Plug-in electric vehicles like the Chevrolet Volt and Spark EV use electricity stored in a battery from the grid to move down the road. They also seem to generate as much “electricity” around dinner tables these days with interest and opinions. And while we encourage you to become educated before you form your opinions on electric vehicles, we believe it is important to offer insight on what it takes to put the pieces together to form a new transportation future. On one level, it is a simple lesson in the way we think about our automobiles. On another level, it is about investing, organizing, and implementing a transportation makeover on a grand scale.
To paint a picture, let’s start from the introduction of the Chevrolet Volt in late 2010, about two and a half years ago. Like toddlers of the same age, the Volt is growing up pretty fast – like when a child goes from using broken words to cohesive phrases or when sloppy hands are replaced by spoons and forks. While progress is being made, there’s still a lot of learning that needs to be done to transform this toddler into a well-rounded adult.
With a large amount of preparation, education, and hard work, it is easy to forget how far we have come in nearly three years. It also may not be obvious to the outside world how much it takes to make the plug-in vehicle market grow at this early stage. Like with children, though, we must spend significant time nurturing and teaching. The continued growth in the adoption of electric vehicles requires various stakeholders to prepare through education, outreach, and hands-on experience. This is really what is meant by “Readiness”. More importantly, it is not unlike raising a child—it does take a village and progress is always being made no matter how incremental.
The first step when venturing into a new area is assessing your current situation: “Am I ready? Do I have everything I’m going to need? What am I missing?”
Most major automotive companies follow a similar recipe when it comes to how they function organizationally. Typically, companies are structured with Sales and Marketing, Engineering, Design, Communications, R&D, Finance and so on. When creating a new kind of automobile, like the Chevrolet Volt—the industry’s first extended-range electric vehicle—you utilize the best of your existing organization, evaluate areas that need to be augmented and in many cases, go after talent or resources that you simply do not have.
The Volt’s power source is an advanced battery system, which feeds the electric motors. When the battery is depleted, a gasoline generator creates more electricity to propel the car hundreds of additional miles. This concept was completely new for GM and the industry, and during the development of the Volt we realized the need for specialized employees. We needed to hire engineers with strong backgrounds in battery chemistry and battery systems. We also needed experts in electric drive motors and their control systems. We even had a significant increase in one of our core areas: electrical engineers.
Not only did GM hire new types of employees but we created purpose-built facilities just for these new teams. One example of such a facility is the Alternative Energy Center (AEC) housed on campus of our Technical Center in Warren, Michigan white opened in 2009. The AEC is the largest and most technologically advanced battery lab in the United States. The lab spans more than 66,000 sq. ft. dedicated to the testing and development of advanced batteries used in electrically driven vehicles.
After building our internal expertise, we needed to choose the right partners to develop components and subsystems for such an innovative car. And with a car whose heart and soul is measured in kilowatt hours rather than horsepower, it’s no surprise that finding partners in the supplier community was a learning process.
Educating stakeholders—such as dealers, electricians, communities, and first responders—on electric vehicles is not as simple as setting up a classroom and preparing a deck of slides. In fact, it is a two-way dialogue that includes automotive engineers, program managers, policy officials, utilities, and a broad array of on-the-ground practitioners. We all must learn and adapt—not only on the details of the technology and execution, but through different languages we speak and the rules of engagement.
Our new fueling station: Electric Utilities
For more than a hundred years, auto companies and oil companies have grown on a business relationship around a shared customer. These communications historically have been focused on the type and quality of fuel needed to ensure our joint customer would have an exceptional driving experience.
This idea holds true for electric vehicles but instead of oil companies, GM is working with electric utilities. The major difference from the existing business model: oil companies have control or influence over the retail gas stations and everything is controlled and repeatable, while electric utilities have a much different approach. Their goal is to provide safe reliable power to homes and businesses and this has been done for over 100 years as well. The challenge here for an auto company is how do you create a repeatable process for dispensing electricity as a transportation fuel through someone’s home, a home that is likely very different from their neighbors.
