There is no more honorable mission than to create innovative products that enhance the quality of life. The automobile, of course, is among the greatest of these products in the history of our planet.
An automobile is mobility. Mobility is freedom. And freedom, in this country and others, is the breath of life.
Yet this breath becomes increasingly difficult in metropolitan areas where mobility, in the form of huge numbers of automobiles, fouls the air. Tailpipe emissions are universally viewed as the single largest contributor to the poor air quality in our cities and even our national parks.
On a positive note, this nation's growing motor vehicle fleet is cleaner than ever. Tremendous strides forward have been made in decreasing tailpipe emissions. We've all heard the numbers of how incredibly cleaner today's cars and trucks are than the automobiles of just a decade or two ago.
Yet that's little comfort when we see air quality problems growing in many regions of the country.
To the rescue: electric vehicles. It's been envisioned for some time that vehicles emitting zero localized emissions could make a great impact in urban areas suffering from severe air pollution. While mass commercialization has yet to occur, we as a nation have come a long way toward making electric vehicles a reality.
As I strive to offer perspective, I'm obliged to look back at a time earlier this decade, when electric concept vehicles were the unrivaled buzz at international auto shows.
We had a hope: There would come a time, in the not-too-distant future, when battery electric vehicles of every description would come to the showroom, and ultimately our neighborhoods.
In my role as feature editor at Motor Trend, I watched this hope unfold in L.A., in Tokyo, in Geneva. I recognized an emergence of ideas, and of technologies, that began to shape the modern electric vehicle.
I drove the test mules and the prototypes, spent time at the automakers' labs and at their proving grounds. The excitement -- both in the industry and on the streets -- was tangible, and growing.
This was a time when General Motors called for people to think creatively to bring about full use of EVs, which were likened, and I quote, "to the transportation moonshot of the 21st century...and our gift to the next generation."
These words were prophetic, because in every sense the development of the modern electric vehicle is a moonshot. Like the evolution of Apollo 11, the mission of the electric vehicle has taken many turns -- from significant setbacks to amazing successes, and as wild a ride as any imaginable. It continues to this day.
You've known the direction, but getting there has never been a straight road, and there have been many bumps along the way.
There was no infrastructure, so you began forging partnerships and installing charging stations. Current battery technology was too limiting, so you set out to build better and more powerful batteries, using all-new technologies.
Proving the value of these vehicles was a challenge, so you fielded large demonstration fleets and proved to industry-leading companies how well suited these vehicles were to their daily needs.
So here we are, closing the century with an amazing array of electric vehicle models from the world's automakers. They represent incredible achievements in electronics, computer control, advanced materials, sophisticated engineering, and just plain innovation.
As elated as we all should be about these electric vehicles, there is a reality check. Like Apollo, electric vehicles have largely existed in a realm where the mission is the priority...something achieved at all costs.
And cost is the issue, isn't it? Because, while the world we live in appreciates mission-specific, big picture programs that excite us and spur our imagination, reality eventually sets in. When this reality involves our own wallets -- the big picture is reduced to the very black-and-white issue of value for our dollars.
Price is the single-most limiting factor with EVs. It's not technology. It's not consumer acceptance. It's not driveability. It's not functionality. Ultimately, these can all be overcome. Simply, battery electric vehicles aren't priced affordably enough for the average consumer...otherwise they would buy them.
A recent survey by Design News found that 40% of its design engineer readers surveyed felt electric vehicles would be a viable choice if priced between $10,000 and $20,000. I believe that most consumers would agree with this.
Conquer the cost/price barrier, and you've overcome the biggest obstacle to electric vehicle commercialization. No small challenge, to be sure. It's like computers, where fast-tracking the evolution of $10,000 personal computers has resulted in the $500 desktop PCs now residing in our children's rooms.
Another problem is the mind-set that's found battery electric vehicles marketed only in large metropolitan areas already suffering from air quality problems. Yes, these cities have the environmentally inclined, the early technology adopters.
But to our way of thinking at Green Car Journal, this is "Mirror Image Marketing." It seems logical, it looks good...but in many important ways, it's an illusion, the opposite of what makes sense.
Environmental vehicles are a reflection of the values embraced by the environmentally inclined. Where do you find large numbers of these people? Often, in smaller cities where sustainability is much more than a catchword. It's a way of life.
The research that Green Car Group has conducted in recent years leads us to believe that some of the greatest support for EVs comes from these centers of sustainability. I'm talking about smaller cities and towns that have heard about electric vehicles for years, but in some instances have never seen even one.
Does this sound like a missed opportunity? I think so. In the interest of tightly controlled test marketing of electric vehicles in select, major urban areas, automakers are sacrificing the chance to make a big statement in small towns.
