Can electric-car ownership expand beyond techies?

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Chris Roscoe has fine-tuned his commute into a well-oiled machine. Actually, a well-charged machine.

By 5:45 a.m., the 28-year-old Ohio State University biology student is behind the wheel of his Nissan Leaf. At the end of a 40-mile trip from his Mount Gilead home to Columbus, Roscoe plugs his electric car into one of the rare charging stations on campus and dashes to catch a bus to class.

“Imagine if your cellphone battery was your car: You have to live your life like that,” he said. “You have to really plan your day.”

Roscoe is among many pioneers who hope the future of electric vehicles involves fewer roadblocks. Stakeholders, analysts and researchers are more bullish about the industry than ever – and encountering challenges every step of the way.

“There are a lot of things pushing against it. That one thing is constantly changing,” said Nick Nigro, founder of the technology firm Atlas Public Policy in Washington, DC. “The needs are evolving as technology evolves.”


At first, car manufacturers prioritized hybrid vehicles. Then they scrambled to design long-distance batteries. Now, attention has turned to laying a coast-to-coast network of charging stations.

Columbus drivers can charge their cars at about 70 charging stations scattered across the area at recreation centers, parking garages, malls, car dealers and pharmacies.

While scientists at Ohio State University are exploring how to grow that small grid efficiently, city planners are studying the policy implications of that expansion.

“As a technology, it’s still on its upward trajectory. But in terms of research, it’s not a niche field,” said Ramteen Sioshansi, an assistant professor in OSU’s department of integrated systems engineering who studies the optimal distribution of charging stations.

As the recipient of several transportation-focused grants, Columbus joins San Francisco and New York City as a proving grounds for electric-vehicle infrastructure.

“People are keeping a close eye on what’s happening there,” Nigro said.

Aparna Dial, director of the city’s public service department, said the $50-million Smart City grant awarded to Columbus last year will test solutions for carbon emissions and traffic congestion.

Planners also are using the funds to double down on electric vehicles by investing in the city’s charging infrastructure and developing programs to encourage residents and businesses to purchase the vehicles.

“We want to create a playbook. Our goal with everything is for things to be scalable and replicable,” Dial said.

Chicken and egg problem
The electric-vehicle market’s biggest challenge is a paradoxical one.

“It’s something of a chicken-and-egg problem,” Sioshansi said. “Consumers tend to be wary of buying electric vehicles if they’re not going to be able to recharge them. People are going to be wary of building charging stations if they don’t see demand.”

Currently, none of the dozens of existing charging stations in Columbus is publicly owned and operated, said Patti Austin, an administrator for the city’s power division.

Officials are trying to calculate the number needed for a robust market that does not exist yet, she said.

“You’re not going to buy an electric vehicle if you’re afraid you’ll run out of range,” Austin said. “We want to build a network that gives our residents that security. We don’t know if that means 50 stations or 500.”

For a majority of electric-car drivers – about 85 percent, Austin said – charging is an at-home activity done overnight using a standard wall outlet.

But Columbus is home to a uniquely high number of multifamily residence dwellers. For the 40 percent of residents who live in buildings without outdoor outlets, charging might seem like a chore, Austin said.

For electric cars to catch on, Sioshansi said, drivers need access to quick, powerful charging stations at grocery stores, gas stations and workplaces.

Using models of the region’s transportation habits, Sioshansi’s research team found that to serve the most number of drivers with a minimal amount of stations, Columbus should begin with a shell of stations around the I-270 beltway.

“There’s just way more vehicle traffic there,” he said.

Enticing new drivers
Across the seven-county region, 0.37 percent of registered vehicles are electric. Dial said she wants to bring that number close to 2 percent within a few years.

Sales for popular electric vehicles such as the Chevy Volt and Nissan Leaf have increased modestly in Franklin County. Sales have tripled over the past two years at Tesla’s local boutique.

Still, sales mostly remain in the single digits for dealerships in the county, according to transaction data compiled by Autoviewonline.com.

About half of Americans can’t name a plug-in vehicle by make and model, and as many say they’ve never seen one in parking lots, according to a 2015 survey by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory.

“We know awareness is very low,” Nigro said.

A price drop could attract more customers, said Sioshansi. “It goes through this cycle: You have enthusiasts who are early adopters, then the technology becomes more mainstream,” he said.

Don Butler, an administrative manager at Ohio State’s Center for Automotive Research, drives a Chevy Volt, a hybrid.

“It’s the perfect compromise,” Butler said. “In the summertime, I’ll go months without filling it up.”

Nigro said as carmakers respond to consumers such as Butler – and not just high-income tech enthusiasts – the market will bloom.

“People can now look at these vehicles as a replacement for their gas cars,” he said. “This can be their only car at an affordable price point.

THE COLUMBUS DISPATCH/TNS

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