By Nichola Davies
When Dr David Finn conceived his vision for electric vehicles (EVs) in the late 90s, EVs and e-mobility weren’t much more than a glimmer in people’s eyes. Today he heads one of the world’s top fast-charging technology companies, Tritium.
The Tritium story began in Brisbane, with engineering students at the University of Queensland David Finn, Paul Sernia and James Kennedy – or team SunShark – taking out third place in the World Solar Challenge, being awarded the GM Sunraycer Award for Technical Achievement. For the team, the award symbolised their technical innovation could be translated to commercial, real-world applications.
It was being part of the SunShark team that made Tritium’s founders – now CEO Dr David Finn, chief product officer Dr Paul Sernia and chief technology officer James Kennedy – passionate about renewable energy for electric vehicles.
At the time, solar cars were the done thing in the fledging industry, but according to David, they weren’t realistic commuter vehicles, or long-distance driving vehicles you could put a family in.
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“There was a long way to go in terms of technology development at that point in time and we’ve seen a huge reduction in battery costs over the years,” David says.
“The development of these technologies has accelerated over the last few years – the battery technology and the power electronics technology has come a long way. Lightweight cars and some of the other tech we were working on in solar racing have sort of made their way into the mainstream too.”
Founding Tritium in 2001, the team operated as a micro-business selling the Gold Controller, a product used in the SunShark. David finished his PHD and the team did a heap of specialised projects that David describes as “cool things to do as young, graduated engineers” and fell into EV charging by working on a project for a customer and kept it rolling.
In 2012, they provided the battery management system for the Deep Sea Challenger that James Cameron took to the bottom of the Marion Trench and in 2013 launched the Veefil-RT 50kW DC Fast Charger, the world’s smallest DC fast charger for electric vehicles. In 2018, Tritium unveiled its Veefil-PK 175-475kW high-power charging station that has the impressive ability to add (at the 350kW setting) 350km of range to an electric vehicle in just 10 minutes.
With most of the growth of the business happening in the last four years, David says it has been a long but amazing journey to get to the success of Tritium today, where the company’s staff has doubled in the past year and in the past two years has opened offices in the US and Europe.
It’s an exciting time to be in the electric vehicle business when it’s increasingly viable to be an EV owner.
“From a technology point of view and the vehicles that are overseas and are coming to market now, I really don’t see the challenge in owning an electric vehicle,” David says.
“A lot of them now are coming to that 200-mile range [approximately 320km]. You’re talking about one or two charges on the way to Sydney [from Brisbane] – it’s very doable – and we have charge infrastructure now that you can charge that vehicle in about 15 minutes.
“The most important thing for us is that we want to build that infrastructure and we want people to have a better experience at the petrol station. We don’t want it to be a matter of having to think about well if it’s going to take six hours – where am I going to do it? It’s about having the freedom with that vehicle and doing it in a more convenient way than with a petrol powered car.
“That’s what we’ve decided on and being a technology company, that’s where we are focusing, on our customers, our partners, and that’s e-mobility, and we’re going and offering these services to people around the world.”
Tritium recently released an interactive map tool of all of Tritium’s publicly available fast-charging stations, spanning the east coast of Australia from Cairns to Melbourne, as well as having stations in Launceston, Adelaide and Perth.
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Across models of vehicles, there is consolidation in terms of the port, with pretty much every electric vehicle coming into the marketplace having its own fast-charge capable port. David says it’s a detailed process with a lot of protocols that involves a lot of liaison with car manufacturers.
“It’s not as simple as just plugging them in, it’s actually fairly complicated and there’s a lot of work that we do in the background to make sure that they’re compatible with the different models of vehicles made, but that’s our job to make sure it works without the customer knowing about it,” he says.
“We’re setting up facilities in Amsterdam and we’ve already got facilities in Los Angeles and Australia where [car manufacturers] can take vehicles in and test them.
“Some of the vehicle manufacturers come in and buy our product for their facility to check cross compatibility. It’s a big effort but its really, really important to get it right.
“It’s extremely important to the vehicle manufacturers that their vehicles can pull up to the charging stations and just work.”
Anxieties surrounding the pressure electric vehicles could put on the grid at peak don’t have to be obstacles to their uptake, David says. He suggests a whole new way of thinking about the relationship with electric vehicles and the home, stating they could help alleviate pressure on the grid, if it’s executed correctly.
For one, it could be made profitable for EV owners to charge their vehicles at work or at a public charging station and bring that energy stored in the battery pack in the vehicle to support energy use in the home. It’s a concept that’s full of potential, but one David says could add complexity initially. The concept could mean people would have to choose whether to support their neighbours or the grid, and how much payment would be for the service.
“Whereas using it yourself is a different story, and that will be a much easier step for people to make – use their battery pack for home use,” David says.
But, not everyone has the ability to charge an electric vehicle in the home, and Tritium’s experience in Europe and the US shows for one, not everyone has a garage, and two, there is social opportunity in public charging.
Tritium’s grand vision is to make e-mobility as convenient a solution as a trip to the petrol station, for example, by incorporating charging your electric vehicle into your daily routine.
“I’m seeing opportunities in places like 7/11 or Costco over the world transforming themselves and having new sites that are just for EVs …” David says.
“You have zero emissions with an EV and you’re pulling up outside. You should pop inside where it’s nice and temperature controlled, especially in places where it’s cold weather, it would just be fantastic up north [in the US] to pull up inside and get out in the warm.
“It’s aligned with something else you’re doing, so you can imagine pulling up at Starbucks and you haven’t taken any time out to do whatever you’re doing.
“That’s the big opportunity – getting that alignment between that convenience of doing and the charging. Because that’s the thing too, as soon as you plug in you walk away.
“You won’t have to do anything else and it’s just all happening in the background, so you’re free to do whatever you want and for the convenience store operators, it’s a great opportunity to drive revenue through the shop.”
The exciting prospect could be the future of mobility as we know it. Watch this space.