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Drive Like a Jetson

By / 11.19.2009

When you watch an episode of “The Jetsons,” what gets you isn’t so much that Elroy wore an antenna on his head or that the family spent their time in cars that levitated. What still resonates about the show is the extreme ease of transportation — they always just seem to get up and go. For many of us in the modern world, where gridlock and wincing at gas pumps are facts of life, the Jetsons seem spectacularly free of commuter woes. But it’s a cartoon.

Ambitious clean technology schemes have usually been condemned as the province of dreamers. But this week, a new organization threatened to convert Jetson-esque schemes for powering electric cars from futurism into reality through a network of charging stations and new fleets of affordable electric cars. The Electrification Coalition is a group of prominent companies who have committed dollars and workforces to creating the infrastructure to make electric cars. (We previously wrote about electric cars here.)

At a lavish launch in D.C. featuring New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-ND), and Rep. Ed Markey (D-MA) were some old — and new — captains of industry: Carlos Ghosn, the president & CEO of Nissan Motor Company; Frederick W. Smith, chairman, president & CEO of FedEx; Peter L. Corsell, the young and dynamic CEO of GridPoint, a successful company in Arlington that builds software applications that integrate, aggregate, and manage distributed sources of load, storage, and generation to connect utility customers to the smart grid.

The Future: Closer Than You Think

The coalition’s goals are at once ambitious but practicable. By 2013, they hope to put approximately 700,000 “grid-enabled vehicles” (GEVs) — vehicles with lithium-ion batteries that you can plug into either a 110-volt or 220-volt outlet to recharge — on the road. Through economies of scale and government tax credits and other incentives, the coalition thinks it can put 14 million GEVs on the road by 2020 and more than 120 million GEVs by 2030. Ultimately, they would like to have 75 percent of all vehicle miles traveled by 2040 be electric.

How to visualize this? Ghosn, Nissan’s CEO, put it crisply: “How do you imagine an electric car? There is no tailpipe, no emissions.” He repeated himself: “NO tailpipe.”

A full fleet of silent, tailpipe-less cars is ambitious and could lead even the sane to skepticism. Friedman moderated a panel with several of the coalition members and led with a question: “I want you to sell me on the efficacy and the reality of implementing this roadmap.” The coalition members answered quickly and confidently, relying on actual business plans, dollars invested, consumer habits and charging infrastructure already in place, and cars already in production.

David Crane, president and CEO of NRG Energy, said, “The service station of the future is in your garage.” Ghosn talked up the vastly improved efficiency of new lithium-ion batteries, saying, “We can make batteries today that were not possible 20 years ago.”

Corsell of Gridpoint, the software designer for smart grids around the country, said, “We’ve learned that you can leverage technology…to give consumers benefits.” In response to the oft-raised concern about whether too many drivers charging their cars at once would burden the grid, Corsell said, “The power is there — we have all the power we need. You can incentivize people to use power at the right time by building technology into the car.” Other participants stressed that cars will essentially become “grid appliances” — simple technology will allow charging mechanisms in cars to be controlled through the Internet. In Chicago, one pilot program even pays drivers per day to hook their cars up to the Internet.

The Next Step

What’s needed is policy — leadership by federal and state governments to push electrification through incentives. In the short-term, the coalition’s policy goals include significantly increasing plug-in electric drive vehicle tax credits, establishing tax credits equal to 75 percent of the cost to construct public charging infrastructure, extending consumer tax credits for home charging equipment, and providing tax credits equal to 50 percent of the costs of the necessary IT upgrades for utilities or power aggregators to sell power to GEVs.

These common-sense but aggressive measures would put electrification within the free market by investing, as government can, in providing technology with the threshold it needs for manufacturers to achieve economies of scale. It’s now, not the Jetsons — and nobody will have to wear antennas on their head.