GM's Britta Gross: 8 ways cities can encourage electric vehicles

General Motors intends to redefine transportation with the electric vehicle. Here are eight ways smart cities can help, according to Britta Gross, GM's infrastructure chief.

The electric car is coming. Is America ready for it?

There's no doubt that plug-in electric vehicles require a new kind of infrastructure -- one that eschews the century-old tradition of a trip to the gas station for a new kind of refueling: in the home.

I spoke with Britta Gross, the director of Global Energy Systems and Infrastructure Commercialization for General Motors, to learn more.

At GM, she's responsible for steering the development of hydrogen and electrical infrastructures necessary to support the deployment of vehicles with fuel cells and plug-in batteries.

According to Gross, America's more ready than it thinks for vehicles like the plug-in hybrid Chevrolet Volt -- and it starts with the smart city.

SmartPlanet: America has seen the electric car before. What will make it work this time?

BG: Well, [in 1996] we did the [GM] EV1 pure electric vehicle, a two-seater vehicle with a nickel-metal battery that, on a good day, had a range of about 100 miles.

With that experience, we were convinced that, taking a better battery technology called lithium ion, we had to make it more functional, with a range that was more practical, and we wanted to put the least obtrusive infrastructure in place.

We wanted to develop a vehicle that didn't rely so heavily on infrastructure. If we could limit our dependence on infrastructure, this would be a vehicle that would have much more mainstream appeal.

Three years ago, when we began conceptualizing the [Chevy] Volt, we looked at the data. If we could take care of 80 percent of Americans' commutes per day on only electricity, and add an extra 300 miles on a gas hybrid engine, and have a four-seater...

Now the question is, have things really changed in the marketplace? Are consumers more willing to be more accommodating and accepting of a limited range vehicle? I don't know. We don't think Americans have changed very much. We're going to learn a lot in the next couple of years.

SmartPlanet: How do you accommodate for that resistance to change?

BG: We designed the vehicle to plug into any normal household outlet -- a regular three-pronged outlet at 120 volts, or 240 volts, like a clothes dryer. Both are very convenient for nighttime and weekend charging of the vehicle.

[Requiring] a lot of infrastructure hampers our ability to make things happen. Until enough is there, we can't make things happen.

We're going to learn a lot about what early adopter consumers really want. It's going to take a little while to get down into the mainstream, and which technology solutions will really work for the American public. Nothing makes a difference if we can't sell these vehicles at very high volume.

SmartPlanet: Let's go back to infrastructure for a moment. How do you reconcile consumers' fears about range with the expense and effort necessary for new infrastructure?

BG: We want some infrastructure, but we don't want large amounts. We expect public charging to be under-utilized. It's going to be a lot of cost for potentially could be pretty severe under-utilization.

What could be helpful is some awareness of plug-in electric vehicles. So if I'm a city and I provide some -- that more organic kind of growth of public charging that's highly visible -- that's marketing. That's what we really like.

We don't want to over-invest in under-utilized charging. So get the home charging right.

Everyone needs a home charging solution, whatever home charging means to you. After we look at the home, we do look at the second place: work. We would like corporations to start putting these things in at the workplace.

When we deployed the EV1 in California and Arizona and Atlanta, Georgia, there was a lot of organic growth for charging. We believe that's the right way to grow infrastructure.

In California, we had [charging support at] restaurants, shopping malls, the airport -- all in addition to the charging we built. That feels really good to us.

SmartPlanet: Like many Americans, I live in an apartment building in a major metropolitan area: New York City. How do you address those consumers?

BG: The third area that is a tough nut to crack is multi-family unit charging -- the apartment, the townhome.

That gets tough: who owns the building? Who is responsible? The way we see it, lots of times with homeowners, people can organize workplace charging [instead].

We all ought to be writing new rules in our building codes to just require that new homes and large remodeling projects include dedicated 240 volt outlets for charging. It's really easy to do with new construction, but harder to retrofit when you have to cut concrete.

SmartPlanet: What about dense urban areas where space is at a premium?

BG: There is a large concentration of vehicles in Manhattan, but people drive them on the weekends, to get out of the city. We have to look at those places. Where are they driving? You have to ask very realistically.

