Where the electric car is going

Once doomed by automakers, EV's are flourishing in cities that plan ahead

Topics: Revenge of the Electric Car, Rocky Mountain Institute,

Where the electric car is goingA Chevrolet Volt sits plugged into an electric vehicle charging station outside General Motors world headquarters in Detroit. (Credit: Reuters/Rebecca Cook)

Chris Paine’s newest film, “Revenge of the Electric Car,” is rolling out across the country with a buzz that seldom accompanies the release of a documentary.  That’s because Paine’s follow-up to 2006’s “Who Killed the Electric Car,” which told the story of  GM’s recall of the EV1 electric car program in the 1990s, is something of a victory.

Watch the film’s trailer and it’s clear that Paine’s intention is just that: to tell the story of the forgotten underdog who has returned. Only, this time, we’re not talking about Rocky Balboa. We’re talking about a car.

It is, of course, more than a car. The electrification of the vehicle powertrain presents not only a new standard for mobility, but also how we think about energy in general. If widely adopted, electric vehicles could improve air quality, reduce dependence on oil, and spur domestic economic development.

Electric vehicles may not be “back with a vengeance,” as former GM Vice Chairman Bob Lutz proclaims in the movie. But they are trending, as they say. Since hitting the streets in December 2010, approximately 13,000 Nissan Leafs and Chevrolet Volts have been sold in the U.S. By comparison, Toyota sold only about 5,800 of its Prius hybrid — a universally recognized symbol of environmentally conscious personal mobility — to U.S. customers in 2000, the first year it was offered here. Earlier this year Toyota trumpeted selling its 1 millionth Prius in the United States, and has topped 100,000 U.S. sales per year since 2005. Prius now owns the lion’s share of the hybrid market.

Nonetheless, traditional hybrid cars account for only about 2.0 percent of 2011 sales in the U.S. through October. For electric vehicles to have their full impact, the adoption of this technology must leapfrog that figure.

“History tells us it took hybrid sales over six years to reach a mass market tipping point,” says Mark Perry, director of product planning for Nissan Americas. “We see customer demand reach the same level for electric vehicles in half the time.”



The advantage of an electric vehicle over another alternatively fueled vehicle, such as a hydrogen fuel cell or natural gas vehicle, is that the infrastructure necessary to power them is largely available. Drivers can plug their cars into their home, or in a charging station at their apartment complex, and leave for work with a fully “fueled” vehicle every morning. And for most trips, publicly available charging stations will not be vital.

The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act funded two electric vehicle projects: The EV Project and ChargePoint America. Early data from these programs show that the vehicle owners drive an average of about 30 miles a day. Four times out of five, the cars are charged at home. Cities and municipalities are studying the behavior of electric car owners to determine how much infrastructure is needed.

The ultimate success of the electric car depends on the convergence of a groundswell of customer demand with innovative government policies and processes that strip away existing barriers in the marketplace.

The installation of a home charging station, for example, does not have to be a complicated procedure, because the charging unit requires the same level of electrical service as a clothes dryer. Nevertheless, the process has proven to be a bottleneck in some municipalities, delaying drivers’ ability to plug in their cars. By cutting the time of the entire process to a maximum of 48 hours, Houston and Raleigh removed a key obstacle to electric car adoption.

The Rocky Mountain Institute’s Project Get Ready, where we work, is a network of more than 25 cities and states and 40 strategic partners, for exchanging lessons learned from on-the-ground electric vehicle readiness activities.  Portland, Ore., a Project Get Ready member city, recently opened Electric Avenue, a street demonstration of electric vehicle integration. The city government and local universities installed seven charging stations, educational kiosks and extensive branding for the manufacturers. As a result, the street has become a hub for electric car owners and a frequent location for promotional events.

The goal of these programs and other similar programs (such as Go Electric Drive, and Plug in America) is ensuring that the transition to electric vehicles is seamless. For the first time, major automakers have made a commitment to electric vehicles. Will America’s car owners?

That depends a great deal on public perceptions — some valid, some misinformed — regarding the performance of these vehicles. Of all perceived limitations, the range of the pure electric vehicle is the most cited drawback of this technology. Although the vast majority of U.S. drivers travel less than 40 miles a day (a statistic mirrored by recent Nissan Leaf driver data), many car buyers want the option to drive across the country.  However, it should be stressed that plug-in hybrids currently available obviate this concern. Nevertheless, the perception holds, and car buyers don’t want to be told how they may drive.