Put 100 electric vehicles in a city of a million or larger, and you have barely a blip on the radar. Think about it: How many EVs do you see in Los Angeles, the number one test market for EVs, and the single most important auto market in the world? It's a rarity.
Place 25 of these in a small sustainable city -- an academic town where a sense of community thrives and the local media reflect the environmental inclination of its residents -- and you have meaningful impact.
Electric cars will make a major statement. An electric car in a small town is like the Goodyear Blimp over a football stadium...people can't help but notice.
A case in point: Green Car Journal's home town of San Luis Obispo, a city of about 45,000 halfway between L.A. and San Francisco, is home to legions of urban refugees from Southern California and the San Francisco Bay Area. These are mainstream, highly skilled people who have fled the urban scene to bring their families to a better place, with a higher quality of life.
San Luis Obispo is similar in many ways to so-called sustainable cities like Madison, Wisconsin; Chattanooga, Tennessee; Austin, Texas; and Boulder, Colorado -- university town with highly educated, savvy people. These are entire communities predisposed to new and innovative ideas and solutions, making these the perfect proving ground for electric vehicles.
If an emphasis must be placed on specific states and regions during these early years of EV marketing -- then at the least, automakers should look beyond the obvious...beyond the borders of the largest cities in these areas.
Certainly, those cities most obscured by smog should be a focal point. This is where the most obvious partnerships exist -- the air districts, the power companies, the city leaders obliged to help improve their residents' quality of life. And indeed, this has been the historic center of electric vehicle marketing.
But our daily driving around San Luis Obispo in a bright red GM EV1 tells us clearly that interest in EVs is far from centered just in large cities located in test market areas. We're constantly stopped in our small city -- in parking lots, at malls, at schools, wherever the EV1 is driven. People are curious. They're also interested.
Business leaders here in particular are willing to step up to electric vehicles because they're the right thing to do. They also bring with them a high profile in the community. It's the small town advantage.
By focusing on an area where EVs create a high profile, these vehicles make news readily, and they make an impact. When we helped establish the first public EV charging station on the Central Coast of California several months ago, this was a front page story in three newspapers, a news item on two TV stations, and the subject for several radio programs. The small town advantage.
Break through Mirror Image Marketing and you clearly see it's possible to make a huge statement of the EV's viability -- at a crucial time when the media has been consumed with erroneously reporting the battery EV's demise.
Take the initiative to make these statements and, at the same time, educate the media. Place EVs in context as a process, not as singular events in isolation, and you can circumvent the kind of bad reporting that occurred when Honda completed the pre-planned build of its EV Plus and stopped production.
We are in the midst of a developing crisis. We will field ever larger numbers of cars on the highway, and with these will come ever growing levels of air pollution, regardless of how cleanly these vehicles burn gasoline. This is mathematical fact. No amount of posturing or procrastination will change this.
So consider this a call to arms.
Auto manufacturers -- you must continue your commitment to developing and building cleaner vehicles that offer less impact on the environment, and these must include battery electric vehicles. Cars and trucks featuring zero localized emissions are uniquely suited to long-term emissions mitigation. While hybrid electric vehicles represent a tremendous new choice at the showroom, they shouldn't be considered a replacement for the battery EV. Both are needed.
Energy companies -- Continue to drive the EV's commercialization through innovation, partnering, and outreach. Importantly, do the right thing by committing to include large numbers of electric vehicles into your fleets. There is no better way to assure automakers that an EV market exists than for you to help create one.
Regulators -- Be even handed, but steadfast, in your approach to driving this field. Yours is a crucial balancing act that calls upon companies to do the right thing, while striving to do so in ways that reward innovation without creating unnecessary obstacles to these companies' well being. Your role shouldn't be understated. When given an imperative to accomplish an impossible job -- as President Kennedy's promise of a lunar landing did in the 1960s -- the improbable becomes possible.
State and federal government agencies -- You have an obligation to phase as many EVs into your fleets as possible. Requiring automakers to build zero emission vehicles is honest only if you're willing to step up and buy them.
All stakeholders -- It's time to think creatively, as you did in 1992 with the launch of the Electric Vehicle and the American Community competition, which tapped the best and brightest ideas for building electric vehicle communities from architects, urban planners, engineers, and others. This kind of outreach -- of involvement outside of your industry -- is crucial to carrying the electric vehicle forward.
Can all this be done?
I'm reminded of the words of Henry Ford, who said: "Whether you think you can, or you think you can't, you're right."
And so, collectively, you must respond with the will to do the right thing -- driven by purpose and by mission to bring mass production, affordable electric vehicles to the highways of this nation and others.
We know you can. Thank you.