EV Veteran Calls for Faster Shift to Plug-in Cars

By · December 31, 2010

Last week, Ron Gremban took possession of Chevy Volt #24. This was not merely a car purchase, but a moral victory for Gremban, who has been advocating electric cars for more than 40 years. He received his car in Novato, Calif., at a celebration where CalCars Founder Felix Kramer and plug-in hybrid inventor Andy Frank also became proud owners of the Chevy Volt.

Gremban and Kramer

Ron Gremban (left), technical lead for CalCars, with the organization's founder Felix Kramer. They were among the first customers to purchase a Chevy Volt in 2010.

Gremban’s EV activism began in the late 1960s when, as a Caltech student, he drove an electric car from Pasadena to Boston on a nine-day journey to promote the viability of the technology. In the early 1970s, in the wake of the Arab oil embargo, Gremban headed research and development of the Sebring-Vanguard Citicar, an early neighborhood electric vehicle. And decades later, he became the technical lead for CalCars, the organization that spearheaded efforts during the past six years to promote plug-in hybrids.

Sebring-Vanguard Citicar

Gremban led research and development of the Citicar, a much maligned neighborhood electric vehicle from the 1970s. More than three decades later, electric cars are finally being offered to mainstream consumers. (Photo by: Bo Hee Kim)

Gremban is now driving a Chevy Volt—a car that he calls the world’s first mass-produced plug-in hybrid; the most important car that General Motors has produced in a century; and a joy to drive.

“It took 42 years, auto manufacturer bankruptcies, global climate change, impending peak oil, an influential movie, tremendous grass-roots enthusiasm, and serious governmental incentives to get to today’s deliveries of the world's first mass-produced plug-in hybrid, done by a re-emergent U.S. manufacturer,” said Gremban on the day he picked up his Volt.

He praised the public relations and lobbying work of CalCars founder Felix Kramer. According to Gremban, General Motors might not have produced the Volt if it wasn’t for CalCars, and the combined efforts of Plug-in America, Plug-in Partners, Set America Free, and other environmental organizations, to raise awareness of the facts about electric cars and their many benefits.

As 2010 comes to a close, Gremban—and many others—believe that the Chevy Volt and Nissan LEAF will together “open the public's eyes to the personal joys as well as social advantages of electric vehicles.” Yet, he believes that critical challenges lie ahead.

What Will It Take?

“Even if EVs achieve 10 times the penetration rate that hybrids have seen, it will take at least 15 years to make a dent in either energy security or greenhouse emissions,” Gremban said. That’s why Gremban and CalCars are working on an effort to add plug-in capabilities to millions of existing gas-powered vehicles. He admits that the public is skeptical about this project, much the way they were dubious about plug-in hybrids just a few years ago.
The first plug-in hybrids and electric cars are just the beginning, according to Gremban. To greatly accelerate the move to vehicle electrification—as required by the seriousness of the environmental and economic challenges of oil addiction—he believes the public needs to be shaken into a new heightened level of awareness.

“Katrina didn’t do it. The BP disaster didn’t do it. Tales of extreme climate and resulting environmental catastrophes from Russia to Pakistan haven’t done it,” he warned. “What will it take, and what can we do, individually and collectively, to help out? I don’t have an answer except to keep on telling our stories, focusing on possible solutions, and emphasizing facts over fiction.”

Comments

· Anonymous (not verified) · 6 years ago

It will take two things to push EVs to the front ... more range, and lower cost than gas. That's all.

· · 6 years ago

EVs are already cheaper to fuel and run. But I guess you mean lower purchase price. Yet, with incentives in Calif. and at federal level, LEAF is pretty darn cheap.

Regarding range: Where's the tipping point? Is a jump from ~100 miles to 150 or 200 really going to shift the market?

I think it's mostly psychological. If we hit $4 gas again, the game will be ON.

· sean t (not verified) · 6 years ago

In the "Meat the Truth" video clips, they said that livestock contributes 18% of green house effect compared to 13% of transport. Don't get me wrong, I'm all for EVs/hybrids. I don't like ICE, I don't even own a petrol mower.

