2010’s Triumphs & Challenges for Plug-In Vehicles

Plus an amazing Renault commercial

It’s almost like Renault reads Climate Progress (see “Is the global economy a Ponzi scheme?”). My friend Felix Kramer has an overview of the year from the perspective of Calcars.org, which he runs as part of his non-profit work promoting PHEVs.

Welcome to 2010: The Year of the Plug-In Car. Here’s our take on where we are as we enter this thrilling time.

Plus some new opportunities and ways to get involved, two important events in Washington, DC in the next four weeks, and our thanks to many of the people who helped us come so far. We encourage you to forward see this and other CalCars-News messages as resources you can forward.

WE’VE BEEN WORKING TO GET TO THIS MOMENT. For CalCars, it’s been eight years. Some people we know have been on a two-to-four-decade-long quest. Soon we’ll be driving safe, affordable, highway-capable plug-in hybrids and all-electric vehicles from the world’s major carmakers and some brash startups. The first cars will arrive in selected markets this year. Next year, people in many states, provinces and countries will finally be able to simply go into dealer showrooms and buy them. Some skeptics, engulfed by the reality of industry progress, now fall back to ask, “Will any but the early adopters buy them?” Of course, it’s too soon to tell. We expect that plug-ins’ comparative advantages and social benefits combined with initial subsidies will eventually lead to their full competitiveness on features and price, broad market penetration, and eventual dominance.

PLUG-INS COME TO CALIFORNIA: This year, a family like ours, in the early-adopter state of CA, has the happy prospect of replacing our Toyota Prius aftermarket PHEV conversion with a new PHEV, such as the Chevy Volt (or the pricier Fisker Karma). For local driving, we’ll likely replace our Toyota Camry HEV with a 100-mile-range EV such as the Nissan LEAF or CODA sedan. CalCars Tech Lead Ron Gremban hopes to follow a similar path. For details on these long-awaited debuts, see CalCars’ PHEV listing at http://www.calcars.org/carmakers.html and Plug In America’s broader tracker at http://www.pluginamerica.org/plug-in-vehicle-tracker.html .

CARMAKERS START THEIR MARKETING EFFORTS: The auto industry’s giant marketing machines will help immeasurably in putting plug-in cars as drivers’ next choice. Already, it’s often no longer necessary to explain “plug-in hybrid” to most people. Instead we ask, “Have you’ve seen ads for the Chevy Volt?” Then we say “That’s a PHEV.” Then, if they want, we explain how they work and their benefits! We invite you to watch a poetic, inspiring ode to the EV, “Renault. Drive the Change.” — called by Plug In America’s Paul Scott “the first ad of what will become a steadily growing genre.” It’s just two minutes at http://evsandenergy.blogspot.com/2010/01/first-of-new-wave-in-ev-adverts.html [or the YouTube video above].

CALCARS MEETS INITIAL GOALS: On October 21, in Detroit, we “declared victory” on PHEVs — see http://www.calcars.org/calcars-news/1078.html or listen at http://www.calcars.org/audio-video.html#audiotag . Of course, we still have lots to do to ensure this commercialization succeeds. A vast informal network of local, regional and national coalitions working with manufacturing, supplier and infrastructure companies has emerged. They and we will do our parts.

WE STILL HAVE TO COMBAT MISINFORMATION. In a world where stray comments gain instant credibility and mindshare, we see periodic campaigns and isolated efforts to raise questions about vehicle electrification. We still encounter those who think it’s business-as-usual for fossil fuels while we wait for some “technology breakthroughs” or vast infrastructure. In fact, plug-ins, built with today’s batteries, charging mainly at home at night, can arrive as fast as carmakers can build them. We still hear from those who, intentionally or not, mistakenly position the strategy to “displace petroleum with electricity” as a COMPETITOR instead of a COMPLEMENT to essential efforts to conserve by improving conventional vehicles’ efficiency and reducing their use. We haven’t heard the last from advocates who propose vast expansions of liquid/gaseous fuels — including natural gas, biofuels or hydrogen fuel cells — as alternatives rather than supplements to electricity.

And we’ve barely encountered the first volleys from fossil fuel suppliers. Taken together, these companies are by far the world’s most powerful industry. They’re also the most destructive and deadly, factoring in all the consequences of extraction, production, transportation and combustion, plus the impact on every nation’s public and private-sector integrity, economy, and national security. With so many stakeholders waiting for any hiccup, false start or overstatement, we all need to be ready to defend our strategy, whose strengths are predicated on “solutions good enough to get started,” a transformed cleantech economy, and electricity’s fundamental advantages: “cleaner, cheaper, and domestic.”

BUT NEW VEHICLES CAN’T GET US THERE QUICKLY ENOUGH! We’re starting to see a growing recognition that the world needs to adopt a TRANSPORTATION EQUIVALENT to the established retrofit approach that’s such a no-brainer for buildings. Even the most optimistic scenarios show only tens of millions of new plug-in vehicles globally in the next 10–20 years — tiny fraction of the more than one billion vehicles we’ll soon have. We see people beginning to recognize that large vehicles in particular stay on the road for decades, so it makes sense to “fix” gas guzzlers so they can plug in. Along with other obvious low-hanging fruit like conservation steps and installing low-cost black-carbon filters on diesel engines, these are essential and realistic pathways. These approaches can advance reduced fossil fuel use and greenhouse gas emissions by a precious decade, while creating tens of thousands of green jobs and accelerating the expansion of the supply chain needed for the long-term electrification of transportation.

