Washington Report: Electric Cars and Bailouts
By Bill Moore
It wasn't a wake, but the car industry's troubles cast a long, chilling shadow over the Electric Drive Transportation Association's annual conference in Washington, D.C. this week. What should have been an upbeat, giddy victory celebration had more the mood of a hospital room where friends and relatives speak in hushed, sympathetic tones as the patient -- the auto industry -- lies critically ill.
Despite the fact that it is now widely agreed electric power is the unavoidable destiny of the automobile, a cause the EDTA and its predecessors - - as well as EV World -- have long championed, there was no self-congratulatory back-slapping, and smiles were few and far between.
Instead, one topic dominated the conversation: what would be the outcome of Senate hearings this week on Capitol Hill? Should Congress give the Big Three $34 billion in loan guarantees or let them suffer the fate the fabled "free market" inflicts on all those who flout its principle tenet: adapt or die?
On the last day of the conference, attendees paused to watch a television monitor carrying CNN's feed from the hearings, while down on the exhibition floor, exhibitors sat alone tapping away at laptops or stood in small knots discussing business and swapping personal stories. Around them sat silent examples of electric car technology from a pair of GEM neighborhood electric vehicles (NEVs) to an Orion hybrid-electric transit bus.
Missing from the exhibit floor was Ford and Chrysler and Honda and Nissan. Apparently, they had budgeted their money for more consumer-oriented venues like the Los Angeles Auto Show, which may not only be a reflection of their constrained finances, but also a shift in focus that could be interpreted to suggest the electric car concept has moved from the theoretical to the practical. Ford did announce, as part of their bailout plan, the introduction of a least one all-electric car. Daimler -- now "divorced" from Chrysler -- showed an aging F-Cell fuel cell sedan.
The inevitable question everyone asks during and after such conferences is, "What was the most interesting thing you saw or learned?"
To be honest, there were no surprises vehicle-wise, apart from Mitsubishi having their i MiEV available for the Ride & Drive session the opening afternoon of the conference. While I arrived too late for the Ride & Drive, reliable witnesses reported people stood 15-deep to get a drive or ride in it, while other vehicles had one or two waiting to experience hybrid or electric rides. GM did have their roped-off Volt on display, along with a Saturn VUE hybrid and hydrogen fuel cell Equinox. Toyota had a plug-in Prius on display, along with several Lexus hybrids, but it seemed to me they drew little attention. I saw no senior Toyota executives during the event. One suspects they may have wanted to maintain an continent's-length-distance from the circus on Capitol Hill. Ditto for Honda and Nissan.
Smith Electric -- the UK electric truck maker -- did bring two of their vehicles and there was a hybrid-electric bucket truck on display. Modec, another UK-based electric truck maker had a representative present, but economizing measures meant their truck had to stay in south Florida.
Miles Electric Vehicles had both their ZX40 series low-speed electric car and electric truck at the show, the latter of which is proving quite popular. The company's Doug Rosen was told by his Oxnard, California import auto prep vendor, who also handles Range Rover, Volvo and Jaguar, that it appears in December 2008, he will prep more Miles vehicles for delivery than the three other companies combined.
EnerDel brought their Th!nk city electric car equipped with their lithium ion battery pack. Their display was nearly rivaled by the Johnson Controls - Saft display, except the latter didn't have an electric car to show off.
Columbia ParCar brought their Mega electric truck, which it is now building under license from the French manufacturer. Ez-Go also had a golf car on display. Electric industrial equipment distributor Werres Corporation brought along a Chinese mini-mini van and e-Ride truck, both all-electric, both low-speed electric vehicles suitable only for non-road applications.
On a more distressing note, ElectroEnergy's Michael Reed confided in me -- and he mentioned this during his presentation, so I can share it with you -- that his company is on the verge of declaring bankruptcy. Although he has some $7 million worth of orders in hand for his firm's 18650 lithium ion cells, the company is out of cash. The one investor he was counting on got cold feet when Wall Street went into a tailspin. A second investor just had a heart attack while on vacation in Hawaii. It was just last spring when Reed took a bus-load of us over to see his newly-opened plant outside of Gainesville, Florida, which had sat idle for nearly a decade after its original owner shut it down before it even began commercial production.
