WASHINGTON — There are now just over 1 million electric vehicles (EVs) on the streets of the United States, but to add even more, there needs to be greater infrastructure investments and more emphasis on raising customer awareness.
Those were some of the major takeaways from a one-day summit hosted by the Edison Electric Institute (EEI) in Washington, DC on Friday. The event served as a celebration of the 1 million vehicle mark, and a look ahead at EEI's projections of 2 million EVs on U.S. streets by the end of 2020.
"This is an exciting time to be part of electric transportation both in the United States and around the world," EEI Vice President for Customer Solutions Lisa Wood said in a speech.
But with the need for more charging infrastructure to cope with increased demand, as well as a need to make sure that the general public is aware of their options, there are plenty of challenges ahead for the EV industry. And with combating climate change a top priority for many, experts said EVs have a big role to play.
'A step on our journey to deal with climate change'
There have been a series of dire warnings — both from the federal government and the United Nations — about the impact of climate change on the planet if it goes unchecked, and one of the prime industries responsible for the carbon emissions that increase global warming is transportation.
Anne Pramaggiore, senior executive vice president and CEO of Exelon Utilities at Exelon, said during a panel discussion that 28% of carbon emissions are from the power sector and another 28% is from transportation. Given that figure, Rep. Paul Tonko, D-NY, said there must be a “dramatic shift in transportation” to cut its carbon emissions.
And Tonko said there will be a push for that when the new Congress is seated in January. He said there is “exciting work that can be done at the federal level,” with cities and state governments having led the way previously.
To fight climate change, Tonko promised lawmakers will look to rack up a series of small policy victories, which he compared to “singles or doubles” on the baseball field for not appearing as significant on their own, but adding up to a strong collective effort. Electrification will be key in that, he said, including as part of a push for a national infrastructure package.
"They aren't the most attention-grabbing solutions, but they are important policies that will make a difference, and when added together can play a vital role in helping us achieve our climate goals," Tonko said during a keynote address.
At the national level, General Motors (GM) has garnered recent attention for saying it will cut back some of its production to focus on EVs and autonomous vehicles (AVs). The decision has come in for criticism from President Donald Trump, who has said he will cut subsidies and the federal EV tax credit in response.
Regardless of that, leaders with GM said the electrification push will continue, even with public debate sure to intensify over the automaker’s future.
"The reality is, this electrification movement is going forward anyway,” Dan Turton, vice president of North American Policy at GM, said during a panel discussion. “It's not one thing that's going to make it happen or not. It's just whether something makes it proceed or mature more quickly or not."
But compared to some of the rest of the world, speakers noted the U.S. trails on electrification and must be careful not to fall behind any further. Phil Jones, executive director at the Alliance for Transportation Electrification, said that China still leads the way with 3 million EVs on its streets at the end of 2017, so while the first 1 million on U.S. streets is a big deal, there is more to do.
"It's an important milestone but must be seen as a step on our journey to deal with climate change," Joe Halso, an attorney with the Sierra Club, said during a speech.
Customer experience and exposure
If EVs are to penetrate the market further, speakers agreed there needs to be an even bigger push to educate customers of their benefits, especially when gas prices are low while sales of SUVs continue to be high.
A top priority continues to be solving what people said is a perception problem, where vast swathes of the general public believe that EVs do not perform as well as traditional cars with an internal combustion engine, are more expensive and less fun.
"What we've seen is while there's a lot of marketing out there and a lot of push for EVs, a lot of consumers think an EV should drive like a golf cart," Michael Arbuckle, senior manager of EV sales and marketing strategy at Nissan, said. “There's a perception that we've got to overcome."
That also extends to educating car dealers on how to sell EVs to customers and to commercial operators, Arbuckle said, which can be helped with test drives and other opportunities. That is a hallmark of the Smart Columbus Experience Center in Columbus, OH, which has several EVs available for test drives.
"The general public, if you can get them in an EV, likes it. You've just got to get them in it," Turton said.
Moves to do just that are well underway, including in Hawaii. Alan Oshima, president and CEO of the Hawaiian Electric Company, said the utility has donated 25 EVs to community organizations across the state. Those EVs are then used as a ride-sharing among community members, "so that people used to seeing them, riding them and using them for their daily rides," Oshima said, and so that it is "not something you have to be afraid of.”
The utility has also worked with the Japan Tourism Bureau to introduce three electric buses to move visitors from that country around, a move Oshima said is all about raising awareness.
"The technology side is going to happen,” he said. “We really have to get into the soft sciences and really understand marketing and customer behavior."
When it comes to giving customers options, EVs are comparable to other new innovations introduced in years past, such as the washing machine, dishwasher and television. Those products and the brands behind them are all enhancing choice, something that is similar to the way cars are evolving and electrifying today.
"We've seen a lot of success on the awareness front, and think the utility, just as we have had throughout history with opportunities where we were making customers aware of new electric appliance options, the EV is really just the next phase of that for us," Jill Anderson, vice president for customer programs and services at Southern California Edison (SCE), said during a panel discussion.
"The technology side is going to happen. We really have to get into the soft sciences and really understand marketing and customer behavior."
President and CEO, Hawaiian Electric Company
At the bottom of everything, despite discussions that go on among elected officials and utilities, Terry Sobolewski, senior vice president and chief customer officer for National Grid, said the general public is the most important part of any electrification effort.
“We can't forget the consumer in this whole exercise,” he said. “We can get all wrapped up in policy discussions, but at the end of the day this all boils down to choices that individuals are making."
Equitable use and infrastructure
Access to EVs and charging infrastructure for all is a barrier that utilities, cities and automakers must work to overcome, even with efforts the industry has made in the last year.
Cities of all sizes have made great strides to add charging infrastructure, bolstered at least in part by money from the settlement paid by automaker Volkswagen after its emissions cheating scandal. But EEI’s report projects there will need to be millions of new charging stations to support EV growth, and they must be added in all neighborhoods, not just in those with single-family homes and dedicated parking spaces.
"If we want EVs to succeed, they have got to be available for all Americans," Tonko said.
But based on the pronouncements from some speakers, progress is underway. Anderson said 50% of SCE’s chargers are based in low-income neighborhoods, while Arbuckle noted Nissan’s $16 million investment in infrastructure in the last eight years, with that infrastructure available not just for Nissan EVs.
Julie Blunden, executive vice president for business development at charging station network provider EVgo, said there is plenty of unity on the need to add more infrastructure.
"There's so much alignment, there's so much unanimity about the value of infrastructure,” Blunden said in a speech. “We're finding it very easy to work with utilities ... to look at ways to accelerate the deployment of fast charging through things like just utility processes.”
Anderson said that to encourage equitable EV use, the growing used electric car market must be bolstered. SCE will do just that by giving a $1,000 rebate to anyone in its coverage area that buys an EV new or is the second or third owner. "We see our role as a utility in helping that used car market, which is going to help us with disadvantaged communities particularly,” she said.