What's keeping electric vehicles from the mainstream?

Advancements in electric-vehicle technologies have made them increasingly viable for consumers, fleets and car-sharing services, but they're still not mainstream alternatives to conventional gasoline-powered cars.

One key missing link is more infrastructure and support services, but investors are wary to plunk down the cash for these pieces until there are more EVs on the roads. It’s a classic chicken-or-egg problem. Which should come first: EVs or infrastructure, like charging stations?

This question took center stage last week at GreenBiz’s VERGE DC event. The thesis behind VERGE -- the convergence of energy, information, technology and transportation -- fits the long-term vision for EV expansion, yet so far EVs haven’t integrated well with other networks, said the panel’s moderator, Beth Lowery, a principal with GreenOrder and a former General Motors executive.

 To help explore how, where, and when the EV ecosystem is evolving, Lowery spoke with:

NRG is betting big by building the only privately funded EV recharging network in the country, including the largest network of “fast” chargers, which use high-voltage DC current to slash recharge times drastically. In Dallas, Houston and elsewhere in Texas, NRG is partnering with Walgreens and other retailers to install recharging hubs.

And in California, the company announced Friday that will spend approximately $100 million to build, own and operate a comprehensive EV charging network, including at least 200 publicly available fast-charging stations. (The deal is part of a settlement with the state's public utilities commission over a dispute during California's energy crisis more than a decade ago.)

Instead of range anxiety, “EV drivers should have full range confidence,” Banskota said.

Meanwhile, Eaton has seen growing convergence in the commercial vehicle space, where it has been developing hybrid and EV technologies, Wirtz said. The trend has yielded hybrid systems not yet seen in passenger vehicles, such as diesel electric hybrids and hydraulic-hybrids, which recover braking energy as mechanical energy.

“We’re trying to imagine what the world will look like when 75 percent of vehicles are EVs,” he said.

For Greenlots, convergence means using the data cloud to better integrate EVs, homes and renewable-energy sources into the grid. “In Germany, we’re taking wind power and matching that with EV battery storage,” Mahabir said. “In the U.S., utilities don’t yet know when EV drivers are going recharge.”  That lack of transparency can unnecessarily tax the grid.

Another challenge includes a lack of public understanding about EVs, even five years after their rebirth. When NRG surveys consumers if they’d buy EVs, Banskota recounted, typically around a third are inclined. “But after we show them how it works, where they can recharge, and the cost benefits, that share doubles,” he said. “Education is critical.”

Despite the press coverage they’ve attracted, EVs are so rare -- just 17,000 GM Volts and Nissan Leafs have been sold so far -- that few drivers have had hands-on experience. Getting the public to have more direct experience with EVs can be a game changer, Wirtz said. “First-time EV drivers always find the experience exhilarating,” he said, because the driving experience is so quiet, powerful and smooth.

In terms of policy, Mahabir believes that support should be focused on the battery problem. “Korea, Japan, and China are investing billions in batteries, and we need to do the same” he said.

Eaton’s Wirtz concurred: If the industry can get batteries right, charging networks will follow.  That means lowering battery prices, boosting their capacity, and shrinking their charging times. For EV adoption, we’ll see a “top up” strategy where, everywhere you go, drivers will want plug in -- that’s different from gas driving, where folks are comfortable letting their tank get near to empty, Wirtz said.

“People talk about this being a chicken and egg problem,” he added. “We firmly believe if you get the battery price down, the infrastructure will come.”

Banskota replied that the lifetime cost of ownership of EVs is something consumers don’t yet understand properly. The Nissan Leaf, for example, is already the lowest-cost vehicle in terms of lifetime costs, including maintenance, fuel and sticker price. “EVs are already competitive,” he said.

One way to help lower EVs’ costs and drive adoption would be to standardize chargers, Wirtz said. “We’ve identified 11 protocols for vehicles to communicate to recharging points,” he said. That creates costly complexity and deters economies of scale.

Another barrier: EVs don’t necessarily fit well into legacy car retail channels, Mahabir pointed out. Dealers don’t love the financial impact of EVs on their profits, since battery-powered cars are relatively expensive, leaving a thinner margins. What’s more: EVs need less maintenance, which hurts shop income.

In terms of federal incentives, the focus ought to be on early-stage research and development, said NRG’s Banskota, in order to drive progress in the basic battery science.

Locally, giving EVs access to HOV lanes and preferential parking are low-cost ways for cities to stir interest in EVs. “It would provide a huge boost for EV owners,” Banskota said.

Photo courtesy of iQoncept  via Shutterstock.