As Auto Industry Goes Electric, Michigan Startup Wants to Dot Nation with PEP Stations

As if to place an exclamation point on the electrification of the auto industry, the Chevy Volt was named the North American Car of the Year yesterday at the 2011 North American International Auto Show. But many here in Detroit are wondering when the missing pieces to this fast-approaching Auto Industry 2.0 are going to be added. Where, in a word, is the “infrastructure” that will zap some energy into hungry automotive batteries?

About a year-and-a-half ago, Livonia, MI-based architect and landlord James Blain asked the same question, when a tenant wanted to know if he could charge a Chevy Volt somewhere in his apartment parking lot. Turns out, the answer was, no, not really. So, that set Blain thinking about what kind of battery-charging infrastructure is needed. A year and a half later, here at Cobo Center in downtown Detroit, Blain’s company PEP Stations (PEP is for Plug-In Electric Power) is proudly displaying its electric vehicle charging stations. PEP pictures these stations being placed in front of movie theaters, hospitals, apartment complexes, golf courses, and other places where people tend to park for several hours.

So far, the startup has sold hundreds and it’s getting ready to install them all across the country, the company says.

I talked to three of the PEP boys, standing in front of the power pump on display yesterday at the auto show and asked what I thought was the most-obvious question. Aren’t people going to be charging their Volts and other electric vehicles in their own garages?

“People will be charging their Volts at home. Absolutely,” says Ryan McCaffrey, PEP Stations’ director of operations. “But there’s going to need to be a commercial charging infrastructure, too, for the acceptance of electric vehicles to really take off.”

Automobiles are supposed to be about freedom of movement—and it is difficult to feel free if you also feel tethered to the charging station in your garage. So, that’s where PEP sees an opportunity—for charging stations that are also destinations where the car is likely to be parked for hours, anyway.

The founder’s son, PEP Vice President Brady Blain, emphasizes that the much-celebrated … Next Page »

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