In 2007, GM formed a relationship with the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI) to form the largest auto-utility collaborative effort in existence. EPRI is an independent, nonprofit organization that conducts research, development and demonstration relating to the generation, delivery and use of electricity for the benefit of the public. This partnership helped GM not only with challenges that could be faced when working with individual homes, but GM also was able to leverage their membership of more than 50 utility companies across the U.S. and Canada.
Today, we continue to share and exchange information with EPRI and consider this relationship very important to the success and adoption of plug-in electric vehicles.
Those who watch over us: Safety Officials
From proactively designing and testing features in a vehicle to ensuring first responders have all the information they need, safety is a top priority at GM. Therefore, GM works closely works with safety officials in a well-coordinated, well-timed cadence—balancing this ahead of the launch, but not so far ahead that details and training are forgotten by the time these advanced vehicles hit the road.
In August 2010, we joined forces with the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) through our Chevrolet and OnStar brands to co-develop safety resources, including web-based training materials, video and a comprehensive instructor-led safety presentation on the proper handling of electric vehicle components after a severe crash. In parallel, GM established a national training program and posted safety information through our normal channels—such as GM Service Technical College and OnStar.
In Action: Dealers & Charging Equipment Installers
Working on the front lines to support and sell the vehicles are our dealers, and (not as obvious) charging equipment installers. The questions they receive span from, “How much does it cost to charge my car?” to “Is this battery like my cell phone?” And with early adopters usually being a very educated customer-base, they need to know the answer to these questions or how to find the answer quickly.
Training dealership staff comes in waves and in various forms to ensure the information is fresh on the mind. Training charging station installers and electricians is similar, but less obvious. Sometimes a customer is just ordering a vehicle and would like more information; other times, a customer has already taken delivery and is curious. In both cases, GM involves many groups to educate. For example, utilities help dealers understand electricity rate options while working with Bosch Service Solutions, we make sure electricians understand what procedures to take to ensure smooth installation of charging equipment.
Moreover, GM has established “Volt Advisors” so customers have a single point of contact to answer questions and find information. The Volt Advisor is a phone call away and offers a trusted voice. Ultimately, the lines of communication must be open across parties—the GM Team, dealerships, utilities, city officials, electricians—to ensure the customer experience exceeds expectations. More importantly, an effortless experience means a willing customer who will help educate the next market waves.
Making it a community: Public Officials
As we ready ourselves and the industry, there is also a clear case to ensure an open dialogue with public officials. Local city planners and inspectors must be comfortable with the technology and willing to consider changes to streamline processes, such as when installing charging in publicly-accessible locations, working with local landlords to manage requests from tenants, or supporting local workplaces who install charging for their employees.
At a higher level, state officials and regulators must understand the challenges being faced at the local level—Is funding needed to support apartment owners who want to install charging? Are model codes necessary to ensure the proper accessibility rules are followed? Furthermore, regulators and elected officials work closely with industry to understand if new rules are necessary or if the market will sort through these details in a timely manner.
No matter your opinion on electric vehicles, we trust you can appreciate that it takes a tremendous amount of hard work to re-create an industry. We start with EV education and it “grows up” into EV readiness with a plethora of stakeholders who will help make it a success. At its core, we are all working for the customer.
The next time you see a Chevrolet Volt, Spark EV or any other EV, we hope you appreciate how far the industry has come in a few short years. We also hope you appreciate that we are not talking about just an electric motor and four wheels with a nicely refined interior and an impeccable driving experience. It is highly-skilled engineers, knowledgeable local permitting officials, friendly utility costumer service agents, appreciative dealer salespeople. It is a confident customer. And it is just the beginning.
Dan Frakes and Alex Keros manage General Motors' Public Policy work on advanced vehicles, infrastructure, and technology. Their diverse background spans from engaging public-private partnerships to electric vehicle infrastructure planning to supporting the launch of the Chevrolet Volt.