42 years of waiting, and working, for an electric car pays off

Left to right, Ron Gremban, Felix Kramer, Andy Frank

For a long time, the plug-in vehicle scene was small enough that a few handshakes and introductions were all that was needed to meet most of the people involved. This will be forever gone in 2011, when tens of thousands of people get a plug-in vehicle of their very own.

As a follow-up to the post last week about CalCars' Felix Kramer and Ron Gremban and the "father of the plug-in hybrid," Andy Frank, taking deliveries of their new Chevy Volts, we have an expanded version of Gremban's remarks from the ceremony. Imagine that: A ceremony for delivering three plug-in vehicle. These sorts of things are important now and mark the end (well, an important next step, at least) of a very long road, but they will also soon become a thing of the past. Check out Gremban's comments after the jump.

CalCars' Ron Gremban Welcomes the Chevy Volt
By Ron Gremban, Technology Lead, The California Cars Initiative (CalCars.org)

Yesterday, in a historic event at Novato Chevrolet, my colleagues Felix Kramer, Dr. Andy Frank, and I got the key fobs to the Volts we've had on order ever since we could order one. Ours are all among the first; mine is #24 off the assembly line! Here's a written version of my remarks at that happy event.

GM did an outstanding job engineering this vehicle, and it shows, inside and out. The Volt is arguably the most technologically advanced vehicle on the road today. My first impressions are that GM didn't just build an electric car, it built a flagship. It is all GM representatives have claimed it to be, and more. First, of course, it is the world's first mass-produced Plug-in Hybrid or PHEV (GM prefers to call it an Extended-range Electric Vehicle or EREV to differentiate it from the many upcoming plug-in hybrids that will require internal combustion engine participation for full performance).

Though its PHEV capabilities are enough to make it the most special and important car GM has produced in a century (more on that later), I also found it far more refined and more of a joy to drive than any other car I've owned, including both my converted plug-in Prius and my once-beloved BMW 535i that I drove for 242,000 miles. And it has amenities galore, including internet connectivity rivaling that of my Android phone.

Soon I will write a Volt review that covers topics and perceptions the many, many other reviewers have not yet reported on, as well as a comparison of the various PHEVs I have driven – but not today. Felix told his story of how he got here and where he's going very, very well at -- see http://www.calcars.org/photos-plugins-arrive.html for photos and coverage. Here in brief is mine.

If I were a novelist, I might start with, "It was a dark and stormy night..." 42 years ago when I was one of three exhausted Caltech students driving past the finish line at MIT in Boston after 8 3/4 days and nights of continuous driving and charging, from Caltech in Pasadena, CA. We were young and enthusiastic proponents of electric cars to help solve the horrendous smog, due to gasoline cars, then smothering Los Angeles and other cities. But the auto manufacturers weren't listening, so it took decades of painful, forced, incremental steps to get the much cleaner but still polluted air we enjoy today.

After heading up R&D for the Sebring-Vanguard Citicar, an early Neighborhood Electric Vehicle (NEV) that appeared during the Arab oil embargo in the early '70s, I went on to do other engineering –on television special effects switchers, stock and bond trading systems, and photovoltaic solar energy systems – until Toyota came out with the 2004 Prius, the first strong and very successful hybrid. I met Felix, who had the vision of turning one into a plug-in hybrid – not because it would be cool to own, but as a tool to demonstrate that an existing mass-produced car was already capable of driving on electricity rather than gasoline, to show the advantages and promise of PHEVs, and to build public awareness and grass-roots pressure on government and the auto manufacturers to actually mass-produce plug-in vehicles. I also met Andy, who had, with his students at UC Davis, been building plug-in hybrids for decades.

Thus began a marriage (so to speak) born in heaven: Felix and I teamed up. I bought a Prius (Felix already had one) and led a bunch of enthusiastic volunteers, working in my garage to turn mine into a PRIUS+. We didn't know if driving a Prius on grid electricity was possible, but together we tried and failed before succeeding in November 2004. Our first version had proprietary technology from a private company, EnergyCS, but over time we came up with our own very different method for which we could put complete how-to instructions online in the public domain, which we did in partnership with the Electric Automobile Association, in a wiki at http://www.eaa-phev.org. With Felix' spectacular public relations expertise, our Prius conversions made even more waves than we had hoped for. For months, our efforts got national and even international media attention. We let Members of Congress and their staff in Washington, D.C, drive these plug-in conversions just as the automakers' CEOs were called on the carpet at the White House.

Over time, environmental organizations like the Sierra Club that had had misconceptions about electric cars realized that EVs are cleaner than gas-guzzlers even on electricity generated from coal, and that they get cleaner over time as the electric grid gets cleaner. Other promotional and lobbying organizations such as Plug In America, Set America Free, and Plug-in Partners jumped in and often out-publicized us, greatly expanding the reach of our message. Working together, we helped raise public awareness of the immediacy and benefits of plug-in vehicles.

Two years after our first conversion, GM stunned the Detroit Auto Show with the Volt concept prototype. Whether or not our efforts contributed to GM's inspiration, they no doubt helped set the stage for the public and media excitement that propelled GM into actually designing and building the Volt. We were thrilled, and are even more so now, after the company stuck to its plan through thick and thin -- even bankruptcy -- and today is delivering this terrific car in what will soon be five-digit quantities.
It took 42 years, auto manufacturer bankruptcies, global climate change, impending peak oil, an influential movie ("Who Killed the Electric Car?"), tremendous grass-roots enthusiasm, and serious governmental incentives to get to today's deliveries of the world's first mass-produced plug-in hybrid, done by a re-emergent U.S. manufacturer.

Just days before, I also witnessed the delivery of the first Nissan LEAF, the world's first mass-produced pure electric vehicle. Both vehicles are major milestones in the electrification of transportation. Just as the IBM PC and the very different Apple Macintosh that followed it were both critical to launching the tsunami of personal computing that followed, leading to today's potent mix of personal empowerment through billions of GUI-based devices, these two vehicles with very different electric propulsion systems are together poised to open the public's eyes to the personal joys as well as social advantages of electric vehicles.

But this isn't the end, it's just the beginning. With both peak oil and climate change staring us in the face, we will be unable to keep our civilization intact and our planet livable without far more major changes to business as usual. After a decade, hybrids had reached just 3% of the U.S. new car market, and 1% of the cars on our roads! The Volt and the LEAF are truly desirable clean vehicles whose time has come, but their kind will not quickly become the norm without displacement of incentives from fossil fuels to renewables throughout the global economy, a process that, especially in the U.S., has barely begun and may now be stalled.

With today's entrenched-interest politics, none of this will happen until a shot of awareness – of the physical realities that climate science and international energy organizations point to, and of impending economic as well as environmental catastrophes inevitable without major change – shakes the public to its very core. Katrina didn't do it; the BP disaster didn't do it; tales of extreme climate and resulting environmental catastrophes from Russia to Pakistan haven't done it. What will it take, and what can we do, individually and collectively, to help out? I don't have an answer except to keep on telling our stories, focusing on possible solutions, and emphasizing facts over fiction.

So...even if EVs achieve 10 times the penetration rate that hybrids have seen, it will take at least 15 years to make a dent in either energy security or greenhouse emissions, which is why CalCars is now promoting (at http://www.calcars.org/ice-conversions.html) en-masse conversion of the biggest gas guzzlers on our roads today into plug-in vehicles of all types. Such a program could be economical while saving a decade and much vehicle manufacturing energy compared to crushing and rebuilding. But people are as skeptical of this today as they were of PHEVs six years ago, so once again we at CalCars have a huge mountain to climb. Well, we did it once

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