Electric Road Trip

Motown's glimpse of a charged-up future

DETROIT — We picked an interesting time to roll into the Motor City, as the United Auto Workers strike against General Motors Co. enters its third week.

It's also good timing because just last week, Detroit got its first public fast chargers — four new boxes from ChargePoint — installed across the street from a downtown park. If we've learned anything so far on the trip, it's the value of fast charging on a tight schedule.

DTE Energy Co., the main power company of Detroit, led the project, dubbed ChargeD. The chargers are located in the shadows of the company's headquarters. Other partners include GM; the city; the Michigan Economic Development Corp.; and Blue Energy, a division of Corrigan Oil Co., which will own and operate the stations — a conscious move to diversify by the petroleum company. Two more fast chargers will be installed at a nearby downtown site.

How quickly the EV market develops will shape the future of each of these participants — from automakers to utilities and Michigan's economy — and how quickly chargers arrive will help dictate the pace of plug-in sales.

While 80% of vehicle charging will happen at home or at work, the availability of public charging — and consumer perception of availability — is especially important, said Jordan Catrine, EV infrastructure business development manager for GM.

"Foundationally, we know we need more charging infrastructure in the ground," he said in an interview.

It's a reason GM is teaming with Bechtel Enterprises to create a company to build thousands of fast-charging stations across the United States. Bechtel brings construction expertise; GM has anonymized data about travel patterns and dwell times from its OnStar service.

The data can help identify the locations where drivers spend many hours, such as an airport or hotel, which are suited for Level 1 or Level 2 chargers that take hours to fill a battery. Other sites where EV owners spend 30 minutes to an hour need something different.

Such a location is "probably a great place for a fast charger," Catrine said.

As with GM, the ChargeD project was a way for DTE to raise awareness.

"It's a big problem that people are not aware of the technology or its adoption," said Brett Steudle, a DTE senior strategist for EV strategy and programs.

The utility is using the project as a "learning experience" as it's in the early months of its Charging Forward program, a three-year, $13 million EV charging pilot approved by state regulators earlier this year, Steudle said.

"DTE in general is very excited and bought into the electric vehicle future," he said. "We want to be a catalyst instead of a barrier."

Siting is important to DTE, too, because the location of fast chargers on the grid can necessitate upgrades. Such was the case with the downtown project, which required the utility to install a new transformer, an inconspicuous gray metal box, a few feet from the chargers.

Charging Forward, which doesn't include the four downtown chargers, is aimed at helping DTE understand the EV market and how electricity demand from plug-in cars relates to overall system load on the electric distribution grid.

Part of it is for homes. DTE is offering $500 rebates to about 2,800 residential customers who install Level 2 chargers, enroll in year-round time-of-use rates and agree to enroll in future demand response programs. For public chargers, the company is extending rebates of $2,500 to $20,000 to site hosts, who will pay for the charging equipment.

DTE initially planned for 32 fast chargers to be installed as part of Charging Forward, but the company may shift funding to grow that number as it finds heightened interest from potential site hosts, especially those along highway corridors.

"We've actually seen a lot more interest in the fast chargers than the Level 2," Steudle said.

As for the EVs, when will they arrive? Forecasts run the gamut, and while DTE can help raise awareness, it can't control whether drivers choose electric.

"It's a big unknown," Steudle said. "All we can do is try to get through that noise and come up with a realistic forecast for what we think is going to happen."

Electric Road Trip

E&E News reporters take a 6,000-mile road trip in an electric vehicle to explore how the switch from gas to electric transportation will change the economy, environment and daily life of America.

Video blog, week 3: South to Midwest

The third week of the Electric Road Trip just ended with a long trek north from Knoxville, Tenn., to Detroit, Mich. In this video blog, our reporters Joel Kirkland and Jeff Tomich recount what they saw and learned about electric transportation in the transition from the South to the Midwest.

They met an eclectic cast of characters — scientists, entrepreneurs, even nuns — who are bringing EVs to a part of the country where they are little expected. Enjoy their story.

Electric Road Trip

E&E News reporters take a 6,000-mile road trip in an electric vehicle to explore how the switch from gas to electric transportation will change the economy, environment and daily life of America.

