Thursday, August 5, 2010
As more and more plug-in hybrids and all-electric vehicles are hitting the market in San Diego, one of the earliest markets to have them, and across the U.S. -- including the new the Chevy Volt and the Nissan Lea -- questions are coming up. What are the region's infrastructure plans for these vehicles? What are these new cars like to drive? What else is on the horizon?
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH (Host): I'm Maureen Cavanaugh, and you're listening to These Days on KPBS. The electric cars are coming. Earlier this week, San Diego officials unveiled plans to install 1500 public car-charging stations across the county. Some will be at workplaces, others at coffee shops and malls and freeways, dispersed from North County to the South Bay. The new plug-in charging stations will be just part of the different way of driving we'll be learning in the era of the electric car. It seems the early models, which should be showing up at San Diego dealerships later this year, have generated lots of excitement but they may take some getting used to. I’d like to welcome my guests. Jonathan Read is CEO of Ecotality, the manufacturer of the EV charger Blink. And, Jonathan, welcome to These Days.
JONATHAN READ (CEO, Ecotality): Good morning, Maureen. Thank you for having me on today.
CAVANAUGH: We’re inviting listeners to call in and join the conversation if you’ve got a question or a comment about these new charging stations, how they can be used, what they’re going to look like. Give us a call and we’ll talk about it. The number is 1-888-895-5727, that’s 1-888-895-KPBS. Jonathan, I wonder if you could start off with a little bit of the background for this project, a little bit of the big picture, because this sort of like sprang into our consciousness this week that these chargers are coming to San Diego. For instance, where is the funding coming from for a big program like this?
READ: Maureen, the funding for this is coming from a U.S. Department of Energy grant under the ARRA, the American Reconstruction and Recovery Act. It’s stimulus spending. And what we’re doing is rolling out massive electric vehicle infrastructure in seven states and 15 cities, one of the largest deployments going to San Diego itself, San Diego County itself. It’s a program that is going to disperse about 15,700 chargers in conjunction with about 8,500 vehicles. The purpose of the program is really to build out a rich public charge infrastructure so that when vehicles arrive the consumers have the ability to no longer to be tethered just to their garages but to move about the community.
CAVANAUGH: Now your firm produces chargers that you’ve named Blink. Tell us a little about the Blink.
READ: Well, we thought – we believe that the charge network is exactly that, it’s a network. It’s beyond just your father’s battery charger. We’re building a network that allows the consumer to communicate with the network, allowing them to make reservations for chargers, allowing the charger units to communicate with utilities, allowing you to look up locations of charge stations on your iPhone, to monitor your electricity usage on your home computer, and it really is much more about making smart decisions and making – and having instant information, thus comes the name Blink.
CAVANAUGH: Wow. Now these early electric models that I’ve been reading about have about a 100 mile battery power, is that right?
READ: That’s about correct. The volt has a 40-mile electric range before it kicks into gas but the Nissan vehicle has about a 100 mile range. And, you know, an interesting factoid is that 80% of Americans drive their cars less than 40 miles…
READ: …a day.
CAVANAUGH: Yeah, I have read that as well. I want to let everyone know I’m speaking with Jonathan Read. He’s CEO of Ecotality, the manufacturer of the EV—that is, electric car—charger Blink and we will – we’ve just heard that 1500 (sic) public car-charging stations are going to be located across San Diego County. If you’d like to join the conversation, the number is 1-888-895-5727. I’m interested, Jonathan, as I said in the opening, you know, this is going to be a sort of a learning curve. Electric cars, driving them a different way, thinking about batteries and how long the charge the batteries, the car batteries, can hold. You must’ve been doing some thinking about that. How do you think our minds are going to – How do you think we’re going to start thinking about driving differently?
