New Rules: Real Time Information and the EV Industry

Electric vehicles have tremendous potential to reduce U.S. dependence on oil and improve our environment. To realize that goal, industry leaders must learn new ways to communicate with their customers.

But it’s not just the automaker’s responsibility. Electric vehicles require coordination among a range of industries—utilities, manufacturers and electricians will each play a role. And how they communicate their role could shape future of this industry. This was a recurring theme at the EDTA Conference held in DC last week where we joined our partners to lend support and share our insights.

“Automakers can’t tell the entire story, utilities can’t tell the entire story, infrastructure companies can’t tell the entire story,” said Mike Rowand, director of advanced consumer technology at Duke Energy. “How do we get connectivity to the entire ecosystem?”

For nearly three years, RMI has worked with community and industry leaders through Project Get Ready, an initiative helping to prepare cities and businesses for the arrival of electric vehicles. PGR has established a network of fifteen regional efforts and forty industry partners, each collaborating to identify barriers and share lessons—learned for the adoption of vehicle electrification. We joined our partners at the EDTA conference to lend support and share our insights.

Concerns about safety, performance—whether the cars would even be produced—have given way to a familiar question in the automobile industry: how do we get people into our cars?

Companies of all kinds are investing heavily in online consumer interaction—building informative websites and launching social media campaigns. And it makes sense: they have an incentive and opportunity to educate the public and encourage demand.

“We’re using Twitter, we’re using Facebook, we’re using our internet system…we’re doing everything we can to reach out to the consumer to make sure they have the best information to make a decision,” said Bob Graham, manager of external engagement for plug-in vehicle readiness at Southern California Edison. “How can we change and adjust that message? People don’t intuitively call a utility, so how do we change their mindset and get them to call us?”

Graham’s point is key. Unless the power goes out, many people simply don’t think about their electric utility. And in many parts of the country, energy prices are low enough that efficiency is rarely top-of-mind–even when the bill arrives. However, electric vehicles could change that. In order to mitigate burdens to the grid and to encourage off-peak charging, many utilities wish to end that silence by forming a stronger relationship with their ratepayers. This is no easy task, but if accomplished it’s one that could help consumers better understand their energy use and its impacts.

In order for the cars to reach market saturation, all these issues and more must be tackled. Fortunately, with new technologies, early adopters are often great spokespeople. Many speakers throughout the week drew parallels to the explosion of Apple’s iPod market.

As much as smart design and advertising, word-of-mouth led to the prevalence of such products. To replicate a “diffusion of innovation” would revolutionize the transportation industry. The first step is communication.

“You can never share too much information,” said Chelsea Sexton, whose work on electric vehicles was documented in the film, Who Killed the Electric Car, and its new sequel, Revenge of the Electric Car. “There are separate online communities for each vehicle. They all congregate…and they’re getting addicted to sharing information.”

Sexton added that early adopters want to feel like they’re part of something, not necessarily due to the EVs environmental benefits but because of its technological “cool-factor.” Many of these cars will provide the opportunity to monitor charging via smart phone apps and share performance stats on social media platforms, enabling enthusiasts to brag about miles traveled, speed driven and gasoline saved.

Real-time information is hotter than ever. And that goes beyond the consumers. Over the next few years, as the industry closely watches this new market, it will capture reams of anonymous data from vehicles, charging stations and electrical servicing to quickly determine what’s working and not working on the ground.

Another question emerges: can the industry, comprised of various competing entities, collaborate to foster communication across all stakeholders in the value chain?

It certainly has already begun to do so.  This year’s EDTA conference highlighted a shift in attitudes around information exchange. Even competing companies, each banking on the electric car, are harnessing a “collaborative advantage” by sharing lessons learned. RMI will continue to foster this open dialogue, so that this industry provides an alternative that is better for the economy, the environment and national security.