What cities need to do is look very carefully at what their community needs really are. Every region ought to be looking carefully at those kinds of questions.

SmartPlanet: What do you suggest cities should do?

When we talk about infrastructure we also talk about things beyond charging. Things communities can be doing? There's a whole laundry list.

1.) HOV lane access. They should be putting HOV lane waivers in place for EV drivers.

2.) Incentives for off-peak charging. Things that encourage you to do nighttime charging, from utilities.

3.) Awareness and education. Anything that talks to the importance of these quiet vehicles in a city.

4.) Incentives on the price of these vehicles. What happens to the rest of us when we want to start balancing our checkbooks? There's a federal incentive, but what else can be done at the state and municipal level?

5.) Awareness infrastructure. Just to get the word out.

6.) Green energy programs. Programs where utilities connect green energy options to people with electric vehicles, all for the common good.

7.) Permitting. The whole process of putting home charging installations in the home. A bunch of customers are going to buy these vehicles, but they may not have a dedicated circuit. The process and shuffle of getting permitters in the home -- that has to be done right. It can't be six visits to the home. It can't be two months later. It just can't. There should be online pre-approval, and they show up in one visit, and it's done. There are about 40,000 permitting entities in the United States. There's no way for GM to get to all of them. Or 3,000 utilities. It's a lot of arms and legs.

8.) Free parking for EVs. Like a nice charge spot, nearest to the door. That privilege works really well. Those are the smart things you can do to encourage adoption -- to put those sort of tangible enablers in place.

SmartPlanet: How do you convince consumers to spend their hard-earned cash?

BG: It's hard to engage each person. Everyone has just moments of time to grasp what's on the news and what's in the newspaper. You can't do enough education and promotion.

We're trying to do a number of things for this. We're working to establish a national website, so that each automaker doesn't have to answer the same questions. We should have part of it operational over the summertime. Trying to bring the entire community together, because this is a real societal effort. This is bigger than an automaker, bigger than a utility.

We think the Volt has so many nice, advanced features that help it seamlessly integrate with the grid. So that we're helping the solution, not causing concerns.

You certainly can find early adopters who say, "I have to have this at any cost."

We've been very vocal, because it's a lot of awareness. It's sort of warming up the crowd. When the vehicle comes out later this fall...one of the best ways to get the words out is not us, it's the consumer. Word of mouth is extremely powerful in the automotive community.

A smooth launch is really important. You don't have time to do this over and get it right. We have a lot of learnings from doing the EV1. You know what's at stake. You know what's important to get it right.

It's going to be a very smooth, seamless experience for most people. The challenge is to try to make it as seamless and every experience possible for as many people as possible. It's doing a lot of homework, it's working around the clock to think through every detail: the dealer, the outreach, the utilities, the home, the vehicle.

We do a lot of additional testing on our vehicle technologies, to make sure it works in every climate. It's almost unprecedented to put that much first-generation technology in a launch.

It is really difficult to beat the gasoline combustion vehicle: it's a cheap technology, a cheap fuel, and it's hard to beat that benchmark. To be honest, consumers are comfortable to stop once a week at a gas station. It would be nice to remove that experience, but how do you sell that benefit? How cheap electricity is.

SmartPlanet: Before GM, you worked on satellite programs for Hughes Space & Communications. Have you brought any knowledge from that job to this one?

BG: All the motor drive electronics on the EV1 were done in Torrance [Calif., where Hughes is located]. That group flowed right into the Volt.

OnStar's a great example: satellite communication.

What we're going to know is unprecedented, thanks to this underlying aerospace partnership that Hughes and GM had. With OnStar, if you sign up, once a month you get a report about your vehicle: the pressure of your front left tire, the status of your airbags.

Now we're kicking it up. Look at the wealth of data we'll have about the battery in your vehicle; now there are many more early indicators. The value of that data is unbelievable.

SmartPlanet: Sounds like it's an exciting time.

BG: It is a very, very exciting time for us. The Volt was just head down, press forward -- we never held [back] the production of this vehicle. We've done everything possible to focus on the goal here and put a really premium product out the door and try to redefine transportation.

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

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