READ: Well, the fundamental shift is going to occur that you no longer have to go to a fueling station to recharge. You’re going to charge where you play, where you work, where you’re going to the movies, when you’re – where you’re dining. The charge stations will ultimately become ubiquitous in retail circles. So it’s going to be very much a part and very handy for you in your daily travels versus having to stop at a gas station. The DOE program that we’re in is actually a nationwide study to monitor the consumer behavior and understand better how to deal with issues that we call in the industry range anxiety, to make sure that you’re comfortable knowing that there’s a charger within a half mile radius and that you can get to that charger so you don’t have to be constantly concerned about your range.
CAVANAUGH: And how does Blink work? How is it similar or dissimilar to filling up a tank with gas?
READ: There’s two types of chargers. There’s a Level 2 charger which takes three to – to do four hours to get a significant charge, which means almost a full charge. And then there’s a Level 3 type of charger which will give you a full charge in between 15 and 25 minutes. So that fast charging is going to be something you would see in front of, say, a pharmacy where you would normally spend 15 to 20 minutes or a coffee shop, a Starbucks or what have you, where it takes about that much time to get your Café Mochachino in the morning.
CAVANAUGH: Right. And do you know why San Diego was one of those chosen as a location for these EV chargers?
READ: San Diego is absolutely one of the most progressive counties and cities in the nation. It’s been an early adopter of hybrid electric vehicles. It has a great tech community that is curious, that’s willing to take chances. It has an ideal climate for electric vehicles in terms of the ultimate battery conditions, so to speak, and it just is a community of well known early adopters who are concerned about their environment and particularly the air quality in the San Diego region.
CAVANAUGH: I have been asking people to join the conversation at 1-888-895-5727, and Dan is calling us from South Park. Good morning, Dan. Welcome to These Days.
DAN (Caller, South Park): Hi. Good morning. Yeah, I just wanted to, you know, I’m on the list for a Leaf and a Tesla…
DAN: …the sedan, you know, not the real expensive one.
DAN: But it’s funny how people just can’t believe that I’m going to drive a Leaf and only have a range of 100 miles. I mean, you know, like you said, 80% of the driving is less than, I think, 50 miles a day. And it’s funny how they – how everybody thinks this way. And it’s really going to take a shift in thought, I think. But a question I have is what’s the interface going to be to charge on the Blink if there’s different kind of EV vehicles?
READ: Well, fortunately, this time around on electric vehicles, all the vehicle manufacturers have agreed to a standardized plug. So our chargers will work on any vehicle, any battery, which is a real shift and probably the first time that the vehicle manufacturers have gotten together and unified anything since they agreed to the size of the spigot for the gas tank.
CAVANAUGH: Right. And…
DAN: Well, great.
CAVANAUGH: Thank you, Dan. Thanks for the call.
DAN: Well, thanks.
CAVANAUGH: Dan brings up an issue, too. I think that in the industry, in the electric car industry, it’s called range anxiety and it has to do with people thinking, you know, even though we know we’re not going to drive much more than 50 miles per day, the idea that, you know, we – just filling up the tank with gas can get your anywhere you want to go for hours on end. I’m wondering, 1500 locations here in San Diego County for these Blink chargers, it sounds like enough but, Jonathan, do you think it’s enough to solve this range anxiety?
READ: Well, given the fact that there are going to be, say, 500 to 1000 vehicles initially, it’s going to be actually overkill in creating that rich charge infrastructure. And as more vehicles roll out, there is going to be a viral effect. If we put them into Safeways, the – and the chargers are always full, the manager over at Alpha Beta’s going to – or, I mean, Albertsons is going to say we need chargers here, we’re losing business. So we see this as being a private sector viral growth business versus a public sector driven rollout of electric chargers, I think which is very good for counties and cities that aren’t particularly flush in cash right now.
CAVANAUGH: And finally, Jonathan, how much is it going to cost to charge your car?
READ: You know, the actual electricity cost to charge a car is somewhere in the vicinity, depending upon your battery size, between a dollar and $1.80. So we’re looking at models where you might have a monthly subscription of, say, $20.00 that would give you, as they say in the phone business, unlimited minutes.