CALCARS’ NEW MISSION: While continuing to promote “Successful Commercialization of PHEVS ASAP,” CalCars’ activities increasingly focus on recruiting more advocates to the “Big Fix” — our campaign to convert a substantial portion of the vehicles already on the road to EVs or PHEVs. We still encounter some wariness about the specific technologies and expected costs to convert internal combustion vehicles. This will change in three ways, just as it did in 2004–2006 for PHEVs: We’ll get more convincing and compelling prototypes that show what’s possible. We’ll see business models that work in high volumes. And we’ll help new coalitions emerge.

We can’t do it ourselves. So we continue to recruit for a broad campaign whose partners we’ll soon announce. Organizations and high-profile individuals can endorse it now — see http://www.calcars.org/calcars-bigfix-endorse.pdf.

DO YOU KNOW THAT GO-GETTER WHO WANTS TO MAKE A DIFFERENCE? Twenty-five years ago, Steve Jobs famously recruited Pepsi executive John Sculley to Apple by asking, “Do you want to sell sugar water all your life or do you want a chance to change the world?” Recently, the charismatic Shai Agassi built his vision for an EV solution at Better Place. Similarly, we seek a well-healed, well-connected serial entrepreneur with a background in autos, technology, or finance, to accelerate the efforts of the startups gaining traction in the gas-guzzler conversion space (many listed at http://www.calcars.org/ice-conversions.html and profiled at http://www.calcars.org/calcars-beyond-new-plug-ins.pdf ) and other companies yet to appear. This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for that candidate to hit the ground running and transform today’s fledgling efforts into a profitable global industry whose conversion designers, integrators, component suppliers, and installers will offer green jobs, energy savings, operating cost reductions, and environmental and energy security benefits.

CHANGES IN TODAY’S CONVERSION MINI-INDUSTRY: The small hybrid-to-PHEV conversion companies that helped so much to increase PHEVs’ visibility and get them in the hands of utilities, government testing labs and committed evangelizers can now set themselves new goals. They can lower their selling prices via scale, gain government approvals for their designs, and add warranties to position them to sell to a million-plus hybrid car owners. By partnering with suppliers, larger integration companies, and ultimately major automakers, they can expand to the far larger market of drivers looking to fix their non-hybrid internal combustion vehicles.

JANUARY/FEBRUARY EVENTS: We’ll be spending two weeks at the end of the month on the East Coast. In addition to some private events and meetings in Boston and New York to promote the Big Fix, we’ll first be attending the Electric Drive Transportation’s broad industry Conference and Annual Meeting, January 26–28, held in conjunction with the Washington DC Auto Show. See the full program and sign up at http://electricdrive.org.

The following week, again in DC, I’m speaking on gas-guzzler conversions at the Renewable Energy Technology Conference & Exhibition http://www.retech2010.com/ organized by the American Council on Renewable Energy (ACORE). RETECH2010 includes 250 leaders from industry and the administration, including presentations by key officials in the Department of Energy, to over 5,000 attendees. We’re on the “Advanced Vehicles and Batteries” panel http://www.retech2010.com/business-conference#B7.

We encourage you to attend both events in DC. We’ll soon update the CalCars Events page with these and other events — including http://www.plugin2010.com July 26–29 in San Jose, CA. We’ll also be advancing our Big Fix agenda at the annual TED Conference in early February in Long Beach, CA.

CALCARS AS AN ORGANIZATION: Our sustained effort for over eight years by a small core group with growing concentric rings of advisors, supporters and proponents has been a stunning success. CalCars-News is currently received directly by over 7,000 subscribers in the auto industry, government, and advocacy communities, and our comments are amplified frequently by online, broadcast and print media. Yet just as our original goals are being realized and we see growing receptiveness to our new objectives, we lack the resources we need to do more. At one peak time, in 2006–2008, we gained two years of substantial support from Google.org. Over the years, we’ve received modest contributions from individuals, other foundations, and a few companies and utilities. But we’ve not received ANY federal or state funds — or funding from the venture capital community or the newly funded startups that have benefited from our work. At the moment, we’re more “bare-bones” than we’ve ever been, essentially running on fumes, cutting back on events where our costs aren’t covered. While this is personally difficult, especially for me and Ron (full-time since 2001 and 2004 respectively), both of us are thankful to have had the opportunity to engage in the most satisfying, effective, and consequential work in our lives.

SUPPORT CALCARS: Privately we get frequent encouragement and praise from individuals who say they are stretched to the limit and wish they could support our efforts. (If your own financial position allows, we could really use your tax-deductible contributions (even in the $10-$100 range) at http://www.calcars.org/sponsor.html.