PLUG-IN CARS TAKE OFF
by John Bauman

Social and cultural changes usually happen incrementally, though if you’re not paying attention, it feels like it happens overnight.  The evolution of transportation in this country is one such example.  The internal combustion engine has been the norm since the 1800s.  Electric cars were popular in the early 1900s, but early American automobile pioneers like Ransom E. Olds and Henry Ford ignored electric and steam engines and focused all their energy on internal combustion technology.

           Despite a brief revival in the 1990s, electric vehicles have lagged far behind internal combustion engines as the choice of the masses over time.  This was largely due to a lack of available vehicles to choose from as well as general apathy among the buying public.

            Today, propelled by the growing interest in hybrid gas/electric vehicles produced by almost all the major auto manufacturers, electric vehicles are poised to take center stage in the next major automotive revolution.  Rising gas prices, concerns about rising levels of CO2, battles over sourcing oil and gas from places like Canada’s Tar Sands combined with growing instability in the Middle East, and a general growth in awareness about the negative environmental consequences of gas-powered internal combustion engines have opened the door to a new era in electric car production. 

100 Electric Options
            There are at least 100 electric cars, trucks, and motorcycles currently available for sale or coming into the market within the next year.  Highway-ready electric cars range in price from the Mitsubishi i-MIEV (listed at $29,100) to the Venturi Fetish (listed at $400,000).  Popular brands include the Nissan Leaf, Chevy Volt, Ford Focus, and Mitsubishi MIEV. 

            The Oregon Transportation Research and Education Consortium sponsors research “motivated by a vision of transportation furthering larger social and economic goals.”  They explain that electric vehicles can be divided into three categories: hybrid electric vehicles (HEV), containing both a gas engine and electric motor, unable to be plugged in; plug-in hybrid electric vehicles (PHEV), primarily reliant on an electric motor with a gas engine backup, able to be plugged in; and battery electric vehicles (BEV), powered solely by an electric motor that recharges by plugging in.  

            According to the Oregon Department of Transportation (ODOT), BEVs can be broken down into four further categories: On-Road Highway Speed Vehicles, capable of driving on all public roads and highways; City Electric Vehicles, designed for most public roads but generally not driven on highways due to a top speed mostly under 55 mph; Neighborhood Electric Vehicles (NEV), also known as Low Speed Vehicles (LSV) -- these BEVs are limited to around 25 mph and are allowed to operate on streets with posted speed limits of 35 or less; and Commercial On-Road Highway Speed Vehicles, including commercial trucks and buses.

            Plug-in electric vehicles can be charged at the owner’s home using a Level 1 or Level 2 charger.  Level 1 chargers use a standard grounded 120-volt outlet and can take between 8-20 hours for a full charge, depending on the battery involved.  Level 2 chargers use a 240-volt source and usually require modifications to existing electrical panels.  Estimated time for a full charge is between 3-8 hours. 

            West coast communities, particularly those along the I-5 corridor, can charge their electric vehicles at charging stations that feature DC fast charging.  Some vehicles can be recharged within 30 minutes at these facilities. 

            According to the ODOT Office of Innovative Partnerships and Alternative Funding, 40 communities in Oregon have or will shortly have EV charging stations, with 11 more communities scheduled for the near future.  There are 23 highway charging stations in Oregon and 16 in Washington.

            Blink charging stations are owned by ECOtality, a San Francisco company that specializes in alternative fuel, and hybrid and electric car infrastructure.  When the federal government implemented the EV Project, dedicated to creating an infrastructure to support electric vehicles, it chose ECOtality to be the project manager.  The company is set to manage the installation of 15,000 commercial and residential Blink charging stations in 16 cities covering six states and the District of Columbia.  Latest counts show 455 Blink charging stations in Oregon, 334 in Washington, and 937 in California. 

Electrifying Benefits

            Electric cars cause far less pollution than gasoline-powered cars and are considered an environmentally-friendly alternative to the internal combustion engine, especially in heavily populated urban areas.  25% of carbon emissions in Eugene and Springfield, for example, are directly related to motor vehicles.  Electric vehicles have the potential to substantially reduce this. 