READ: And so that represents perhaps 50% of the cost of a single tank of gas, so we’re looking at a subscription model and a pay as you go model. But we believe that most of these chargers are going to be considered consumer amenities by many of the retailers. And you might, in many instances, get free charging if you’re a regular customer.
CAVANAUGH: Oh, that’s an idea. I like that.
CAVANAUGH: When will we get them?
READ: They’ll be rolling out in October and we’ll have a full infrastructure in San Diego by December when all the vehicles roll out.
CAVANAUGH: Jonathan Read, thanks so much for speaking with us.
READ: Thank you, Maureen. Have a good day.
CAVANAUGH: Jonathan Read, CEO of Ecotality, the manufacturer of the EV charger Blink. I’d like to welcome a second guest now, John O’Dell, senior editor for edmundsgreencaradvisor.com (sic). And John, welcome to These Days.
JOHN O’DELL (Senior Editor, Edmunds.com/greencaradvisor): Thank you much. I’m happy to be here.
CAVANAUGH: Now you’ve driven, from what I understand, just about every hybrid and electric vehicle available, even some that aren’t yet available. Let’s talk about the newest ones coming here to San Diego, the Chevy Volt and the Nissan Leaf.
CAVANAUGH: One is a new kind of hybrid, one is all electric. Tell us which is which.
O'DELL: The Volt is an extended range plug-in hybrid. The Leaf from Nissan is a battery electric car. They’re interesting and both of them are driven electrically. Only the electric motor drives the wheels. However, the Volt has a small gasoline engine on board that is used to generate electricity when the charge from the battery is depleted.
CAVANAUGH: I see. Okay, well, let’s stay with the Volt for a moment now. How many does it seat?
O'DELL: It’s a four-seater. The battery packed in the Volt is a fairly good-size one and it runs right down the middle where the old drive train hump used to be in old-fashioned cars and it separates the two rear seats so there wasn’t room to put a fourth seat in – or, excuse me, a third backseat.
CAVANAUGH: I see. So, and we were talking about range. Even though this is a – this has a small gas engine, does it also operate on that electric power range?
O'DELL: Yes, the way it’s set up, it has a battery pack that you charge overnight, let’s say, from – in your garage and it will deliver – it’s capable of delivering, depending on how you drive and how many people are in the car, etcetera, it’s capable of driven – excuse me, delivering up to about 40 miles of all electric range before the gasoline generator kicks in.
CAVANAUGH: Now the price on the Volt seems kind of high to me. It’s, I think, it’s selling for $41,000. That’s about $10,000 more than, say, a fusion hybrid or a Prius. Do you think – first of all, why do you think the price is that high?
O'DELL: I’m – They’re trying to recover as much cost as they can and not subsidize the heck out of it. They’ve always talked about a $40,000 price although they hinted from time to time that they might be able to bring it in lower than that. We had certainly expected when the Leaf came out and announced a thirty – roughly, a $33,000 price…
O'DELL: …that the Volt would come in under forty. So we were not the only ones that were a little shocked at that $41,000 price. But I think that part of the strategy is that they really want to lease it rather than sell it. If you look at the lease price on the Volt it’s thirty-five – or, excuse me, $3500 down, I think, and $350 a month, which is a much lower lease price than a $41,000 car would normally command. And my personal opinion—no one from GM has said this to me—but my person opinion is, is that they would like to lease as many versus sell and then get them back at the end of three years so that if there are a new generation of batteries, more powerful batteries, things of that nature, upgrades available, it’s a lot easier to put them on and then put the cars back out into the market than it is to try to get them out of the hands of people who have bought them.
CAVANAUGH: Interesting. I’m speaking with John O’Dell. He’s senior editor for Edmundsgreencaradvisor.com (sic). Now the Chevy Volt is one of the electric cars that’s going to go on the market here in San Diego later this year. The other one is the Nissan Leaf. So tell us about that, John. This one is all electric, right?
O'DELL: It’s all electric. It’s a five-seat hatchback. The – It’s interesting looking. It’s not one that you immediately go, oh, wow, that’s a great looking car, at least I don’t think so.
