The Future Is Bright: New Campaign Aims to Switch More Drivers on to Electric Cars

By: Bridget Clerkin May 18, 2018
A massive public-private partnership is aiming to make accessing electric vehicle infrastructure easier in the hopes that more people will switch to the low-emission vehicles.

So far, 2018 has been a very good year for plug-in vehicles. The industry is reporting sales numbers that could make any advocate bust out a victory dance. A new group dedicated to promoting the technology wants to ensure as many people as possible start doing the Electric Slide.

Called Drive Change. Drive Electric., the public-private organization is pushing a number of campaigns to put the rechargeable cars in the national spotlight—and ensure that the public and private sectors are doing everything possible to keep them there.

At the moment, timing seems to be on the side of the progressive group. Estimated electric vehicle sales topped 2017 numbers in each of the first four months of 2018.

This March—the same month Drive Change. Drive Electric. made its public debut at the New York Auto Show—marked the most profitable month ever recorded for the vehicles. Year-end projections already anticipate the country’s plug-in purchases more than doubling last year’s total.

Still, Drive Change. Drive Electric. is hoping to add even more of a positive charge to that trend. Made up of 16 major automakers, seven Northeastern states, and a number of other advocacy organizations, the group doesn’t just have the drive to create change—it has the power to make a real difference.

Let’s Work Together

The goals of the public and private sectors are often considered to be at odds. But, the Drive Change campaign represents a marriage between the two that’s not only functional but flourishing, thanks to both worlds’ strong beliefs in electric technology.

The group’s latest initiative embodies that spirit of teamwork. It unites every coastal state from Maine to Virginia in a plan to provide adequate infrastructure for recharging the battery-powered cars.

“It’s really important to work together out here, with the close proximity of so many states and the small size of the states meaning people will drive through several states very easily,” said Elaine O’Grady, senior policy advisor for the Northeast States for Coordinated Air Use Management, a nonprofit group dedicated to fighting air pollution and a member of the Drive Change campaign. “It’s not enough for states to work on this individually. We want to make sure folks can do what they want to do and go where they want to go.

The action plan focuses on better serving would-be electric vehicle drivers in the five places they’re most likely to need a charge: at home; at work; around town; on the highway; and at destination locations, such as the beach, a mountain resort, or a historical site.

Initiatives include building viable charging options for apartment complexes and other shared residential areas, as well as ensuring there are enough plug-in stations to service the number of electric cars on the road.

Initiatives include ensuring there are enough plug-in stations to service the number of electric cars on the road.

To do so, the public-facing group has turned to a trove of private money. That includes a $2 billion influx from Volkswagen’s Electrify America campaign, which was set up in the wake of the automaker’s emission scandal. Finding the money isn’t nearly as complicated as figuring out how to spend it, O’Grady said.

“There are so many types of investments that need to be made by different types of investors to ensure the region’s emerging needs continue to be met,” she said. “We want to make sure public and private investments are strategically integrated, and made as useful as possible.”

The plan also serves to keep the diverse group of regional governments on the same strategic page through 2021—though it’s just the beginning of where the group hopes to go, O’Grady said.

“The first step was getting all these states to agree on a list of priorities, which is pretty phenomenal,” she said. “But there’s always next steps. There’s always more to do, which makes this area really exciting to work in.”

Electricity 101

Drive-Change-Logo
The logo for Drive Change. Drive Electric.

One of those next steps is ensuring the public is well-educated about electric vehicles. That means understanding not just how the technology works, but how it could work for them, said Steve Douglas, Senior Director of the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers. He’s another campaign member and representative of more than a dozen carmakers, including BMW, Fiat Chrysler, Ford, General Motors, Mercedes-Benz, Porsche, Toyota, Volkswagen, and Volvo.

“We want to raise the awareness and knowledge of these vehicles, but not just by describing them, by describing how they fit into our lives, which is why people buy cars,” he said. “You can embrace driving electric without a major modification to your lifestyle. For the consumer, understanding the technology and how it works in their lifestyle is critically important.”

Spreading the word is especially significant in combating the natural fear of change, Douglas said. And emphasizing the expansive number of electrified options on the market could help carry the message even further.

“Electric cars are not just small cars,” he said. “We have SUVs. We have minivans. And it’s not just pure battery-powered electric cars—we also have plug-in hybrids that you can drive from Maine to Montana, just like your normal car.”

As time goes on, and the Drive Change campaign continues to unfurl, those options will likely only continue to grow, Douglas said. That is, assuming consumers are as heavily invested in an electric future as automakers.

Manufacturers have invested tens of billions of dollars in these vehicles and have over 40 electric models right now, and that’s just the beginning,” he said. “It’s an investment by the automakers and a serious commitment, but in order to see that through, we need the consumers to see the technology and be excited about this technology.”

Going to Market

Education may plant the seed, but it will take a number of other efforts to grow a sustainable market for electrified cars, Douglas said.

Other aspects integral to promoting the idea include offering incentives for those purchasing the vehicles and providing the appropriate infrastructure to keep those new owners happy.

Fuel prices also come into play, Douglas said. States will have to contend with how to charge users for the boosts of electric juice.

There’s a mutual understanding from both the states and the automakers on what we can do to develop and accelerate this market,” he said. “Those four tenants [consumer education; purchase incentives; infrastructure; and fuel pricing] are what we’re all trying to address, and everyone is focused on all of these areas.”

Still, the Drive Change campaign represents just the beginning of the electrification effort, he added.

“Ultimately, what we’re looking for is a self-sustaining, robust growth of that market, but it’s kind of a fair distance away, so right now we’re focused on consumer awareness, and we have a long way to go,” Douglas said. “It does require a sustained effort, and most people recognize that it’s a sustained effort.”

As far as the manufacturers he represents, the long view is the only view, he said.

“Over the last 8 months, virtually every major company has announced broad electrification plans, but these cars are only helpful if people are buying them,” he said. “We don’t want to see these vehicles sitting on dealer lots, we want people seeing them, buying them, driving them. Clearly, we’re committed to these vehicles, the companies are committed to these vehicles, and they want them to succeed.”

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