Electric Car Owners Poised for Bottom-Up Movement in 2012
The critical role of rank-and-file EV drivers in making sure electric cars are a big success was the subject of two articles I wrote for the Autos section of last Sunday’s New York Times. Every where I turn, I’m seeing more signs that it’s everyday drivers—not big corporations overspending on advertising hype, or start-up companies flush with government funding—that will pave the way to an electrified auto future.
The subject of the main story in the Times was engineer-activist Phil Sadow, who working from a garage showed that the Nissan LEAF’s portable charging cord can be modified to carry a 240-volt charge. This modification is a move of heroic proportions.
As I wrote in the article, Phil’s work calls into question the cost-effectiveness of an Energy Department program that provided $115 million to ECOtality to install 14,000 EV chargers in 18 cities in six states and Washington. As we’ve covered on PluginCars.com, the EV Project has been slow and disappointing. (I was reminded of that this morning when I glanced at the DC Fast-Charge port on my Nissan LEAF, which will probably go unused for half the duration of my three-year lease, despite the fact that the Department of Energy paid $700 for the item.)
Phil’s portable charging cord upgrade, and other EV innovations are growing from the bottom up, in owners’ groups, like the Bay LEAF group featured in the other NYT piece. It’s refreshing to see that Nissan is not only aware of these grassroots activities, the company is paying close attention, in detail, to what LEAF owners are saying. Kudos also to BMW, which has enlisted Tom Moloughney—the MINI-E driver with the most experience behind the wheel of that electric car—to help guide future product. If you didn’t catch it, see Tom’s most recent report about BMW’s next EV, the ActiveE.
The EV Spring (in 2012)
The question on my mind is how much the burgeoning EV movement can and should grow from the streets and garages—in day-by-day steps—rather than overblown top-down projects with big budgets. The EV Project is not the only disappointment. The glacial pace of Chevy Volt sales—after four years of a GM hype-machine in overdrive—is a letdown. The 20-mpg rating, while on gas, just assigned to the six-figure Karma plug-in hybrid—from Fisker Automotive flush with a half-billion dollars of government money—is another sad example. Like anybody who lays eyes on it, I think the Karma is gorgeous and powerful. But it does seem irrelevant to the building of an EV future. It also appears that a follow-up car from Fisker will be delayed, just like the Karma has been. Then, there’s Tesla, which has done wonders to raise the profile of electric cars in the public consciousness, but I worry about how long it will take to produce the Model S in significant numbers.
As the end of 2011 approaches—painful or not—we need to take a step back and start assessing the successes and failures of the inaugural year of the modern mainstream EV era. We need to acknowledge which cars and which EV infrastructure projects are truly making a difference—and which are trying to cash in on the EV movement (or greenwash) and should be called to task. This assessment needs to come directly from the folks who are driving electric cars—some with months of experience and others with years. Government funding for EV incentives will be placed under a microscope in this coming election year. Meanwhile, EV owners clubs, homegrown modifications, and last week’s National Plug In day are all signs of a movement and a market on the move. This all suggests that 2012 could be a make-or-break year for electric cars. The honeymoon year for electric cars is almost over.
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