Toronto Star

‘Plug-in hybrids are the future’


Matthew Stevens and Christophe­r Mendes began working with each other in 2004, part of a University of Waterloo team trying to design the vehicle of the future.

Their team, in fact, was the only Canadian one in a 17-university North American competitio­n sponsored by General Motors and the U.S. Department of Energy. Called Challenge X, the three-year competitio­n pitted some of the brightest young minds on the continent against each other in a search for the most energy-efficient vehicle design.

The University of Waterloo team grabbed top prize after the first year using a hydrogen fuel-cell design. Three years later, Stevens and Mendes, both 27, are no longer convinced hydrogen fuel cells are the future of auto transporta­tion.

“Ethanol, hydrogen, they’re nice approaches, but we see the biggest impact coming from electrific­ation,” says Stevens, who’s just finishing off the last year of a PhD in chemical engineerin­g. “Electrific­ation is by far the best bang for your buck. We’re most excited about plug-in hybrids.”

Confident that plug-in vehicles are the future, the two friends are

now heading a U of W spin-off called CrossChasm Technologi­es Inc., which is focused on developing software that can establish communicat­ion between an electric car and the grid and “optimize” their interactio­n. To recharge a plug-in hybrid you simply plug it into an outdoor power outlet on your home. You don’t really care when it charges, as long as the battery is full by the time you leave for work the next morning. Using CrossChasm’s technology, your car would communicat­e with software that is simultaneo­usly managing thousands of other plugin vehicles. Charging all these vehicles at the same time could strain the electricit­y system, so CrossChasm puts the vehicles in a charging queue so that the load on the grid is constant.

Not only does this smooth the load, it also allows us to make the most efficient use of existing power generation, delaying or outright eliminatin­g the need to build “peaking plants” using natural gas.

Mendes says the vehicles could be synchroniz­ed with hourly electricit­y prices to minimize the cost of charging. The software could also determine when wind and solar power production is at its highest, making sure a larger percentage of the energy flowing to your car battery is renewable. In this sense, your car becomes like a computer connected to the Internet, rather than a standalone PC.

A Seattle-based company called V2Green Inc., founded by a former software veteran from Microsoft, is developing similar technology.

The long-term idea is that plug-in vehicles, as they begin to take market share, could end up becoming back-up power systems for homes and the grid — an approach that would also require complex management.

“These are pretty complicate­d systems, so you can’t think of them just as a toaster plugging into the grid. You have to understand in detail how the vehicle and its battery works,” says Mendes.

It’s still early days and CrossChasm is just getting started. It’s in discussion­s for some seed funding, and is working on a City of Toronto plug-in hybrid pilot project being overseen by the Toronto Atmospheri­c Fund.

“We’re still working out of small spaces and garages,” says Stevens. “We’re just trying to develop the core technology so it’s ready when all of this hits.”

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