Plugging in electric cars is easy, but paying for them might kill you

Charging a plug-in vehicle is a lot like a middle school science project – except most middle school science projects don’t leave you stranded in a parking lot hundreds of miles from home.

Electric_car_chargingThat's the implicit message permeating the public duel between Tesla Motors CEO and founder Elon Musk and New York Times writer John Broder. The former objects to the latter’s review of Tesla’s swanky Model S electric sedan. Broder's travelogue legitimizes a central fear about plug-in vehicles: that they’re unreliable if they stray too far from a high-speed charging station. (Which, incidentally, aren't all that speedy at 30 minutes for a 150-mile charge.)

Broder wrote that he did everything short of pumping magic beans into the Model S to keep it rolling. He drove at low speeds without the heat on for miles to get from one charging station to another. He stayed in almost constant touch with Tesla customer service. He took long breaks while the Model S slowly sipped from electric outlets.

Even with those accommodations, Broder claimed that the Model S ran out of juice and shut itself down in Milford, Conn., about two thirds of the distance from his starting point of Washington DC to his destination of Boston.

Tesla struck back – persuasively. Musk cited the car’s on-board activity log and Broder’s own communications with Tesla customer service to charge that Broder deliberately ran the Model S down for dramatic effect. Oh yeah, and he didn’t putter along at 50 miles per hour with the heat off in February, as he claimed. He drove at highway speeds with the heat on.

No matter whom you believe in this beef, the underlying issue is bogus. Electric cars are not going to fail for lack of places to plug them in any more than gasoline-powered cars failed for lack of gas stations at the end of the horse-and-buggy era.

When gasoline engines hit the scene, the technology was good enough to spur growth of an infrastructure around it. The same thing is happening with plug-ins. Nissan and Tesla Motors are rolling out coast-to-coast networks of high-speed charging stations for their electric vehicles. There are already gujillions of charging devices on the market. The Baltic nation of Estonia has made it a national priority to establish a network of charging stations and they’re off to a good start.

I know, Estonia doesn’t compare to the U.S. in size or population. Yet it has 1.25 million people and 17,000 square miles to cover, so it’s not a throwaway comparison either.

No, the issue with plug-in cars isn’t where to plug them in. The issue is also not that they plug into a grid powered largely by dirty-burning coal, which is the other popular red herring around plug-ins. The grid is getting more environmentally friendly and will grow steadily more so as more renewable energy sources come online.

The issue with plug-in cars is that they’re too expensive for large-scale consumer adoption. A Tesla Model S costs $54,000. A similarly tricked-out Mercedes Benz E-class sedan goes for $51,000. A Chevy Volt is $39,000, compared to $21,000 for a Chevy Mailbu. A basic Nissan Leaf costs $21,300 – and the Leaf is the econobox of the electric car set. A comparable conventionally powered car costs about $14,500.

These price points make plug-in vehicles irrelevant to most consumers. Even if they care for the environment, they can’t pay for a car with good intentions. So treat spitting contests like Broder versus Musk for what they are: entertainment. But when someone talks about making a plug-in that the average consumer can afford, you might want to pay attention. That’s the real obstacle for plug-ins.

Oh behave! Why environmental sustainability needs a new brand of communications

Act nowHybrid vehicles have gotten more press over the last year than almost anything other than Charlie Sheen’s public implosion. Google the term “hybrid vehicles” with any major media outlet name – The New York Times, USA Today, Wall Street Journal, CNN, etc. – and you will find anywhere from 250,000 to 1.2 million hits for 2010 alone. PR industry journal The Holmes Report says the Chevy Volt’s 2010 “Volt Unplugged” launch tour helped the General Motors plug-in hybrid generate more than 5 billion media impressions last year. New players like the Chinese government and a Russian investor marketing a Soviet-era technology jumped into the market in 2010, creating even more interest.
 
And what did all of this hype deliver? A ten percent drop in 2010 hybrid sales, according to hybridcars.com, attributed partly to the Toyota Prius’ woes, but still surprising considering the launch of new hybrids like the Volt and the Nissan Leaf hybrid.
 
