A Walnut Creek (Calif.) parking lot might seem like an unlikely spot to glimpse the future. But it's where the gold-medal-winning designers at IDEO are testing a futuristic idea. Next to a brightly lit aluminum kiosk are several parking spaces, each of which sports a sleek black-and-blue electricity-charging station. Palo Alto (Calif.)-based IDEO believes this is the place where an active, middle-aged woman named Kilo might someday routinely pull in, pay at the kiosk with a credit or ATM card, plug a lightweight plastic-covered inductive paddle charger into her electric vehicle and, returning after a couple hours of shopping, drive off into the sunset.
The Kilo character is part of one of many scenarios that IDEO designers created to wow both client GM/Hughes and the IDSA design judges with their electric-vehicle-charging station. Since 1991, IDEO has worked with Hughes on a project to address the daunting infrastructure needs that a shift to electric vehicles will require. Because electric cars can still only travel 100 to 150 miles on a full charge, IDEO realized that "filling up" will have to be incorporated into the driver's everyday life. In addition to a full, overnight charge in your garage, you'll be able to top off in parking lots, convenience stores, shopping malls, etc., throughout the day, IDEO figures.
Human-factors experts at IDEO started by doing some research: They created several categories of people and gave them names, families, personalities, political beliefs, even hobbies and pets. As they considered various scenarios, they quickly realized that the technology of getting the electricity into the car was the easy part. Dick A. Bowman, manager of electric vehicle infrastructure at Hughes, says the crux of the matter became creating a station that was "unattended, intuitive, and nonthreatening." It was not merely a question of technology, it was one of social adaptation to new technology. That meant handling issues as diverse as graffiti, fears of getting shocked, inclement weather, and the safety of, say, a woman taking out her wallet in an unattended lot.
The scenario exercises "opened our eyes to all kinds of concepts we never thought about," says Bowman. The multifaceted design of the station speaks to many of them: If a vandal tries to snip a power cable, for example, special imbedded sensors are triggered and cut off the juice before anyone is fried. The kiosk's odd shape offers protection from rain--and provides space for advertising. Says IDEO designer Peter Skillman, who, with another designer, Mark Biosotti, handled much of the hardware design: "No paradigm existed for this--so we defined it." Welcome to the new world of product design.