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How LA plans to be a mecca for electric cars

June 3, 2015, 3:37 PM UTC
EPA Tightens Air Pollution Limits For First Time In A Decade
LOS ANGELES, CA - MARCH 14: Traffic moves along the 110 freeway, after Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Stephen L. Johnson this week announced a modest lowering of legal limits on ozone pollution standards, on March 14, 2008 in Los Angeles, California. The change angered not only industry groups who lobbied against the change but also medical, scientific and environmental groups who say that tougher limits are needed. EPA science advisors and a children's health panel had unanimously recommended tougher standards to protect the public, especially children and the elderly, from serious respiratory problems caused by breathing ground-level ozone that aggravates asthma and can lead to premature death, as shown by mounting evidence. A second proposal for more stringent seasonal limits on ozone based on its harm to forests, crops and other plants was reportedly quashed at the 11th hour by President Bush. Governments in areas where the air is declared dirty as the pollution limit of about 84 parts per billion changes to about 75 ppb over an average eight-hour period will have two decades to reduce their emissions. (Photo by David McNew/Getty Images)
Photograph by David McNew — Getty Images

A couple months ago I asked my landlord to install an electric vehicle charging station in our San Francisco apartment building. So far, he’s been reluctant, but that attitude will soon be overtaken by upcoming events. Starting this summer, California will require many landlords to install charging stations when requested by their tenants.

That’s great news for people like me, who are itching to start driving an EV. But what about the rest of the driving population? Although EVs are seemingly the perfect solution to many contemporary challenges—air quality, climate change, increased urbanization and the accompanying need for efficient short-distance transportation—EVs have yet to take off. The technology is there, but a few big hurdles are keeping EVs out of the mainstream.

First off is range anxiety—the fear of running out of power. For many commuters, that fear is largely unfounded. The current range on electric cars is approximately 100 miles per charge (although some models are as low as 84 miles or as high as 265 miles). Yet the average driver drives less than 50 miles a day, and many drivers have highly predictable daily mileage. Manufacturers, governments and NGOs can close this perception gap with education, but some concerns will persist.

Many consumers want to own only one car, and they want to be able to drive that vehicle out of town for a weekend getaway without getting stranded on the highway or recharging every 100 miles. Ultimately, these concerns will be addressed by improved battery technology – we expect that cars with a 150-plus mile range at a cost below $200 per kwh are on their way – and charging infrastructure to increase range and reduce charging time, but we aren’t there yet.

Even for those of us willing to stay closer to home, charging infrastructure is a concern. It’s hard to spot a charging station the way we can scan the horizon for a gas station, and that takes some getting used to. While mapping technology can help EV drivers easily locate nearby charging stations, installing chargers in the first place is the hard part. Technologically, it’s relatively easy: unlike gas stations, chargers transmit a substance already wired across the country, don’t require massive fuel tanks, and carry no flammability or toxicity risks.

The main obstacle is a chicken-and-egg problem: businesses and governments are reluctant to invest in charging stations because there are so few EVs on the road, and there are so few EVs on the road, in part, because of the lack of charging stations.

At PwC, where I’m a managing director in its sustainable business solutions practice, we are working with the City of Los Angeles on a sustainability plan to help them break that cycle. A city where cars are an integral part of urban existence and air quality is a top concern, Los Angeles is targeting to become a national EV leader. According to LA’s plan, by 2017, the city aims to have the most EV chargers of any U.S. city, including more than 1,000 newly installed publicly available charging stations, with more than 100 of those on city property. By 2025, the goal is that electric and zero emissions cars will comprise 10% of the city’s traffic (up from 0.06% currently), and 25% by 2035.

To make this all happen, we are working with the city to develop a thorough EV infrastructure strategy. Key components include:

  • Streamlining rates and permits to make installation of charging stations in homes and residential buildings easier and cheaper.
  • Converting the city’s own light vehicle fleet to EVs to demonstrate their practicality and cost-effectiveness.
  • Collaborating with key stakeholders, including utilities, car manufacturers and local businesses.

Finally, EV marketing needs a jumpstart to broaden appeal. Most EVs are marketed as eco-chic. That’s all well and good, but it’s not compelling enough for most purchasers. Many of us pour a complex mix of emotion and practicality into the car we choose.

From the soccer parent looking for a mini-van to hold half the team to the executive looking for an eye-catching sedan, car purchases are very personal. When a broader segment of consumers can identify with EVs because they “look the part,” these innovative vehicles will hit the mainstream. And the whole planet will be the beneficiary.

Clinton Moloney is a managing director in PwC’s Sustainable Business Solutions practice.