An electric test drive: Kia Niro vs. BMW i3

The Electric Road Trip just passed an unusual intersection. Outside Indianapolis, I met a colleague (Jeff Tomich, our Midwest reporter) and a new car we would drive for the next stretch: a sporty red BMW i3.

I had traveled up from Louisville, Ky., in a Kia Niro EV. This electric crossover has been with us since the trip started three weeks ago in Houston, and will be with us until Detroit.

For the next few hours, Jeff and I would do an unusual sort of test drive. We would make our way to Columbus, Ohio, each behind the wheel of a different late model electric car. Halfway, we would stop to recharge and switch cockpits. We hoped to see how these two electric breeds compare.

Right off the bat we had to grapple with the i3's shorter battery life. The i3 has a 153-mile range compared to the Niro's 239-mile range. The first order of business was mapping out where to charge up during the 170-mile trip to Columbus.

As I fumbled around with PlugShare, the go-to app for finding charging stations, the dealer's resident technology guru tried to show us how to do the same kind of search using BMW's connected dashboard electronics. We realized we would have to bypass the fastest route, a straight shot up U.S. 70, through Dayton to Columbus. That route had surprisingly few charging options — one of the odd gaps that still exist on major interstates.

Instead, we would dip south to a Walmart Supercenter in Cincinnati. There, Jeff and I used two EVgo chargers, one a Level 2 and the other a fast-charger. Before long, we were on the road again (cue Willie Nelson).

The i3 and the Niro are like comparing a cat and a dog. Though both all-electric, they're made for different jobs. The i3's sporty and squat by design. It's built for zipping around town or commuting. The Niro's a family car, with a familiar crossover-cabin feel, and roomy enough for weekend trips.

The i3's clear upside was its quickness and firm handling. But on the range anxiety chart, we found ourselves scraping the red zone. The i3's range indicator bounced around a lot. The 50-mile buffer we built into the trip to Cincinnati sprang to 70 miles, then plunged to 30 miles, before bouncing up again.

The Niro's more predictable range indicator kept me a lot calmer.

Little things matter, too. The Niro's center console and twist-dial shifter were intuitive for anybody who's used to the gear shifts in combustion-engine models. The i3 placed its startup buttons on an arm off the steering wheel.

For me, the i3's switches were a little too well-hidden, though it might not have been a fair comparison since I had had days to familiarize myself with the Kia. I feverishly pressed buttons that might turn up the air conditioner. Just as well; I ought to conserve battery life by keeping the air off and rolling down the windows. Never know when the i3 might run out of juice.

In Columbus, it was the end of the Electric Road Trip both for me and the BMW i3.

For the BMW, the immediate future meant zipping quietly around Columbus on future test rides. Long term, it is the end of the line, since BMW recently announced it is discontinuing the i3 as it prepares other electric models.

As for the humans, I would leave the Electric Road Trip and fly back to Washington, D.C., while Jeff will continue with the Kia toward Detroit — driving longer distances than the BMW was prepared to give.

Electric Road Trip

E&E News reporters take a 6,000-mile road trip in an electric vehicle to explore how the switch from gas to electric transportation will change the economy, environment and daily life of America.

Is Ohio's capital the future of transportation?

COLUMBUS, Ohio — Morgan Kauffman snarls at the term "disruption."

The CEO and owner of Columbus Yellow Cab doesn't fear Uber and Lyft, car-sharing, autonomous vehicles, scooters, e-bikes or anything else that wants to compete.

"I don't believe in this disruption concept," he said yesterday during an interview in the company's garage southeast of downtown. "Disruption, to me, says you were asleep at the wheel for a while and you didn't notice all these things were happening. I do believe in evolution."

Kauffman's grandfather started the cab company in Columbus, Ohio, in 1928. The company leaned into technological change decades ago by installing radio towers to help dispatch cars. These days, he's adding new hardware to vault his business into the future — electric vehicles and fast chargers.

Kauffman added 10 Chevrolet Bolts to his 200-vehicle fleet earlier this year. Then he upped the ante with 10 white Tesla Model 3s adorned with cab company logos on the side mirrors.

The evolution of Columbus Yellow Cab is one example of a transportation metamorphosis underway in Ohio's capital city. The regionwide effort is shepherded by Smart Columbus, a public-private partnership funded through a $40 million grant from the Department of Transportation and $10 million grant from the Paul G. Allen Family Foundation.