In a similar vein, the death of the McMansion – oversized homes that waste space, energy and materials – was another media favorite last year; I chimed in myself on this very blog. The reality in the housing market? Not so hot for us small-is-beautiful types. Home buyers have become more environmentally conscious, according to a recent report on the public radio business show MarketPlace, but not at the expense of a three-bedroom house with two baths.
 
So are the lackluster sales of hybrids and construction of smaller homes a harbringer of long, bleak years for those industries? I’m going to say no, because there were sub-texts in both markets that point toward a promising future, albeit on the other side of a hard reality. The hard reality first: no one is going to get rich quick manufacturing hybrids or selling smaller homes. Shiny, happy press notwithstanding, electric cars and smaller homes strike at fundamental behaviors and habits that won’t change quickly. If the contrast between glowing media attention for hybrids and smaller houses and their mediocre sales is an indicator, then there are few fast bucks to be made in either industry. But there is profit out there for companies who identify their markets carefully and stay in it for the long haul.
 
Take General Motors. It isn’t booking too many Volt sales yet. However, on the “Unplugged” tour, the company laid the groundwork for success down the line. The tour emphasized Volt’s practicality as a family vehicle and let more than 6,000 potential customers test drive it. Family vehicle = daily routine = habit = something that fits into consumers’ lives without being forced in. Give it a few years, after the Volt graduates from the “science project” phase, and that marketing effort will pay off in higher sales among people who never thought they’d be plugging their car into their house to charge overnight.
 
In environmentally friendly housing, developers are tapping into a ready-made societal change – Baby Boomers downsizing their homes in retirement – to market cottage communities of small homes built around common areas and within walking distance of stores and other necessities. Just last week, USA Today recently reported that cities in Washington’s Puget Sound region have adopted ordinances to accommodate cottage housing. Washington architect Ross Chapin has already developed 40 “pocket neighborhoods” of homes under 1,300 square feet across the country.
 
For us in communications, the lesson in this contrast is that media coverage can sell a lot of non-essential products – computer games, electronic gadgets, Miley Cyrus concert tickets, etc. However, media coverage on its own does not move substantial goods like vehicles and housing. So as we try to help our sustainable technology clients succeed as businesses and not just as media creations, what should we do differently?
 
We need to practice a brand of communications whose end game is changing behavior, not just minds. An economy built on environmentally sustainable technologies starts with behavioral changes, like plugging cars into electrical sockets overnight. Successful communications campaigns in the coming years will be measured not by volume of media coverage, but by how visibly they helped shift behaviors toward a sustainable lifestyle.
 
Communications and public relations have traditionally been about changing peoples’ intellects – what they think and believe. Changing a person’s behavior means engaging their senses, their personal values and their community ties as well as what goes on in their minds. To promote renewable energy clients, maybe a smart phone app that tells the average consumer how many pollutants they save by walking a quarter mile to the store instead of driving is as good as the coveted Wall Street Journal hit in the long term. Maybe organizing environmental fairs with community groups and letting people see and touch sustainable products is more productive than spending a week sweet talking a CNN producer for a few minutes of air time. How many parents would get religion about scrubbers on coal-fired power plants if you showed them a transparent model of a child full of all the dioxin they’ll absorb by the age of 10?
 
Okay, maybe I don’t always know the difference between advocacy and scaring the hell out of people, but you see where I’m going with this. As an industry, are we up to providing our clients a new model of communications services? I say yes – and I have a feeling it’s going to be a ton of fun figuring it out.

From tail fins to hybrids with Russian and American accents

Events in Russia and the U.S. are making this a big week in eco-friendly personal transportation. Starting close to home, the Chevy Volt plug-in hybrid arrived at showrooms in California, Texas, D.C. and New York on Wednesday. The Volt’s release comes just a week after Nissan delivered its first Leaf hybrid to a customer in the San Francisco Bay area.

Russian Yo

 

The Volt is the American car industry’s first serious attempt at a mass-market hybrid on par with the Toyota Prius. GM has made several half-hearted attempts to develop electric vehicle in the past, in between corresponding attempts to kill the electric car industry before it became a threat. This included the EP-1, a leased electric vehicle that GM famously recalled, crushed and buried back in the ‘90s, and a fairly lame little science project in the late ‘70s called the Electrovette. It was a Chevy Chevette powered by a bank of low-tech lead acid batteries, and never made it into full production. With the Volt, GM is finally putting serious wood behind the hybrid arrowhead. It was named 2011 Green Car of the Year at the Los Angeles Auto Show, and is already lining up for a street fight with the Leaf, the 2011 European Car of the Year.