O'DELL: But it grows on you. It’s quite, quite roomy inside. The only gripe I’ve had about it in my experience with it is that I think it’s a little too gray and monotone on the interior, and if that’s all you can complain about a car, that’s not too bad. It delivers up to 100 miles of range on a single charge and then, of course, unlike the Volt, it would have to be parked and recharged, a process that depending on the kind – you were just talking with Jonathan about chargers, depending on the type of charger you’re hooked up to, it can take anywhere from a half an hour to overnight, depending on the voltage and amperage that’s being delivered.
CAVANAUGH: Now, I read that there is one version of the Leaf that has sort of like a solar power strip that – what is that about?
O'DELL: Oh, it’s just a – it’s a small solar panel that’s on the, what they call, it’s on a spoiler up at the top of the car, and what it does is it generates power to keep a set of interior fans working when you’ve parked the car…
CAVANAUGH: I see.
O'DELL: …so that it cools off the interior. It’s not a big enough solar panel to do much more than that. It may, I can’t recall, it may provide a very small amount of electricity to help with the demands of things like radio and, you know, and some of the other small electronics onboard. But it’s principally to keep the interior circulation system working when the car’s parked.
CAVANAUGH: One of the things I was talking about the new way of driving that we have to be learning with electric cars is the fact that they’re so silent. And I read that the Leaf actually has some noises that it makes so that pedestrians can tell that it’s coming.
O'DELL: Yes, indeed. There’ve been a – It’s a sore point with some EV people who say that one of the reasons for an EV is that it’s quiet and it gets rid of the noise pollution that automobile traffic or automobiles cause. But there’ve been concern voiced by the, I can’t – Federation for the Blind.
O'DELL: And that’s been picked up in Congress and, in fact, there’s legislation floating around somewhere in D.C. that would require this sort of thing. So Nissan, which also – there’s a Japanese standard that requires it so Nissan took the bull by the horns and just made it a piece of standard equipment in all Leafs to be sold everywhere. It is, however, something the driver can turn off if you wish, and it’s almost imperceptible. You kind of have to be listening and you certainly can’t hear it from inside the car, and it’s pretty quiet from outside.
CAVANAUGH: That’s interesting. Now there are, if I understand correctly, tax breaks for buying electric vehicles.
CAVANAUGH: Bringing the cost down quite a bit. Do both of these cars qualify?
O'DELL: Both of them qualify for a $7,500 federal tax credit. You know, that applies when you’re leasing the car. It’s one of the reasons the lease prices are so good, is that if you lease either car, the value of the car that you’re leasing is immediately reduced by $7500 because the tax credit effectively goes to the owner, which in the case of a lease is the automobile maker, not you. If you buy the car, you get the tax credit at the end of that tax year so if you buy one in December, you get it pretty quickly. But if you buy one in January, it could be, you know, 14 months later…
O'DELL: …before you see the money and in the interim you have to qualify to finance the car at that higher full NSRP, $41,000 in the case of the Leaf, excuse me, in the case of the Volt. But, yes, there’s a $7500 federal tax credit and in California, there’s a $5,000 credit – excuse me, it’s a rebate, a refund, an immediate cash reduction in price available for a very few purchasers of some of the first Leafs that will come out. It is not available for the Volt because Chevrolet didn’t go through some of the hoops that California requires to qualify for it.
CAVANAUGH: Now, John, as I said at the very beginning, you’ve driven a lot of electric vehicles, a lot of hybrid electric vehicles, what do you think of these two cars, the Leaf and the Volt?
O'DELL: I like them both. They’ll serve different purposes, and they’ll appeal to different audiences. But they were both enjoyable to drive. Neither of them are performance cars but, you know, they’ll get you where you need to go in plenty of time and in a lot of comfort and style. They both, you know, are well tuned in, the rides are nice, the steering feels good. There – but could be, you know, a few issues. It’s unusual if you’ve never driven this style of car that they’re – It makes different noises than you’re used to.
