Where will you plug in?

Timing is everything. Before rising gasoline prices, matched with an ever-increasing passion for energy-efficient vehicles, few South Bay consumers would have predicted the return of a new, all-electric vehicle. With anticipated plug-in launches this year, we explore the rise, fall and rebirth of the electric car.

The documentary filmmaker Chris Paine released his highly-acclaimed film Who Killed the Electric Car? back in 2006. The film profiles the rise and fall of an automotive technology which, had it been allowed to flourish, would have revolutionized the auto industry. Yet it sadly met a premature demise at the hands of those bent on its failure. Part tutorial and part exposé, the film extols the many virtues and dispels the myths of electric vehicles (EV), making a strong case for plug-in technology while simultaneously revealing the deleterious actions taken to crush the promising emerging trend.

Conventional wisdom had decisively written off the electric car as a fad whose time had passed. Yet Paine remained a true believer, never losing faith in the EV. He sorrowfully turned over his GM EV1 when it was reclaimed and instead began driving a Tesla, confident that EV technology would again be resurrected. Then in 2007 the price of crude oil began its steady ascent, eventually topping off at $145 a barrel in July 2008. When Americans found themselves paying $4 or more a gallon at the pump (many Californians paid more than $5), suddenly that funky-looking Toyota Prius began to look a whole lot sexier.

Finally an alternative fuel vehicle gained widespread consumer acceptance, and more importantly became profitable for its manufacturer, ensuring its continuing production. Though hybrids are definitely an improvement over gas-powered vehicles for our environment, economy, and even national security, they are not zero-emission vehicles (the ultimate goal of Paine and other EV proponents). Yet Toyota deservedly reaped the benefits of its innovation, becoming the world’s number one automaker and putting consumers on a viable path to greener personal transportation.

Nowhere was this embrace of alternative vehicles more pronounced than in Southern California. In Manhattan Beach, it’s virtually impossible to drive five feet without spotting a Prius…a refreshing change from the days when every car on the road was an SUV. Before the sudden spike in hybrid sales, driving an environmentally friendly car was like wearing designer clothing without a logo. Only people in the know would recognize one another’s discerning taste. A hybrid was the discreet membership card for an exclusive club of erudite, socially-conscious elite. Then without warning, driving hybrids became a full-blown status symbol, offering the same caché as driving a Porsche or Jaguar. Soon the glitterati scrapped their limos and arrived at award shows and red carpets in a Prius. The indelible image of mega-watt stars emerging in tuxedos and gowns from a hybrid made driving one ultra-cool, inspiring the aspirational and cementing the alternative fuel trend.

Rapidly losing market share, the other automakers realized they had fallen far behind their savvy Japanese competitor and quickly raced to rev up their alternative fuel vehicle programs. GM was particularly backhanded by this tidal change. The company once at the forefront of EV technology and literally years ahead of its closest competitors made a grave error killing its EV1 program. Had GM kept the EV1, it very well could have cornered the alternative fuel market or at least captured enormous market share.

Instead it left a vacuum that Toyota quickly filled, thus attaining total market dominance and leaving GM in the dust.  Fans of the EV1 enjoyed a bit of schadenfreude seeing GM, Paine’s central antagonist, suffer. Yet with this year’s introduction of the Chevy Volt, just named Car of the Year at the North American Auto Show in Detroit, GM has bounced back nicely and may have redeemed itself. If those alienated by GM’s treatment of EV1 can forgive its sins and embrace the Volt, GM will likely return to its days of grandeur.

Now a seismic shift is occurring within the automotive industry.  Virtually overnight, the EV is once again a viable product and potential game-changer, and now it is back with a vengeance. Three EV’s, also known as plug-ins, are already available, and another will be released this year. And there are 13 other plug-ins in the pipeline scheduled for release between now and 2013 from nearly every major automaker. Yet this time around there is more optimism and buzz than with previous EV incarnations. It feels as though everyone is more invested in the EV succeeding this time. The public, government, industry, and the media seem to all be on board. Media outlets from CNN to Fortune Magazine to NPR are covering the EV renaissance. Wired magazine even ran a cover story on Tesla CEO Elon Musk and declared this the age of the electric car.

Perhaps no one is more pleased to see EV resurge than Chris Paine.  With all the changes occurring, this spring Paine will release the follow-up to his 2006 film, fittingly titled Revenge of the Electric Car. The new film is an affirmation that EV is a reality. The film explores the industry from behind closed doors, featuring four key protagonists, Elon Musk of Tesla, Bob Lutz of GM, Carlos Ghosn of Nissan and Greg “Gadget” Abbott, a DIY enthusiast who converts Porsches into EVs. Paine gives us an insider’s perspective on how the EVs are being developed from concept to production and explores the challenges each company faces in the race to be the first and best in this pivotal market. As Paine puts it, “What I want the film to do is to inspire people to give these cars a try in 2011, 2012, because if they don’t buy them the first couple years, then the car companies will just go back to what they’re used to doing.”