The hyper-hyped Volt’s appearance isn’t much of a surprise, but news out of Russia is. Russian mining magnate Mikhail Prokhorov this week unveiled a hybrid car called the Yo that claims 67 miles to the gallon, compared to 51 for the Prius. Prokhorov is bankrolling the company. I don’t know about you, but when I think of Russian products what comes to mind is vodka, caviar, oil, gas and gangsters. Russia has been such a wild west of organized crime and looting of public resources since the Soviet Union collapsed that it’s easy to forget the country produced some enviable engineering during the Cold War. One of those accomplishments, according to the New York Times, is the Yo’s ultra-efficient electric

generator, which is paired with an engine powered by gasoline or natural gas. The engine runs at a constant, fuel-efficient rate and powers the generator, which produces electricity to power the drivetrain. Electrical capacitors absorb the starts and stops that sap conventional gas engines’ efficiency.

A new hybrid for the world’s ninth most populous country. A hybrid car battle in the U.S.

If this week’s hybrid news portends changes for the future, then another piece of auto-related news this week is a symbolic parting with the past. Chuck Jordan,  the General Motors design chief responsible for the iconic finned and chromed Detroit arks of the 1950s and ‘60s, died this week. His designs helped define post-WWII America, right up to the 1990s. Jordan’s designs symbolized American power, optimism and consumption. Maybe Mr. Jordan’s passing on the same day the Volt hits the market marks a change in the symbolism around American vehicles from consumption to a cleaner environment.

Sustainability knows no age limits

smart carSprinting across a Portsmouth street to feed my parking meter before our ever-diligent meter officers presented me with another $10 love note, I had to stop short to let a car pass. At first it looked like any other car, albeit in a screaming shade of fluorescent green, but as it rolled toward me over the Memorial Bridge I saw it was one of those two-seat Smart Pure Coupes.
 
You’ve probably seen a Smart car. They’re about the size of your average household appliance and they look like they should have big wind-up keys sticking out of their butt ends. You could park one in the bed of a Ford Ranger pickup without touching either side. They’re popular as delivery cars in urban areas, so long as you’re delivering something small. Say a pack of Life Savers. One at a time.
 
It wasn’t the car itself that made me stop and take notice, though. It was who was driving it. The gent behind the wheel and woman sitting next to him appeared to be well into their seventies, with gray hair and glasses and clothes that, at least from the chest up, didn’t match their vehicle’s Skittle-lime, ultra-hip image. They appeared to be the kind of people who, if you’re schooled on your stereotypes, should be driving a Detroit dreadnought with the left blinker on. They did not look like a couple who should be driving a motorized Tonka truck that gets 33 mpg city and 41 highway, yet there they were tooling toward downtown Portsmouth in what could have been their living room Barcaloungers lashed side-by-side.
 
For most of my life (I’m 46) “tree hugging” has been mainly (and unfairly) associated with the younger set. If we’re going to build a sustainable society, however, it won’t be by waiting for the current generation of schoolchildren to start running the world. We have to change minds and behaviors now. That’s why the sight of that older couple in the Smart car gave me a pleasant jolt. It also brought back an unlikely “green” conversation I had with a city councilor when I was a reporter covering Marlboro, Massachusetts.
 
The councilor’s  name was Herman, and from all outward appearances he was about as environmentally conscious as a Norwegian whale hunter. He was a conservative Republican, an Army veteran, and the retired owner of his own welding business. He was long on gruff and short on tact, though he had a deceptively good heart. He was the kind of guy who would make derogatory comments about an ethnic group but be a good neighbor to a family of that group who moved in next door.
.
Good heart or no, you would not tab Herman as an environmental maverick, which is why the talk we had in 1991 is so clear in my mind to this day. We were killing a few minutes outside city hall so Herman could have a smoke break before the next council session. I liked talking to Herman because he was completely uncensored, and told me a lot of stuff he later wished he hadn’t. That evening though, the conversation was about an article he read on plug-in cars. Not the glorified golf carts that passed as electric cars in the ‘70s, but real road vehicles. The concept fascinated him.
 
