Once again, a conference on plug-in cars. Coming on the heels of the Google/Brookings event in Washington, D.C., Plug-in 2008 in San Jose, California witnessed a noon-time address by new heavy-weight convert, Andy Grove, former CEO of Intel. Grove brings some needed high-profile gravitas to the community of electrification advocates. One week earlier, former Vice President Al Gore issued his well-received challenge to make the American grid 100% renewable in ten years. Grove made it clear one thing was glaringly missing from Gore’s plea: dealing with our national petroleum addiction. All the wind farms and solar panels in the world won’t do anything to lower the outflow of hundreds billions of dollars annually or decrease our pump-fueled funding of Islamic fundamentalism unless we build cars that can use that cleaner electricity. I wish I knew what’s holding Gore back from full-throated support for plug-in cars.
The conference attendees heard the now familiar if increasingly impassioned representatives of the utility industry trumpet the benefits of electricity for transportation. Infrastructure newcomers Coloumb and Better Place were well-represented, offering their proprietary schemes to become the consumer interface to plug-in cars. A number of startups showed off their porposals to retrofit the existing fleets of petroleum-fueled vehicles, giving some hope to Andy Grove’s ambitoious desire to create millions of plug-in conversions before the automakers deliver.
Representatives of GM stoked the clamor for the Volt, and a Saturn Vue plug-in hybrid sat on the show floor. But neither car, GM execs made clear, will appear for sale on a showroom floor for more that two years. Meanwhile, GM is hedging its bets by continuing to invest in the dream of cheap, cellulosic ethanol and the hallucinogenic pipe dream of hydrogen fuel cell SUVs. As America downsizes and SUVs go unpurchased, GM’s diehards put inefficient if zero-emission H2/FCV Equinoxes in advertisements and a few dozen driveways to which they remain tethered by unavailable fuel. (By way of contrast, this weekend I will drive my RAV4 EV 135 miles from my home, plugging in to a dryer plug at a campground five miles down a dirt road a dozen miles from the metropolis of Plymouth CA, population 1070. I will pay nothing for my 300 mile road trip.)
Attesting to consumer desire for plug-ins, hundreds of people flooded the Plug-in 2008 auditorium for the low-cost “public” event, which included Plug In America’s Chelsea Sexton participating in a panel discussion. Automaker announcements keep coming, feeding hope that your next car will be a plug-in hybrid or more likely all-electric car. Nissan and Renault have now promised tens of thousands of EVs on three continents by 2011. And a new competition has opened up among the Germans, with BMW announcing an electric Mini and Daimler promising an electric Smart and Mercedes sedan. There’s never been a better time to head down to your local dealership and let them know until they offer a plug-in car, you’re not buying. No plug? No deal. (Put the bumper sticker and your car and let everyone know.)