By David Keith
Engineering Systems Division
Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Hot on the heels of Thanksgiving, many in the car industry have further reason to celebrate next week: the first birthday of America’s first mainstream electric vehicle (EV). On November 30th 2010, the first Chevy Volt rolled off the production line at GM’s Hamtramck plant in Michigan. In light of this anniversary, I attended a dinner hosted by IBM last week, joining representatives of the auto OEMs, electric utilities, government agencies and the media to discuss current issues in the emerging market for EVs.
No shortage of optimism exists for the future of EVs. One participant observed that the latest wave of support for EVs has the “…largest federated force of people around a new [vehicle] technology there has ever been”. Nevertheless, this enthusiasm was tempered by equally important critiques of the numerous technical, regulatory and economic barriers that must be overcome if EVs are to become a mass-market alternative to gasoline internal-combustion.
From these discussions, I found the following issues to be of particular relevance over the next few years:
1. Growing consumer acceptance of EVs will be a marathon, not a sprint.
A report released last week (PDF) by IBM’s Institute for Business Value found that only 26% of consumers know ‘a lot’ about EVs. This is not surprising. The innovation diffusion literature emphasizes the importance of ‘word-of-mouth’ in the technology communication process – as information spreads, it influences peoples’ decision to adopt. Our familiarity with EVs will only accumulate once we see a neighbor drive past in their Chevy Volt every day or once we take a trip in a friend’s Nissan Leaf. As the number of EVs on our roads grows, so will the strength of this word-of-mouth effect, a reinforcing feedback. However, with fewer than twenty thousand EVs on US roads as of October 2011, these interactions are at present few and far between.
2. How do we remove the barriers of public recharging?
The EV industry is facing the following ‘chicken-and-egg’ infrastructure dilemma: To attract mainstream car buyers, a ubiquitous infrastructure is needed to support the daily recharging of EVs; however, a significant installed base of EVs is required before the construction of that infrastructure is commercially viable.
The difficulty is how to break out of this bind. While one approach could be the widespread rollout of publicly accessible recharging infrastructure, this may be expensive and unnecessary. The economics of public recharging are challenging, requiring high utilization rates and markups to be commercially viable, and are best sustained by large numbers of EVs. Further, early adopters of EVs are likely to include drivers with predictable commuting patterns and those willing to modify their driving patterns to suit their vehicle’s capabilities. Removing barriers to the private deployment of infrastructure at frequently trafficked destinations such as workplaces, shopping centers and multi-tenant dwellings may be a more effective strategy in the short term.
3. Standards and coordination are needed if consumers are to enjoy a seamless recharging experience.
Numerous companies are developing solutions for the EV infrastructure market, with technologies ranging from overnight charging and direct current (DC) fast charging to battery switching. This diversity provides useful insurance in the face of uncertainty about consumers’ future recharging needs. However, it also introduces the potential for incompatible proprietary infrastructure platforms to emerge.
A truly effective recharging infrastructure would be as seamless as the global network of Automatic Teller Machines (ATMs) we have today. Almost any cardholder can instantly obtain cash from their home bank account, regardless of where they are in the world and regardless of who owns the ATM they are using.
Achieving this in the EV market will require the adoption of agreed standards throughout the industry. Similar coordination will be needed in relation to the back-end systems that manage payments, drivers’ search for infrastructure and electricity grid load management if consumers are to find recharging their EV a painless habit.