Green Drive Expo: Lisa Margonelli asks how your plug-in car can change the world

The keynote speaker at the Green Drive Expo in Richmond, CA this past weekend was Lisa Margonelli, who posed a difficult question: "Can Your Car Change The World?" The "your car" here meant plug-in vehicles, and Margonelli's short answer is yes, they already have – but there is so very much more to do.

Margonelli started with a few numbers. For example, Americans are on track to spend half a trillion dollars on gasoline – not diesel, not heating fuel – this year. That's a lot, but it's also 100 billion more than we spent in 2010. Talk about a "headwind" facing the economy.

Even so, some people are attacking plug-in vehicles. "In the last two weeks," she said, "electric cars have become a political football and they are attracting tremendous amounts of negative attention." As an example of the negativity about green issues, she pointed to her recent column for CNN. She called the article "bland," but her suggestion therein to President Obama that he not give up on a green economy was roundly criticized by readers. Put this attitude together with national politicians who are skeptical of climate change science, she said, and there's a big question whether or not new advanced car batteries will still be made in the U.S. in ten years.

The reality, of course, is that affordable plug-in vehicles would seriously help Americans, especially lower income families, as well as the economy in general. Paying less for transportation frees up money for other things. Margonelli told an anecdote about a man she met in Maine who works a second job simply to be able to afford the gas for him and his wife to buy gas to go to their first jobs. Also, the only thing worse than $4 gas is $4 gas at 30 percent interest because you've got to charge your fuel to your credit card.

The reality is that people even though people are spending so much money on fuel, they almost don't really believe it. Margonelli said that many people still have some sort of belief that gas should cost $2 a gallon, which means many aren't eager to buy a plug-in vehicle. People in Europe and Japan already have a stronger incentive to buy a plug-in vehicle: a consistent signal that gas will never again cost $2 a gallon. "Gas is so ridiculously underpriced here," she said. Even the infrastructure is prejudiced against change, she said, and gave two examples: every oil pipeline is pointed in some way (figuratively or literally) toward the U.S. and every stop sign that could be a roundabout forces you to burn more gas. Unsurprisingly, Europe has more roundabouts.

Not to be dispiriting, Margonelli offered three main ideas that will help turn the tide to really change the world:
  • Challenge the belief in $2 gallons of gas
  • Develop a more fair vision of plug-in vehicles (most important step: make them cheaper)
  • Rethink the supply chain that creates these vehicles (rare earth metals, needed for hybrid motors, are mostly mined in China under questionable environmental circumstances and could be mined in the U.S. in better ways).
Margonelli's overall point was that for the electric vehicle to be a movement, it needs to be about more than a person and his or her car. It needs to be about ideas. When you talk about plug-in vehicles, you don't always know who you're engaging with and what their background and political beliefs are. The truth is, she has found, is that plug-in cars can be appealing to just about anyone – if you tell the right story.

Margonelli shares more of her ideas in her book Oil On The Brain, which moderator (and Plug In Cars founder) Brad Berman called a "must read." You can hear her Green Drive Expo talk by clicking "play" below or downloading from here (60 min, 13 MB):

The video meant to be presented here is no longer available. Sorry for the inconvenience.

Share This Photo X