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Electric Vehicles: Shifting Purchasing Priorities

By Deston Nokes

SUSTAINABLE INDUSTRIES JOURNAL — At the recent EV4 Roadmap conference held November 1 and 2 in Portland, Ore., the most animated discussion wasn’t over the need for more cars or infrastructure, it was over what it will take to get consumers to change their mindset about electric vehicles (EVs) in the first place.

George Beard, director of strategic partnerships at Portland State University

George Beard, director of strategic partnerships at Portland State University

In his January 2011 State of the Union address, President Barack Obama stated a goal of putting one million electric-powered vehicles on American roads by 2015.

“We can break our dependence on oil … and become the first country to have one million electric vehicles on the road by 2015,” President Obama said.

There’s already a consensus that our nation’s energy security depends upon reducing our addiction to foreign oil. So what will it take to spur mainstream sales?

George Billino, senior staff project engineer at General Motors, which makes the Chevy Volt, believes that just getting people into the cars is critical. “We’ve distributed them to dealers, not for sale, but simply to get people to test drive them,” he said. “We’ve been working to break consumers of their ‘gas anxiety.’”

Other efforts, particularly in Portland, Ore., have addressed the chicken or the egg question of refueling convenience with the installation of electric recharging stations, such as Electric Avenue, at Portland State University. There, people can park at a charging station, swipe their credit cards and leave their vehicles to charge.

The vision is to have an “Electric Highway” of charging stations accessible along the Interstate 5 corridor between British Columbia and Baja California.

“I believe that EVs are the next big growth industry,” said Stephan Smith, owner of Smith Creative Group, which has been a key partner in Electric Avenue and EV USA’s branding efforts. “It represents a whole new way of thinking, particularly for those living it the urban core.

“Expanding electric vehicles use advances what Portland already has in terms of electric mobility using streetcars and light rail. When you read about all the jobs leaving, such as Freightliner, this is where Portland can grow and be identified as a national leader.”

But the one, overriding sentiment expressed at the EV4 conference is the need for a mind change among consumers. A community can do all the right things to get itself “ready” for EVs by getting vehicles on car lots, installing charging stations and get political backing for financial incentives, but still fall short. Why?  Because EV adoption depends entirely on consumers.

The Paradigm of Mobility

“In the 20th century, the car equated to freedom; but today, it’s more about mobility,” said George Beard, director of strategic partnerships at Portland State University. “The more we persist in believing that cars give us freedom, the more trapped we become.”

DSC_0192According to Beard, our nation is just one oil emergency away from being in serious trouble — mainly because the financial condition of the U.S. is so lousy. Another 20-to-30 percent spike in fuel prices would make it harder to deliver Meals On Wheels or get children to school. And the impact on industry would be tremendous.

“At companies such as Nike and Intel, if they can’t move product and materials, their revenue cuts off, and they lay off people in Beaverton, Ore.,” he said. “The exposure we have going forward is far greater than 30-to-40 years ago.”

Others, such as Jay Tankersley at the Rocky Mountain Institute, believe that a fuel spike will help drive electric vehicle sales though the roof. “If gasoline hits $6 a gallon, it’s a whole new ballgame,” he said.

Beard is hoping it won’t come to that.

“As Americans, we tend to overbuy our cars and underutilize them — such as buying a big SUV because we imagine that we’ll go skiing all the time,” Beard said. “Or grandparents who buy a minivan to drive their grandkids around when they visit for the holidays.

“The point is that we even overbuy for the distance we have to travel. In Oregon, we drive less than 20 miles per day. Most of our citizens could get by with an electric vehicle.”

For example, a Chevy Volt has been designed to drive from 25 to 50 miles on pure electricity stored in the battery from overnight home charging.

“An electric vehicle is like your regular car and so much less: Less tailpipe emissions, less price volatility and less reliance on foreign energy,” Beard said.  “The idea of identifying with EVs is almost a social cause. A social obligation may be the thing that could end up spurring adoption.

But it will take quite an attitude adjustment to make a consumer pay $35,000 for a Nissan Leaf instead of a BMW. However, if a consumer truly considers the cost of operation, it may nudge his or her purchase meter closer to the EV.

What about financial incentives from Washington, D.C.? While EV adoption seems to be fairly bipartisan, incentives fall under domestic discretionary spending; and the current atmosphere is so poisonous on Capitol Hill that industry lobbyists see little hope of compromise.

“We’re at a stage where you shouldn’t be waiting for Washington — gridlock is a fair assessment of the situation,” said Valerie West, vice president for Van Heuvelen Strategies, who spoke at the EV4 conference. “I’ve never seen the divide so wide and personal.”

One thing is for certain: Traffic isn’t going to be getting any better. So something has to give. What about some EV purchasing leadership from industries with fleet vehicles?

“Fleet guys are very rational and very risk averse,” Tankersley said. “The upfront cost is higher for EVs, and there’s not a lot of incentive to market that choice. It has to trickle from the top down. A strong corporate philosophy has to drive that kind of decision.”

DSC_0149Beard does see some heroes in our midst — companies who are basing their decisions on the total cost of ownership and not just on the basic cost up front.

“It also has to do with leadership,” Beard explained. “There’s a growing number of companies such as Staples, Frito Lay and Fed Ex who have the courage and ethics not to pollute. If you look at source pollution in cities, it comes from trucks starting and stopping. EVs make short hops around cities, operate reliably and cost less over time.”

“It’s easy to make all your decisions at the margins,” Beard said. “To what degree do organizations make decisions simply because the decision is right?

“It may not show up on their tally sheet, but it shows up on mine.”


Deston Nokes is an energy writer living in Portland, Ore. He can be reached at deston@destonnokes.com.

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