Category Archives: ECOtality

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.

 

 

 

Portland Auto Show’s Dynamic Tension; Consumer Pull v. Dealer Resistance

 (Photo- Thanks to Joe Mayer.  On the right is Oregonian Reporter Scott Learn talking to Charlie Allcock of PGE.  The distinguished looking guy on the far left is me (ha) speaking to Cindy Laurilla, Manager of Real Estate for PGE.)

Okay, I’m tired. I just spent the last four days manning the ClipperCreek Booth at the Portland Auto Show, speaking to consumers, networking with dealers and industry insiders, breathing the air, taking the temperature, trying to keep my mind open to determine “the truth” about where we are as a going as but a small slice of the industry; in Zen Buddhism, this is known as exercising the beginner’s mind.  Before I quickly shift gears into the week, I need to share some observations that we all must process as we continue to promote this technology vociferously.

The first is we need to stop allowing ourselves to be pigeonholed as “green”.

The Portland Auto Show has put our technology in the “Eco-Center” for the past three years.  Our real name is the “Advanced Vehicle Technology Center.” If smoke comes out of your tailpipe in 2013, you are not driving an advanced vehicle.  You are driving old technology and reading yesterday’s newspaper.  To rephrase a Palinism, a putting lipstick on a pig does not make it less porcine.  I thought of this as I looked at the “new” Chevy Corvette.  We need to force our hand.  If we’re paying for exhibiting, we should drive the proper message.  We must be clear that these cars are not about being green, they are about superior driving experience, interactivity, and the future. Should we have booth babes? Ah, I won’t even go there.

The media.  We had an Oregonian reporter, Scott Learn, (whose name seems appropriate for someone in journalism) come to the Eco Center and speak for an hour to many knowledgeable people- including Charlie Allcock of PGE who was recently listed as one of the top one hundred electrifying leaders nationally.  Was he quoted in the article? No.  “Are Electric Vehicles Poised to turn Corner with Public?” was the title.  “Too Pricey.”  “Too much Plastic inside.”(?) “What if we run out of juice?” were all issues stated in theopening paragraphs. But the best line of all, from GM’s spokesmen Kevin Kelly, “The biggest issue here is cost, let’s just be honest.”  Then more than halfway through the article things got rosier and some follow-up comments were hopeful.  Kelly added,  that the cost is dropping and “we’ll see generational improvements and we’re working on those as fast as we can.”  He likened it to other new technologies like cell phones and the range and other performance metrics are ticking up as the costs fall.  So all is not doom and gloom, but we have a lot of convincing- of the media, consumers and dealers- to do.

Tesla needs to be at these shows.  Consumers demand to see the Tesla and the Auto Dealers refuse to let them into these dealer-sponsored shows because they are not part of the “franchise” network but do direct selling.  So what?  This show is about consumers, and the Tesla perfectly exemplifies advanced vehicle technology.  If the Dealers won’t allow Tesla to be present, we should have them (even if its only obliging Tesla owners) rent space at a neighboring parking lot and show people the cars there.  Seriously.

What really continues to frighten me is the fact that Auto Dealers do NOT want to sell these cars.  Walking the main floor, NOT ONE AUTO DEALER HAD INFORMATION ABOUT THE $7500 FEDERAL TAX CREDIT.  Excuse me?  They said such things as, well not everyone qualifies and so we can’t tell them about it. Huh? As someone versed in the art of persuasion, having litigated hundreds of cases in state and federal courts, and having been a consumer for over fifty years, since when is a huge potential savings on a product not critical information for decision making?  The only takeaway is that there is an ongoing force or forces at work the dealership level (and beyond) to NOT sell these cars.  What that source is and what is sustaining it in the face of consumer interest remains to be clearly defined, but it is clearly present.  We must work around the dealers recalcitrance whenever possible.

ECOtality no longer provides free charging stations in the Northwest- whether to promote furtherpublic infrastructure or to give to residential customers.  It happened.  The market is starting to shift and EVSE providers will now have an opportunity to enjoy open competition.  Dealers no longer have the luxury of pointing their customers to one source (because its easy to sell “free”) and the consumer and local electricians will win. Period.

People are infinitely curious about these cars.  The most common questions are- how long do they take to charge?  What is their range?  What do you think of your LEAF? How much does electricity cost?  People have reasonable questions and the dealers are not answering them, particularly about charging.  Members of the EVSE industry and public advocates need to fill this gap.  My main response to consumer questions is for them to drive the cars and see what they think.  Test drive a Volt and a LEAF.  Speak to other owners.  The public is tired of paying gas prices that tap $200-$600 per month of their income.  They are hungry for alternatives.  We should feed them!

Thank your local electric utility (if they show up at the car show with a booth). PGE had a booth all four days with people answering questions, showing customers the LEAF, sharing information.  Your electric utility is your new “dealer” when it comes to advanced vehicle technology.  They have nothing to lose and everything to gain- just like the consumer.  Thank them for putting resources into this movement toward electrified transportation.  They get it.