· · 6 years ago

It is kinda hard to believe what Ron Gremban is saying about electric cars when he bought a Volt, which is not an electric car and never will be, and not a Leaf, which is an electric car. If he had a serious bone in his body, he would be driving a Leaf right now, so how can we clean Americans believe anything he says about him promoting electric cars for 40 years. A person would believe that he had been promoting fossil fuel cars for 40 years.

· Kelly O'Brien (not verified) · 6 years ago

Hi, Brad!

I DO think that range is a major issue, and when it comes to "tipping point" or points, there are a number of factors:

1) the price of gas, to which you allude, above. But, I think that "game on" might come at a higher price than what we've previously assumed it would be... my guess is that real pressure will be seen at $5/gal.

2) Range needs to be a good 200-300 miles, and with time, more like 300 (OR, we see fast-charge batteries in common use)... which leads us to the third consideration:

3) infrastructure. Two types are in the cards, I think. Owner and public charge points, while range is in the 100 mile or so reality. And, once range rises to 300 miles or more and fast-charge is a reality, then hopefully-prolific commercial "filling stations" will probably handle the bulk of charging.

4) this is a catch-all: People's attitudes and expectations must change. People change only when some "force" causes us to do so in a personal, immediate, severe manner. Such forces could be the effects of war, regional and global climate change, financial stress, etc. Market forces and government programs are much weaker influences, but certainly more benign than the others.

Anyone else have any other thoughts to contribute? Thanks for reading this post!

Best,

Kelly

· · 6 years ago

@Kelly,
I'm afraid you're missing the overwhelming dominant charging situation that EV owners do and will use - home charging. This meets probably 95% of the average person's charging needs and much cheaper and more conveniently than any other place to charge.

I agree that 200 mile batteries are better than 100 and clearly an 80 mile EV such as the Leaf won't meet everyone's needs, it will meet the needs of enough that I'm sure the sales will take off. As the other things you mention happen, the acceptance will just increase more. I'm dissappointed that Nissan is only offering the one battery option. This will slow the market's ability to learn the correct range -vs- price points.
I doubt that commercial EV filling stations will ever be a big business except for on the open highway. Home charging is just too convenient for people to waste their time going anywhere just to fill up.
I don't believe there was any forcing function that drove mobile phone use, laptop computers, DVD players, iPods, or even gasoline automobiles. They were simply more convenient and economical than previous alternative tools to do the same job.

· · 6 years ago

Hi!  Thank you for the great article, Brad, including the picture you found of a Citicar.  Three points re. comments:

My purchase of a Volt is, to me, putting my money exactly where my mouth is, as it is the first (and an excellent) mass-produced example of exactly the 'best of both worlds' PHEV technology we at CalCars have been working so hard to get into the marketplace to help empower the shift to electric propulsion without having to wait for EVs and their infrastructure to be capable of satisfying all driving needs.  I do burn some gas, but only 1.4 gallons so far.  Also, my girlfriend/partner Lynne has range anxiety, as do so many other potential EV owners as well, and is now happily driving the plug-in Prius first converted in my garage in 2004.

I have a LEAF on order, too, but will probably have to pass on it, as I can't afford both and too often need to drive beyond the LEAF's practical initial, let alone old-age, range -- including the 220 miles from the San Francisco Bay to Reno to visit my mother. Like the Volt, the LEAF is a game-changer; but unlike the Volt, it is not yet a general-purpose car. I carefully calculated, for example, that it would take 3 fast charges -- at exact locations where fast chargers may not soon appear -- and approx. double my normal driving time, to drive a LEAF over the mountains to my mother's home.

The dramatic thing Nissan has done by committing to 7-figure (6- per year) production numbers and buying down the first year's price, is sell the first mass-produced commuter EV at an affordable (after tax credits), PHEV-competitive price (I'll bet the Volt would be similarly priced if GM had the resources, after its bankruptcy, to buy down ITS first-year production run, too). My take is that Nissan has single-handedly advanced the economic viability of pure EVs by 3-5 years (remember that the pre-LEAF price of Mitsubishi's competing iMiEV was nearly double).

And from where we are now, I believe general-purpose EVs are just around the corner. An electric sedan with a true 200-mile range (2.5 to 3 times that of today's LEAF) could be driven for 3-hour highway stretches between fast charges. Most people, I'll wager, could use a meal break after 3 hours on the road, and the 50 kW fast chargers currently being readied for deployment could recharge such a car in around an hour. Nissan is reportedly already at work on a second generation LEAF with double the range, and, now that there is a huge developing market for them, automotive battery advances are beginning to arrive at a breakneck pace.

