The City Is The Crucible For The Electric Vehicle Market

by Ben Holland, via the Rocky Mountain Institute

After little more than a year on the roads, the first mass-market electric vehicles have attracted tremendous scrutiny. On a monthly basis, commentators and automotive journalists proclaim their success or failure, based on sales fluctuations. At first glance, the equation seems simple: automobile companies build cars, and if they’re popular enough, they’ll sell.

But the EV market is arguably more complex than the traditional vehicle market. Sales result not only from automaker marketing but from a groundswell of support. Amounting to somewhat of a global movement, the EV market consists of an array of stakeholders—automakers, technology companies, governmental agencies, nonprofits, manufacturers, fleet owners, and consumers—all bringing unique motivations and perspectives on vehicle electrification. But they coalesce in one place—the city.

The challenges of transitioning to vehicle electrification are real. The internal combustion engine has been the established automotive technology for over a century. Switching out this familiar technology with the electric powertrain will not happen overnight. And it may not happen with any real scale without a concerted effort to support the industry. So stakeholders across the EV value chain are coming together in cities around the world, creating test beds and strongholds for the market. By fostering coordination among these entities, cities can create a localized movement and an adoptable model for others to follow. Replicating those efforts helps boost the electric vehicle industry’s chances for success.

EV-Ready Cities

Many cities have a clear incentive to support electric vehicles. For instance, in Los Angeles, passenger cars make up nearly 80 percent of daily travel, which in turn accounts for 43 percent of the city’s carbon emissions. A wide-scale transition to electric vehicles for daily travel would have positive impacts on Los Angeles’s dependence on oil, as well as its air quality. Particularly given that the city’s electricity mix consists of a high share of renewables, the technology poses a clear improvement over gasoline-powered vehicles.

In order to capture these benefits, the city is engaging multiple stakeholders to encourage adoption. At the Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) and the Port of Los Angeles, fleet owners are purchasing electrified buses and utility vehicles. In the case of LAX, an electric bus will greatly offset fuel consumption and result in savings of up to $500,000. In order to understand and encourage public demand, the mayor’s office has formed a collaborative research project with C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group (C40), UCLA’s Luskin Center, and the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power.

In Germany, Berlin established a goal to become the leading metropolis for electric mobility in Europe. The city launched eMO, short for electromobility, to serve as a central contact point for the entire value chain of electric vehicle projects and stakeholders. The group has designated demonstration sites where the public can experience and test the vehicles. In addition, Berlin’s E-City logistics project has is demonstrating the potential for electrified commercial delivery vehicles. Because of their reduced noise level, deliveries can be shifted to off-peak hours and nights, cutting down on traffic.

These kinds of projects result in several benefits for a city. For one, they position a city as a leading supporter of a burgeoning industry. Mayors and community leaders around the world are eager to develop this kind of recognition because it not only improves the city’s image, it also attracts industry and fosters job growth. Automakers will increase marketing of these vehicles in centers of concentrated demand. Likewise, manufacturers and others in the value chain tend to locate operations in areas of considerable public and private support.

Several organizations are leveraging the efforts of these cities through national and global networks. The Clean Energy Ministerial, a high-level multi-government forum that promotes policies and programs to advance clean energy technologies, established the Electric Vehicles Initiative to accelerate EV deployment in cities across the world. With representation from DOE and the International Energy Agency, EVI has a global reach, backed with solid research.

Similarly, Rocky Mountain Institute’s Project Get Ready works with North American cities to advance vehicle electrification readiness projects and establish best practices for infrastructure deployment and utility integration. C40, which is partnered with the Clinton Climate Initiative, established a large network of cities around the world, with the goal of reducing carbon emissions and improving energy efficiency. Their work has resulted in several EV pilot projects.

The electric vehicle industry shows no signs of quitting. Nearly every major automaker will offer at least one electric vehicle model to its customers within the next two years. The automakers’ commitments are real. However, the level of success is unknown. What is understood, though, is that city leaders can play a significant role in supporting this technology by attracting and coordinating with industry stakeholders.

As part of a new global information-sharing partnership, RMI on May 5 will release a collection of case studies on pioneering cities and public-private partnerships, at the EV Cities and Ecosystems conference in Los Angeles. Visit or follow us on Twitter (@RockyMtnInst) for updates and live blogging from the event.

