Q&A: Plug-In Leader Discusses Ups and Downs of America’s E.V. Transformation

Ecotality's innovation chief discusses everything from the issue of sluggish U.S. demand for E.V.'s and how the Solyndra fallout has affected its business.

Ecotality's Blink charger
Ecotality's 240-volt, level-2 Blink charger can fill up cars in six hours, while the public fast chargers, which Ecotality began installing in March, can charge a car in around 20 minutes.

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It’s been a rough spell for electric cars, with automakers abandoning sales targets amid tepid demand, and Congressional Republicans trying to turn struggling battery and electric-car manufacturers into symbols of failed clean economy policies.

But that hasn’t stopped Ecotality, a maker of charging equipment and the largest single grantee in the Energy Department’s Vehicle Technologies Program, from pressing ahead with plans to install 14,000 electric vehicle charging stations in cities across the country. The company, backed by $115 million in stimulus money, is nearly halfway to that goal. So far, it has put 5,800 chargers in home garages and public parking lots as part of its three-year-old EV Project

But charging infrastructure is only half the battle; consumer acceptance is the other half. And while the number of charging companies and stations is proliferating—Pike Research forecasts 13,000 chargers by the end of the year and 1.5 million by 2017—there are just about 20,000 electric cars on U.S. roads.

That may unnerve advocates familiar with America’s late-1990s experiment in electric vehicles. After models like GM’s EV1 and Chrysler’s Epic electric minivan failed to win enough buyers, the charging infrastructure was deserted. Much of it had been built by Ecotality North America, an Ecotality subsidiary, then called Electric Transportation Engineering Corporation (eTec).

Things are different now, said Don Karner, Ecotality’s chief innovation officer and president of Ecotality North America, in an extensive interview with InsideClimate News.

For one, they’re working to build a recharging network that encourages increased use of electric cars.

The company’s $1,200, WiFi-connected “Blink” chargers record and store information on things like how long it takes to “fill up” and at what times the stations are used. The devices report data back to researchers at the DOE’s Idaho National Lab for analysis. Ecotality has collected about 17 million miles of driving data that it says will lead to wiser decisions about where to plant chargers.

The company recently raised $20 million in private investment from Swiss engineering giant ABB. Last month, it was honored by Bloomberg New Energy Finance as one of the nation’s top ten clean energy pioneers. “Through innovation, acquisitions, and strategic partnerships, Ecotality accelerates the market applicability of advanced electric technologies to replace carbon-based fuels,” said the announcement of the award.

InsideClimate News sat down with Karner in New York City in the week of the event to discuss the promises and challenges of Ecotality and the electric vehicle market.

Electric car advocates have had a tough couple of months. Is the image problem with electric cars affecting your business?

Well, I guess I would challenge that there’s an image problem with electric cars. On a month-by-month basis, I don’t think you can judge anything. It’s an election year. The Obama administration has been very supportive of electric transportation, and so that affiliation is going to cause E.V.’s to have a lot of rocks thrown at them.

What’s the good news about the electric vehicle market?

There are 20,000 cars out there that are running on electricity. I think that’s fantastic news. There’s infrastructure being built. There are a lot of companies out there that are competing in this.

The good news for us is that our investors put tens of millions of dollars in to match the federal government’s money in the EV Project because they believe in electric transportation.

Have the “rocks” that have been thrown at electric vehicles caused you to put the brakes on deploying any infrastructure as part of the EV Project?

No, not at all. Our objectives in the EV Project are to gather data, and to understand as best we can how people are going to utilize that infrastructure and utilize their vehicles. And we’re on target.

In Congress, the rock-throwing at electric cars has come in part because of the political fallout from Solyndra. Are you concerned that Congressional Republicans might pull the plug on things like tax credits for electric cars?

Concerned? Sure. If the subsidies go away, will the industry die? No. If the subsidies stay, will the industry be bolstered and develop faster? Yes. So, I think it’s a good use of government funds to help stimulate an industry that can reduce air pollution, increase energy security and provide transportation at lower cost than current gasoline prices.

