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This article is from the In-Depth Report Your Next New Car: Cleaner, Greener and Smarter

E-Transportation Jump-Start: Coalition Seeks to Pave the Way for Electric Vehicles

The Electrification Coalition, made up of carmaker Nissan Co., utilities and tech companies, introduced itself and its mission on Monday
Electrification Coalition, electric car, climate change



© ISTOCKPHOTO.COM/JOHN KROPEWNICKI

Although the widespread adoption of electric vehicles and their related infrastructure has always suffered from chicken-and-egg syndrome, Nissan and FedEx, along with several utilities and technology companies have formed a coalition to break the stalemate. At a press conference Monday in Washington, D.C., the Electrification Coalition announced its formation as well as a new 130-page report on the dangers of oil dependence, the benefits of electric vehicles, and ways to overcome roadblocks that have kept these vehicles from being deployed en masse.

Sixty percent of the petroleum used by the U.S. daily comes from foreign sources, FedEx CEO Fred Smith said at the launch event, adding that 90 percent of all U.S. transportation is petroleum-powered. Smith made clear his position that reliance on foreign oil is "in no small way related" to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. This energy mentality has to change because the U.S.'s dependence on foreign oil has created what amounts to a security risk for the country as a whole, said Sen. Byron Dorgan (D–N.D.), who also spoke at Monday's event.

The coalition's position is that a move to electric vehicles would help the U.S. combat the economic, environmental and national security vulnerabilities caused by the country's petroleum dependence. The coalition's "Electrification Roadmap" report predicts that if by 2040, 75 percent of light-duty vehicle miles traveled in the U.S. are covered by electric vehicles, oil consumption in that fleet would be reduced by more than 75 percent, and "U.S. crude oil imports could effectively be reduced to zero."

The coalition estimates there will be 2.5 billion vehicles on the planet by 2050, up from 600 million this year. Smith pointed out that the continued economic development of India, China and Brazil will lead to a "staggering increase" in the number of vehicles on the world's roads. If they are powered by internal combustion engines, "we are on an unsustainable path," he added. "When you look at the alternatives that are available, electrification of short-haul transportation becomes the only viable alternative."

Smith acknowledged that electric vehicle owners, including his own company, pay a premium today for their fleets—whereas a hybrid pickup and delivery van costs about $90,000, FedEx can buy a diesel vehicle for about $60,000.

The problem with mass-producing the number of electric vehicles that would drive down costs has always been the standoff among carmakers, consumers and utilities—none of which are willing to invest in the technology until they are sure it is ready to meet their needs, both logistically and economically. "Car companies have not wanted to build cars in bulk for infrastructures that don't exist, while infrastructure companies such as ourselves don't want to build infrastructures for cars that don't exist," said David Crane, chief executive of coalition member NRG Energy, Inc. Still, the risk of doing nothing has become apparent. For 2008 the U.S. net trade deficit in crude oil and petroleum products was $388 billion, Crane said, adding, "I don't think anyone in America is happy about that."

Legislation to control carbon emissions, public concern over the environment, and high gas prices are driving the demand for electric vehicles, said Carlos Ghosn, chief executive of coalition member Nissan Motor Co., whose all-electric Leaf is set to debut in the U.S. in 2010 (although it will not be widely available until 2012).

The coalition's proposed solution is in part to deploy fleets of 100,000 to 200,000 electric vehicles in six to eight U.S. cities that can invest in the necessary infrastructure. If this limited investment of resources leads to increased interest in driving electric cars, the coalition hopes to expand its program to 20 or 25 cities. Although the coalition did not reveal which urban areas it is planning to use as its initial test bed, the U.S. Department of Energy has already promised to provide $99.8 million to a project led by Electric Transportation Engineering Corporation (eTec), a subsidiary of Scottsdale, Ariz.–based ECOtality (not a member of the coalition), for installation of up to 12,750 charging stations across five markets: Tennessee, Oregon, San Diego, Seattle and the Phoenix–Tucson region. The project also includes the deployment of up to 1,000 Nissan Leafs in each market.

Coalition test runs in the selected cities will also provide the parties involved with a better understanding of just how extensive the infrastructure needs to be, not to mention how much it will cost. There may not be a need for that many fast-charging stations, given that 90 percent of Americans drive fewer than 65 kilometers each day, Crane noted. He pointed to a project in Tokyo where the installation of fast charging stations throughout the city boosted electric vehicle use, even though the stations were hardly ever used.

In the end, the drivers themselves will make the final judgment on whether electric vehicles succeed, Dorgan said. The image of the rugged American cruising along in a gas-guzzling vehicles transposed against the stereotype of bookish hybrid drivers has been an impediment to electric vehicle adoption. "There's been a notion that real men dig and drill," the senator said, "but I think things have changed a lot."

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