A recent Chevy Volt fire recalls another frequently cited concern: safety. Several weeks after a crash test performed by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, a Volt caught fire in the testing site’s parking lot. Early reports indicate that the battery wasn’t drained following the test, just as gasoline tanks are emptied for traditional vehicles. With NHTSA now investigating this issue with all manufacturers of electric vehicles, more post-crash safety precautions, such as battery draining, may be required.

The automobile industry is moving into new territory with its production of mass-market electric vehicles. Yes, there have been previous forays into electrification, but never at this scale. J.D. Power and Associates forecasts that 1.8 million electric vehicles will be sold in the U.S. by 2020.

Hiccups are to be expected at this early stage of the innovation curve; however, too many could prove detrimental to the industry. Therefore, it’s important for all stakeholders — cities, utilities, automakers and advocates alike — to listen to the early adopters, as well as the skeptics, and for drivers to remain vocal about their tastes and experiences. Information is key to driving this industry forward.

Jay Tankersley is the program manager of Rocky Mountain Institute’s Project Get Ready.. Ben Holland is the project manager.

Jay Tankersley is the program manager of Rocky Mountain Institute’s Project Get Ready.. Ben Holland is the project manager.

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann & Kerascoët
    Kerascoët's lovely, delicate pen-and-watercolor art -- all intricate botanicals, big eyes and flowing hair -- gives this fairy story a deceptively pretty finish. You find out quickly, however, that these are the heartless and heedless fairies of folk legend, not the sentimental sprites beloved by the Victorians and Disney fans. A host of tiny hominid creatures must learn to survive in the forest after fleeing their former home -- a little girl who lies dead in the woods. The main character, Aurora, tries to organize the group into a community, but most of her cohort is too capricious, lazy and selfish to participate for long. There's no real moral to this story, which is refreshing in itself, beyond the perpetual lessons that life is hard and you have to be careful whom you trust. Never has ugly truth been given a prettier face.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Climate Changed: A Personal Journey Through the Science by Philippe Squarzoni
    Squarzoni is a French cartoonist who makes nonfiction graphic novels about contemporary issues and politics. While finishing up a book about France under Jacques Chirac, he realized that when it came to environmental policy, he didn't know what he was talking about. "Climate Changed" is the result of his efforts to understand what has been happening to the planet, a striking combination of memoir and data that ruminates on a notoriously elusive, difficult and even imponderable subject. Panels of talking heads dispensing information (or Squarzoni discussing the issues with his partner) are juxtaposed with detailed and meticulous yet lyrical scenes from the author's childhood, the countryside where he takes a holiday and a visit to New York. He uses his own unreachable past as a way to grasp the imminent transformation of the Earth. The result is both enlightening and unexpectedly moving.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Here by Richard McGuire
    A six-page version of this innovative work by a regular contributor to the New Yorker first appeared in RAW magazine 25 years ago. Each two-page spread depicts a single place, sometimes occupied by a corner of a room, over the course of 4 billion years. The oldest image is a blur of pink and purple gases; others depict hazmat-suited explorers from 300 years in the future. Inset images show the changing decor and inhabitants of the house throughout its existence: family photos, quarrels, kids in Halloween costumes, a woman reading a book, a cat walking across the floor. The cumulative effect is serene and ravishing, an intimation of the immensity of time and the wonder embodied in the humblest things.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Kill My Mother by Jules Feiffer
    The legendary Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist delivers his debut graphic novel at 85, a deliriously over-the-top blend of classic movie noir and melodrama that roams from chiaroscuro Bay City to Hollywood to a USO gig in the Pacific theater of World War II. There's a burnt-out drunk of a private eye, but the story is soon commandeered by a multigenerational collection of ferocious women, including a mysterious chanteuse who never speaks, a radio comedy writer who makes a childhood friend the butt of a hit series and a ruthless dame intent on making her whiny coward of a husband into a star. There are disguises, musical numbers and plenty of gunfights, but the drawing is the main attraction. Nobody convey's bodies in motion more thrillingly than Feiffer, whether they're dancing, running or duking it out. The kid has promise.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Motherless Oven by Rob Davis
