It takes a village to sell an electric car

Mainstream plug-in electric cars will be available in two years, but auto makers will introduce them in welcoming communities first to boost their odds of success.

Martin LaMonica Former Staff writer, CNET News
Martin LaMonica is a senior writer covering green tech and cutting-edge technologies. He joined CNET in 2002 to cover enterprise IT and Web development and was previously executive editor of IT publication InfoWorld.
Martin LaMonica
5 min read

It turns out that weaning the auto industry off gasoline isn't as simple as turning out electric cars from a factory.

Auto industry executives say they will couple their first mass-market electric cars with a big dose of community outreach, with the hope of making the new generation of vehicles more desirable and convenient to consumers.

Car companies intend to target places where governments are willing to provide incentives to purchase plug-in electric cars and install charging stations. Utilities, too, need to be involved so that the grid doesn't become stressed by a rush of cars.

General Motors is already coordinating with industry partners, community leaders, and utilities to ensure that the apparent strong demand for the Chevy Volt--due in November 2010--will have the infrastructure to back it up, said Tony Posawatz, vehicle line director of the Chevy Volt.

"We are looking at communities that exist that are willing to put all the pieces together," Posawatz said at the Electric Drive Transportation Association's Conference & Exposition earlier this month. "To me, the Volt is a remarkable product. But, if the other stuff--the communities, etc.--isn't there, then we run the risk of failing."

Private-public partnerships
The financial industry bailout bill (separate from the auto industry aid package that failed to pass Congress) helps clear the cost hurdle for plug-in electric cars. Depending on the size of the battery, consumers and businesses can get up to a $7,500 tax credit starting next year.

But that financial incentive isn't quite enough to rapidly spur mass adoption, say auto companies.

Municipalities or states could create incentives to install charging "pedestals" in urban neighborhoods or other public spaces. Similarly, businesses or parking lot owners could install charging ports.

With a good charging infrastructure in place, auto makers hope that mainstream consumers--rather than only adventurous bleeding-edge buyers--will have a positive experience with plug-in electric cars.

A charging pedestal from Coulomb Technologies. Martin LaMonica/CNET Networks

Nissan, for example, is readying what it considers a mainstream sedan, with the usual amenities of modern cars like on-board navigation and heated seats. That's a break from electric cars that are already available, such as the pricey, $109,000 Tesla Roadster or existing neighborhood electric cars that can't go highway speed.

Because it is a mainstream product, Nissan will stage the car's initial introduction in the fall of 2010 in region's that have the right infrastructure in place, said Mark Perry, director of product planning for Nissan Americas. That will help it prepare for "mass market" availability in 2012, he said.

It is establishing "public-private partnerships" with governments and utilities in an effort to ensure things like favorable permitting and available inspectors for charging stations, Perry said. So far, it has agreements with Tennessee, Oregon, and Sonoma County, Calif., to set up a network of charging stations in public places.

"As we think about the individual consumer, you don't want it to be an open question--Ok, I want an electric vehicle, what do I do? We want to have those answers," said Perry. "It's not a technical hurdle. It's more a coordination and logistics hurdle."

Nissan is considering a battery swapping program, something that start-up Better Place plans to set up in a number of countries, Hawaii, and the San Francisco Bay Area. The idea is to avoid the problem of a car's limited battery range by having a network of spots--they would resemble car washes--where drivers can swap fresh batteries in for depleted ones.

Other auto makers are taking a similar region-by-region approach. Mitshubishi's electric subcompact, the iMiev, has been testing a fast charging infrastructure with seven Japanese utilities capable of replenishing battery charge to 80 percent in 30 minutes, said David Patterson, senior manager for research and development at Mitsubishi Motors in North America.

The cars will be available commercially in Japan next summer. Mitsubishi also plans to run tests as fleet vehicles with California utilities Pacific Gas & Electric and Southern California Edison.

Smart charging
Utilities, meanwhile, need to be involved in electric car roll-outs to hammer out technical standards and ensure that the grid won't be over-taxed by the added load of electric vehicles.

The Electric Power Research Institute said in a study that the the U.S. power grid could accommodate many electric cars, all while improving air quality and reducing greenhouse gas emissions. A spike to 60 percent market share in 2050 of plug-in electric vehicles would use between seven and eight percent of grid-supplied electricity, it found.

Click on the image to see a photo gallery from the Electric Drive Transportation Association's Conference & Exposition earlier this month. Martin LaMonica/CNET Networks

However, an analysis from the Oak Ridge National Laboratories found that rapid penetration of plug-in vehicles could require construction of dozens of more power plants if utilities can't control when vehicles are charged. If millions of consumers recharge their cars during peak times, such as early evening, utilities might not be able to meet demand with existing power plants.

The technical solution to this problem is so-called smart charging software which will allow utilities to remotely control when vehicles are charged and at what pace.

During the Electric Drive Transportation Association's Conference & Exposition, General Motors and smart grid start-up GridPoint remotely dialed into GM's Warren, Mich., testing labs and altered the charge rate on a Volt. GridPoint earlier this year bought V2Green, which developed software specifically for utilities to deal with electric cars.

"The last thing you want to do is charge on peak," said GridPoint chief strategy officer Karl Lewis, who warned that on-peak charging could lead to higher electricity prices. "We envision a compact between the utility and the consumer to incentivize consumers to do off-peak charging."

A utility could, for example, offer what's called time-of-day pricing, where consumers would get cheaper rates to charge a vehicle after midnight when demand is low.

On a technical level, the protocols and standards for charging electric cars en masse still aren't settled. For example, auto makers are waiting for guidelines from the Society of Automotive Engineers International on fast-charging methods, which can make a significant difference in charge time.

Using a car charging device at 240 volts will fill the Chevy Volt's batteries in three hours, versus eight hours if out of a standard 120-volt U.S. household socket.

Building a "geek squad" to install 240-volt charging boxes at people's homes is one example of the services that will smooth the way for electric cars, said GM's Posawatz. "There are a lot of opportunities and possibilities for different people in the value chain," he said.