It's a Friday in late March, and Nissan executives Mark Perry and Tracy Woodard are at the automaker's North American headquarters in Franklin, Tenn., watching people tool around the parking lot in the all-electric Nissan Leaf.
It's the final leg of the "Drive Electric Tour," which kicked off this past October in Santa Monica, Calif. The 23-city tour, which gave consumers an opportunity to test-drive the Leaf and learn about electric-vehicle ownership, was a long, strange trip for Perry and Woodard -- and a successful one, by their reckoning.
"We would have people drive 200 miles to come to the events," recalls Perry, Nissan North America's director of product planning. Perry notes that a March tour stop in Washington, D.C., drew 2,000 people in one weekend, breaking "every record we had to that point in terms of interest."
| A Nissan Leaf rolls off the assembly line in Japan. Thanks to a $1.4 billion loan from the U.S. Department of Energy, Nissan is building a new battery plant in Smyrna, Tenn., and retooling its existing Smyrna facility to enable production of up to 200,000 EV battery packs and 150,000 Leafs annually. The shift to Smyrna will create up to 1,300 U.S. jobs when the plants are running at full capacity. Photo Courtesy of Nissan Motor Co. |
"We' ve had [electric] cars in the typical auto-show displays around the country, but actually going to the markets, giving folks a chance to ask their questions one-on-one and drive the vehicle, has been very effective, and we may do it again," Perry says. "There's just so much education and awareness and learning to do, and I don't know if you can overcommunicate."
Dave Finnegan, Ford Motor Co.'s marketing manager for electric vehicles, agrees. He points out that many consumers have questions about electric vehicles, ranging from "How does an EV work?" to "Can I just plug it into a normal wall outlet?" In many cases, Finnegan adds, the answer to the latter question is "yes."
In January, Ford launched a Facebook page to tease its unveiling of the all-electric Focus at the 2011 International Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. Since then, the page has become a clearinghouse of information on Ford's electrification strategy -- the automaker plans to launch five EVs in North America by 2012 -- as well EV technology in general.
At press time, the "Ford Electric Vehicles" Facebook page had amassed nearly 15,000 fans -- a number that pleases Ford executives, but not as much as the fact that the page has become "part of the dialogue and part of the discussion" about EVs, Finnegan says.
"More than anything else, we're pleased with the fact that the people on the page are active," Finnegan explains. "They're involved, they comment on the content that we generate, and they share that with their network.
"These are people who are interested in this type of technology. By sharing it with their friends, they may be sharing it with somebody who maybe isn' t necessarily aware of what an electric vehicle can do or what a plug-in hybrid can do, so it really is true social marketing and social networking."
Genevieve Cullen, vice president of policy for the Electric Drive Transportation Association (EDTA), notes that consumer awareness is one of several important fronts on which EV stakeholders need to be engaged.
"We can make the best cars in the world, but consumers have to want them and buy them," Cullen says. "And that means they have to understand them."
'A Team Effort'
In "Driving Forward: An Action Plan for the Electric Drive Era," EDTA outlines five strategies that it believes are essential for electric-drive-vehicle adoption to take root in the United States. The association's definition of "electric-drive" vehicles includes fuel-cell EVs; plug-in hybrid EVs such as the Toyota Prius; extended-range EVs such as the Chevrolet Volt; and all-battery EVs such as the Nissan Leaf.
The strategies detailed in EDTA's action plan are:
Reducing market hurdles to EV deployment -- EDTA calls for an expansion of tax incentives for private and public purchase of EVs and EV-related infrastructure.
Educating consumers and other stakeholders -- "Credible information about the value, benefits, safety and requirements of electric drive is crucial and must be widely available to consumers, businesses and state and local policymakers," EDTA says.
Ensuring U.S. leadership in EV manufacturing -- EDTA calls for expanded federal funding and support of EV-related manufacturing through programs such as the Energy Department's Advanced Technology Vehicles Manufacturing Loan Program.
Standardizing regulatory policies -- Policymakers and stakeholders need to work toward harmonizing technical standards, environmental valuation and safety requirements that pertain to the development and adoption of electric vehicles, EDTA says. The association recommends the creation of an interagency electric-drive working group to coordinate federal EV policies and programs, as well as a national electric-fuel task force of stakeholders to look at potential grid and other deployment challenges.
