If you’re holding out for an electric car that never runs out of battery power, Joshua Aviv thinks he’s got the next-best thing. Aviv’s Somerville startup SparkCharge offers a way for electric car owners to order up some extra kilowatts — anytime, anywhere.
Just fire up Currently, the company’s smartphone app, and SparkCharge will bring the vehicle charger to you, in the back of an electric van. The company’s system, called Roadie, uses stacks of modular lithium-ion batteries linked to a charging unit that can add 1 mile of driving range for every minute it’s connected to the car. So a typical 30-minute SparkCharge session delivers 30 miles of extra driving range. That’s nowhere near as fast as the blazing Supercharger system operated by electric carmaker Tesla. But it’s enough to ensure that an EV with a waning battery can make it home.
“They can just open up their phone, push a button, and have range delivered right there on the spot,” said Aviv, the company’s founder and chief executive.
Customers subscribe to the service by paying a monthly fee that ranges from $4.99 to $24.99. They also pay by the kilowatt for each recharge. With the cheapest monthly membership, a recharge costs 69 cents per kilowatt, but it’s just 51 cents with the premium subscription. For instance, a 30-minute recharge would cost about $7 for a basic member, but about $5 for a premium member. That makes the premium package a better deal for frequent users.
SparkCharge service already is available in San Francisco, San Jose, Los Angeles, and Dallas. It will soon come to other US cities, including Boston, where it’s expected to roll out in the next few weeks. In addition, Aviv said the company’s on the verge of unveiling a faster charging system, capable of powering up a battery three times faster than the current model. That would mean an extra 30 miles of battery range in just 10 minutes.
SparkCharge isn’t just aimed at consumers. The company also is targeting a range of businesses that can benefit by providing customers or employees with an easier way to charge up. For instance, apartment building owners could purchase Roadie modules as an alternative to installing costly fixed chargers on their properties. The company has sold several systems to automotive service provider AAA to provide roadside assistance to electric vehicles. And car dealerships can use Roadie systems to charge the electric cars on their lots.
Sam Abuelsamid, principal analyst for market research firm Guidehouse Insights, said that SparkCharge — or something like it — will be vital if the US is to rapidly switch to battery-powered cars. “Mobile charging like this is actually going to be an important part of the overall charging ecosystem,” Abuelsamid said, noting that major car companies also have taken up the idea.
For example, Volkswagen has been experimenting with a charging robot for use in parking garages. A fleet of wheeled robots could pull up to parked cars and recharge them automatically while the car owners are working or shopping. And in January, General Motors described plans to build a mobile charger that will carry a hydrogen fuel cell rather than a bank of batteries. The fuel cell generates electricity by mixing hydrogen with air. GM has said that a single truck carrying a fuel cell and a large hydrogen tank could recharge up to 100 vehicles.
All these forms of mobile charging can minimize a little-known problem with rapid charging systems. Utilities collect a monthly “demand charge” to cover the cost of the infrastructure needed to support users who intermittently use large amounts of power. With electric cars, “you’re essentially pulling a larger amount of energy at a very small instant,” said Amaiya Khardenavis, an electric vehicle analyst for the research firm Wood MacKenzie.
So the charging station operators must pay this extra demand charge, which can add thousands of dollars to the monthly power bill. A 2019 study by the Great Plains Institute found that many businesses won’t install car charging stations, because the extra utility fee would eat up the profits.
Using batteries to recharge batteries helps relieve this problem, Khardenavis said. A Roadie customer can use standard 240-volt current to recharge the mobile battery packs at night, then use the Roadie’s rapid charger to power up the cars. The utility never sees a sudden spike in power demand, so there’s no demand charge.
Aviv, a Washington, D.C., native who grew up in Texas, came up with the idea in 2014, as he was studying environmental economics at Syracuse University. Aviv recalled that one of his professors told him, “If anyone wants to solve a huge problem for the world, solve the problem of infrastructure for electric vehicles.”
He began the project in his Syracuse dorm room, then earned a place in the school’s Blackstone LaunchPad innovation hub, an incubator for business ideas generated by Syracuse faculty and students. In 2018, he came to Massachusetts when SparkCharge was accepted into the business accelerator Techstars Boston.
In 2020, SparkCharge was featured on the TV series “Shark Tank,” where successful business people pass judgment on new business concepts, and offer to invest in the most attractive companies. SparkCharge came away with a $1 million investment from two of the “sharks,” Internet entrepreneur Mark Cuban and inventor Lori Greiner.
Last month, the company raised $23 million in venture capital, in a round led by Tale Venture Partners and Pendulum. The cash will be used to drive rapid nationwide expansion of a service that aims to make power delivery as routine as pizza delivery.