As I told the listeners to Wisconsin Public Radio during a telephone interview I did the last day of the conference, you can count on one hand the number of advanced lithium ion cell manufacturers here in the United States. If ElectroEnergy goes under, that will be one less.
Electrovaya's girl wonder, Gitanjali DasGupta, was also there standing in for her father, Dr. Sanka DasGupta with half her display booth lost somewhere in transit. And when the good doctor didn't show for his panel presentation, she stepped in. As is her usual practice with me, however, she commented little on future developments, deferring to her father instead. The company is working closely with Tata, the Indian carmaker, and the Norwegian firm Miljø Innovasjon to develop an electric car based on Tata's Indica. It is also working on its own Chinese-based electric car in collaboration with the Chang'an Automobile Group.
Electric Is Back!
Organizationally, the 2008 EDTA conference was well done, even if the recession (officially announced just before the event started) and the Senate hearings did seem to cast a dark pale over it. The convention center is superbly located on the D.C. Metro's Yellow light rail line, the same line that takes you directly to National Airport, across the Potomac. You get off at the Mt. Vernon and 7th Street underground station, take the escalator up to the surface and walk directly into the center.
The event kicked off with a pref-conference panel keynoted by Senator Byron Dorgan from North Dakota, home of GreenElectricMobility (formerly Global Electric Motorcars). I arrived -- suitcase still in hand -- to find the Senator in animated discussion in the exhibition hall with GEM President Rick Kasper and EDTA President Brian Wynne discussing Boone Pickens energy plan, which I gather the Senator wasn't entirely onboard with.
The official opening plenary session, featuring Deputy Assistant Secretary David Rodgers, Volt product line manager Tony Posawatz, and Gridpoint COO Karl Lewis, gave this year's conference an inarguable plug-in/electric car flavor once again after years of hybrid vehicle focus. Posawatz spoke of GM's commitment to extended range electric vehicles (EREVs), the first of which is the Volt. Gridpoint's business model is to serve as the middleman between the utility and electric car owner, allowing the utility to optimize charging the customers plug-in hybrid, EREV or electric car.
Coulomb Technologies was on hand -- along with a plug-in Prius converted, I was told, by Pat's Garage in San Francisco -- to show their wares and talk to potential distributors. Over at Argonne Lab's booth, new father and indefatigable electric car engineer Ted Bohm was demonstrating a Swedish-built public charging kiosk the government lab in Chicago is testing.
The plenary session was followed by the pre-requisite technical sessions devoted to topics like "Renewables on the Road: Greening the Grid and the Highway with Plug-in Electric Drive" and "Breakthroughs in Energy Storage" -- and no, EEStor still wasn't there and neither was ZENN.
Hon. Dennis Lister, former Environment Minister, Bermuda with Miles electric truck
With EDTA's approval, I had planned to record some of these presentations, but poor lighting conditions and personal circumstances prevented it. (I was able to video record the plenaries, however). A cellphone call pulled me out of the Greening the Grid panel to rendezvous with a client, followed quickly by a second call to meet up with the former environment minister for Bermuda, with whom I had the pleasure to having lunch. Our EV World Associates consulting group had helped arrange for him to acquire a Miles electric truck for use on the island.
After the opening evening reception, Ron Gompertz, who runs EcoAutos in Bozeman, Montana, and I went on the hunt for a USB cable I needed and Chinese noodles, during which time we discussed the book he is encouraging me to write. I've banged out an introduction and am whipping together a chapter outline. Ron, who has had his own modest publishing success with Chrismukkah: Everything You Need to Celebrate the Hybrid Holiday, is mentoring me and acting as my interim editor. He believes he may already have a possible publisher lined up, assuming I can create a compelling narrative and treatment.
