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Electric vehicles: looking back, looking forward

Last week I had an in-depth conversation with Brian Wynne, president of the Washington, D.C.-based Electric Drive Transportation Association, about myriad facets of electric vehicles and their market in 2012 and looking ahead. I struck a note of friendly skepticism and Wynne responded with a very pragmatic attitude. (I also acknowledged getting excited, in print, over the historic launch of the domestic market for electric vehicles two years ago. Call it “getting caught up in the hype.”)

An edited version of the exchange is provided here, in two parts, running today and tomorrow. Readers, as always, let us know your thoughts on Wynne’s positions in particular and on the EV sector in general.

Intelligent Utility: Let’s begin with the consumer electric vehicle market in 2012. Bright spots? Hurdles?

Brian Wynne: The numbers are growing at a very robust pace, year on year. In the United States we’re up nearly 200 percent in sales of the plug-in vehicles. Fourteen models in the market today, in limited volumes and limited availability. But it’s a good number. We anticipate forty models by the 2013 model year. We look at that as just one segment in the electric drive sector, but we see it as building on the quite robust sales of hybrids, where we have 42 models in the market as of now. We expect 73 models by the end of 2013.

It’s a positive number. We started from a low base—electric vehicles really entered the market in September 2010. So, call that a two-year run. A J.D. Power and Associates study is due soon, and we’re seeing happy consumers. Chevy Volt won Consumer Reports’ consumer satisfaction survey for the second year in a row.

Intelligent Utility: What was the proportion of plug-ins to hybrids?

Brian Wynne: We’re selling a lot more hybrids than plug-ins. Obviously they’ve been in the market longer. Part of the challenge is standing up a supply chain for the plug-ins. Look at the 2013 Tesla Model S, which just won Motor Trends’ Car of the Year award. Elon Musk just said they’re shooting for manufacturing 20,000 cars in the coming year in Fremont, Calif., without sacrificing quality.

That’s part of the story right now. There’s a lot of focus on the numbers, but we tend to forget that in the world of manufacturing and technology introduction we’ve only just begun this process.

Intelligent Utility: What will affect uptake? Honing the manufacturing? Legislation? Federal versus state policies? The role of utilities?

Brian Wynne: Everything you’ve cited is a factor. What jumps out at me is the announcement out of Indianapolis [12th largest city in the U.S.] earlier this month from the mayor. They’re shifting all their light duty vehicles to plug-ins and hybrids by 2025. That’s a fairly aggressive schedule. That’s a good example of a municipal authority that’s going to push the envelope. Municipalities in many places view EVs positively, from a clean air perspective, in Indianapolis’ case from a geopolitical standpoint. There are many motivations.

[Mayor Greg Ballard, a Republican and 23-year U.S. Marine veteran, announced the move on Dec. 12. Ballard said he wanted to reduce U.S. dependence on foreign oil.]

To me, the number one thing—and it’s borne out by the numbers—is awareness. The biggest challenge we have with plug-ins is that we’re not socialized around plugging in a car. We’re socialized around plugging in a cell phone because we can’t live without them anymore. Not everyone can get their mind around pulling into the driveway and plugging in their car. I’ve changed from saying it’s convenient to plug in your car and started saying it’s easier than stopping at a gas station. I’ll never go back. And soon we’ll have the opportunity to wirelessly charge our cars by pulling over a plate. We’ll be deploying one of those devices here at our office garage.

[For recent developments in wireless charging, see this week’s news items about Sacramento and Raleigh.]

Intelligent Utility: You mention the Indianapolis move on fleets, which I wanted to ask about, as they seem to be cost-effective deployments involving larger numbers of EVs. Are municipalities and businesses likely to be the drivers of uptake?

Brian Wynne: There’s an enormous contribution being made there, just from the visibility standpoint. The flip side of that is Arlington County, Virginia. The county executive that was favorable to a proposal to add 40-odd Leafs to the taxi fleet. They went out for competitive bid. Above 60 percent of the taxis in Arlington County are hybrids, by the way. One proposal came back for a pure electric play. And Arlington County has been fairly aggressive with public infrastructure [i.e., charging stations]. And that proposal was turned down. To me, that was an indication of the growing popularity of these vehicles. That’s a function of people being skeptical of the technology and a lack of understanding of how the technology works, as well as legitimate concerns about range and charging time. The better example is companies such as Pepsico, FedEx, UPS, because they know exactly what sort of premium they’re willing to pay for these vehicles, given what they’re going to save. The premium is high; what I’m not clear on is what portion of that premium they’re willing to spend to have predictability in fuel [electricity] costs and, thus, predictability in your business model.

These are steely-eyed business people who live and die by cost per mile and they know exactly what kilowatt hour prices have to be for the portion of their fleet they are replacing. And as they’re jumping into this, that could be a market mover.

I’d be the last to say this is going to be easy. I’m extremely realistic about what we’ve got in front of us and what we need to do.

[For a glance at the fleet vs. consumer divide, see this Oct. 12 article from the Memphis Flyer.]
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