Has Ecotality come under heightened scrutiny from the media or received more attention because it received funding from the DOE—even though it wasn’t a loan?

Editor’s Note: Under its grant, Ecotality gets reimbursed about 50 cents for every dollar it spends. So far, the company has spent roughly $70 million on the EV Project and received $33 million of its DOE funds. Late last month, prior to this interview, CBS reported that the firm has been under investigation by the Securities and Exchange Commission since 2010 for insider trading. An Ecotality spokesperson told InsideClimate News that the SEC “has stated that the inquiry should not be construed as a determination that violations of the law have occurred.”

Oh, sure. We got the largest vehicle technologies grant from DOE. And that in itself generates a lot of discussion. We’ve answered the questions honestly and fairly the same way every time. And we don’t see any connection in our house or in the DOE’s house.

Do you have any concerns that electric vehicles might not eventually reach the mass adoption that many are hoping for?

No. I don’t have a concern that they will get there. No one has an understanding of when. There are so many factors. If Iran decides to close the Straits of Hormuz and you have 1970-style lines with people waiting to get gasoline, I can guarantee you electric vehicles will be selling like hotcakes. If gas goes down to $2.50 a gallon, it’s probably going to take longer.

Which do I think has the higher probability? I’m not holding my breath for $2.50 gas. And what happens in the Middle East? I don’t know. But I do know that China and India are going to have a tremendous appetite for oil, and that oil will be supplied. But it will raise the price of oil for everybody.

What do you believe is more important—that electric charging infrastructure is deployed, and that will then attract the drivers? Or is it important to get the cars on the road first, and then build infrastructure?

I think it’s a matter of when in that development cycle you’re talking about. There are people out there for whom it doesn’t matter what the price is, whether there’s infrastructure or what the car looks like. If it’s running on electricity, they want it.

We’ll burn through those folks pretty quickly, and then the more mainstream folks are going to want to see that there’s infrastructure. They’ll want to see that this works, that the batteries are not failing, that you can charge. They’ll want to understand the pricing of all that, and they’ll want to see a mature market. That’s what we’re building right now.

So it’s a little bit of both then, right?

Yes. Who buys vehicles today are not the people who are going to buy them in six months, a year or three years from now. How the infrastructure is going to be used today is going to change over time. And what that formula is for someone to make a purchase decision is going to change over time. We’re looking at the market as a very fluid situation.

If the E.V. market does remain in this early adopter segment, can Ecotality continue to build charging infrastructure without that mainstream market?

Well, the infrastructure is going to be built out as required to support the vehicles that are there. And so, if there’s no more vehicles, one would not deploy additional infrastructure. But as I said, I don’t see that as a viable premise.

What do you think is keeping mainstream Americans from buying electric cars, and what is ultimately going to make them switch?

A lot of it is just understanding and confidence. They need to understand that this whole system works, that the vehicles are real vehicles. And as they see that happen, and they make a future purchase decision, a greater and greater percentage of them will make a decision to buy electric.

Do you think that willingness can happen at the current cost of electric cars, with the Leaf around $40,000, or the Fisker Karma around $100,000?

One has to realize that auto companies are very smart with their marketing. And they’re going to price to market. I talked about early adopters being willing to purchase almost anything, and so my belief is that vehicles are currently priced to market.

That was one of the huge issues that people had with the [Toyota hybrid] Prius. ‘Oh, it’s so much more expensive than an equivalent standard internal combustion vehicle. People will never buy it.’ Well, guess what? [laughs]. The price has come down on the Prius to be more competitive, and a lot of that was pricing to market.

So, I don’t think one can look at the price of E.V.’s today and assume that that’s going to be the price of E.V.’s forever. Car companies are going to do what they need to do to sell cars. That’s how they’ve been in business for lots of decades.

In the earlier stages of deployment for the EV Project, there were connectivity issues with the Blink software. How have you addressed those glitches?

Editor’s Note: PlugInCars.com reported in September that some Ecotality customers complained that chargers stopped charging when they lost their Internet connection or crashed altogether.

