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Toronto startup seeks to boost electric-vehicle charging options

Carter Li, CEO of SWTCH, charges his Chevy Bolt at a private charger he booked through the startup’s app on May 17, 2017.

JENNIFER ROBERTS/JENNIFER ROBERTS FOR

Urban drivers who want an electric vehicle, but have no place to install a charger, are about to have a new option for juicing up their cars.

SWTCH, a Toronto-based startup, has developed a web-based platform that will allow homeowners with electric-vehicle chargers to rent plug-in time to other EV drivers. Similar to the lodging rental app Airbnb, SWTCH allows users to manage profiles, bookings and transactions through its interface.

"The idea is that we can expand the public charging infrastructure by leveraging private EV chargers and the shared economy," said Carter Li, co-founder of SWTCH and a former management consultant.

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Li's co-founder, Laura Bryson said that data collected by the company shows that about 15 per cent of EV owners do not have regular home access to chargers. Reasons include the fact that some live in apartments or condominiums that do not have the infrastructure; others live in urban housing without garages or driveways and, as a result, park on public streets. Difficulty accessing a charger is also a big entry barrier for drivers who are interested in EVs but cannot accommodate the installation.

Li himself owns a Chevrolet Bolt, a plug-in EV that is new to the market this year and poised to shake it up because of its low cost (about $35,000 after taxes, fees and rebates) and long range (the vehicle can travel up to 383 kilometres on a full charge). Because he doesn't have a charger at his downtown Toronto home, though, Li is often forced to look for publicly available, pay-for-service plugs. He frequents city-owned Green P lots as well as big-box stores such as Ikea.

"Depending on the week and my schedules, I try to plan ahead and see where I could charge," he said.

Once Li has the ability to easily connect with other EV owners in his neighbourhood via SWTCH, he will happily pay them for use of their charger instead. How much he will pay varies. SWTCH has a built-in algorithm, he said, that calculates the cost of electricity based on the time of day, make and model of the charger and vehicle, and the duration of the charge. The owner of the charger, Li said, decides how much he or she wants to charge on top of that, meaning they have the option to make a profit for renting it out. SWTCH charges a 10-per-cent commission.

SWTCH appears to be the only current application aimed at creating a market for peer-to-peer charging rentals in Canada (there are other apps devoted to mapping charger locations, including some privately owned chargers, but none so far facilitate bookings or payment for users). Several similarly inspired electricity-sharing services have recently launched in other countries. Sweden has Elbnb, Britain has an app called Chargie. In Los Angeles, EVMatch is in beta testing mode.

In Toronto, SWTCH is also in beta mode and is looking for more residential charger owners to participate in its pilot. Once the company has built up a critical supply of charger owners in the city, Bryson said, it will look at further expansion into cottage country and, possibly, beyond.

Its timing is good. With more than 20 EV models available in Canada, the market is poised to grow. Ontario recently recorded its 10,000th EV on the road; the province, which is working to rapidly grow the number of green cars in Ontario, has some of the richest incentives in the world for EVs, including up to $14,000 back on the purchase of a new battery-powered car.

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Ontario is also in the midst of installing a vast network of nearly 500 publicly available fast chargers. If SWTCH succeeds in growing a private electricity-sharing network, it will doubtless improve progress towards Ontario's goals, which include boosting EV sales to 5 per cent of total vehicle sales by 2020. The number currently hovers around 1 per cent but is showing signs of swelling.

"As we move away from the early adopters to where we are now, this is really the tipping point of something that's mass market," said Wilf Steimle, president of the Electric Vehicle Society and a director of Electric Mobility Canada.

As the number of affordable EVs grows, so will the market's demographic. Access to chargers will build on the trend, Li said. Quoting a recent report produced by CleanTechnica and EVObsession, he said that drivers are up to 40 per cent more likely to own an EV if there is a charger within a kilometre of their home.

"SWTCH will ultimately improve the adoption of EVs," Li said.

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About the Author
Global food reporter

Jessica Leeder is the Globe’s Atlantic Reporter, based in Halifax, Nova Scotia. In previous roles, Jessica has reported for the Globe from Afghanistan and post-quake Haiti, assignments for which she won an Emmy and a National Newspaper Award, respectively. She has also written about the politics of global food, entrepreneurialism and small business, and automotive news. More

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