    This is a weird one, but in the nervy surreal way that word-playful novels like "A Clockwork Orange" or "Ulysses" are weird. The main character, a teenage schoolboy named Scarper Lee, lives in a world where it rains knives and people make their own parents, contraptions that can be anything from a tiny figurine stashable in a pocket to biomorphic boiler-like entities that seem to have escaped from Dr. Seuss' nightmares. Their homes are crammed with gadgets they call gods and instead of TV they watch a hulu-hoop-size wheel of repeating images that changes with the day of the week. They also know their own "death day," and Scarper's is coming up fast. Maybe that's why he runs off with the new girl at school, a real troublemaker, and the obscurely dysfunctional Castro, whose mother is a cageful of talking parakeets. A solid towline of teenage angst holds this manically inventive vision together, and proves that some graphic novels can rival the text-only kind at their own game.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    NOBROW 9: It's Oh So Quiet
    For each issue, the anthology magazine put out by this adventurous U.K.-based publisher of independent graphic design, illustration and comics gives 45 artists a four-color palette and a theme. In the ninth issue, the theme is silence, and the results are magnificent and full of surprises. The comics, each told in images only, range from atmospheric to trippy to jokey to melancholy to epic to creepy. But the two-page illustrations are even more powerful, even if it's not always easy to see how they pertain to the overall concept of silence. Well, except perhaps for the fact that so many of them left me utterly dumbstruck with visual delight.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Over Easy by Mimi Pond
    When Pond was a broke art student in the 1970s, she took a job at a neighborhood breakfast spot in Oakland, a place with good food, splendid coffee and an endlessly entertaining crew of short-order cooks, waitresses, dishwashers and regular customers. This graphic memoir, influenced by the work of Pond's friend, Alison Bechdel, captures the funky ethos of the time, when hippies, punks and disco aficionados mingled in a Bay Area at the height of its eccentricity. The staff of the Imperial Cafe were forever swapping wisecracks and hopping in and out of each other's beds, which makes them more or less like every restaurant team in history. There's an intoxicating esprit de corps to a well-run everyday joint like the Imperial Cafe, and never has the delight in being part of it been more winningly portrayed.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew
    You don't have to be a superhero fan to be utterly charmed by Yang and Liew's revival of a little-known character created in the 1940s by the cartoonist Chu Hing. This version of the Green Turtle, however, is rich in characterization, comedy and luscious period detail from the Chinatown of "San Incendio" (a ringer for San Francisco). Hank, son of a mild-mannered grocer, would like to follow in his father's footsteps, but his restless mother (the book's best character and drawn with masterful nuance by Liew) has other ideas after her thrilling encounter with a superhero. Yang's story effortlessly folds pathos into humor without stooping to either slapstick or cheap "darkness." This is that rare tribute that far surpasses the thing it celebrates.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Shoplifter by Michael Cho
    Corinna Park, former English major, works, unhappily, in a Toronto advertising agency. When the dissatisfaction of the past five years begins to oppress her, she lets off steam by pilfering magazines from a local convenience store. Cho's moody character study is as much about city life as it is about Corinna. He depicts her falling asleep in front of the TV in her condo, brooding on the subway, roaming the crowded streets after a budding romance goes awry. Like a great short story, this is a simple tale of a young woman figuring out how to get her life back, but if feels as if it contains so much of contemporary existence -- its comforts, its loneliness, its self-deceptions -- suspended in wintery amber.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Through the Woods by Emily Carroll
    This collection of archetypal horror, fairy and ghost stories, all about young girls, comes lushly decked in Carroll's inky black, snowy white and blood-scarlet art. A young bride hears her predecessor's bones singing from under the floorboards, two friends make the mistake of pretending to summon the spirits of the dead, a family of orphaned siblings disappears one by one into the winter nights. Carroll's color-saturated images can be jagged, ornate and gruesome, but she also knows how to chill with absence, shadows and a single staring eye. Literary readers who cherish the work of Kelly Link or the late Angela Carter's collection, "The Bloody Chamber," will adore the violent beauty on these pages.

  • Recent Slide Shows

Comments

0 Comments

Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>