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EV confab this weekend is about more than cars

May 03, 2012|By Dean Kuipers
  • The Denza electric car, created jointly by Daimler and Chinese manufacturer BYD, is unveiled April 23 at the Auto China 2012 car show in Beijing. The EVS26 symposium opening Sunday in L.A. will see a few new electric cars but is about the entire electric vehicle infrastructure.
The Denza electric car, created jointly by Daimler and Chinese manufacturer… (Ed Jones / AFP/GettyImages )

The electric car might not be enjoying a good moment as the Electric Vehicle Symposium, EVS26, powers up for its run this weekend at the Los Angeles Convention Center. GM stopped production for five weeks on the Chevy Volt, and sales of new all-electric cars such as the Volt or the Nissan Leaf are dismal. It's further evidence that transitioning American drivers to electric vehicles (EV) is simply a hard sell.

But the transition is inevitable, believes Brian Wynne, president of the Electric Drive Transportation Assn. (EDTA), which sponsors the symposium. “What’s it going to take to make a meaningful difference in our dependence on oil?" he said over tea at the JW Marriott in downtown L.A. "That takes a long time. But we’re going to be forced to do it.”

That change is going to blow hot and cold too: After record sales in March, GM cranked up Volt production a week ahead of schedule and kept on with the revolution.

EVS26, which runs Sunday through May 9 but is open to the public only on Sunday, is not a car show. New cars will be unveiled, but the is about a lot more than cars. It is about the electrification of an entire transportation culture. The symposium is meant to be a place where technologists, the auto industry, policy wonks, start-up companies and unforeseen players come together to talk about electrifying the car and its components and also public transport, industrial vehicles and processes, the roadways, government policy and our energy future. To that end, Wynne’s organization changed its name from the Electric Vehicle Assn. of America to focus instead on electric drive – which can be configured a whole bunch of ways we haven’t imagined yet. The EDTA represents such members as carmakers, smart-grid technologists, fleets such as UPS and lithium miners.

Wynne had this to say:

What’s the value of this symposium, since it’s not really about selling cars to consumers?

This particular platform allows for the entire community to come together, whether it’s the really technical people or the standards people -- there will be a lot of standards work -- and what’s the latest in communities. We need to make sure that we are hammering out best practices that are informed by how people want and need to use the vehicles. We’ll be hearing from key fleet operators, like UPS people. I really like the package guys, because they know exactly what their vehicles do. They live and die by cost-per-mile; they get electricity as a fuel.

Are those fleets going electric?

They are starting to electrify in a big way now. If you talk to UPS or FedEx or any of the big fleet operators, what they’ll tell you is that they’re embracing alternative fuels. They have numbers that mash it right down: Here’s why electricity matters. And then we’re talking about how to set up our infrastructure in a way that works with our local municipal authorities. There are a lot of groups who have realized this really is the future and it’s not a question of whether or not we’re going to get there, it’s a question of how fast.

Let’s assume this is where we’re going. What’s the biggest impediment to getting there?

Consumer education. The statistics are pretty compelling that most people don’t drive as far as we typically think about when we buy a car. I’ll be standing there at the dealership, and the context that I’m holding is “freedom.” I’m going to buy this so I can take my kids and the Boy Scout troop up into the mountains. As a result I still have an SUV. But the vast majority of the time, I’m driving my car back and forth to work. That’s the first-use vehicle. I drive a Volt. I have driven that Volt 8,200 miles and change. I’ve used 15 1/2 gallons of gas.

Guys came to install the chargers in our garage. They were electricians and they knew what they were installing, obviously, but they didn’t know a lot about electric transportation and electric vehicles. And they were saying, “Well, obviously, that would never work for us. We need to carry tools, we drive upwards of 70 miles to get to a work site one way, etc.” I said, “Yeah, but that exact same technology is going to come out in a Via, which is a work truck, a pickup truck. And when you get to the work zone, you can actually use the power onboard.” And they went, “Really? Where do I find out about this?”

We have to get people to think in terms other than miles-per-gallon. The easiest way is to say: Think about it as a dollar a gallon. And that’s a roughly accurate way of thinking about it.

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