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June 06, 2011

What's Up the Road for Electric Vehicles?

Nissan Leaf EV Symposium

Now that the cars of tomorrow are here today, what's next?

Late last week, the movers and shakers of the electric-vehicle world gathered for a two-day conference in Palo Alto, California to talk about a range of issues and foreseeable challenges that this nascent industry will be up against as more EVs hit the road.

(Check out the Sierra Club's Go Electric Campaign.)

Organized by Silicon Valley Leadership Group and hosted by SAP, one of the largest business software companies in the world, people from big names in the industry -- Google, BMW, GM, to name a few -- took part in panel discussions, exchanged ideas, and showcased strides in technology.

EV Symposium
Several panels discussed the future and challenges of the industry.

The EV industry is turning a corner. The two avilable mainstream plug-in cars -- the Chevy Volt and the Nissan Leaf -- are indeed selling while other big auto makers are planning releases for later in the year. The trend will push demand for EV-friendly policy and infrastructure. Some say it's just a matter of time.

"Electric cars are inevitable and I'd love to argue anyone who doesn't think that," said Jason Wolf of Better Place, an international EV infrastructure company. "The question is what type of models will allow that inevitability to eventually replace gasoline cars."

Tesla Electric Vehicle Symposium
A Tesla is parked outside the EV Symposium.

No one seemed concerned about EV affordability. Batteries cost about $600 per kilowatt-hour. In five to 10 years, that number should fall to about $250, which will drop the prices of these cars, according to Aaron Cohen of CODA Automotive, a start-up company that hopes to release a car with a range of 120 miles late this year.

"Compare that to gasoline and the direction of their prices, then you'll realize the inevitability," Wolf said.

But not everything at the event was rosy. Infrastructure is sorely lacking. And the industry is facing political uncertainty. Several city and county staffers in attendance described the red tape and budgetary contraint that's keeping them from incorporating EVs into their fleets. Others wondered what government will do when revenues from gasoline taxes slide as EVs sales proliferate.

And in Washington, D.C., the House GOP recently slashed $200 million for EV development that was previously reserved in the federal budget, said Colleen Quinn of Coulomb, an EV charging company.

"There's no certainty given the political environment we're in that those funds will be sustained,"  Quinn said. That's why the key is coalition building with local governments, technology groups, environmentalists, and national security advocates that want to get the country off oil.

OSIsoft Electric Car Symposium
Real-time data gathering and social network apps are growing forces in the EV industry, like in this display by OSIsoft.

But Car 2.0 technology is steamrolling ahead. Social networking will likely be a major component of the EV experience for drivers. For example, Coulomb is one of several companies developing data-gathering chargers and online apps that will provide real-time live maps to drivers in search of a charge. Drivers will even be able to reserve a public charging station in the same manner someone reserves a table at a restaurant.

Nissan Leaf EV Symposium2
This Nissan Leaf gets a boost during the event. Pictures by Brian Foley.

Getting employers to provide charging stations will be another challenge. Outside the event, a handful of EVs were getting charged in SAP's parking lot. At its Palo Alto office, SAP has purchased 16 chargers with dozens more at its Germany and India offices.

SAP employees commute 31 miles on average. Since the vast workforce accounts for 18,000 cars that burn 5.5 million gallons of gas a year, providing chargers is a major part of SAP's objective in reducing emissions, said Peter Graf, SAP's Chief Sustainability Officer and Nissan Leaf owner. The company has reduced its global carbon emissions 25 percent since 2007. By averting 807 tons a year in emissions, the company has saved more than $665,000 annually, Graf said. Learn more about SAP's emissions plans by clicking here.

-- Brian Foley

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