastructure that is accessible to the wider public. Adequate charging facilities will need to be provided if we wish to achieve the aim of rapidly increasing the number of electric vehicles on our roads.

The cornerstone of the overall strategy is simple, local, practical charging equipment that is accessible to all. Local authorities, the main drivers of this initiative in metropolitan regions and inner-city areas, are already struggling to provide sufficient space for charging infrastructure on public roads – and the automotive revolution is just getting started. Even Cologne, which is only Germany’s fourth-largest city, is experiencing the manifold challenges of a growing metropolis in this era of the transportation turnaround. The city sees electric vehicles as a key drive technology that not only improves air quality but also has the potential to significantly reduce noise pollution – after all, electric vehicles are much quieter than the previously widespread ICE cars.

An alternative to the charging station

A pilot project involving an innovative charging infrastructure is scheduled to begin in the next few months. The project partners are the City of Cologne, RheinEnergie subsidiary TankE owned by Stadtwerke Köln – the infrastructure and services company of the City of Cologne – and the Rheinmetall technology group. Back in September 2023, TankE was already operating an extensive network of 420 charging points spread throughout Cologne’s public streets. The search for space in Cologne’s densely populated urban area was relatively problem-free to begin with. But now the City is facing more and more barriers in urban planing and development due to the large amount of space required by conventional charging infrastructure.

Unlike conventional charging stations, the curbside charging points blend seamlessly into the cityscape.

In light of this, new innovative solutions like the curbside charging point unveiled by Rheinmetall in 2022 are a useful alternative that is urgently needed if we are to gradually develop an adequate charging infrastructure with as little hassle as possible. Unlike, say, a charging station, a curbside charging point involves upgrading and intelligently re-purposing part of the existing city infrastructure: the curbstone. The almost imperceptible integration of charging technology transforms the curbstone into a charging station, but without all the problems normally associated with conventional charging stations such as the high amount of space required, low point density, high costs and the fact that many consider them a blight on the urban landscape. The ability to charge a vehicle directly at the curbside will also make the sight of long cables stretched across the pavement a thing of the past and minimize intrusion into the public space. The curbside charging point is an urgently needed solution that will allow us to continue developing the charging infrastructure despite the shortage of available space, and lends itself especially well to on-street, customer, employee and ‘park & ride’ parking areas. Not to mention the fact that this minimally invasive technology is also a valuable charging solution for historic city centres and so is in keeping with heritage protection.

Project partner TankE, which operates a large number of public charging stations, is extremely familiar with the challenges of designing a public charging infrastructure that is as efficient and compatible with urban planning requirements as possible. In the pilot project, the project partners are now working with the City of Cologne to find the right locations for testing the pilot system. The process of trialling the curbside charging points in public parking areas is the next hurdle for this innovative technology before it can be rolled out across the board.

Following extensive in-house testing with pilot customers on Rheinmetall’s premises, the project aim now is to map real-world application within the transport system and to derive from this further optimization potential in terms of aspects such as usability, user behaviour and system ageing. With this in mind, a number of systems are being installed in two different locations in Cologne in order to test not just the level of acceptance of the systems but also their benefits in terms of urban planning and design. Another aim is to evaluate the extent to which these benefits – such as the easy-to-remove electronics module – will help to improve the operator’s lifecycle costs in terms of maintenance and system availability.

Most of the work involved – including connecting the systems to the power grid – is no different to that involved in installing a conventional charging station. But what operators and charging infrastructure providers, like project partner TankE, are most interested in is scalability. The installation of dummy curbs, which can be retrofitted with the charging module at any time, will help to not only achieve positive synergies but also lower costs with regard to planning, permits, construction and more. This method enables whole streets or parking spaces to be developed and prepared for the integration of curbside charging points, which can enter service as and when needed. Retrofitting takes just a few minutes, as does maintenance, which is made easier by the fact that the IP68-enclosed electronics module is easy to remove.

The curbstone is transformed into a charging station thanks to the almost imperceptible integration of charging technology. The systems are activated using conventional charge cards, apps or a QR code. The available charging capacity is up to 22 kilowatts.

Easy to use

The systems will not be all that different from conventional charging stations – both in terms of how they are used and the available charging capacity, which is up to 22 kilowatts (kW). The systems are activated using conventional charge cards, apps or a QR code. They can be operated quickly and easily with just one hand, and do not require users to come into direct contact with the curb at any time. The integrated hardware is capable of load management, distributing the available capacity intelligently among a certain number of consumers – per street, for example. The systems also feature smart heating and cooling, ensuring reliable operation at any time of year. The systems have been designed to minimize dirt ingress and maximize dirt tolerance. Should they become dirty, however, they are easy to clean – that said, all the in-house tests performed so far did not reveal any problems here. The German government wants to get one million of these public charging points up and running as soon as possible in order to meet urgent and growing demand. The City of Cologne has already ordered 1,000 new charging points. With this new charging technology, Rheinmetall is showcasing a solution that will enable the continued, large-scale expansion of the charging infrastructure. Thanks to the joint pilot project with the City of Cologne and TankE, the trial is now garnering the necessary support from local authorities and politicians.

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