Ben Holland is the manager of Project Get Ready at the Rocky Mountain Institute. This piece was originally published at the Rocky Mountain Institute and was reprinted with permission.

38 Responses to The City Is The Crucible For The Electric Vehicle Market

  1. Leif says:

    The problem that I have with EVs is that they are too expensive. I bought my first new car @67, a Honda FIT, and don’t drive it much. I expect to own it until one or the other of us composts. I am in the process of building a cargo bike EV and do not expect to spend more than ~6-7 hundred dollars on it. That I can afford and it will serve my town needs just fine for the majority of my low millage town driving. I can afford the ~$40 fill-up costs for trips @ 35+mpg. In the process I will more than double the effective fuel mileage of my FIT to 75+mpg. Town mileage @~25mpg and cold engine I can do without. Build small, light, and lots…

  2. Mike Roddy says:

    Ford’s new all electric Fusion good reviews in the LA Times. Unfortunately, like the Leaf, it costs $40,000.

    I read recently that new battery technology has halved their old $10k cost, and they are better, too.

    Question: Why does a car with no engine, transmission, fuel line, and differential, cost so much? A golf cart costs almost nothing. If Detroit solves the price issue, they will have a big winner. Evidence so far says they may not want to.

    When this happened before, in the 70’s, fuel efficient cars built overseas took hold, and it took decades for GM and Ford to catch up. We don’t have that luxury now.

  3. fj says:

    This is a great post from the Rocky Mountain Institute even though they still seem somewhat fixated on cars . . .

    And, cars are not terribly friendly in cities; they just take up too much space and monopolize about 80% of the public space in places like NYC, and prefer RMI’s term electric vehicle much better since cars are way too powerful, big, heavy, expensive and so dangerous that they kill lots of people; and will have huge energy, environmental, and financial costs during the transition build out.

    We’re at crunch time and . . .

    Would really get excited seeing orgs like Amory Lovins’ RMI start designing for net zero mobility — easily powered by human power — like the 1/2 billion Chinese cyclists and even New Yorkers.

    And, yes electric mobility also describes the critical path to mobility solutions quite well; quite futuristic, maybe even like Tron.

    Just start thinking human scale and things will get a lot easier.

  4. Joan Savage says:

    I’d be happier to see a fleet of mini-buses and taxis. Centralized operations like those can control the logistics of having enough charging stations and be sure they are strategically located.

    Not only is a personal EV beyond my means, I live in an area where it is not uncommon to have a day’s errands and meetings eat up 40 to 80 miles, making it marginal for a personal vehicle that would need recharge down-time during that schedule. Using separate taxis or buses could overcome the recharge hurdle.

    Beyond that I’d still need a lot better inter-city and inter-town scale transport that would need a 200+ mile range without a slow recharge on route.

  5. fj says:

    Several years back, the winner of the Tour de Sol in Albany, New York was an Optibike that did 100 miles in 3 hours.

    And, the rider was not an elite athlete.

  6. joyce says:

    I’ll echo the sentiment that this is fixated on cars–that bog down the infrastructure. I too opted for personal transport–an electric assist trike–and can scoot effortlessly through the city. Since I got mine 8 months ago, there are 2 others who bought them. One gal got a trailer hitch on hers. Way more fun & exercise than a car affords. I do recognize that this is not practial in many climates, though.

  7. I agree with the other commenters here. Rather than spending more time and money developing electric cars which must, under the best of circumstances, require large batteries and a great deal of other embodied energy, let’s focus on bicycle and electric bicycle transportation for individuals — and a lot more public transportation for moving groups of people.

    Comfort bikes, for those who need them, can be three wheelers with covers and battery assists. Cars and light trucks should be owned by pools and used only on an as-needed basis.

  8. Tom King says:

    I thought the ev market would open up during the time of the ev1 and the Ford ‘Think!’. Now I am more of a realist. Electrics are improving quickly but must still overcome the mindset of mainstream opinion. When it does flip, the transition will be as fast as the movement from tube tvs to flat screens, or from crts to lcds.

  9. fj says:

    Hint, hint: Think clothing

    and, perhaps for starters, Patagonia’s Yves Chouinard

    And, the many others who say there’s no such thing as bad weather, just bad clothing.

    Also, other solutions abound.

  10. Joan Savage says:

    Thanks for the bike ideas. It seems I’m holding out for enclosed EV vehicles suitable for moving sick kids and elderly on slushy days in winter or high humidity and high temperature days in summer.