“I’d do that, have one of them little cars for around town and save the Pontiac for long trips,” he said between drags on a filtered Merit. “You’d pay for the electricity, but think of all the gasoline you wouldn’t burn.”
 
If Herman could be open minded about alternative transport, there’s hope for the world. Herman and the couple in the Smart car are proof that if you can make a good enough case and supply reasonable alternatives, even generations supposedly set in their ways will make the environmental choice.
 
Of course, when Herman was done educating me about plug-in cars, he snubbed out his cigarette on city hall’s granite staircase then flipped the butt onto the sidewalk. I guess we’ll have to take progress where we can get it, in small doses.
 

Toyota + Tesla = hope for the electric car

Bedfellows don’t get much stranger than Toyota and Tesla, who’ve just partnered to create an all-electric RAV4.

If viable, the machine would help Toyota get over the hump of its gasoline dependence while putting a Tesla power train into vehicles that regular people can own. Tesla is the only automaker in the U.S. that builds and sells highway-capable EVs in meaningful volume, claiming over 1,000 Roadsters driving emissions-free in more than 25 countries.
 
You already know about Toyota’s prim gas/electric hybrid.
 
Tesla’s racy Roadster, with an MSRP of $109,000, is an all-electric sports car that can go 0 to 60 mph in 3.7 seconds and travel 244 miles on a single charge of its lithium-ion battery pack.
 
Tesla plans to produce and deliver a fleet of all-electric RAV4 prototypes to Toyota for evaluation within the year.

Can the new RAV4 make people forget the runaway death Prius? Can it teach Toyota about harnessing reliable power from laptop batteries? Can  it bring the electric car concept (and price) down to earth? 

Let’s hope.

This has been done before, sort of. Toyota made 1,500 electric RAV4s between 1997 and 2003. Actor Ed Begley Jr. still has one:
 

Toyota's reputational challenges: a job for George Mitchell or Madeleine Albright?

Of the latest developments in the Toyota saga, the most potentially harmful to the company’s brand equity lacks the flash of its brethren, but packs a stronger long-term wallop. The most interesting new development in Toyota’s woes is the growing chorus of mumbles about the Prius, the world’s marquee hybrid vehicle and an icon in the green community.
 
Powering that story line is Steve Wozniak’s speculation that a software-related problem made his Prius accelerate on its own, and growing concerns that the Prius’ brakes are as problematic as the accelerators in its other models. Coming in a close second to the Prius is Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood’s offhand statement (since retracted) advising owners not to drive their recalled vehicles until a new safety device is installed. Although LaHood said he misspoke, the damage was already done.
 
However, the most worrisome news for Toyota is the DOT’s apparent willingness to fine the company for failing to respond quickly enough to reports that its gas pedals were sticking. That cuts right to the heart of Toyota’s competence and regard for consumers. If the feds fine the company, it will legitimize accusations that the company didn’t move quickly enough to correct a potentially dangerous problem. Again, it gets back to consumers willing to forgive mistakes, but not inattention. It will be interesting to see whether Toyota greets the growing chorus of criticisms with the transparency we advocated in our last blog.
 
One PR case study after the next has shown that as bad as things can get because of the facts, evasiveness makes it worse. Maybe the best thing the company could do is hire an outside investigator with sterling credentials to trace the problems from beginning to end, and cop out to whatever he/she dishes out. Sounds like a job for Madeleine Albright, George Mitchell or Sandra Day O’Connor.

How GM can get its groove back

In an interview this week with NPR at the 2010 Detroit Auto Show, GM Vice-Chairman Bob Lutz was bemoaning how the company lost its way from the days when GM made its greatest cars in 50s and 60s.

Later that day, my iPod Shuffle dished up Neil Young's "Johnny Magic," whose video takes place inside Young's electrified '59 Lincoln, the LincVolt. And that's when it struck me ... with so much of GM's future riding on plug-in hybrids, why not be like Neil?

UPDATE: Yes, I realize that Ford built the Lincoln, not GM. I'm just saying...

Toyota's new 3rd gen Prius ads are mesmerizing

I’m blown away by the new Prius ads.

David Kiley said this ad from Toyota may have been inspired by Honda’s earlier diesel engine “Hate Something” spot (compare the two yourself), but from my eyes, it’s the freshest creative in a decade.