Accelerating technology breakthroughs -- EDTA calls for a number of measures to increase support of federal R&D of electric-drive technologies. "A multiyear commitment to research, development and demonstration of diverse electric-drive technologies will accelerate technology advances and deployment and bring us closer to achieving economywide adoption," the association says.
| The goal of the EV Project is to install nearly 15,000 electric-vehicle charging stations (such as this one) in 18 U.S. cities. |
"There are things that we as a manufacturer can do directly, and there are things that we can work on with our partners, like the utilities and government and other key stakeholders," says Ford's Finnegan. "It's just a team effort, maybe more than other initiatives. And that's where Ford really believes that we can help provide our perspective and work collaboratively with those key stakeholders to help customers and help grow this segment of the automotive industry."
Fortunately, the automakers have found enthusiastic partners in stakeholders such as Duke Energy, which provides power to 4 million customers in the Southeast and Midwest.
In March, the Charlotte-based utility company obtained regulatory approval to provide free home charging stations to 150 residential customers in North Carolina who purchase electric vehicles. Duke Energy, which at press time was seeking approval for a similar pilot program in South Carolina, says the data provided by the "intelligent" charging stations will help the utility company understand consumer charging behavior and analyze the demand that EVs place on the power grid.
Mike Rowand, Duke Energy's director of advanced consumer technology, points out that the utility company's overarching goal is to ensure "the transition to the purchase and charging of electric vehicles is a seamless customer experience."
"From a practical standpoint, this will help us prepare for when the Leaf and the Volt go on sale in our markets later this year," Rowand says.
Duke Energy is an active member of EDTA. Rowand, who is the association's treasurer, notes that within EDTA and other organizations involved in the electric-vehicle movement, "there's a very good working relationship among the different industries."
| Mike Rowand: |
"The amount of collaboration across industries is unlike anything I' ve seen in the 26 years I' ve been in the electric-utility business."
Where Are All the Charging Stations?
Much of the spadework being done to set the stage for mainstream adoption of electric vehicles is invisible to the naked eye, at least for the time being. Consequently, "Where can I charge an electric vehicle?" continues to be one of consumers' most frequently asked questions.
Over the next year or so, that should change, Nissan's Perry says.
"There are 13,000 public charging stations that will be in the ground by this time next year," Perry explains. "So people look out today and they see a few. They'll look out eight to 12 months from now and see many."
If and when that comes to fruition, it will be thanks to initiatives such as the EV Project.
Funded by nearly $115 million in federal stimulus grants and more than $100 million in private investment, the EV Project launched in October 2009 with the goal of deploying nearly 15,000 commercial and residential charging stations in 18 U.S. cities in six states and the District of Columbia.
Nissan Leaf and Chevrolet Volt owners who participate in the project will receive free home EV chargers, with most of the installation costs funded by the EV Project. The project also is installing chargers for public, fleet and commercial use at restaurants, hotels, movie theaters, gas stations, grocery stores and other public places. In March, the Fred Meyer supermarket chain announced that it will install Level 2 commercial charging stations at a number of its stores within EV Project regions in Oregon and Washington.
Coordinated by San Francisco-based EV-technology provider ECOtality Inc., the project includes a long list of public and private partners, including Nissan, Chevrolet, the Idaho National Laboratory, Best Buy, Cracker Barrel, Eaton Corp., Ohio State University and a number of utilities and state and local government agencies.
The EV Project highlights just how far the electric-vehicle movement has come since Nissan North America's Perry and Woodard began crafting their strategy to lay the groundwork for the launch of the Leaf.
"Three years ago in April, we decided the best way to approach this was very grassroots-oriented," Woodard explains. "Mark and I, along with [corporate communications Senior Manager] Katherine Zachary and a small group of people, started meeting with local governments, state governments, utilities and anybody who would talk to us, basically, about what we were planning on doing -- that we were going to be bringing a fully electric, affordable EV to market, and what they should be doing to get ready, and how they could help."
In those early conversations, Woodard recalls, Nissan executives spent a good deal of energy trying to convince people "that we were extremely serious" about launching an all-electric vehicle in the United States in December 2010. The dynamic changed in November 2008, when Nissan and the state of Oregon announced they would work together to develop an EV-charging network in the state.
"The first six to eight months was us knocking on a lot of people's doors," Woodard recalls. "And then people started knocking on our doors."
• The Great EV Race