Pacific Swell

Southern California environment news and trends

EVS26 finds the electric car industry growing, but tentative, as it looks toward California expansion

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The story a trade show EVS26 can tell the non-industry insider about electric cars is a complicated one. EVS26 is wrapping up today in LA’s Convention Center. I went by yesterday and today for a closer look at what’s going on, something members of the public, car enthusiasts, were able to do on the public day, Sunday, and with test drives outside the convention hall. (The Batmobile-style-Days of Thunder machine above not included.)

What’s interesting is that these guys are trying to guess what kind of inducements they have to provide to get people on board with new technology. What’s even more interesting is that, even after all these years, they’re still guessing.

Sometimes that takes the form of how the electrical current connects up to the car, what kind of a charger you need. Will people just be content to plug their cars into a 220 outlet at home? There’s a worry they won’t, which is why something called wireless charging was a big deal at this show. I saw this technology, and Consumer Reports describes it well:

Several companies, including Delphi, Siemens. and Qualcomm, have developed inductive charging mats that allow drivers to simply pull into their garage (or another so-equipped parking place) and charge. No plugging necessary. Both the car and the parking space would have to be equipped for such wireless charging. Siemens estimates the installation cost of both parts would run about $2,000, or twice what a corded home charger would cost at that time.

The market for these cars is new, so fluctuations in sales make people jumpy. I had people defending Nissan LEAF sales numbers before I read Green Car Reports’ story about how Nissan LEAF sales are off in recent months. And apparently there’s a live political debate in the world over whether Chevy Volt’s indicative of President Barack Obama’s socialist meddling in the car industry. Former GM chairman Bob Lutz, now with VIA cars, renewed his defense of his old company’s car at EVS26 in the past several days against attacks from Fox News, Bill O’Reilly, and Rush Limbaugh, among others.

KPCC’s Sanden Totten has done the story speculating whether carpool lanes will succeed in attracting new hybrid and plug-in car purchasers. That was last year. This year, with more cars that qualify for white and green stickers on the market, the question becomes when all the green stickers are gone: only the first 40,000 cars will qualify.

LA, strangely, makes good sense for a location for this kind of convention. Not just because of the new enthusiasm for electric cars here, like our own local car maker CODA. LA's Clean Ports efforts, and the push from Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and his former advisor Austin Beutner, have encouraged companies like Balquon to develop technologies useful to the harbor complex and moving cargo, and test them here. Balquon had a big presence in the exhibit hall.

What tells me that the industry's still taking baby steps is that I heard the same worries I always do. Most everyone I talked to at EVS26 believes in the better battery grail. I saw “poster sessions” of papers put on by graduate school geeks, looking for the next best thing, a breakthrough in battery power that balances cost and lets car makers make their money. (Marketplace's Sustainability desk has gone looking for that grail too.) Lutz, as he seems ever to be, was blunt: “Range has to go up. Price has go down.” Maybe inside EVS26 they're tackling smaller and complicated questions. But for the rest of us, is it any more complicated than that?

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