But it’s not just creative for creative’s sake. Lots of agencies are living the creed “make it entertaining, engaging and disruptive” so consumers take notice and buy.

The new Prius spot is much more.

They’ve taken a car that was already the # 1 best selling hybrid in the world – the undisputed mainstream brand – and made it a vehicle of the people, for the people, by the people. Literally.

Using 200 extras, they created a layered - but somehow unified - sea of 1 million people parts. Everything (except the Prius, road and sky) was constructed from human beings who become “landscape texture.”  Grass. Water. Trees. Clouds. Stones. Leaves. Sun. Flowers. Butterflies. The Bellamy Brothers’ # 1 hit from 1976 - “Let Your Love Flow” – is the audio glue. 

The piece de resistance (besides the people, colors and music) is the movement. As the Prius drives by, clouds shift, grass sways, butterflies fly, flowers open, water flows, the sun glows.
 
It’s a visual trip, blending nature, technology and the human race.
 
They’ve raised the branding bar yet again with the newest Prius ad, spotlighting solar.

Hopefully for Toyota, the new campaign will move more than grass. The Prius has been struggling in the U.S. of late (mirroring the rest of the auto industry). U.S. sales of the Prius were down from 15,011 in May 2008 to 10,091 for the same month this year. Year to date, U.S. Prius sales are 42,753 compared to 79,675 in 2008 – 45 per cent less than last year.
 
I feel better every time I see these ads. I actually want to see them.
 
I can’t remember the last time this happened. 

Strategies for effective green retailing

Plus lessons from Coca-Cola, Dell and Timberland

Retailers go green for two reasons. One, consumers favor products they believe are green. Two, it’s the right thing to do.

One in three American consumers are more likely to choose environmentally responsible products, and 70 percent of Americans are paying attention to what companies are doing about the environment, according to an Opinion Research poll. Across the water, two out of three UK adults say environmental concerns influence their purchasing decisions.

Does the time and expense of green retailing to these consumers pay off? The jury is still out on that one, so the smart retailer at least considers going green. Fortunately, good green retail marketing is by definition good for the planet. It’s not greenwashing. To be effective, green retailing actions must be able to withstand reasonable scrutiny. They’re changes that matter, in ways however small, to the planet and your business.
 
Step one: the inventory
If you want to go green, the first thing to do is conduct a thoughtful inventory of how your business affects the environment. Consider both the obvious and less obvious impacts. Let’s say you sell cars. Obvious impacts include the gas they burn, the emissions they spew and the pile of tangled metal that eventually goes to the landfill. The less obvious effects include the production of electricity to illuminate your lot; the trees that die for your paperwork; and the impact of trucking new cars to your showroom. Less obvious still are the natural resources that go into the vehicles’ parts, the energy produced in refining those materials, and all the subsequent consequences of manufacturing.

With this inventory, you learn pretty quickly the infinite breadth of your environmental footprint. The good news is you don’t have to fix everything at once. The inventory simply introduces you to accountability and defines the scope of areas where you can become more sustainable. (This step also tells you how critics might attack you should you be so foolish as to make overly aggressive green claims.)

With your environmental impact inventory complete, here are some options for going green and some examples of companies that employ them:

Green your productPayless Shoes
Any product can be greened up. Downsize the vehicles you sell, for example, and make room for some hybrids. Or use greener materials. Payless Shoes now offers a full line of eco-friendly footwear, purses and accessories that use natural fibers like organic cotton, hemp, jute (plant), recycled rubber and plastic, water-based glue and (for packaging) 100-percent recycled boxes printed by soy-based ink. No metal or pesticides in the sourcing chain and no excess raw material extraction. (Sorry, ladies, no pumps either, but you can still get some elevation, see right.) The marketing benefits are immediately clear: Why else would this post mention Payless? How else would Payless have caught our eye on Reuters?

Green your most visible operations
Whole Foods Market banned the use of plastic grocery bags at its 280-plus stores starting on Earth Day 2008. In the ensuing year, it says it has kept an estimated 150 million plastic bags out of landfills. The campaign helped energize customers to triple their use of reusable bags – themselves made of recycled materials. The company also sells a special reusable bag for $29.99, each sale of which feeds 100 kids in Rwanda. That’s good marketing, and it’s hard to be cynical about feeding the hungry.

