Here are sobering numbers for those of you drunk with the potential of electric vehicles: the number of people who attended Canada's biggest EV conference is about the same as the tally of Canadians who actually bought the world's most popular EV in 2013.
Nissan sold 470 Leaf battery cars in Canada last year, while about 450 delegates, speakers, sponsors, academics, media, trade show visitors, early adopters, truly committed do-gooders, hangers-on with nothing better to do, dreamers, the utterly delusional, and actual EV owners filled out the three-day EV2014VÉ Conference & Trade Show in Vancouver recently.
Talk about disappointing – I mean Leaf sales, EV sales in general and the EV extravaganza as a whole. I have been to enough of these conferences to know we are taking baby steps to zero emission vehicles. I've test driven enough EVs to conclude we are years, perhaps decades away from seeing a mainstream EV with a 500-km range at the price of a Ford Fiesta or Honda Fit – about $14,000 or so.
I buy into the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reports without reservation, so thoughts of climate change and my 20-year-old's future on a warming planet were rattling around my head as I arrived at the conference, hopeful of seeing and hearing about breakthroughs in EV technology and infrastructure. There were the usual R&D roundtables, headlined by university types who would struggle selling diesel fuel to a truck driver.
The trade show exhibition had the usual suspects, too: car makers such as Ford, Nissan, General Motors, BMW Daimler and Mitsubishi, along with suppliers such as Schneider Electric, and industrial researchers such as Powertech Labs. Well-meaning, earnest types were all about, but they didn't offer any magic formulas. When it comes to EVs, there aren't any.
In short supply were no-nonsense types, such as Ashley Horvat, who works for the governor of Oregon as the state's chief EV officer. Horvat understands two things that so many EV cheerleaders do not:
1. Great marketing is needed to get paying customers into EVs using their own money;
2. There's no point in moaning about what you don't have, when it comes to promoting and supporting EVs. It's much better to make the most of the resources you've got. Make a plan, and err on the side of action.
Horvat stepped up with the story of making something of a success out of the Pacific Coast Collaborative and the West Coast Electric Highway.
She and her coastal colleagues aren't developing EVs, but they created a re-charging corridor for Oregon tourists who want to take day trips in their EVs without any range anxiety.
Here's how they did it:
- Someone needs to be the “control point,” the one in charge. A dozen or two agencies, partners, and donors may be on the roster, but all decisions go through one place which is Horvat. Anyone who’s dealt with government/agency/industry/non-profit partnerships can see the sense of getting all different interests in line behind one boss.
- Develop a brand. Horvat’s team focused on creating an appealing West Coast Electric Highway brand and it’s working.
- Establish and adhere to clear parameters for all EV charging locations. Think Starbucks and McDonald’s in terms of branding and location. EV drivers should immediately recognize the signage, colours and design of every charging station. And the procedures for charging must not vary from location to location.
- The charging stations themselves must stand out in places that click intuitively with EV drivers. “Don’t just give a charging location to the first person to raise a hand,” she warned delegates, pointing to something that happens all too often in this game.
She wrapped a presentation with a video about an Oregon marketing initiative: the Plug and Pinot Tour starring former Trail Blazers' star Jerome Kersey. Horvat persuaded this tall-as-a-skyscraper athlete to fold himself into a Leaf and do a wine tour – sipping pinot between quick charges. Brilliant and utterly useful: All the local news programs in Oregon ran stories.
Then came Dr. David Beeton of the "think tank" Urban Foresight with his EV City Casebook filled with 50 Big Ideas Shaping the Future of Electric Mobility. Very academic. However, when he said this EV business "is truly a global phenomenon," he lost me. It's not. Not yet, at least.
The technology is in its infancy. There aren't realistic answers to the big questions about EVs themselves: how to get the cost down to a point competitive with mainstream cars (without taxpayer-funded subsidies); how to get the range up to 500 km between charges; and how to build a battery system that can be recharged safely and inexpensively in three minutes (the time it takes to fill a tank with gas). Without these issues solved, EVs will forever remain a niche product.
Correction: An earlier version of this story reported that Nissan sold 382 Leaf battery cars in Canada last year. In fact, it sold 470.
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