Does the electric car have a bright future in America? (Q&A)

Kevin Allen

In the next ten years, can you see yourself driving an electric car?

Chad Schwitters, vice president of Plug In America, a nonprofit coalition of electric-car drivers and clean-air and energy advocates, has given that question a lot of thought. Types of transportations he has tested include biking, walking, carpooling and driving a biodiesel car. 

“With all of these things, I used less gas, but they all involved a lot of sacrifice,” says Schwitters, who drives a Tesla. “I bought an electric car in 2008 not knowing what to expect. Three weeks later, we bought another for my wife because it was the best car we had ever owned.”

electric spoke with Schwitters to find out what he envisions for the future of electric cars in America.

What’s the future of the electric car in America?

How did you get involved with Plug In America?

I joined their board in 2010. I started driving electric vehicles in 2008. I came to realize that unlike the other solutions (such as hybrid cars), no sacrifices were involved here. This was a better experience, it was cheaper, more fun to drive. But everybody assumed the opposite. They just assume it’s more money and less fun to drive. I figured that was an education issue. After doing a bunch of research, I found that Plug In America was doing the most real work to get electric cars available.

What do you mean by “real work”?

The average consumer doesn’t go to a website to learn about electric cars. If they do, that’s still not enough to get them to make a buying decision. Plug In America does outreach, meeting the public and coordinating campaigns among various industry groups.

What major advancements do you see for electric vehicles in 2013?

Wider availability. I’ve encountered so many people who love the idea of the electric car. In states other than California, all you’ve got is the Leaf, the Volt and the Tesla. For someone that needs all-wheel drive, a minivan or a pickup truck, there’s not the same availability of types of electric cars that there is with gas vehicles.

What do you think the barriers are to increasing availability this year?

The largest problem is a matter of perception. Most people have seen the price tag, and it seems expensive. They think know all about electric vehicles because they drove in a golf cart with their dad when they were a teenager. So they think electric vehicles are cheap and inconvenient. They think it takes hours for a charge to happen. Those are all completely incorrect. Anyone who owns an electric vehicle can tell you what it’s really like.

Because people have those perceptions, who’s going to pay more money for something that they assume to be less fun and less convenient? They don’t even bother to look into it, which is why Plug In America spends so much time trying to get out in front of people and give them a ride and turn around their perceptions.

What would you tell someone who’s unaware of how convenient it is to own an electric vehicle?  

Normally what we try to do at our outreach events is, first, we give them a ride. Then the … questions center around cost, because they have no idea how much to calculate for electricity. The other question is about convenience: Where do I charge? How do I charge? What do I need to install?

The most difficult situation we have right now is someone who doesn’t have a garage or some place to put a charging spot. That is … one of the reasons why we can’t replace all gasoline cars with electric cars overnight. Electric cars don’t suit everybody’s needs right now.

Realistically, do you ever see electric cars overtaking fuel-powered cars in sales?

I don’t see why it wouldn’t happen. Most people who drive an electric car would never go back because it’s a far better solution. For people that don’t have an electric car, the key questions center on the disadvantages. How do you handle the extra cost? How do you handle the charging time? They don’t think about the advantages. They really drive so much nicer. It’s like keyless entry or air conditioning. You think you’re fine without it. But once you have it, you really don’t want to go back.

What are some of the challenges you’ve faced in owning an electric car?

When I first decided to buy an electric car, I was doing it entirely for environmental reasons. I wanted a solution that burned less gas and harmed the environment less. There are very few people who buy a car for that reason. I’m not a typical owner at all. My wife didn’t want to suffer any inconvenience and wouldn’t give up her Prius. Once she drove it and realized there was no trade-off, she started driving the electric car instead. She drove that (electric) RAV4 for four years.

During that time, she never took it for service, never took it for emissions testing, never went to a gas station, never looked for a charger, never waited for a charge. All she ever did was get in and drive it for four years and just plug it in when she got home. It was, by far, the most convenient car she ever had. Once every three months, she would have to go farther than the car could go (without charge). In those cases she just swapped cars and took a gas car.

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