Timberland's new NY StoreGreen the building
Timberland opened a “carbon neutral” store in New York City last week with reclaimed wood, salvaged brick, efficient lighting and non-VOC paint. These green features hit the consumer between the eyes. Although less visceral, Timberland’s LEED certifications for its mall stores are also important for green credibility.

Green your energy consumption
Dell, for example, announced last week it gets 26 percent of its global electricity needs from renewable energy sources, up from 20 percent in 2008, and powers nine of its facilities with 100 percent renewable energy. Twenty-six percent doesn’t sound like a whole lot, but the company wisely uses credible third parties to compare itself favorably with competitors in technology and in big business. Dell also uses another tactic…

Buy renewable energy certificates
Renewable energy certificates, or RECs, are commodities that an organization can purchase from a renewable energy producer (solar, wind, biofuels) to conceptually offset the harm the first company’s power sources are causing. Purchasing a REC subsidizes renewable energy production and effectively increases the cost of emitting carbon. It’s of limited green retailing value except in bolstering a claim of progress toward carbon neutrality.

All of these measures can be effective, but they have the potential of doing more harm than good. Few media stories are more withering than a point-by-point analysis (of how a company took its green claims a little too far. So just be careful what you say and how you say it:

  • Modesty is always nice, lest you provoke observers to note all the ways you are not yet green.
  • Align green retail actions with your product. The auto industry needed greening, so Toyota greened an auto, the Prius. Coca-Cola, a beverage company, is vowing to replenish the supply of the world’s most popular beverage: water. Alignment resonates. If your building is LEEDS certified but your product pollutes, your overall message is weak.
  • Try to be correct. The Treehugger blog skewered an Italian architect for a stunning creation billed as the “first zero CO2 office building in Milan.” Among other things, the building is elevated on 13-meter pyramid-like “stilts,” effectively driving occupants onto elevators just to get inside. On a roll, the blog even complained about the carbon footprint of manufacturing photovoltaic panels for the roof.
  • Prepare for surprises. As BusinessWeek.com reported, Coca-Cola until recently assumed that most of its emissions came from manufacturing or its trucks. It discovered the lion’s share came from cold drink equipment – the coolers, vending machines and fountain dispensers. This gear includes potentially damaging refrigerants and insulation and consumes a lot of electricity. This unexpected source accounted for about 15 million metric tons of emission every year – almost twice that of the trucks and manufacturing combined.

These examples should give you some direction in planning your next step in green retailing. Remember, if it’s good for the planet, it’s good for business. Because it’s hard to profit without a planet.

Baseball, apple pie and sustainability

Portsmouth, NH Sustainability Fair 2009Today we are pleased to have guest blogger, Carrie O'Neil, a Sr. Account Executive at Beaupre, write about the local sustainability fair.

This past week the Portsmouth community took some giant steps forward in becoming an eco-municipality at the 2nd annual Portsmouth Sustainability Fair.

As the local Little League played games across the street, and farmer’s market around the corner was a hive of activity, the Sustainability Fair was a more contemporary scene. With human-powered vehicles, composting buckets, geothermal systems, solar hot water systems and rainwater collection systems, the Fair was abuzz with inspiring ideas.

Crowds came to the Zero Waste event with their recycled goods for donation and an open mind about what they can do to reduce their impact on the earth. While kids learned about ocean creatures and crafts made from recycled materials, their parents were able to learn about reducing dependence on fossil fuels and synthetic chemicals.

Portsmouth Sustainability Fair - 2009; Photo by Ralph MorangIn addition to the big ticket solar panels and geothermal energy systems you might expect to see at a sustainability event, people saw a lot of small measures like composting, locally grown and fair trade food, weatherization, waterless/earth friendly car washing solutions, and natural beauty products. All these measures, spoke to the single most important change we can make to help the environment: consuming less.

Portsmouth has been Beaupre’s home for 26 years, so it was gratifying for us to witness so much interest in environmentally sustainable practices (We were also pleased to help this local cause).

Maybe some day back-yard composters, geothermal pumps and bio fuels will be woven into the fabric of everyday life just as tightly as the Little League. 

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