ECOtality recently unveiled Blink, a new line of electric vehicle chargers designed by frog that is creating a new icon for the rapidly growing EV market, expected to reach $1.5 billion by 2015. The Blink family of products includes the Level 2 Wall Mounted Residential Charger, Level 2 Pedestal Commercial Charger, and the Commercial DC Fast Charger.
EV's and hybrids have moved to the forefront of the alternative energy movement, and may possibly become the future of everyday transportation. Numerous mainstream automotive manufacturers have developed offerings such as the Chevy Volt, Nissan Leaf, and Mitsubishi i Miev. Even more exciting prospects are coming from relatively new industry entrants like Tesla and Fisker with their high-performance EV and EV-hybrids that add a sense of passion and sex appeal to the otherwise tech-driven world of electric cars.
Although a charging infrastructure is just beginning to emerge, EV charging stations have been around for decades. During the short-lived reign of the revolutionary GM EV1 in the '90s a number of charging stations were developed to fit specific needs and environments. The results were skewed to either pure commercial application, where aesthetics and usability are often the last aspects to be considered. On the other end of the spectrum, attempts were made to mask the charging technology within everyday outdoor structures such as parking meters, resulting in oddly shaped tumor-like devices. Charging device development had been a fringe activity without much government or private sector support, so it is no surprise that incumbent solutions seem piecemeal.
In the United States, efforts to improve this infrastructure have been underway, with a cash injection of a $230 million public-private initiative funded in part by a $114.8 million grant from the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE). At the end of this month, ECOtality plans to start deploying nearly 15,000 of the Blink charging stations in 16 cities across six U.S. states.
Soon, drivers will be able to pull up to their home, garage, or carport, plug in their car, and walk away. The Blink Level 2 chargers delivers a full charge in two to six hours, can be programmed to charge the car when electricity rates are the lowest, and will link to participating utilities and be controlled remotely through smart phone and web applications. The Blink system is fully interactive with color touch screens delivering relevant information, third-party media and connectivity to network headquarters.
Blink home chargers were designed to integrate easily with drivers' existing lifestyles. An extensive amount of consumer behavior analysis and market research guided both the design and location decisions for the commercial chargers. EV drivers will simply travel to their normal destinations (movie theaters, shopping malls, coffee shops and retailers), pull up, and charge.
Blink adds a human touch to complex technology. The design has a recognizably iconic graphic nature and functional simplicity that will help to integrate electric vehicles into consumers' lives, and represents a new icon for a smart EV ecosystem.
The design process consisted of gaining insights through real-world observation -- examining every scenario imaginable in the EV charging experience-flow, based on location. Depending on where a charger is installed, a large number of variables come into play. It is this complicated mix of human behavior, ergonomic constraints, public regulations, and spatial requirements that directly influenced our Blink EV Charger design solutions.
The Blink Brand and Design DNA
The partner trifecta of ECOtality, frog, and Landor crafted a brand that expresses easy adoption of the EV ecosystem through advanced technology, rather than the often misused green message. The expression of Blink as a technology company was derived through the visual translation of binary code, into graphic form; "1s" and "0s" interpreted as a strategic combination of two distinct and opposing entities: digital and physical, circles and squares, black and white. The translation of the binary DNA creates a timeless, recognizable icon--extremely important when designing a family of products meant to kickstart a new and potentially longstanding infrastructure movement.
Blink Level 2 Wall Mounted Residential Charger
Each Blink EV Charger went through individual observation and development processes due to their different target install environments. The wall-mounted unit is designed predominantly for private garages or carports. After mocking-up a garage environment, the design team realized that the most usable mounting location for the charger/touchscreen was often too far away from the charging port of the EV, requiring extended cable which added weight and clutter.
Although there are standards when it comes to charging connector interfaces, port locations on EV's can be found almost anywhere on the car. The usability burden falls squarely on the EV charger, which needs to be as flexible as possible to accommodate this huge variety of different ergonomic and environmental requirements.