Comments?  What do you think?

 

 

 

 

 

The EV Project- It’s Time to Grow Up

We had lived in a world of petroleum-based energy for so long that we could not see the horizon through its particulate-laden fog- until President Obama diverted part of his ARRA-funding and solicited bids for overseeing the first national scale investment into electric vehicle charging infrastructure promising deployment and data collection- the EV Project.  Enter ECOtality, the winning grantee. What followed has been nothing short of the jumpstarting of a new transportation technology and the construction of a foundation for this technology–the beginning of this immense national transformation of our transportation/energy system.  And we must be grateful for ECOtality’s efforts to seed public infrastructure into various politically receptive ecosystems. This has been a tremendous start on the path to the future.

Now that the 2012 Presidential election has been held, and energy independence will NOT mean fracking, pipelines, and drilling, what is the best path forward for EV infrastructure?  Well, its time to grow up.

We need to stop providing unilaterally allocated federal subsidies benefitting a narrow slice of the industry (i.e. ECOtality, Coulombe, AV).  Infrastructure should expand beyond the heavily weighted models favoring public charging, with expensive telecomm networked fees and consumer subscription based business models, with level 3 chargers hosting TV screens that can cost a hundred thousand dollars to install, risking unsustainable demand charges to the host sites if electricity consumption exceeds a certain level.  EV drivers do not need to be taught to associate public charging with rummaging around their glove box for the proper key fob only to find they failed to pre-register and create an account!  We have made it all seem so complicated, costly, and inconvenient.  Infrastructure should mean you charge primarily at home or work.  It should mean you can pay at any public station with a credit card.  If you need more energy during a particularly hectic week, you find it in the public forum and you pay for what you need and move on.  It may mean the host site uses a simple keypad or RFID  reader to activate the charger at your hotel or apartment complex.  It doesn’t have to be touchscreens, key fobs, hassle and headaches.

Companies such as ECOtality and Coulombe have been banking on laying the framework for what they see as a self-sustaining public infrastructure revenue stream- even before the ramifications of their data on consumer behavior  becomes clear.  One ostensible value of the EV Project was to get Idaho National Lab to parse out the actual numbers to begin to answer fundamental questions about charging infrastructure- how to incentivize off-peak charging? When do most consumers charge?  Where do they charge?  What is the proper ratio of public chargers to vehicles? How much will people pay? Building a networked infrastructure model before the data analysis was completed was a calculated business decision made by ECOtality and Coulombe- that model now needs to be tested in the marketplace and improved upon.

None of these questions are simple. Indeed the process itself can skew the results.  For example, Don Karner, then-President of ECOtality, reported to the DOE  that the initial residential installation subsidy of $1250 was causing most installation bids to come in at…$1250.  Accordingly, there was no clear data on the actual installation costs and they would be gradually phasing out the subsidy.  My experience shows that is twice the actual cost for the average home install.  We did need to invest in the technology- and make mistakes.  And now we need to start learning from them in order to reach escape velocity.

Giving away residential charging stations to customers of two auto manufacturers (Chevy and Nissan) may have made sense to get the data collection points in the field immediately, and now we have them.  That has been done and we should not extend the EV Project further. We did need to get chargers out in the field and afford utilities the opportunity to learn about linkage to their distribution system.  We did need to educate public utility commissions and the energy community about time of use rates for EVs and their grid-based benefits.  We did need to help auto dealers sell the vehicles by having the infrastructure come pre-packaged and added in for no extra cost.  However, we now see the Chevy Volt selling over 2500 units per month- and increasing- with a current annual sales of over 19,000 units domestically.  We now have added  Ford, Honda, Toyota, ThinkCity, Fisker, Tesla, Audi, Coda, Mitsubishi and all the other major automakers offering vehicle models with a plug. We even have electric motorcycles- Brammo, Zero, Motorczysz.  None of them currently qualify for of any the EV Project subsidies.   If we are to get to the next level of deployment, we now need to level the playing field, to embrace the notion of competitive neutrality (a term which ECOtality ironically embraced in its comments before the Oregon Public Utility Commission when seeking to prevent electric utilities from having a role in supplying their own charging infrastructure).  This will decrease costs, simplify installation, provide consumers with options, and benefit the total industry.

Quite simply, no one can compete with free.

Free is now inhibiting the evolution of the charging station industry, stifling competition, and preventing consumer choice.   It’s time to end the EV Project subsidies and extensions and let the market provide the full range of infrastructure solutions available.  Infrastructure needs to be unchained, especially in those markets where ECOtality has had a dominant presence because those regions are poised to become self-sustaining and offer the model for the rest of the country.  Consumers need to see that infrastructure can be simple, cost-effective, and scaled at a variety of levels to meet a variety of needs.  Its time to let us grow up.  And reach for the sun.