New tome about electric vehicles explores biz implications of the 'electriconomy'

There was plenty of debate last week over whether or not President Obama's goal of having 1 million plug-in or full electric vehicles on the road in the United States by 2015 is achievable. (The attached link is just one example of the skepticism.
Written by Heather Clancy, Contributor

There was plenty of debate last week over whether or not President Obama's goal of having 1 million plug-in or full electric vehicles on the road in the United States by 2015 is achievable. (The attached link is just one example of the skepticism.) Last week, I spoke with a long-time automobile and technology industry executive, James Billmaier, who has just published a new book suggesting that the forces of the "electriconomy" have reached a point of no return and that electric cars will reach mass adoption quicker than we think both domestically and abroad. But the United States has its work cut out if it wants to be a market leader.

Here's an excerpt from the prologue of the new book, "Jolt! The Impending Dominance of the Electric Car."

"There is no longer any question of whether or not we will adopt an electric-based transportation system. We will. And the transition will come much more quickly than most 'experts' predict. All major automakers have some type of plug-in vehicle coming out in the very near future, with the first cars due out at the end of 2010. The U.S. can't afford to be left behind. But we're going to need to move fast to become the undisputed market leader."

Just to be clear, Billmaier has a financial stake in the electric vehicle movement (including a relationship with electric vehicle charging infrastructure player Coloumb Technologies), which is something he disclosed as we were chatting. His book argues the case for electric vehicle adoption on a number of metrics including the national security implications, the potential for creating jobs domestically, and looming competition with China. "The electriconomy is all the things we can do to move of our dependence on oil, really secure out economy and our nation," he says.

I challenged Billmaier with several of the classic objections related to electric vehicles. Here is how he answered each one of them (in no particular order):

  • We're shifting the problem from oil dependence to coal dependence. Without disputing the fact of the matter, Billmaier notes that the processing of oil into gasoline uses 6 to 7 kilowatt hours of energy per gallon. Put slightly differently, he argues that a gas-powered car covers just 8 miles for every $1 put into it. That same amount of money would provide enough charge to take a car 50 miles. Another consideration: If every American drove an electric car, the emissions would still be about two-thirds less, even factoring in the negatives of coal production. So, the lesser of two evils.
  • We shouldn't subsidize their adoption. Billmaier estimates that there are still $12,000 in subsidies related to every gas-powered car sold. "I believe in capitalism, but in order for capitalism to work, you have to have a level playing field. You don't have a level playing field right now," he says.
  • Electric vehicles are underpowered. Billmaier points out that electricity does darn well moving very big vehicles already, and that battery technologies have reached the point where electric will be appropriate for the larger vehicles many Americans prefer.
  • The charging infrastructure needs to be in place first. Billmaier actually says that from a driving standpoint, the United States can be divided into six regions where electric vehicles will catch on first. Electric vehicles are great regional cars, he argues. And while many people worry about the long time that it takes to charge vehicle, he notes that driving habits will actually make it easier to keep electric vehicles charged. That's because you CAN essentially top off a charge, just like you would with a gas-powered vehicle.

Incidentally, right after I spoke with Billmaier, I received an alert from green technology forecasting firm Pike Research projecting the largest metropolitan regions for plug-in electrics over the next several years. Like Billmaier, PIke sees electric vehicles gaining cachet in certain areas first, for reasons of density, affluency and vehicle charging infrastructure investments.

The five top regions projected by Pike Research between 2010 and 2017 (based on anticipated penetration rates) are:

  1. New York-Northern New Jersey-Long Island (Into Pennsylvania)
  2. Los Angeles-Long Beach-Santa Ana in Southern California
  3. San Francisco-Oakland-Fremont in Northern California
  4. San Diego-Carlsbad-San Marcos (also in Southern California)
  5. Chicago-Naperville-Joliet in Illinois, Indiana and Wisconsin

Of the regions on this list, an example of the sort of activity you might expect comes out of San Diego. The city is planning one of the biggest electric vehicle rollouts in the country and it took on 1,000 electric Nissan Leafs and 200 plug-in hybrids Chevrolet Volts in December 2010.

Editorial standards