Charging to the future with EV and its optimal location solutions by RC Team

According to the California Energy Commission, California will have as many as 7.5 million electric cars on the roads by 2030. To meet this demand, the state needs 1.2 million electric vehicle chargers, and there are only 73,300 installed. We are RhinoCharge, a team of students who are determined to help. Our team’s goal is to use AI technology to find the optimal locations for EV chargers. To understand the needs of the customer and collect information, we went on a trip to the Main Street Pedestrian Mall in Cupertino, CA (Near the Apple Campus), a new housing development and shopping center in the heart of this bustling city.

We started our trip at the Ellen Fletcher Middle School parking lot, exploring their solar-powered chargers. While their solution was impressive in terms of providing renewable energy for charging, it was poorly designed, with cables laying about and lumpy dirt in the medians. The chargers were poorly signed, with no indication as to which type of plug was available at a spot until you inspected the charger up close. While it is nice to see the school district put thought into EVs, it was clear the planning and design of these chargers was lacking.

After a short drive, we arrived at the Main Street Pedestrian Mall. With restrictions having been lifted a few days earlier, the mall was very busy, and it took us several minutes to find a parking spot. Our first order of business was to locate the EVgo Chargers. This proved to be quite the quest, as the chargers were located in a back alley away from the shop. When we arrived at the charger, we realized that there were far fewer chargers than were listed on maps. This was due to a confusion in counting, with the maps counting the number of individual plugs, even though only one plug per machine could be used. This was just the first example of the challenges EV owners would face when attempting to charge here.

As we broke out the posters, an EV drove up to the charging station, and showed another challenge that users would face here. The charger was rotated a quarter-turn from the spot, so getting the cable to the charge port on the car was a challenge, to say the least. The User, however, was excited to fill out the form, and gave us our first non-ACF feedback. We discreetly posted an additional 3 posters we had printed, due to a counting error on Google maps. The chargers were arranged with two stations with three plugs each (One of each major type), Google counted this as six chargers, even though a station can only be used by one car at a time, meaning that there were actually two usable chargers. This demonstrates how new and developing this technology is, with not even Google having a complete and working system for counting chargers.

With our first set of posters hung, we set off for 85°c Bakery Cafe, a shop that we had heard great things about from our mentor. We spent quite a bit of time convincing ourselves that we were simulating the experience of an EV charger user while loading our tray with a variety of breads, buns, and an assortment of other baked goods. This delicious experience took far longer than it seemed to, which could point to putting chargers near amenities such as food being useful.

After enjoying delicious coffee(which was presumably about 85°C) and fresh bread, we were eager to continue our expedition. We followed our map, which listed all chargers in the area. A Chargepoint location was the next one we visited as it was located conveniently at the parking lot with multiple locations. This location seems to be the most optimal by far, with close proximity to the shopping center and the apartment complex, allowing EV owners to conveniently park their cars overnight and walk to their apartments. Most of all, it had clearly defined usage instructions in addition to the printed EV battery sign on the ground. The logo was creative too with “+” and “-” signs on both ends to indicate EV’s. Contrary to the clunky and unergonomic design from the EvGo charging station, this one was well designed and user friendly. We witnessed one EV driver park, start charging, and leave within a minute or two, as if she had done it countless times. (She was so fast, we were unable to make it to her to ask her if she would like to fill out the survey!)

Lastly, we went to SomiSomi to taste their delicious Taiyaki. The store opened at 12 and we arrived near 11:40. While we were waiting, we noticed the increasing length of the line outside of the store, and we wondered if stores with higher customer flow would be a better place for EV chargers? Since more popular restaurants tend to have more customers, putting more EV chargers nearby would increase the possibility that each charger would have a vehicle at charge, increasing the efficiency and usage.

Overall, we learned some valuable lessons that only this type of in-person field trip can produce, such as meeting a real EV driver at the charging station, asking that awkward “Can you take this survey?” question, and overcoming the fear of rejection or ignoration. Moreover, we were able to validate what we hypothesized; EV charging stations must be within dense, urban cores with many amenities, so charging can switch from a burden (“I have to go out and charge the car”) to something that is convenient (“I can charge the car while I do my shopping”). We also noted that in the morning, when we went, a majority of EV users we saw were women. Since it happened to be Father’s Day, our hypothesis was that the drivers came early in the morning to get some Father’s Day gift shopping done or they are inclined to pursue efficiency when they go out (Charging the car while running other errands). These types of observations can only be collected when you actually go out and interact and observe your future customers behavior in the real settings not by some graph or dataset. Most importantly, it was the best team building activity ever since we launched this team as a virtual setup last January meeting face to face in person for the first time making lots of jokes that only our Rhino Charge team can relate to. Of course we were very amused by the thought of keeping our receipts from 85°c and SomiSomi for reimbursement from the “RhinoCharge Team Accounting Department” (This was rejected by someone who was clearly just upset they didn’t get any fish).

So go out and meet your future superfans before you even build your full prototype like we did and it was definitely worth it just for the pastries from 85°c and taiyaki from SomiSomi, even if they yell at you for getting in line before the store opens.

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