  11. fj says:

    “Comfort bikes,” for long distances, even daily grinds, and many people who just can use standard upright bikes are not a luxury, they’re a real necessity.

    And, with Google having recently produced a driverless car for a blind person; driverless recumbent tricycles starts the transition to terrific solutions for virtually everyone; including people who have great difficulties with even conventional transit systems.

  12. fj says:

    Lots of people say you can’t do this or that, and lots others are doing it as solutions abound, often trivial with this basic technology.

    Even, moving at 10 mph is equivalent to a pretty powerful fan blowing on you.

  13. fj says:

    correction should read:
    “Comfort bikes,” for long distances, even daily grinds, and many people who just can’t use standard upright bikes, are not a luxury, they’re a real necessity; and can even be more efficient since they can be more streamlined.

  14. Joan Savage says:

    Let’s put the vehicles/bikes in the context of US health demographics. I’m pitching hard for EV call-a-buses and taxis because bicycles do not displace all car-related transport needs. Imagine someone with asthma on a ‘typical’ extreme-weather climate-change kind of day with high temps, high ozone, high particulates.

    CDC Faststats on Asthma

    Number of noninstitutionalized adults who currently have asthma: 18.7 million
    Percent of noninstitutionalized adults who currently have asthma: 8.2%

    Source: Summary Health Statistics for U.S. Adults: National Health Interview Survey, 2010, table 3, 4 Adobe PDF file [PDF – 1.3 MB]

    Number of children who currently have asthma: 7.0 million
    Percent of children who currently have asthma: 9.4%

    Source: Summary Health Statistics for U.S. Children: National Health Interview Survey, 2010, table 1 Adobe PDF file [PDF – 715 KB]

  15. Joan Savage says:

    I own a comfort bike. I sit straight up on it like riding a small horse. It was prescribed for knee injury that was complicated by ruptured discs. The bike is heavy, not easy to carry through a door or up a flight of stairs. As physical therapy for the knee, it was, and is, an awesome solution.

  16. fj says:

    Faired recumbent bikes have been used to break the unassisted human-powered world speed record of over 81 miles per hour; so “comfort bikes,” for long distances, even daily grinds, and the many people who just can’t use upright bikes; “comfort bikes” are a real necessity and can be even more efficient since the can be more streamlined.

    And, with Google having recently produced a driverless car for a blind person; driverless recumbent tricycles start the transition to terrific solutions for virtually everyone; including people who have great difficulties with even conventional transit systems.

  17. fj says:

    Yes, I’ve personally had that problem caused by cycling in 110 degree NYC weather, luckily, only temporarily.

    What is strongly urged is that it is important to get away from the knee-jerk car solution for this or that — based on what you are used to — because in way-to-many instances it is not the best way especially, when you look at the entire system, practical long-term solutions, and advanced mobility.

  18. Brooks Bridges says:

    It sounds like RMI is advocating LA commuters switch to individual EV’s. Buses I understand, but not individual EV’s.

    In Bill McKibben’s “HOPE, HUMAN AND WILD” he describes Curitiba Brazil’s extremely successful implementation of a comprehensive bus system.

    Here is a column in which he revisits the subject and discusses the profound, positive impact the bus system has had on the city.

    As one who rides a bike for virtually all local travel in my small town, I still say it’s a pipe dream to expect a significant portion of the US population to ever switch to bikes barring a catastrophic economic decline.

    And like Joan Savage, when I can’t use a bike, it usually means I have to travel further than the range of the Leaf. So, I’m either going 2 or 4 miles, or more than 120. Until efficient mass transit connecting cities arrives, the only vehicle that makes sense for me is a plug in hybrid.

  19. fj says:

    Let’s try imaging what typical near net-zero trips might be from your home in year 2030 AD or much sooner if we come to our senses and start working with what we have here and now.

    You unfold your vehicle in your home and peddle it to the nearest local system onto one of its low-cost permanent magnet levitating pallets conveniently propelled by linear induction with safe speeds over 80 mph; which takes you to the high-speed intercity evacuated system that will take you from New York to Los Angeles in about 10 hours.

    And go ahead, have fun with it; sweat the details; and, try and figure out how all the difficulties might be solved.

  20. Mark Shapiro says:

    Watch Tesla, and more important, watch Better Place very closely. Better Place owns and charges the battery, and provides battery swapping. They appropriately handles the capital and technology heavy lifting.