For residential installations, the EV customer has more control over the environment than in public situations. So, rather than constrain the cable wrap to the charger housing (like almost every wall mounted charger to date) the simple innovation of splitting the cable wrap into a separate entity allows for the user to mount the cable wrap closer to the EV charging port. This flexibility provides four benefits:
Cable support closer to the connection point alleviating torque on the connector
Cable wrap can be installed lower so it is easier to wrap the heavy cabling while the touchscreen can be mounted separately at eye level
Cable organization eliminating the filthy-cable-on-the-ground
Charger-housing free from a dirty, unwieldy, cable draped over it
Another insight derived from our physical garage mock-up directly affected the connector dock. The majority of people's garages, whether well-organized or not, don't have an exorbitant amount of extra space to maneuver. To keep walkways open and reduce potential risk of injury, the charger's profile had to be minimized. This meant docking the connector so the handle didn't protrude perpendicular to the wall. This simple insight will help prevent bruising user's thighs, and having to routinely replace broken connector receptacles in the field. Additionally, in below-freezing climates, the copper charging cable becomes extremely rigid rendering it almost impossible to wrap tightly. So the idea of designing a retractable cable mechanism poses numerous serviceability issues in addition to widespread usability constraints in cold geographies. The clear decision was to design the simplest, most reliable, non-mechanical cable management wrap to accommodate all temperatures and environments.
With our product architecture defined, charger/touchscreen and cable wrap/connector dock, the design team began deeper design exploration around cable and connector usability, mounting and assembly mechanics, and aesthetic treatment. The team created numerous design iterations for both the charger and the cable wrap. A couple of the initial concepts show the charger housing effectively shrink-wrapped over the components. For added safety, the charger and cable wrap needed to be hard-mounted to two wall studs. Although this requirement drove the housing to flare-out over the enlarged back plate, it resulted in a softer aesthetic--almost as though the product was reaching out to the user. This soft flare proved to be so visually successful that it was sculpted into each Blink EV Charger across the line.
frog's designers and engineers worked closely with ECOtality's product development team to translate the refined industrial design into reality. CAD assemblies were built for both the charger and cable wrap that maintained the aesthetic design integrity of the design concept. Much effort was put into hiding all exterior fasteners, designing for security and anti-vandalism, while still allowing for easy maintenance access. The number of parts was kept to a minimum, only adding parts that would directly enhance the product experience and/or Blink brand. Collaborating closely with Roush Manufacturing (of Jack Roush and Roush Performance), iterative engineering prototypes were tweaked and final production parts were made.
The Blink Level 2 Wall Mounted Residential Charger has a simple and iconic appearance that can easily integrate into today's residential garages and carports.
Blink Level 2 Pedestal Commercial Charger
Many of our initial user research hypotheses from the L2 Wall Mount hold true for the Pedestal design: accommodate for maneuverability in limited space, appropriate heights for the charger and cable wrap touchpoints, and mechanical assembly strategies. However, when designing a purely public product, the number of restrictions and UX variables increase exponentially. The Pedestal charger is meant to be installed at any retail or public location one could imagine -- leveraging locations where people spend time on a daily basis. True ubiquity is the eventual goal.
Before designing around the charger technology package, we first had to analyze almost every possible parking situation for the L2 pedestal. Literally hundreds of photos and schematics were produced to understand the requirements around where and how the pedestal would be installed. Options spanned from individual per-space installations to banks of multiple units with shared charging. The design team began looking at the pedestal as a "blade" within a group of blades. The number and arrangement of blades required for an installation would have to be tailored to each specific site -- so for simplicity, the Pedestal was designed as a self-contained, easily configurable unit.
The Pedestal also provides adjustability in height to fulfill ADA (American Disability Act) requirements. Designing ADA height-specific panels to be replaceable in anticipation of the installation requirement will save ECOtality from accruing future cost burdens, post-rollout.
Mechanically, the L2 Pedestal shares most of its primary plastic parts with the Wall Mount units. Differences appear with the hydroformed sheet metal facade and metal housing that transform the individual charger and cable wrap assemblies into Pedestal form. The reuse of core plastic assemblies dramatically reduces tooling and part costs for the L2 Pedestal.
To grab the attention of EV drivers, a 360° lighting beacon spans the top of the Pedestal charger. Following much trial and error, we were finally able to attain the desired neutral white, ambient glow that expresses the Blink brand and achieves the desired light output. During prototyping activities we paired milled acrylic light pipes of all shapes and sizes with various LED arrays to realize the preferred effect.
We also created full-scale RenShape appearance models for two purposes -- final assessment of aesthetics (including color, material, finish, and proportion), as well as for media purposes via photos, videos, and live conference/exhibitions. The model accurately represented the final Blink Level 2 Pedestal Charger down to a production connector and functioning LCD.
The Blink Level 2 Pedestal Charger is a bold statement for an emerging power infrastructure. Not only does the facade express the Blink brand DNA, but the rear panel was specifically left planar to be used as a billboard for Blink or retail partner advertisement.
