Which came first, the Chicken or the Egg? The Cars!

chicken or egg1Its hard to be dispassionate about the things we love, but to be successful we must constantly question and search for the truth.

It’s been an interesting week for two reasons.  ECOtality filed for Chap 11 Bankruptcy and GM released a story plans to create a PEV that travels 200 miles per charge and costs $30,000, to rival the success of Tesla.

Let’s discuss both developments.

ECOtality received over $110m from the US Dept of Energy to create the EV Project, designed to deploy private and public charging infrastructure in select U.S. markets in conjunction with sales efforts of Nissan and GM.  Providing Idaho National Lab with data from over 100m electric miles, that aspect of the project has been an unqualified success.  In addition, when the EV Project started, 17,000 PEVS were sold for the entire year (2011)!  By comparison, 10,800 PEVs were sold just during August 2013.  So the average consumer in 2011 didn’t see electric vehicles on the street and had no knowledge of chargers. With the EV Project, we now have regions of the country where charging is available, common and car sales are sturdy and increasing exponentially.  Can ECOtality get all the credit for promoting the technology?  Surely not. But they were an integral part in making charging conspicuous, and worked hard to streamline state regulatory structure, promote supportive policy and simplify  bureaucracy.

The real reason ECOtality’s business collapsed is that people were unwilling to pay for public charging (in Oregon, some of their level 2 chargers were used only 5x per month!), there are still too few cars and PEV owners do not rely on public charging routinely – they can charge at home, at night, daily. So in many ways the collapse of ECOtality is a message to charging station providers who are literally banking on creating large subscriber-based networks as a revenue stream that they best re-think their model. PEVs can be charged conveniently and cheaply at home or the workplace. Public charging needs to offer something competitive: better parking access, free electricity, advertising, features consumers and vendors are willing to support.

As cars improve, the need for a broad-based public charging will diminish. We need strategic DC fast chargers as insurance for those of us who forget to plug in the night before or who travel longer distances. But the longer we wait, the more strategic and appropriate our investments in charging technology will be, on the consumer and EVSE industry level.  The good news is – cars are NOT going away.  In fact, we’re seeing PEV sales at twice the rate of hybrids in their first 3 years.

Had ECOtality failed a year ago, we’d be in a different situation in terms of deployment – because a risk existed that consumers wouldn’t figure out that they really didn’t need public charging to fully use the vehicles. Now that they have,  I predict little impact on car sales as a result of any bad ECOtality press.  As a result we also may well have gotten full value from our meager public investment in the EV Project ($110m is frankly nothing in the scheme of government boondoggles and bailouts).

At the same time that we see the ECOtality business plan unraveling, we see GM brazenly step to the microphone to say it will create a 200 mile range BEV costing $30,000!  Besides the question of “when?,” my first thought was that the 200 mile number is apparently the Holy Grail of PEV range.  My wife and I debate the sweet spot of mileage range to accelerate a mass market for PEVs.  My thought is that a 150 mile range would be the threshold, provided all other costs are equal.  I now see 200 miles gets me to 99.9% of my annual destinations.  I don’t want to drive much more than 200 miles in a day if I can avoid it.  If I can drive 200 miles without needing to stop, the BEV’s usefulness dramatically increases.  This distance probably is sufficient to link most major metropolitan areas together, those sister cities where people commonly visit or commute to and from.  And the gas savings would be extreme.

Three years ago, here in Portland Oregon, we believed we needed the public infrastructure to jump start consumer demand.  Today, I believe we now see the cars are the place to put incentives and emphasis.  If cars arrive, infrastructure will follow organically to meet consumer demand.

ECOtality should be lauded for being first to test the public charging model. Now we are in the position to learn from this failure and push this technology to the next level.




One thought on “Which came first, the Chicken or the Egg? The Cars!

  1. Anonymous

    ECOtality is to be lauded for its efforts, however, it was their well funded ‘blitz’ approach that caused the failure whereas methodical and strategic planning would have prevailed. When opening a store for business, should the shopkeeper fill it with inventory floor to ceiling at the start or provide goods his customers want at a more moderate pace. Personally, I never buy a dozen eggs when all I need is 6.
    Owner of the first LEAF sold in Maine

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