· · 6 years ago

Ron, thank you for the post, congratulations on your new Volt, and Happy New Year!

I am glad to hear that the second-generation LEAF could have double the range. That would make all the difference to my family. (We are also considering purchasing a RAV4 EV in 2012, and hoping Toyota will up the range past 100 miles.)

· · 6 years ago

The LEAFs pack is composed of 24 battery modules making it largely future-proofed. The battery innovation will occur within the confines of the modules Nissan and NEC have standardized on. Therefore, as the energy density of the battery module increases over time, I'll be swapping out depleted battery modules for the new technology modules. Hopefully I'll be able to use my old battery modules in my home to store energy from a PV array during the day.

If Nissan are able to get the range up to ~200 miles I hope they'll make that an option. Personally the 100ish mile range is plenty for me, so I would much rather have less cost and less weight versus more than 100 mile range. If and when I need to go on a long road trip, I'll simply rent an tail pipe enabled vehicle.

· · 6 years ago

Ron, you are aware that GM got billions in taxpayers money and Nissan did not...and what has GM did with all that taxpayers money since the Volt was in production prior to GM bankrupting themselves? If you are aware of that, then you are also aware that GM is trying to make the American people believe that we are addicted to fossil fuel - we are not - oil companies are addicted to fossil fuel and taking the American people's wallet for a ride every time you stop at the pumps. There is no reason why GM could not give the same EV range Nissan gave to the Leaf, but GM is again trying to get the American people believe that we all only travel 40 miles a day and we will never need to go anywhere while the Volt charges for 8 hours in our garage. GM, Ford, and Chrysler have been deceiving the American people for decades with this fossil fuel addiction scare and we, the American people, should not tolerate their deceptions any longer. I will never buy a GM product as lone as they are ran by such an underhanded person as their CEO.

· Kelly O'Brien (not verified) · 6 years ago

ex-EV1,

Hi! and thanks for the feedback!

Regarding you comment: 'the overwhelming dominant charging situation that EV owners do and will use - home charging. This meets probably 95% of the average person's charging needs"... I agree, if indeed, one can place a home charging station where they live. But really, what I meant to say, was reliance on home chargers - and the public chargers deployed (which I assume will be limited and, perhaps, a distance from the ultimate destination for an EV driver), will be a "choke point" for acceptance, as long as range remain in the 100 mile vicinity. Fact is, your charging consideration will dictate how you conduct your trip... something that petropig drivers don't think about, since gas stations are everywhere and range is... well... long!

I'd like to think that EVs meet everyone's needs, as Ed Begley, Jr. says (and you appear to believe, as well). But, with around 37% of the California vehicle fleet being pickup trucks, until there's a solution for that segment, i just don't see widespread EV sales. I'd LOVE to be totally wrong about that!

BTW, my RAV4 EV is coming up on 100K miles after 8 years... still love it and drive it every day. We also own a 2004 Prius PHEV (Hymotion converted). We live near Big Sur, California, so both vehicles get a workout on hills and dales. The PHEV Prius works well, but I still favor the RAV4 EV... limiting factor for maximizing the EV range both vehilces? Availability of public charging stations.

All the best,

Kelly

· · 6 years ago

@Indyflick, based on what I've read here and on other sites, my concern about the LEAF's current battery configuration is that the temperature management may be too primitive, with not enough cooling to ensure battery longevity in hot areas or in hard diving (i.e., climbing mountains). At least the upcoming Cold Weather Package will help with low ambient temperatures. The nice thing about buying a second generation LEAF is that perhaps these issues will have been worked out by then, if they are in fact real issues. Still, I am appreciative of early adopters who are helping to pave the way by purchasing the first generation LEAF.

· · 6 years ago

If Leaf buyers are early adopters, what do we call the EV1, Ranger EV, S10 EV, Altra EV, EV+, Rav4EV, Sparrow, Th!nk (and on and on...) drivers of 10 and 15 years ago? (I mean besides "crazy."

Cars like the Leaf and Volt got to benefit from these early cars tremendously!