Blink Commercial DC Fast Charger
The DC Fast Charger is a commercial unit that was designed to be shared between two parking spaces in a gas station environment or in front of a retail big box store. This unit offers two separate transactional areas so it can provide quick 20-minute charging for two vehicles at once. In order to provide an enhanced charging experience, a large LCD crowns the DC Fast Charger, providing the users with video content such as TV/movie clips mixed with 3rd party advertisements.
In size and experience, the DC Fast Charger is the closest relative to the traditional gas pump. In order to achieve the 20-minute charge, the cables for the DC Fast Charger end up being almost twice as heavy as the L2 Pedestal -- a burden placed directly on the user. Elaborate cantilevered rail systems were explored. After creating multiple scale variations, we built full-scale pulley systems and simulated multiple cable attachment heights. We concluded that complex counterbalancing systems would be prone to failure and constant field maintenance. Inspired by Japanese gas stations, where the pump tubes are supported from the station's roof, we realized that simply hanging strain-relieved cables from as high a position as possible would suffice.
While working in scale can be great for testing initial ideas, when it comes to getting an understanding of true proportions and relationships with other related objects found in the install location, a 1:1 model always proves best. Once the initial component architecture was agreed upon and initial design concept chosen, the design team created foamcore proportion models to test overall size and aesthetics. The biggest misstep most designers make when creating large form factor outdoor products is creating a full size model and judging it in their studio space. The product's proportions can often be misjudged due to artificial lighting, confined spaces, and ceilings. Taking our DC Fast Charger model to the intended install location to be judged amongst other devices like gas pumps and water/air pumps and the infinite ceiling of the sky gave the designers (and clients) a true understanding of the product's impression.
During the model testing, the designers realized that the imposing facade of the DC Fast Charger needed to be visually lightened for both friendliness and security. The simple solution was to create a through-hole that provides the user a peek beyond the product's torso. The borrowed visual space makes the DC Fast Charger appear less daunting, as well as reduces the amount of space someone could use to hide behind the unit for security. Like the L2 Pedestal, the DC Fast Charger incorporates a lighting beacon inside the hole for attracting users, added security, and product task lighting.
Engineering prototypes were created for a number of important touchpoints on the DC Fast Charger for mechanical testing and validation. Numerous design iterations for the cable strain relief and the connector docking ports were conducted to ensure proper fit and function. Since the DC Fast Charger's connector has become a standardized design, the team was able to design the ports tightly around its exterior shape, capturing it securely using a single spring-loaded ball pin. The connector ports were sized and resized a number of times to ensure easy lead-in, proper capture of the connector, and minimal rubbing.
All user interface touchpoint heights and angles were determined via testing with 5%-95% male and female users: The LCD was derived through the coalescence of viewing angles of a standing user and a seated user in their car (a predicted common use case); the connector ports were positioned for handle ergonomics and cable weight management; the payment touchscreen LCD interfaces are ADA height approved.
With all of the aforementioned components positioned within the product architecture, the resulting concaved facade draws you into the product, much like an ATM. This is purposely opposite to the Level 2 Chargers which are smaller in scale, requiring a more convex presentation of the interface. The facade's scoop element was sculpted to envelop all of the user's touchpoints into a unified space. Since the Blink design DNA is not a prescriptive language, the resulting look and feel of the DC Fast Charger is reminiscent of its L2 siblings while the unit still solves for its specific use case.
The final Blink DC Fast Charger design holds true to its EV Charger family with respects to usability, function, and iconic design DNA. It has been said that striving for simplicity is often the most complex endeavor. The design team was able to strike the balance of aesthetic minimalism while still providing enough cues to first-time users and rich media interactions for returning users.
The partnership between frog design and ECOtality has been fueled by a passion for improving the world we live in. The success of this program is attributed to the combined mix of insights unearthed through constant observation, iterative testing of our hypotheses through various levels of models and prototypes, and excitement to be a part of an alternative energy infrastructure that will hopefully drive a cleaner future.
frog team (from left to right): Jonathan Rowell, Dave Gustafson, Andy Hooper, Cindy Burns, Brian Wasson, Haley Toelle, Remy Labesque, Howard Nuk, Brian Cutter
Additional information about the units is included in the product spec sheets, available for download on the new Blink website: www.blinknetwork.com
As Creative Director at frog design, Howard Nuk leads the San Francisco Industrial Design group. His responsibilities are focused on cultivating client partnerships, providing creative direction to his teams, and overseeing multiple concurrent and cross-disciplinary programs. Howard infuses fresh thinking on all levels, from design research to concept development and product manufacturing. Â He regularly travels overseas in support of user research and manufacturing liaison engagements. Howard's true passion is to nurture the creativity of his teams, resulting in the highest level of design execution.
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