Electric Avenue: Portland Plugs into the Future

How do we get more drivers into electric vehicles?

""That was the dominant question posed at last week’s EV Roadmap 4, in Portland, Oregon. Hosted for the past four years by the City of Portland, Portland State University and Portland General Electric, the event brings together leading representatives from cities, research labs, utilities, and private enterprise, to discuss barriers to electric vehicle adoption.

Portland and many other Project Get Ready member cities have made great strides toward “EV readiness”—creating vehicle-friendly ecosystems through infrastructure build-outs, code reform and utility engagement.

However, as many are realizing, there is only so much this preparation will accomplish if potential drivers aren’t interested. So what will spur and sustain interest in EVs?

First and foremost, clearer information around the technology could help drive adoption. This was evident during a focus group discussion among 10 randomly chosen Portland residents about their perceptions of electric vehicles.

The responses were varied and largely underinformed. But that’s to be expected. This is a new technology and there are still very few cars on the road. What was most interesting to see was how some in the focus group shifted their previously negative opinions on EVs when another participant more familiar with the technology offered a few basic insights. Keeping it simple is the key to raising interest in and familiarity with the technology.

Electric Avenue

Increased familiarity can be achieved through a variety of methods, primarily via manufacturer efforts. But cities can play a role as well. Portland’s Electric Avenue is a prime example of how events and public demonstrations can go a long way toward raising the profile of the technology.

Located on one block in downtown Portland, Electric Avenue features a number of charging stations, including one of the first installed DC Fast Charging stations, which are capable of fully charging an electric vehicle within 15 to 30 minutes.

In addition, the city created an adoptable best practice with its project. By clustering many charging stations in one area, it reduces overall installation expenditures. Charging stations require running electrical wiring from the nearest utility service, and in many cases cities will have to trench concrete to do so. By installing multiple stations along one trench, or pre-wiring for future installations, cities can ensure the most cost-effective installations.

This demonstration project succeeds on multiple levels: it generates interest with its array of charging stations and distinct branding; it provides central a hub for electric vehicle drivers; and it gives other cities an example to follow.

Still, the driver is likely the best communicator of the key messages around vehicle electrification. As Mark Perry, Nissan’s director of product planning suggested during the conference, the enthusiastic early adopter cannot be ignored. Electric vehicles tend to turn heads—particularly when charging—and “first-adopter” owners are usually eager to share their experiences (bragging rights come with first dibs). So cities and automakers alike will do well to engage and encourage these drivers early, and to give them an arena to participate in EV readiness activities.

In the future, we look forward to seeing cities around the country employ similar strategies as Portland. That convergence of city leadership and community engagement will foster EV ready ecosystems, while raising awareness of and demand for electric vehicles nationwide.