I’m learning about Bitcoin and now know that it’s not a piece of techno-fluff that won’t amount to anything. It has serious technical depth, and the capability of transforming the monetary system. Maybe. One possibility is to solve for the supposed necessity of charging station networks.
If applied correctly, Bitcoin based charging stations could be the basis of electric car charging infrastructure with guarantees of anonymity and low(er) cost, while publishing station status information openly for apps like PlugShare.
If you just went “Bitcoin What?” head over to a page where I’ve collected a series of videos introducing Bitcoin. Or read on, I’ll give an overview below.
By comparison our brethren driving gasoline powered cars have a guarantee of anonymity — anytime they like, cash can be used to pay for gasoline and the gasoline station has no idea who you are. The transaction cost when paying cash is zero. Use a credit card, though, and anonymity disappears (the bank knows what you did, and Big Brother (NSA) is tracking credit card transactions) and there’s a significant transaction cost.
We who own electric cars have a significantly more difficult position regarding use of public recharging stations:
- We must maintain membership in multiple charging station networks — carrying multiple cards to do so
- There isn’t a smart phone app showing a unified map of charging stations and all data including station status — PlugShare is close, but doesn’t have station status information for many of the charging networks
- Charging fees are arguably higher than they should be — perhaps because of charging networks?
- No anonymity at network-owned charging stations — the charging network knows when and where you recharged
Now let’s talk a little about Bitcoin. It’s a distributed, anonymous, extremely secure internet-centric platform for recording ownership and trust on a peer-to-peer basis. In other words, most people think of Bitcoin as a money system, and it is but it’s much more.
It is a digital currency invented for the Internet. It is decentralized, meaning there’s no central control authority. It offers extremely low transaction fees making it attractive to merchants, like charging station operators. It is anonymous because all identity checking is performed by software (algorithms) using ingenious encryption (cryptography) techniques. There’s a lot more, which you can learn via the videos linked earlier. Those videos make the case that Bitcoin could make a big fundamental disruption to the money system – and it might – but here are some specific attributes I see of interest to charging station operation:
- Anonymity for the charging station user
- Low transaction cost for the charging network operator
That latter point is one of the key reasons charging networks exist in their current form. A couple years ago I had the opportunity to interview ChargePoint CEO Pat Romano. I asked him why do we need charging network membership cards, why not just support credit cards – he said that credit card fee’s would swamp the low cost for a charging session.
That is, credit card processing fees are in the neighborhood of $0.25 per transaction plus 3% or so of the amount of the transaction. Typical charging session fees are very small, making credit card transaction fee a big thing.
If the charging station instead took Bitcoin, the lower fee’s could change the playing field.
To see what I mean, let’s ponder a charging station that connects with a payment service supporting both credit cards and Bitcoin. It would need a cellular data network connection, and could have a multimedia display screen for both user interaction and displaying advertising (for extra revenue).
One way to pay using Bitcoin involves scanning a QR code using a smart phone app. The QR code would be shown on the screen mentioned above, and once approved the Bitcoin transfer occurs, the charging station is turned on, and the charging session can proceed.
So far no membership with a charging network was required, the transaction was anonymous, open to anyone, and did not incur a large fee for credit card processing so long as the person used Bitcoin.
Going back to my interview with Pat Romano, he described a few other services offered by charging networks as justification for their existence:
- Reserving a charging station ahead of time
- Receiving notifications about charging status from the charging network
- The high quality map application provided by the charging network
- Tracking consumption over time
It’s his job as ChargePoint CEO to justify the existence of the company. But we as consumers of charging services don’t need to be loyal to one charging network operator or another. What we need is an open infrastructure that’s useful to everyone on an equal basis.
What if the charging station management software was geared to smaller scale corporate ownership? If you see a random snack/soda machine next to a building somewhere, does that machine require a membership or other extra rigamarole? Nope, you just put coins in the slot and out pop unhealthy snacks. The charging station experience should be somewhat similar. The owner of the charging station should be indicated by a logo on the back of the station, rather than plastered all over everything, and requiring a membership card supplied by the station owner.
Charging station usage is a little different than snack machine usage:
- We need a comprehensive map of all charging stations irregardless of station owner
- We need to know station status and location before traveling to the station
- Reserving a station ahead of time is somewhat useful
- We need notifications during charging sessions
- We need to track charging information over time
Some kind of corporate umbrella is required to operate charging stations. Installing and maintaining charging stations in the field requires employees, for example. That corporate structure could be in the background like it is for vending machines, ATM machines and the like.
The data protocols to implement the features named above could be made available to 3rd party smart phone apps, like PlugShare, or to apps supplied by car makers.
Why should we be forced to consult multiple smart phone apps just to determine the closest available and functioning charging station? That information should be surfaced in one app.
Why should we be forced to have multiple charging station network memberships? We should be able to pay using a regular payment system.
Today we know ChargePoint or Blink or eVgo as charging network operators because they handle the transaction for charging fees. How many of us use ATM machines without knowing the name of the company owning that ATM?
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