    If Better Place succeeds it changes the world very rapidly. If it fails, we should learn why and fix it.

  21. Anne van der Bom says:

    “Why does a car with no engine, transmission, fuel line, and differential, cost so much?”

    1) Because of the battery. It appears Nissan has the cheapest batteries of the industry, but they still cost $375 per kWh. The LEAF’s battery is 24 kWh. Do the math and do not forget they have to make a margin on the vehicle. They can not sell them for cost price.

    2) It is new technology. Many parts of the drive train of today’s electric cars are not mass produced at the scale of internal combustion engines. And power electronics are not cheap to begin with.

    3) It is probably over-engineered to make sure it doesn’t develop problems and kills the electric car (again).

    And btw, it does have a differential.

    “A golf cart costs almost nothing.”

    A golf cart doesn’t need a 100 km range @100 kph. Going fast costs a lot of energy. That’s why a golf cart can do with a smaller battery of the cheap low-tech lead acid type. And a golf cart does not need airbags, power steering, air conditioning, doors, windows, etc.

  22. Anne van der Bom says:

    Although I can read it between the lines, I think the electric car sharing programs merit to be mentioned explicitly.

    Since about six months there are 300 smart ED’s running around Amsterdam as part of the car2go system. That was the first European city to have this system based on electric vehicles. Recently, the probram expanded to Berlin with a 1000 more.

  23. Sasparilla says:

    Excellent point Anne. Car sharing in the city is an awesome resource and making EV’s available that way is even better.

  24. Sasparilla says:

    A very nice article, although the cities have the problem of not having easy access to charging facilities where you park overnight – the suburbs with garages have that already in the U.S..

    The sales of EV’s and plug-ins are what they are because they are expensive 1st generation technology not produced at ICE vehicle scale. It’s important to note that the sales of plug-in vehicles are much better than initial sales of Hybrids when they were introduced not so long ago.

    Alot of people look at the situation and assume the price of plug-ins is static (they’re a failure) – thinking this is what they’ll just cost (cause that is what its like with ICE vehicles), but that would not be correct.

    The price of vehicle batts fell 30% since 2009 (14% last year) and that is expected to continue throughout this decade and beyond – while at the same time capacity in the same size battery is expected to increase throughout the decade. The prices will come down dramatically as new generations of vehicles come from the serious volume producers (at this point Tesla, Nissan and GM). Next generation is ~ 2015/2016 expect significant price drops then although we loose the tax credits about then. By the 2020 generation plug-ins will be no brainer purchases because the batts will be so much cheaper (and of course the electricity all along has been so much cheaper than gasoline).

    We just need time to fix the price and range issue. There are some hints that Nissan may start the party early (possibly have planned this all along to beat the industry) & make a big drop in pricing for the US Leaf when their US assembly plant in TN comes on line later in the year, Europe next year because they will be achieving true ICE scales of production (factories on 3 continents), have to wait and see on that.

  25. fj says:

    Net zero vehicles will ultimately be much more practical, convenient, etc., and preceded Parisian car-sharing case, but, in any case:

    Paris launches electric car-sharing programme


  26. Brooks Bridges says:

    Yes, some small, standardized vehicle which could “hitch” a ride on a larger, long range vehicle makes much sense.

    But also imagine snow, freezing rain, etc. This is where small, enclosed electric vehicles could make mucho sense. Wouldn’t need long range, big battery pack.

  27. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    I’m with you. The car must go. I’ve never owned one, and go everywhere in cities and into them by bus, train, tram or foot. If I go bush, I cadge a ride. Cars are a symbol of wasteful consumption, material excess and atomised individualism. Let’s get rid of them altogether in cities, and the halt and the lame can be moved by electric vehicles. Walking will do you good. Long live the flaneur!

  28. Joan Savage says:

    A note on your comment about overnight charge and city parking.
    A few hotels now have charging stations, e.g. Holiday Inn in Albany NY. It seems a bit ahead of time, unless car rental companies at airports and rail stations start offering EVs, but that could work.
    In Syracuse, the charging stations have appeared near a restaurant, city hall and the regional farmers’ market, but those don’t achieve the overnight charge.
    I’d like to see parking garages in Albany routinely include charging stations, with valet service. One social aspect of car- charging in a non-private setting is how to remember to remove the vehicle promptly when it has a full charge so the next driver can start a charging session. Hence, maybe valet car charging.