Cost per mile estimates for most electric cars indicate that gasoline-powered cars cost at least 3-4 times as much to run as electric vehicles.  Maintenance costs over time are lower, and payback time for the more expensive electric vehicle is about 8-10 years.  The limited range of electric vehicles coupled with the recharge time, are considered impediments by many people.  Going beyond the range of the vehicle requires advance planning and patience, finding charging stations along your route and waiting for the battery to recharge. 

            Many consumers, fed up with the high cost of fueling and maintaining internal combustion engines, have begun to embrace electric vehicle ownership.  The movement is small but growing, and with the development of the charging infrastructure, especially the fast charging stations, the revolution appears to gaining momentum.

            David and Ruby are a Eugene couple who have owned a Mitsubishi MIEV for about a year.  Their primary reasons for investing in an electric car are rooted in environmental concern.  “The more folks that get off fossil fuels, the better off we’ll be,” states David.  The MIEV sells for over $29,000, but a federal tax credit brought the price down to $24,000.  The two cars they owned before cost between 150 to 200 dollars per month for gas, now they pay pennies to run a car with payments of 400 dollars per month. 

            “Ruby talked about it for years,” explains David.  It took him longer to become convinced due to the initial high price for the car, but he has no regrets.  He claims maintenance costs of 48 dollars per year.  He stays near the Eugene area, well within the 70-80 mile range of the MIEV.  When he does use the highway the MIEV cruises nicely. 

            David charges his car at home with a Level 1 outlet charger, and uses Blink chargers at various places around Eugene.  If he has to take a long trip, he’ll trade cars with a friend who owns a gasoline-fueled vehicle.  David says he recommends that people investigate whether or not an electric vehicle might be right for them.  “It’s the wave of the future,” he states, “It’s time to change our behavior.  We can only change the world individually.”

            Patty and Deb are also Lane County residents who own a Mitsubishi MIEV.  They are activists and practicing lobbyists.  “We began our activism in the church, social justice activism,” explains Deb.  When Occupy happened, they formed their own group and were drawn to the 350.org campaign.  They live close to the land, with no flush toilet, no trash pickup, in an 800 square foot house.  The decision to buy the MIEV was a logical extension of their lifestyle.

            Deb bought her first electric car in 2006, a ZAP.  Touted as having a 40 mile range, it didn’t.  They bought an extra battery and tried to make it work, but “it felt like a go-kart” and wasn’t very reliable.  Living about 10 miles out of town, they needed something a bit more substantial, and when the MIEV became available, they went for it.  They have put about 12,000 miles on the car and found that the range estimates are fairly accurate – about 65-70 miles normally and about 1/3 less in the winter.  “The infrastructure has been great,” says Deb, adding that they’ve never been stuck without a charge. 

            Driving an electric vehicle “causes me to pay a lot more attention to how I drive,” states Deb.  The car has “been completely trouble-free,” and they benefit from having the model that allows a fast charge.  Deb says “it’s a real joy to not have to mess with that whole gas station thing.”  They do own a farm truck for heavy loads, for farm work, and to carry their canoe, but the MIEV fits their lifestyle and convictions.  In the future, according to both Deb and Pat, “we need to find cleaner energy; we need to change or die, got to get off the fossil fuel extraction.”

Local Industry, Jobs and Tax Impact

            One of the local companies promoting electric vehicles is Arcimoto.  Arcimoto President Mark Frohnmayer let me know that “electric vehicle adoption is outpacing hybrid vehicles when they first came out,” though both hybrid and electric vehicle sales only comprise 3% of all new vehicle sales.  This is not enough, according to Mark.

