Fifteen years have passed since a major automaker has attempted to market an electric vehicle. Within five years, rare will be the auto showroom that lacks one. But before EVs dominate the market, industry, policymakers, and consumers will have to grapple with some unresolved questions, said a panel of industry giants and start-ups convened by Climate One in San Francisco on May 12.
Those questions are a primary reason why “in pure electric cars, there’s very little first-mover advantage,” said Bill Reinert, National Manager, Toyota, “when you’re out there trying to figure out where the infrastructure’s going to go, and how the tow service works, and what happens when the charger doesn’t charge your car.”
Dan Sperling, member, California Air Resources Board and professor, UC Davis, disagreed that carmakers should avoid positioning themselves as a leader in the EV race. Yes, there are technology and scaling challenges, he said, but being first “does create a hallo for the entire company, which Toyota understands better than anyone – what the Prius did.”
Michael Robinson, VP for Environment, Energy and Safety Policy, General Motors, is coming to see the benefit of that green hallo. His company has sold 2,000 units of its extended-range electric car, the Chevy Volt, since it went on sale in late 2010. Half of those sales have come in California, Robinson said, and 90% of total sales have been to Prius owners.
Oliver Kuttner, CEO, Edison2, an engineering company, said carmakers need to figure out how to design electric cars to be lighter and more efficient. “If we were to re-think the way a car is built, and built the car in a more efficient way, like an airplane,” you could downsize the battery – the most expensive piece of an EV, costing upwards of $10,000 to $15,000 per car. “When you start to have cars that require less energy to move, your power plant, your battery, everything becomes smaller,” he said.
During the Q&A, an audience member asked if automakers might be underestimating the demand for EVs. “Absolutely,” responded Forrest Beanum, Vice President of Government Relations, Coda Automotive. “We absolutely think that demand will get larger than what most people think.” He cited Coda’s reading of independent studies finding that 40% of consumers want to own or drive an electric vehicle.
What might make the difference this time is that carmakers appear to want EVs to succeed. It might seem counterintuitive, said GM’s Michael Robinson, but “we’re actually pulling for one another to be successful. We want the technology to be successful.”
Dan Sperling agreed. “We’re way ahead of the regulatory process. We’re way ahead of the market process. Standardization issues are a challenge. This is a big adventure – and hugely important. We have to make this successful,” he said.
It might even take new business models. Bill Reinert said Toyota is looking at introducing a non-ownership, service model to California. You’d pay Toyota for all-in service, he said, which might mean a small sedan one day, or an SUV the next, depending on your needs.
“We all have different approaches to solving this issue. The worst thing that can happen for any of us is to have the technology fail because it’s not right, or the customer doesn’t know how to use it,” Michael Robinson said.
– Justin Gerdes
May 12, 2011
Photos by Ed Ritger
The Commonwealth Club of California