    Albany has a high density of downtown employment as well as downtown residents, so it seems a good candidate city for charging stations. The commuter range can be more than a one-way ride in a Leaf, which would prompt a day time ‘fill-up.’

  29. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    I agree. I love walking through the rain, perhaps because we have had bugger all these last few years, and through the snow in icier climes. Icy footpaths I like less, but I guess I’d better get some crampons or whatever if I ever visit the hyperborean regions again.

  30. Makan says:

    After the article referred to the complexity of transforming the whole value chain and the importance of cities, I expected the article to include a meaningful outline of what is happening in Chinese cities where Shanghai has has been earmarked as China’s first Electric Vehicle city.

    When American news media ignore Chinese initiatives, it feeds the persistent impression that the Chinese are doing nothing. RMI writers should lift their game, and ThinkProgress should exert more editorial control.

  31. fj says:

    A Formula One designer built a high-speed expedition scout vehicle to cross Antarctica with an open cockpit to prevent fogging on the idea that there’s no bad weather just bad clothing.

    Also, wind and light enclosed vehicles can problematic.

  32. fj says:

    China has been making huge blunders and transportation based on heavy machinery is a really disastrous one.

    They’d truly leap frog the developed world focusing on net zero mobility taken to the logical extreme.

  33. ToddInNorway says:

    Here in the Oslo area we have world’s highest concentration of EV’s. The sales stats for new cars in 2011 in our area sho EV captured about 4-5% of market, which is a good start. The second most popular model is the Nissan Leaf, and stands to become most popular in the next 2 years. The most popular model now is the Mitsubishi M-iEV (or one of the clones from Peugoet or Citroen), which by American standards is a microcar, i.e. a street-usable all-weather slightly larger golf cart. It will do 90 km/h (56 MPH) for about 70-80 km. Range falls significantly if you use the heater or full headlamps or both. The vast majority of the other elcars sold here are truly comparable to golf carts with slightly higher max. speed and slightly better comfort.

  34. ToddInNorway says:

    I try to watch the whole elcar industry. Major improvements in battery performance and price are coming very soon, and it will not take much to make an el. car attractive for very many users. My guess is 15% better battery capacity at 15% lower unit cost, and with some smart packaging for the rest of the car, the el. car will be the new iphone/ipad.

  35. SecularAnimist says:

    Early adopters always pay a high price.

    The original 1981 IBM PC — which had a minute fraction of the power of a $100 smart phone, let alone an iPad — cost over $7,200 in today’s dollars.

    And speaking of IBM, the company is developing a lithium-air battery that will cost less than today’s lithium-ion batteries and will have ten times the energy density — enabling EVs to have a range of 500 miles per charge. They expect commercial production within 8 years.

    Once you can buy an electric car with a range of 500 miles per charge, who will want anything else?

    Internal combustion engine cars will go the way of gigantic vacuum-tube TV screens.

    By the way, it’s good that RMI is “fixated on cars” — for the simple reason that America is fixated on cars, and like it or not (I don’t), that isn’t going to change any time soon.

  36. Calamity Jean says:

    “It seems I’m holding out for enclosed EV vehicles suitable for moving sick kids and elderly on slushy days in winter or high humidity and high temperature days in summer.”

    I agree. When I need to take my nearly blind 95 year old father to the dentist, I don’t want him to need to pedal, and I know I don’t have the endurance to pedal for both of us the whole way. Urging that people get around on muscle power is fine for people ages ten to sixty, but will not do for most of those younger or older than that range.

  37. fj says:

    Curious considering that advocacy by both Climate Progress and the Rocky Mountain Institute seem to converge, as do many others deeply concerned about climate change, on a framework to the contrary:

    1. Business as usual is unacceptable,
    2. Necessity for dramatic change in transportation,
    3. Efficiency is a most effective method for creating clean energy at minimal cost,
    4. Climate relativism is a failed policy.

  38. Raul M. says:

    Your right the optibike seems a sight for sore eyes.
    Please remember to try contact lenses that absorb uv rays. No joke doesn’t take long (not many years) to get eye damages. Uv rays in the extreme range can harm in 10 minutes outdoors in fl. For days it’s been in the extreme range.
    Need I warn more about travel in the environs not protected by tinted windows?