            The fundamental question underlying the mission of Arcimoto is “how do we build an electronic transportation device that will satisfy peoples’ daily needs?”  When considering the production of sustainable transportation, how does the producer “clean up the footprint of the whole product?”  The Arcimoto SRK is a 3-wheeled electric vehicle that Arcimoto intends to be a mass market vehicle for the common purpose of inexpensive sustainable local and regional travel.  The initial marketing push is just getting cars out on the roads, getting them visible.  The operating cost is expected to be about 1-2 cents per mile, much lower than gas vehicles.  The SRK will retail for $17,500 for the base model, and the company is trying to keep vehicle costs under $20,000.  Mark expects that costs will come down substantially over time. 

            The base model SRK has a range of 40 miles, though available upgrades can increase that to 120 miles.  Mark claims that the daily average driving distance for a Portland resident is 14 miles, and for a Eugene resident, 9 miles.  Battery technology is getting better, and Mark expects “big changes” in the next five years.  Touch screen mobile devices will feature apps based on transportation, encouraging fleet vehicle sharing and peer to peer car sharing.  Self-driving vehicles will become more and more common.  “We will see a fundamental shift in transportation in our lifetimes,” says Mark.  These things, he says, are already on the drawing board.

            Over the past decade, Oregonians have purchased hybrid and electric cars at twice the national average.  This presents a unique problem for ODOT, which funds about 60% of its road work with gas taxes.  As Oregon drivers use less gas, less money flows into the coffers of ODOT for roadwork.  One proposal would require hybrid or electric car drivers to pay by the mile instead of at the pump at a rate of 1.5 cents per mile driven in Oregon.  This legislation is moving through the state legislature, and would slowly incorporate the road usage charge.  Initially, it would only apply to cars that attain more than 55 miles per gallon, and, as written, would not go into effect before 2015.

            A recent report funded by electric vehicle industry group Drive Oregon and the Portland Development Commission examined the economic value of Oregon’s electric vehicle industry.  For the roughly 100 companies that do some business in Oregon related to electric vehicles, there are 411 people working directly with them.  Further, the industry supports 1169 jobs indirectly and generates roughly $266 million in overall economic value.  The survey included parts and raw materials suppliers, engineering and design firms, charging infrastructure manufacturers/installers/managers, and a host of nonprofits and public agencies that support electric vehicle development.  The industry as a whole generates $11.9 million in state tax revenue and $20.8 million in federal tax revenue. 

High Gear Shift in Mindset

            The mindset of America is changing.  Recycling is common, rallies against Monsanto and other perceived environmental threats draw a diverse array of citizens into the streets, concern about climate change, food quality, air and water pollution, and dwindling resources is mainstream fare now.  The best-selling hybrid, the Toyota Prius, is owned by celebrities, soccer moms, athletes, business people, young and old alike.  The days of expansive sales for giant SUVs seem to be numbered, replaced by smaller, more fuel efficient SUVs.  Station wagons, labeled “crossover” vehicles, are increasingly obvious on the American landscape.  More and more product lines are including a hybrid model, and as batteries evolve, electric vehicles are coming up right behind.  There seems to be a shift in the American auto-scape, a move that responds to both environmental concerns such as global warming and personal economic needs, impacted heavily by rising gas prices. 

Ten years ago, the average retail price for gasoline was about $1.40/gallon.  After a spike to $4.12/gallon in 2007-2008, the price fell back to the two dollar range.  Regular gas in Oregon today hovers around $4.00/gallon.  Even a car with 30 miles per gallon potential is impacted heavily by such high prices.  Car sales have been depressed since 2007, and consumer confidence is rising as we slowly extract ourselves from the economic muck of the last 6 years.  Most car manufacturers are predicting an upsurge in Americans looking to buy new cars in the next few years.  As more and more choices come on the market, look for a potentially rapid growth in the sales and proliferation of electric vehicles, in Oregon and beyond.

Change happens slowly, except when it doesn’t.  The evolution of American auto technology is clearly manifesting in response to concern over rising gas prices.  Hybrid vehicles have served as the initial foray into “alternative” energy vehicles, and we are currently witnessing the beginning of the electric car revolution. 

John Bauman is a college professor for the University of Oregon and Green Mountain College, a musician, real estate agent, and freelance writer.

See NCD category:

Electric Vehicles 

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