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Electric Cars Get a Jump-Start From Feds

Gas stations are plentiful in the United States, but what if your ride needs a different kind of juice? A public-private partnership plans to jump-start electrics in six cities.
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The early adopters of many new technologies — the calculator, the computer, the color TV and the hybrid car — could afford to be pioneers. In fact, technological trendsetters have long earned prestige as the lone owners on the block of the next big invention.

But the latest wonder, poised to come on the market in America this winter, carries a different set of circumstances. If you're the only person in town who owns an electric vehicle, good for you. But you're not going to be able to drive it very far.

The mass deployment of EVs requires more than just eager buyers. It requires a whole new infrastructure. And figuring out how to deploy the two in tandem is one of the EVs' biggest challenges.

Now carmakers and would-be buyers are getting a little help from government. The Department of Energy last year put up a $100 million grant, funded by the stimulus bill, for the most ambitious experiment to date deploying electric vehicles and infrastructure in America. The public-private partnership, called the EV Project, expects by next fall to have humming 8,300 vehicles, thousands of at-home chargers and hundreds of commercial plug-in sites in six states — or "laboratories."

"It's much like if you can imagine a world that had no petroleum fueling stations, and no internal combustion engine cars, then all of a sudden you want to roll out 100,000 gasoline-powered vehicles — how would you do that?" said Don Karner,  president of ECOtality North America,  the company that won the DOE bid to manage the project. "There has to be a simultaneous rollout of infrastructure plus vehicles. But with electric vehicles, we have a distinct advantage in that our fuel is essentially available everywhere, including in the home."

THE IDEA LOBBYMiller-McCune's Washington correspondent Emily Badger follows the ideas informing, explaining and influencing government, from the local think tank circuit to academic research that shapes D.C. policy from afar.

Miller-McCune's Washington correspondent Emily Badger follows the ideas informing, explaining and influencing government, from the local think tank circuit to academic research that shapes D.C. policy from afar.

Everyone has electricity. But how does an electric car tap into that? To really extend a car's driving range beyond the overnight charge it collects in the garage, charging stations will have to be as ubiquitous as gas stations. But if you plug your car into your office, your grocery store or your local mall, who pays the power bill?

Karner is certain that new business models will emerge. Maybe a Cracker Barrel, or an AMC movie theater, will invite you to power up for free in the parking lot to entice you to buy a meal or a matinée. Best Buy this month announced that it will host some chargers as part of the project (plug in your car while you shop for stuff to plug in to your TV!). Eventually, it is that viral commercial infrastructure that could sustain EVs, if the EV Project can just figure out the right formula.

"It's a great role for government to help kind of prime the pump, to get this started," Karner said. "Once it starts, and the way is clear, then the idea is that private industry, car companies, everyone else is going to carry this on their own."

The EV Project, in the meantime, will be collecting data on everything: where participants charge, how much electricity they use, which commercial sites work and which don't. The project is targeting the same alternative-car friendly cities — San Diego, Portland, Ore., Seattle, Houston, among others — where Nissan and General Motors plan to roll out the Leaf and the Chevy Volt by the end of the year. Those car owners will then have a charger installed for free in their homes that will also collect data (the machine is a "Swiss Army knife of communication," Karner says).

With the help of researchers at the University of California, Davis, Sustainable Transportation Center, ECOtality will study not only the technical efficiency of the vehicles and chargers, but also the drivers' behavior. The project will collect data through 2012, constantly relaying the findings both to the automakers and the DOE, and will prepare a final report in early 2013.

Karner's company has actually attempted similar research before, deploying infrastructure for the ill-fated electric cars of the mid-1990s that famously starred in the documentary "Who Killed the Electric Car?" Those vehicles — General Motors' EV1, sold primarily in California — disappeared before many drivers outside of California even knew they existed (they also disappeared around the time the Hummer went into vogue). Much has changed since then, though.

"The significant difference this time is that in the '90s it was very much a regulatory push to bring electric vehicles in, it was based around the zero-emission vehicle regulations in California, and as soon as those went away, so did the vehicles," Karner said. "As we talk to car companies [today], their planning process is not, 'How do I comply with the regulation in California so that I can still sell vehicles there?' It's really one of 'How am I going to be able to compete in a global market with vehicles that meet global needs?'"

If the EV can be carried into the future on market forces, the political winds in Washington also wouldn't matter as much.