We deployed this infrastructure very quickly. It’s something that’s never been done before … as far as the data collection. And a lot of the connections were in people’s homes. So there’s obviously a great deal of variation when you go into someone’s home with what the communications capabilities are.

We learned a lot of lessons in that. Fortunately, we planned for the ability to download software upgrades over the [Internet]. We have done a number of updates of the software already, and we are in the midst right now of a major over-the-air [Internet] update of the software that has proven to improve the reliability of the communications to the back office significantly.

What is Ecotality doing to make E.V. charging easier on the electrical grid?

What we’re trying to do is work with the electric utilities to eliminate any investment they need to make in their grid infrastructure to support electric vehicles. We’d like to make electric vehicles just be pure energy sales for them—not have to put in transformers or power plants or anything like that.

There’s a tremendous amount of excess capacity in the system, because we use electricity during the day and not at night. So if we can get all that stuff scheduled at night … the utilities can sell more energy without having to put in any more investment.

Which regions or states do you see as holding the most promise for electric cars? What’s happening there that isn’t happening in other states or cities?

The West Coast has certainly been a hotbed of early introductions for advanced-fuel vehicles. But I don’t see that that’s exclusive at all. New York City is now a target for both Nissan and General Motors with deployment.

There’s really no area that E.V.’s can’t penetrate. Some are just easier than others, and in some there are more early adopters. Certainly Oregon, Washington, California … have been the early target for the [automakers]. We follow where the vehicles go. So, if the vehicles are in Lincoln, Nebraska, we’re going to be in Lincoln, Nebraska. Right now the vehicles are in the West Coast. Texas has been a hotbed and the Southeast now is beginning to take off.

San Francisco is just crazy for electric vehicles. Probably of all the cities in the country, San Francisco has the highest adoption rate.

Why is that? Is it because of San Francisco’s policies?

I think it’s really the people themselves, not necessarily any government policies. The City of San Francisco is not doing anything different that the City of Los Angeles or San Diego, yet the adoption rate in San Francisco is significantly higher.

How does Ecotality define success?

Two ways. One, obviously the EV Project is a significant part of our success. And for the EV Project, it’s to continue to gather data, to look at that data, to disseminate information off of that data—lessons learned that will help the industry do a better job of deploying infrastructure.

And then, from a company standpoint, we’re a public company, so obviously the very first thing is to provide a return for our investors. We do that by helping develop infrastructure to support electric vehicle rollouts not only in the U.S. but throughout North America. We have operations in Australia, and we have a joint venture in China.

What comes next for Ecotality after the EV Project?

Certainly, continuing to support the deployment of electric vehicles in the U.S. Australia is very interesting in that it’s a completely deregulated electric grid. And so, we’re down there to learn, and we’re down there because we think that E.V.’s will have a significant benefit to the grid and that we can monetize that, working with some of the electric companies.

Obviously China—it’s just huge. We’re working with [Shenzhen Goch Investment Ltd.] in a joint venture to build and deploy infrastructure, to help them understand our lessons learned here … We’re there because the size of it and wanting to be a player as they roll out what will no doubt be millions of electric vehicles.

How does the U.S. stack up to China or Europe in terms of electric car uptake?

Well, the Europeans are very interested in electric vehicles. They face some challenges that we don’t here, in that that developing standards is a little bit more difficult for them. We’re farther ahead I believe on standardization of things like the [J1772] connector [for charging stations].

But with fuel more expensive, with driving distances shorter, with cars smaller in Europe … there’s a real propensity to look at electric transportation. The government is very involved in Europe. the utilities are very involved in Europe, and it’s more of a social decision for them in Europe than it is a business decision.

China is very heavily looking at electric transportation … They are doing a great deal of research and development. Many companies there are involved with batteries, with building electric vehicles. China will probably be the automotive center of the world. They’ll certainly be the largest consumer of automotive products in the world pretty quickly, and so electric will definitely be a part of that.

Is there anything I haven’t asked you about that you think is important to point out?

You no doubt have picked up that we’re really proud of what we’re doing with the EV Project. We’re really focused on getting data and getting that information out, to not only the Department of Energy but to our competitors and to utilities and the public.