ImageIf someone says, “electric car” to you, what image pops into your head? For most folks I have spoken to, images like the tiny Smart Car or a two-door roadster usually come to mind first. But yesterday at the first day of Plug In 2011 that image changed in my mind when I saw first-hand that the electric car has grown up and grown bigger.

The Electric Car Matures
The first sign of maturity was options. The cars available for test driving ranged from small two-door cars to a Ford F-150 pick up truck. They ranged in color, interior, options and amenities, and they even ranged in power source. Ford Escape 

For example, the plug-in hybrid car seems to be making some traction as an attractive option. The proto-type Ford Escape that I drove is the product of an EPRI/Progress Energy partnership. The Ford Escape, for those of you who are not familiar with it, is a mini-SUV sized car that gives you plenty of room for five people and cargo space in the back. This car works with both a plug and gas, with two separate places on the car for you to refill your “tank” at either a gas station or at an outlet. The car can go 30-40 miles on a single charge, but if you run out of juice in your battery, the traditional combustion engine kicks in. Combined, the two engines can give the driver an average 120 miles per gallon.

For straight plug-in cars, both the Nissan Leaf and Chevy Volt were present. Both cars are wonderful to drive. Again, breaking the mental picture of a slow car that can’t make it up hills, I found both to be very responsive to my foot on the “gas” pedal, accelerating as fast - if not faster - than a traditional car. What does strike you about both these cars is the additional details you find yourself thinking about during your driving experience.

For instance, I never considered how much power my car’s stereo system took up until the folks from Chevy mentioned that its Bose speakers take 50% less power to operate than traditional car speakers. Or, what about the Nissan Navigation System that allows you to not only monitor your battery charging status, but also has the ability to find near-by charging stations.

Finally, Protean was showing off their version of the 2008 Ford F-150 truck, minus its original engine. Using their in-wheel electric drive technology on all four tires, the truck boasts 400-440 horsepower (hp), or about 110hp per wheel.
 

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The Electric Car Gets Bigger

Perhaps the first impression when you see all these options next to eachother, is that it no longer seems Americans are going to have to sacrifice size if they want to drive an electric car.

Editor's note: Sheila Oliva is an employee of Siemens AG. Siemens is a sponsor of The Energy Collective.


Are you a soccer mom? Then it seems the Escape, Leaf or Volt would work for you, giving you plenty of room for kids and storage. All the cars offered either large trunks or hatchbacks for all the extra stuff kids demand you carry around. With the Nissan Leaf hatchback and fold-down seats, you can fit a bike in the back if you need to.

Or, do you need some horsepower under your foot? Protean proves that making larger, heavier vehicles electric and powerful is possible. Vans, SUVs, and cargo trucks can be retrofitted to use their in-wheel electric engines to give them the horsepower that traditional truck drivers demand.

It’s the Market’s Turn to Grow
While the Chevy Volt and Nissan Leaf are being sold to the masses and boast thousands of owners, the mass roll-out of these vehicles is far from here. Specifically, the Leafs are still ordered online; the cars are made as the order comes in and no dealers have the ability to give test drives of these vehicles yet. This is expected to change soon as Tim Gallagher, Corporate Communications for Nissan, explained, “We are starting to roll out demo cars to some dealers now.”

For the Volt, the car can be test driven and bought right at the dealer, but the options on colors, features and interiors has been very limited up until now. This is expected to be remedied a bit in 2012 when the Volt offers more exterior colors and interior colors as well as choices on some of the car’s interior amenities, like the Bose speakers.

Further, both companies admitted that the majority of the market demand remains in the “obvious places”, such as:

 

  • California (Los Angeles and San Francisco, most notably)
  • Texas
  • Urban areas like New York City and New Jersey

Meanwhile, you must consider how many electric vehicles are still our of reach. Both the Ford Escape and F-150 I drove are both prototype vehicles that are still in testing phase and not in mass production. “We are looking to partner with car companies or fleet vendors who would like to convert their vehicles to plug ins using our in-wheel electric engines” explained Ken Stewart of Protean. Further, he hinted at a U.S. manufacturing plant for their product expecting to open “soon”. But, he would not give a prediction of when such an announcement will come.

Several factors are obviously contributing to the slow movement toward adding the word “mass” in front of “electric vehicle”, including:

  • New technology takes time to be developed, tested and adopted
  • Smashing the traditional car consumers existing images of electric vehicles as being small and slow
  • Educating potential EV owners to understand that these cars are not high maintenance. Most cars can take them 50-100 miles without needing to be charged. But, while you are running your errands you can charge along the way. So, you may charge ½ hour at this store, and an hour at that store, but it will keep it going without much effort on your part. You don't have to wait hours for a full charge to use the car.
  • The infrastructure of having readily available charging stations is important to move adoption forward. ImageIf consumers feel like they can find a charging station as easily as a gas station, then their comfort level with this new type of vehicle is much improved.

As the technology around the plug in vehicle continues to improve, I hope conferences like Plug In 2011 will also help us improve what fuels them: customer understanding and an expansive charging network.