Most of the challenges the EV faces remain the same as when Paine made his earlier film, but an across-the-board willingness to try the new technology has shifted the paradigm. Though some resistance remains, we are more open to it than ever before. Not only will it take a bit of patience and courage for this technology to finally stick, but all entities must be willing to revise preconceived notions of what a car means. The auto industry will have to alter their view of profitability. Until now, automakers profit most on service and parts, not on the sale of the actual car. The combustion engine requires regular maintenance, whereas EVs require minimal parts and service. It’s no wonder the automakers seem more interested in making hybrids; they still have money-making engines.  Thus to remain profitable, automakers will need to diversify.

Then there is the battery technology, which continues to evolve but still has its challenges. Technology will likely require another 10 years before batteries that allow long-range driving see enough of a price reduction to be acceptable to the general consumer. The top-of-the-line EVs like Tesla offer long-range driving, but the price of the car is cost-prohibitive for most.

Also, the myth that EV batteries are toxic and end up in landfills must be dispelled. In fact, EVs run primarily on lithium ion batteries. Though all batteries including lithium have a shelf life, unlike alkaline or other batteries lithium ion batteries are valuable and recyclable, thus they don’t end up in landfills. According to Paine, “Tossing an EV battery is like burning $50 bills.” Should the EV finally take hold, watch for the battery sector of EV technology to be a growth sector. The company that makes the longest lasting, quickest charging, most efficient battery will rule.

The current resurgence of the EV is clearly consumer-driven, mostly due to exorbitant fuel prices, but also due in part to the success of the Prius, which had one auspicious side effect. Hybrid technology is the automotive equivalent of a gateway drug. Fed up with high fuel prices, consumers were enticed by the hybrid into trying alternative fuel vehicles they may not have been willing to consider when gas was inexpensive. In the process, minds opened to the real possibility of driving cars without gas. Yet consumer resistance remains one of the biggest impediments to EV success. When mainstream consumers are polled, they continue to express reluctance to driving an EV.

This reluctance is largely due to “range anxiety,” a term coined to describe our not-so-irrational fear of running out of juice while driving an EV. If the EV is ever to truly succeed, we need to get over our phobia of being stuck with no charge. The building of a nation-wide grid of charging stations currently underway will go far to assuage that fear.

And there are many other innovations being developed to address this issue. Applications for smart phones will show every charging station within a certain radius and whether it is in use. Other technology will send phone alerts when batteries are fully charged, so drivers can leave vehicles at charging stations.  The truth is, until we experiment with driving an EV from point A to B and build our confidence and a comfort level with its range, our anxiety will keep us from fully committing to it. Once we feel safe to drive from Santa Monica to Pasadena on a Friday night, the EV will succeed. Until then, it will be relegated to a niche market. 

According to Paine, there are a few other significant things that must occur for the EV to gain total consumer acceptance. First, oil prices need to remain high. If prices drop substantially, the impetus to buy into the new technology may be diluted.  Then, as consumers, we will need to change our perception of the role cars have in our lives. As Paine aptly puts it, “A car represents infinite mobility at any moment. It’s the American dream. It’s a beautiful image and it’s nice to have that.”  He goes on to explain, “But the new mobility, the new freedom of the electric car is the freedom from our dream being spoiled by pollution. The EV may not be able to take you everywhere, but if it can take care of 90% of what you’re normally doing, then you’ll be remarkably un-tethered.” 

    Another hurdle of EV technology is the lack of infrastructure needed to support the anticipated surge in plug-in vehicles on the road within the next few years. Estimates of EV sales through 2020 range from 7% to 9% of all auto sales, or 1.6 million plug-in units sold.  So it’s safe to say that there will be a lot more cars to charge in 10 years. The opportunity to build this new infrastructure is unprecedented. It’s a ready-made growth sector likely to offer big rewards for those able to meet the challenge. There are a bevy of green energy and technology companies, such as Eaton, Better Place, and Coulomb Technologies, poised to build the nation-wide charging system.

The DOE and DOT are also making a big push to expand plug-in charging stations via pilot programs in metropolitan areas and along well-traveled corridors, such as I-5 and I-95. The goal is to install 13,000 public charging stations within 18 months, supported by a $15 million grant made through the 2009 stimulus bill. Fortunately the automotive industry has adopted one standard mode for all plug-in vehicles, the J1772. Though developing a nationwide system of charge stations may seem daunting, it’s actually quite do-able and not as expensive as one would think. According to Shai Agassi, whose Better Place has been developing charging station systems in Israel, Denmark, and Australia, the cost of infrastructure to cover the entire U.S. is approximately $8 billion, which equals one week of gasoline consumed by U.S. drivers. 

The EV is finally reality, and its future is bright. This tremendous advancement in technology will not only revolutionize the automotive industry but may potentially have a major ripple effect on adjacent industries as well. The iPhone, iPad, Ebay, Twitter, etc. were all transformative in their own right. But part of their impact was the related technologies that sprang from the original innovation. 

Perhaps the most optimistic factor is how EV may improve our daily lives. Imagine your neighborhood filled with quiet cars and no emissions; no weekly trip to the gas station or paying $50 plus just to fill your tank; no oil changes or annual tune-ups. Think about our city, state, and country…no longer dependent on oil from Venezuela and Saudi Arabia; reduced government transportation costs; tens of  thousands of jobs in new technology sectors, patents and profits staying in our country. The EV movement is momentous, transformative, and hopefully here to stay.

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