Wednesday evening I spent in a great little pub on the U Street Corridor in DC with Jigar Shah, the founder of SunEdison, from which he has now formerly resigned -- "They've now become so successful, I don't need to be there anymore" -- to take time to write a book about the power of the individual to affect change -- something he certainly did -- and to think about his next business venture.
I ran into many old acquaintances from EV Voices bloggerJoe Lado to Jonathan Shapero, who saved the day by finding me some 9-volt batteries after the one in the wireless audio receiver died during the middle of Secretary Rodger's speech, to Chelsea Sexton, to former GM chairman and head of ECD Bob Stempel. I even ran into Bob Purcell, who a decade ago ran the EV1 program at GM. He just retired and is looking to return to the EV world. He'll be a great addition.
Add to the list Gary Gloceri, David Goldstein, Felix Kramer (CalCars) and Steve Marshall (Cascadia Institutue) also flew out for the event, Felix to advocate for his plug-in prepayment idea. Dr. Andy Frank, the father of the plug-in hybrid, was being tailed by a documentary film crew, but we did get to speak briefly.
Perhaps the most intriguing event for me personally, however, was when Tony Posawatz suggested I be at the Senate Russell Office Building at 9:30 AM, Thursday, December 4th. This is when the Big Three CEO's were to arrive for the second round of Senate hearings. I arranged to do only the first 45-minutes of the Wisconsin Public Radio interview, instead of the whole hour (8am-9am) in order to have time to grab a cab for Capitol Hill.
When I arrived with my tiny tripod and even smaller Sony HD video camera, I found myself in a swelling pack of television and radio crews armed with huge, shoulder held-cameras and fishing pole-like microphone booms. There I was with CNN and Fox News, as well as various Japanese TV crews.
While the conference went soberly about its business in the Washington Convention Center several miles away, here at the Russell Senate Office Building, GM CEO Rick Wagoner arrived in a Chevy Cruise "mule" equipped with the Volt E-Flex extended range electric drive. However, through miscommunication, he and his passengers, Senator Carl Levin and his brother Representative Sander Levi, stopped at the wrong building! Swarmed with the media in tow, the three men quick-marched up the street with Wagoner ducking into the first door he could find. Unfortunately, it was the wrong door. Wagoner was supposed to arrive and use the door (see above photo) where I and the rest of the media had been told to stand.
Chrysler CEO Robert Nardelli pulled up -- at the right door -- behind the wheel of their plug-in hybrid Jeep Wrangler conversion, the same one I'd just seen in LA. Instead of rushing into the building, however, he diplomatically stopped to make a statement to the media.
Ford President Alan Mulally arrived fashionable late in a non-descript, plain white Ford Escape Hybrid. He climbed out of the SUV, briefly acknowledged the cameras and without further word, disappeared inside the building.
An AP radio reporter, seeing my EDTA badge, commented he'd been suggesting his people visit the event for the last two days. What he would have found would hardly have compared to the titilating excitement of seeing three harried CEOs shuffling hurriedly through a veritable gantlet of video cameras as they made for the momentary sanctuary behind the polished brass doors.
EDTA 2008 was quiet, dignified and very business-like with maybe 500 people in attendance. Perhaps the giddy, adolescent days of the EV1 with its aurora of celebrity drivers - Mel Gibson, Ted Danson, Danny Devito, Jack Nicholson, etc. -- in the 1990s are long behind us. Now the industry is down in the trenches, fighting a war of both transformation and survival. The question isn't anymore about developing the technology, it's about how to do it profitably. Clearly, the vehicles work; the annual Ride & Drive events prove that. Sure there are still hurdles to be overcome: during the conference I was shown the photo of a brand new Lexus 600h that had a huge hole in the hood where it appears the inverter had went up in flames. The cause is yet unknown.
But the real question now is, how do we move from experimentation and demonstration to production and sales? How do we make this technology affordable -- and profitable -- enough so buyers will accept it and carmakers will want to build it?
When we've figured that out, maybe we can have a real blow-out of a celebration that even a jaded media will be willing to cover.
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