Syd Manna, Autev’s co-founder and chief operations officer, standing near the startup’s first prototype for its autonomous, fast-charging robot for electric vehicles. The device will also have a robotic arm with a charging nozzle. (GeekWire Photo / Lisa Stiffler)

The founders at Autev envision a future where EV drivers simply park their vehicles in a garage, open an app and enter a parking space number. When they return, their EV battery is topped off.

The technology that could make this vision a reality includes autonomous robots being developed by the Autev team that charge electric vehicles without human assistance.

“It’s like a gas can on wheels,” said Syd Manna, co-founder and chief operations officer at Autev.

The device is essentially a giant, mobile battery outfitted with navigational sensors to help it independently maneuver to a vehicle, and it has a robotic arm with a nozzle that inserts into a vehicle’s charging port.

While the team is still developing prototypes, the Seattle-based startup hopes to be one of the solutions in the build-out of much-needed EV infrastructure, targeting charging opportunities at workplaces, apartments and condo buildings.

The EV industry needs more chargers, but they can be expensive to install given that many require costly electrical upgrades to existing infrastructure to meet high energy demands. Autev’s system provides an alternative, since its robots are simply recharged from a battery-powered docking station. That allows the Autev system to plug into existing power outlets.

“You don’t need to do any infrastructure. It’s a mobile service that’s plug and play,” said co-founder and CEO Osama AlSalloum.

Prototype of Autev’s robotic arm performing a demonstration in which the nozzle on the end of the arm is inserted into a foam mock-up of an EV charging port. (Geekwire Photo / Lisa Stiffler)

By using mobile chargers, any parking spot can become an EV charging stall and there’s no worry about someone hogging a parking stall outfitted with a stationary charger. The plan is for users to schedule half-hour reservations for the robotic units, which should be able to recharge approximately 25% of an EV’s battery in that time.

The system will have multiple DC fast-charging robots per location, allowing some robots to charge EVs while others can be docked at the base, recharging themselves.

Autev aims to price the systems at $50,000, which would include one of the robot chargers and the base for recharging. Additional robots would cost $20,000-to-$30,000 depending on the number ordered. Each base could accommodate two or four robots.

While still costly, the installation of a conventional, slower charging Level 2 charger costs about $10,000-to-$20,000, while a station with four DC fast chargers can cost $750,000 or more.

Customers for the Autev system would be property owners and managers for residential buildings and office spaces. The team is considering offering their system as a service, in addition to selling it. Customers could recoup some of their costs when drivers pay for charging their EVs.

‘Legitimate effort’

Artist’s rendering of an Autev robot charging an EV. (Autev Illustration)

But even if Autev’s solution is more affordable, the market is uncertain.

As EV charging speeds are getting faster, it’s possible that it would make more sense for EV owners in multi-family buildings to charge up at public fast chargers instead of plugging in at home.

That said, if the team is able to fully automate the charging process, “it has definite potential. I think it’s kind of a neat solution,” said Matthew Metz, co-founder and executive director of Coltura, a nonprofit promoting EV use.

But Metz had questions about the system’s practicality.

While relatively compact, the charging units are still a significant size, measuring 5-feet long, 3-feet wide and 4-feet tall. The charging base will take up space, and it could be tight fit for a robot to navigate a jam-packed parking lot and reach a charging port. The Autev team has tried to address this issue by designing the robot to connect to EVs from behind the car, and by making a robotic arm with a high amount of mobility.

Another concern is if there are problems with the autonomous service — a device gets stuck somewhere, or a nozzle fails to engage or disengage — which could create headaches and frustration for Autev users.

The startup team said that someone will be onsite when the first devices are deployed to address any technical issues. And every unit will remotely communicate with the main system so problems can be identified and reported, and someone with the company will quickly respond to problems.

“It is a pretty legitimate effort at dealing with a significant problem,” Metz said, but he still expects “it’s going to have significant headwinds.”

Charging ahead

A portion of the Autev team, from left: Ayush Kulkarni, an electrical engineering intern and University of Washington undergraduate in electrical and computer engineering; Osama AlSalloum, co-founder and CEO; and Syd Manna, co-founder and chief operations officer. Not pictured: Jay Strickland, co-founder and technical advisor, as well as other students working for the startup. (GeekWire Photo / Lisa Stiffler)

Autev launched in October 2022 and has built a proof-of-concept device that can deliver slower, Level 1 charging and is manually controlled. The group is building their second prototype with Level 2 charging that operates autonomously. The goal for the third version is a prototype that will deliver a fast charge and be ready for manufacturing.

The startup founders are bootstrapping their effort, but looking to raise money in the coming months. They are targeting production by the end of next year.

The trio met as students in the University of Washington’s Foster School of Business Masters of Entrepreneurship program. Jay Strickland, portfolio analyst with The Energy Authority, is a technical advisor.

Autev is based at the UW’s CoMotion Labs in Fluke Hall as part of its Hardware Incubator. The startup has taken advantage of its university location and has 15 high school, undergraduate and graduate students working as unpaid interns or for college credits.

Others companies are developing related EV charging technologies. Automakers Hyundai and Volkswagen are working on robotic EV charging, though the devices don’t appear to be mobile units or include batteries. Seattle startup Electric Era, which recently won GeekWire’s Sustainable Innovation of the Year award, sells stationary EV charging system that also relies on batteries.

The Autev team is optimistic about future success, noting that all of the components of its system have been proven out technologically in other applications.

“We’re just combining it in a unique way,” Strickland said.

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