‘Who Killed the Electric Car?’ star issues new warning

Source: By David Ferris and David Iaconangelo, E&E News reporters • Posted: Tuesday, November 19, 2019

Chelsea Sexton gained fame as one of the main characters in the blockbuster 2006 documentary “Who Killed the Electric Car?” Last month, E&E News caught up with her in Los Angeles, where she opined that, despite their big new promises, the automakers could kill the electric car again.

“It’s not a rolling snowball,” she said.

Sexton, 44, has been selling cars since high school and was on the General Motors Co. team that developed the EV1, the first production electric car in the United States. She went on to co-found Plug In America, one of the country’s leading EV advocacy groups.

Now she is a consultant who describes her role as the “grout between the tiles” among the major players in the electric vehicle industry, including automakers, advocates and power utilities. In the energy space, she has advised the Electric Power Research Institute; the Edison Electric Institute; and utilities in California, North Carolina and Oklahoma.

Sexton spoke with E&E News about finger-pointing between automakers and power providers, using sex appeal to sell EVs, and Tesla’s “secret sauce.”

What do you think the auto industry really thinks about electrification?

The automotive industry — not the charging people and everybody else around it — is still so ambivalent about doing this. Every single one of them is planning for it; every single one of them has a PowerPoint that says by, you know, 2025 or 2030, 25% of what we sell will have to be electric or something to that variation, to meet compliance regulations around the world.

Yet at the same time, there’s a parallel path of, “Well, can we walk back the CAFE [corporate average fuel economy] standards? Can we walk back the CARB ZEV mandate [the zero-emission vehicle requirements of the California Air Resources Board]? Can we walk back … .”

You know. “Yes, we’re planning for it, but can we take as long as possible to do it? Because we still make so much more money on these other things.”

What signs do you see that the automakers aren’t serious?

EVs have been, for 25 years, the only example in the history of automotive, if not all retail product, where the core industry has required that demand predate and continually outpace supply.

And that’s like every time [former Ford Motor CEO] Mark Fields or some auto executive says, “When we see demand for electric cars, then we’ll start making them.” They’re not going to ask for them if they don’t know they’re possible.

It’s expecting someone to look at a Walkman 30 years ago and go, “I wish this were smaller than a deck of cards, and I could watch TV on it and order pizza, maybe make a phone call.”

What kind of concrete signs would you see from an automaker if it were serious about selling EVs?

It’s a little like porn, where you know it when you see it. But I have yet to see an incumbent automaker truly try to sell every EV of whatever model they can. No one has really tried hard to market these things well.

We’ve sold cars through sex for decades, but we almost never see it with respect to EVs. We’ve always known cars are an emotional purchase, and yet most of the time, the industry and all the advocacy groups try to sell spinach.

What are the signs that EV promises aren’t being followed up by action?

It’s often more of a human resources thing. There’s often a disconnect of a car company that will say, “We’re investing X millions or billions into a car,” and yet when I look who on staff is in charge of electrification, it’s like two people in the building.

That, to me, says for sure: Whether it’s intentional or not, I know you’re only going to go so far, even if back at the engineering level you’re dedicating billions for something that might happen in five years.

Tesla comes to mind as an electric carmaker that uses sex appeal. Can other automakers replicate what it’s done?

Yes and no. There is a huge amount of double standard between Tesla and everybody else. Primarily the category of what they will get away with that no one else will.

Such as?

All of the various stock things. Half the Elon [Musk] tweeting. The pedophile accusations [Musk leveled against a British caver]. The overpromising, time and time and time again, about what the cars will do that they still are not doing that was promised years ago. No other car company would get away with anything that Tesla does on a random Tuesday.

The entire secret sauce of Tesla’s retail experience is really well-educated salespeople who are passionate about their product in a low-pressure environment. That’s basically it.

If one company wanted to sell the socks off their EV, they would copy Saturn’s 30-day money-back guarantee. Tomorrow. Take it home, use it, you buy it, whatever. Within 30 days, you don’t like it, bring it back. No questions asked. It completely derisks the idea.

Some of the automakers say that before EVs are sold, the charging network must be built out. Is it an excuse?

To some degree. In the ranking of barriers we’re facing in trying to deploy large numbers of EVs, I tend to rank charging infrastructure maybe fourth.

The No. 2 problem is fundamentally lack of product. By that, I don’t mean more [Nissan] Leafs. I mean variety: trucks, SUVs, minivans, larger cars, whatever. And I mean geography, so having 27 things available in California doesn’t help a guy in Oklahoma. We need nationwide availability, a larger variety of things with plugs on them, including plug-in hybrids. That’s No. 2.

What kind of relationship exists between the automakers and the utilities on electrification?

In the intersection, I mostly see finger-pointing. Certainly in the Northeast, the automakers have been playing a game of chicken with them for years. Primarily, it’s the automakers pointing at utilities, but also others going, “You need to put an alternative for us,” and it’s the utilities pointing at the automakers going, “Yeah, but why would we do that if you’re not committing to coming to our market?”

We have a really concrete example of that history in Georgia. During the EV1 days, GM said to Georgia, “You put in a bunch of charging, and we will come.” And they did, and [GM] didn’t. And there are still special feelings throughout Southern Co. today about all of that.

What sort of cooperation do you see these days between the utilities and automakers?

I have watched a bunch of utilities say to the automakers, “It would be super helpful if we go to our regulators — we’re in front of the PUC [public utilities commission], saying, ‘We want to put in all this charging’ — if we could have an automaker say, ‘Yes, this would help us,’ as an outside voice, that would be incredibly helpful.”

So there’s a lot of that kind of request, I’ll say, conspiratorial, but it’s in a good way, trying to help move things along.

Do you see movement by utilities on EVs?

I would say, broadly speaking, and I work a lot with the utility side, as well, it’s a super conservative, skittish industry. They’re afraid of going and saying, “We have this great idea; we want to put in all this charging,” and having the regulator slap them, because that’s the dynamic they’re used to.

The basic trends I’m watching on the utility side right now are more of them being interested in putting in charging, especially now that rate-basing is starting to become a thing. For the first 10 or 15 years, there were utilities trying to put in charging, but it was not sort of regulated, rate-of-return kind of stuff. Now that that’s starting to be a possibility, there’s much more interest in places that are not historically big EV areas.

You told us that EVs are not a rolling snowball. How will we know the snowball is rolling?

When anybody can walk into your average dealership and have something to choose and is not discouraged from doing so. Basically.