Against a background of unprecedented investment in electric vehicles development, the last few months of 2009 saw the launch of two separate initiatives aimed at accelerating their deployment even further. The first, known as the U.S.-China Electric Vehicles Initiative, was announced by U.S. President Barack Obama and his Chinese counterpart at a high-profile meeting. In launching the scheme, the two leaders were keen to stress their countries’ strong shared interest in accelerating EV development in order to reduce oil dependence, cut greenhouse gas emissions and promote economic growth.
The second initiative was the launch of the Electrification Coalition, which describes itself as ‘a nonpartisan, not-for-profit group of business leaders committed to promoting policies and actions that facilitate the deployment of electric vehicles on a mass scale in order to combat the economic, environmental, and national security dangers caused by America’s dependence on petroleum.’
Although both schemes spring from the need to tackle economic, environmental and natural resource pressures, a closer analysis reveals that they each paint quite different pictures of what the future of electric vehicles development can and should look like.
U.S.-China electric vehicles initiative
As the world’s two largest single automobile markets, the U.S. and China have both already made large-scale investments in electric vehicles. The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act introduced a $7,500 tax credit for people buying electric vehicles and committed a hefty $2.4 billion to support battery manufacturing. The U.S. government has also set aside over $8.5 billion to assist companies in retooling their factories to produce electric vehicles. China has also backed large investments in battery research, and its recently unveiled economic recovery package features significant funding for electric vehicle demonstrations and charging infrastructure.
In an effort to promote the large-scale introduction of EV technology, activities under the Initiative will include:
• Joint standards development. The two countries will explore development of joint product and testing standards, including common design standards for plugs to be used in electric vehicles, as well as common test protocols for batteries and other devices. In doing so, each country will make existing literature and data on its own standards mutually available.
• Joint demonstrations. In an interesting step, the Initiative will link over a dozen cities with electric vehicle demonstration programs across both countries. ‘Paired’ cities will collect and share data on charging patterns, driving experiences, grid integration, consumer preferences and other topics.
• Joint technical roadmap. A bilateral task force will prepare a multi-year roadmap to identify R&D needs, as well as issues related to the manufacture, introduction and use of electric vehicles. The roadmap, which will be made widely available to stakeholders across the global automotive industry, will be updated regularly to reflect technological advances and changes in the marketplace.
• Public awareness and engagement. This will entail the development and dissemination of materials to improve public understanding of EV technologies. The two countries will also sponsor an annual EV conference alternating between the two countries to share information on best practices and identify new areas for collaboration.
The electrification coalition
Backed by several companies, including Nissan, PG&E, Coda Automotive, Johnson Controls-Saft, Coulomb Technologies, FedEx and A123 Systems, the newly formed Electrification Coalition seeks to promote the rapid deployment of EV technology through a combination of public policy research and the ‘education’ of policymakers, opinion leaders, and the public.
Its primary objective will be to encourage the mass adoption of electric vehicles by employing a wide variety of policies and actions, including the creation of electrification ‘ecosystems,’ limited geographic areas where electrified vehicles and infrastructure can be introduced so the concept can ‘take root and grow.’
Addressing the concerns of many Americans, members of the coalition point out that the process of electrification would ‘shatter’ the status of oil as the main fuel of U.S. land transportation, and enable cars and light trucks to run on a diverse mix of nuclear, natural gas, coal, wind, solar, geothermal and hydroelectric energy.
The coalition argues that the creation of a highly-integrated electrified transportation system made up of many individual elements (including cars, batteries and recharging infrastructure), in which every part depends on the other, will present complex challenges that must be analyzed and solved if policymakers are to act. The need to be aware of this inter-dependence is recognised on the coalition website, where members state that, “We would see few results if we began selling batteries in the Northeast, created a smart grid and expanded recharging infrastructure in the Northwest, and introduced more electric cars in the deep South.”
The electrification roadmap
At its launch, the coalition issued a report, called the Electrification Roadmap – Revolutionizing Transportation & Achieving Energy Security, which outlines a radical vision for the deployment of a fully integrated electric vehicle network.
The report makes the usual arguments for electric cars (reduced emissions, less dependence on foreign oil), lays out the challenges to their adoption and offers some policy proposals for overcoming them. More striking is its bold call for a national goal of seeing EVs account for a staggering 75 percent of all light-duty miles driven by 2040. As a vital step in realising this goal, the coalition says electric and plug-in hybrids must comprise 25 percent of the market as early as 2020. Analysts have predicted that reaching that goal will require having 14 million electric cars on the road, an objective that appears light years ahead of President Obama’s goal of seeing 1 million such vehicles by 2015. Looking further ahead, the Roadmap argues that 90 percent of all passenger vehicles sold in 2030 must be electric, which would equate to more than 120 million electric cars.
Perhaps surprisingly, the report suggests that the achievement of such ambitious goals will not require concerted action at a national scale. Instead, it urges the government to provide incentives to create “electrification ecosystems” in several major U.S. cities. Such cities would be selected based upon their support for the technology, and the public and private sectors would work together to create the infrastructure needed to keep the cars going. On current evidence, it seems likely that cities in states including California, Oregon and Washington would be likely candidates.
Speaking about the approach, David Crane, president and CEO of NRG Energy and a member of the coalition said, “Introducing all the separate elements, from cars to infrastructure, simultaneously in select communities across the country will move electrification beyond the early adopters.”
However, even achieving this seemingly more modest goal will require getting a lot of electric cars on the country’s driveways. In fact, it has been predicted that between 50,000 and 100,000 vehicles will have to be deployed in each of six or eight U.S. cities by 2013 to put the country on track to realise the coalition’s mid- and long-term goals. In moving forward, it is the coalition’s strong belief that electric cars will catch on as more and more people see them on the road and consider them to be a viable alternative to existing offerings.
The almost simultaneous launch of these two high-profile initiatives provides further clear evidence that the electric vehicle sector looks set to undergo a period of considerable growth. However, the widely differing approaches and aims of each initiative suggests that the exact scale of this expansion is still very much open to debate.
Although formal U.S. -China cooperation has been broadly welcomed, the government initiative has been criticised for not being ambitious enough and lacking a clear and concrete vision of how the steps to electrification might be realised. Moreover, environmental campaigners also point out that any climate change scheme can only be fully embraced if the source of the electricity is substantially less carbon intensive than oil, which seems unlikely since the two sides are, according to the Initiative, “working in both countries to promote 21st Century coal technologies.”
On the other hand, it has been suggested that the radical vision of the Electrification Coalition Roadmap is too ambitious, and would require a level of action that is quite simply beyond the current capacities of industry stakeholders. Even Nissan CEO Carlos Ghosn, one of the automotive industry’s most vocal advocates of EV technology, (and himself a member of the coalition), has said electric vehicles will comprise no more than 10 percent of the market by 2020.
The coalition itself also concedes that the numbers presented in its report are “aggressive” and recognises that the government will have to provide incentives and other policies to reach them. It also concedes that the U.S. electrical grid will need significant improvements to supply power for so large an influx of EVs, but argues that the generation and distribution capacity is already in place.
At this stage, it remains difficult to predict exactly what the future holds for electric vehicles. What is perhaps likely is that differences in levels of market acceptance, and in how environmental and economic pressures are experienced at a regional level, will dictate the pace of change across countries.