O'DELL: And has different feels. One of the problems – excuse me, I shouldn’t say problems, one of the objections that a number of reviewers have had with the Volt is that that gas engine runs independently of what you’re doing…
O'DELL: …with the accelerator pedal and so sometimes it sort of sounds like you’ve stuck the car in neutral and are revving up an engine because it’s producing electrical power that the battery or the electric motor needs and it’s doing it at a time when you’re not necessarily accelerating the car. But it’s not very loud and you get used to it pretty quickly.
CAVANAUGH: My car does that anyway.
O'DELL: Anyhow, they’re both very nice, very accomplished vehicles. They are definitely not after-market conversions. You know, there’s nothing sloppy or unfinished about either of them.
O'DELL: It’s just a matter of whether you want a car that has zero tailpipe emissions and you never have to go to a gas station in it or if you want a car that you can get in and if you need to you can drive from here to New York without having to worry about recharging it.
CAVANAUGH: Right. Now I imagine that there are other EVs coming down the line. I think that you – and, of course, there are ones that are already on the market. I understand you like a car that’s made in Finland.
O'DELL: Yes, it’s not on the market in the U.S. yet but it’s called the Think City car. I happened to – Ford owned that company at one point and did some experimenting with it in California and I’d driven some years ago and just had the opportunity to drive one of the first that they’ve got with a new Lithium ion battery, which is what they’ll be selling in the U.S. And it’s just a great little commuter car. It’s a two-seat hatchback, has a plastic body so you don’t have to worry about parking lot dings or scratches. The color’s all the way through. And it’s just a, you know, a fun thing to drive. Mitsubishi’s got a four-seat city car called the i-MiEV that will be coming out fairly soon. I’ve driven that. Again, it’s a limited use car, it’s very small, it’s sort of smart sized. And it, you know, only has about 50, 60 miles of range but if you do all your driving in town or looking, you know, for a gasoline-free second car, either of these are going to be interesting. Smart’s coming out with an EV. I can’t remember the year it launches in the U.S. I think it’s 2012, although it might be late 2011. So – And there are a number of others…
O'DELL: …in all sorts of price ranges that are coming down.
CAVANAUGH: Now just one last question to you, John, and that is you – and you touched on it. The thing that I think is still the sticking point for electric vehicles is the batteries and how long people can drive on a battery charge. How do you think that’s going to change in the next few years?
O'DELL: Oh, I don’t know if it’s going to change in the next two or three years but most people in the battery industry think that there will be constant improvement and that I know that the people at Nissan, who do their own batteries and have been working on batteries for years, say that they fully well expect to have a lighter, smaller, greater range or more powerful battery available in four to five years. And, you know, that’s not out of the question. It’s – For automotive uses, batteries are still fairly new. You know, for this kind of automotive use, for powering electric motors, it’s still fairly new. There’s a lot of chemistry’s being examined and a lot of things coming along. And if we could couple that with a really robust, you know, public charging infrastructure…
O'DELL: …I think a lot of people aren’t going to mind if there’s only 100 or 150 miles of range if it only takes them 15, 20 minutes to recharge and they can keep going. Most of us don’t drive for more than two or three hours without getting out to stretch our legs anyhow.
CAVANAUGH: Exactly right.
O'DELL: You know, it’s just – So it’s going to be an interesting shift in what we do but it’s coming and we’re all going to, I think, benefit from it.
CAVANAUGH: And as Jonathan Read said, there are a lot of early adapters here in San Diego so we’re going to be on the cutting edge. John O’Dell, thanks so much for speaking with us today.
O'DELL: My pleasure.
O'DELL: John O’Dell is senior editor for Edmundsgreencaradvisor.com (sic). And earlier, we were speaking with Jonathan Read, CEO of Ecotality. If you’d like to comment, please go online, KPBS.org/thesedays. Coming up, it’s the Weekend Preview as These Days continues here on KPBS.