· · 6 years ago

@Darelldd, true enough! I also understand that the Prius benefited from work on the RAV4 EV. Folks like you and "ex-EV1" could be considered the earliest of early adopters!

Concerns about the LEAF's battery management system might amount to much ado about nothing. On the other hand, those earlier EVs typically used NiMH, NiCd, and lead acid batteries, not lithium-ion.

· · 6 years ago

@abasile, I suspect Nissan have tested the pack in a wide variety of climates and are comfortable with its performance. It's an automotive purpose built pack. Will it improve, sure, you bet, but it's plenty good enough for my requirements.

· · 6 years ago

Anonymous said, "It will take two things to push EVs to the front ... more range, and lower cost than gas. That's all." That's a tough nut to crack because new technologies are almost always more expensive at first, and, as Brad alluded to, the price of an EV effectively includes a prepay against savings on fuel costs that customers think less about than purchase price. Additionally, though there are now some EV incentives, oil and other fossil fuels still get huge tax breaks and other giveaways.

I agree that most charging will be at home or work, especially at first. The hardest early charge point challenge may be to provide facilities for renters and condo owners without a private garage, and especially for city dwellers that park on the street at night, though some will manage to get a charge at work instead. Beyond that, I myself expect to charge if possible when staying somewhere overnight, and opportunity charge when visiting retail businesses that have attracted my business by providing free charging (with a PHEV, opportunity charging at a electric rates above say $0.30/kWh is too close to the cost of gasoline to be particularly attractive). Also, I'll try to get level 1 charging -- which is sufficient -- at my favorite airport parking lot.

However, the level 2 charge stations that are proposed for many public places will only provide 10-20 miles of added range per hour of charging. They will be effective for guest workers, conference attendees, etc, that park for several hours, but not for anyone attempting to take an EV drive that extends beyond the vehicle's range.

EV Nazis will claim that people will be willing to double their time on the road in order to drive EVs; auto enthusiasts will say EVs must have a range of 300-500 miles with 10-minute rechargeability; but I believe the ability to drive in three-hour spurts separated by hour-long meals will turn out to be for most people the threshold for practical long-distance EV travel. Therefore, I believe that for EVs to become practical general-purpose vehicles, fast chargers providing at least 50 kW will have to be common along highway corridors to provide efficient sedans with a 200-mile charge in an hour. Actually, 75-100 kW will be needed to handle pickup trucks and SUVs as well.

I, too, by the way, have some concerns about the LEAF's battery thermal management. Time will tell, but those kept in a moderate climate such as the San Francisco Bay should be totally fine. If those in more extreme environments begin to have troubles in several years, Nissan will have some warranty headaches, but nothing they can't weather (so to speak) and learn from, as by then the replacement batteries and BMS will be much improved and much less expensive.

· Priusmaniac (not verified) · 6 years ago

There is still one thing that can be done to accelerate the practicality of EV driving. As we all know the important thing in a plug-in vehicle is the possibility to plug it in a wall socket for the recharge. But once, that can be done, paradoxically, the next step is to let it happen automatically. This means your car drives on a charging pod and a security and communication protocol directly start without that you even have to think about it. The pod controls the contacts connection quality with the contacts underneath the car and the car ask the pod what voltage and amperage is available, the pod answers 240 V 15 A and it starts charging the car if it has clearance. You then come back and drive away in the morning with a full battery. No plug to manipulate, just contacts under your car that touch the pod's contacts. One could call that "park and forget". It is particularly interesting for people that tend, well, to forget, or perhaps it can also be used to get an extra charge outside when you are waiting at a traffic light or parked at a shop. The pod outside would of course ask your car ID number and a code before you can charge in order to be paid for the electricity it provides. Pods would fit very well with V2G possibilities as well.

· · 6 years ago

It is interesting to reflect on the Volt's range. 40 miles a day, 365 days per year is 14600 miles. This is about the average total mileage accumulation for a gasoline powered car. The Volt can do this (or nearly this) without any gas at all. Clearly, the Volt is a "real" electric car.

Aside from cost, the biggest deterent to buying an electric car is range anxiety. For many people, 80-100 miles is just not enough to be workable. A PHEV like the Volt eliminates range anxiety, making electric transportation availble to many more people than would otherwise be the case.

Kudos to Ron and the team at CalCarsfor pushing for PHEVs.

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