One of the many specific projects is self-driving shuttles helping to bridge a "first mile-last mile" gap in transportation access in a Columbus neighborhood. Another is an app called Pivot that lets residents plan and pay for travel across the Columbus area using different modes — city bus or scooter, bike share or car share, or a taxi.

Another goal is electrification. The partnership is working with Columbus-based utility American Electric Power Co. to get 900 EV chargers installed across the area.

Smart Columbus is also trying to encourage EV adoption by hosting ride-and-drive events across the area, including at its downtown Experience Center, which is a showcase of transportation technology. In the garage basement are a half-dozen different plug-in models that visitors can take for a spin.

A goal of the partnership is tackling climate change by slashing greenhouse gas emissions, particularly from vehicle tailpipes. But it's not the only goal.

Hardly a struggling Rust Belt city, Columbus is in the midst of a population boom. With growth comes many of the challenges that plague similar cities: traffic, sprawl, social inequality. Solving transportation challenges can address many of those issues, spokeswoman Jennifer Fening said during a tour of the group's downtown office.

Columbus is also interested in how its transportation experiment can help other metros.

"That's one of the reasons why we were so attractive to our grantors, because 80% of cities look very much like Columbus," Fening said. "There's kind of an anecdote that Columbus is America's test city. Wendy's tests hamburgers here. Victoria's Secret tests underwear here.

"We really believe if we can make it work here in Columbus and manage some of the challenges, then we can be that role model, that blueprint for other cities," she said.

Columbus Yellow Cab, which works closely with Smart Columbus, likewise aspires to be a model for other taxi companies across the nation that want to evolve and grow.

"We're evolving and learning and teaching," Kauffman said.

Electric Road Trip

E&E News reporters take a 6,000-mile road trip in an electric vehicle to explore how the switch from gas to electric transportation will change the economy, environment and daily life of America.

How BlueIndy, an EV-sharing pioneer, left me frowning

INDIANAPOLIS — On past trips to Indianapolis, I've wanted to try BlueIndy, the homegrown electric vehicle-sharing service. So when I arrived at the Indianapolis airport yesterday to meet my colleague Joel Kirkland to begin the Midwest leg of the Electric Road Trip, it was the perfect chance.

BlueIndy is one of the nation's earliest and largest EV-sharing programs, formed by a partnership between the city, Indianapolis Power & Light Co. and the Bolloré Group of France. The idea was pushed by former Mayor Greg Ballard, who had also sought to electrify Indianapolis' entire passenger vehicle fleet by 2025.

Ballard, who left office in 2016, is a former Marine, and his interest in EVs is rooted in helping wean the U.S. off imported oil (Energywire, June 17).

The subscription-based BlueIndy service claims to have nearly 200 stations across Indianapolis shared by its battery-powered EVs capable of up to 150 miles per charge. For me, a visitor wanting a ride across town, it was likely lower-emissions than taking a taxi or ride-hailing service like Uber or Lyft.

But would the ride compare? How about the value? And with BlueIndy being the first electric ride for many in Indiana, is it leaving a good impression?

Spoiler: The experience left me disappointed. In terms of pricing, it was about on par with Uber.

To speed up the process, I had downloaded the BlueIndy app a day earlier and signed up for a free one-day membership. Three cars were available on the top deck of the airport parking garage when I arrived. But my preparation didn't suffice — I also needed a membership card to access them.

I trekked back to the third floor of the garage and found a kiosk.

I punched a button, and on the video screen appeared a BlueIndy employee, who may have been beamed over from France; he had a French accent and an impressive mustache. He was helpful and walked me through the process of how to access the car and what I needed to do when I parked at my destination.

The car I was assigned was an electric Bolloré, French and shaped like a wedge of cheese. I knew it would be tiny and no frills. For a half-hour drive, I could endure. It could easily fit my small suitcase, backpack and computer bag, it had air conditioning, and I could listen to NPR. There was also a USB port to keep my phone charged.

A screen on the center console welcomed me by name when I started the car, and it played an instructional video to get me familiar with the basic operation. On the downside, it was generally dirty inside. The left front fender was crumpled from a wreck.

To be sure, I knew these commuter cars weren't going to be exotic, just supposedly a simple, inexpensive and emissions-free way to get across town. But so far it fell below the expectations of your standard Lyft.

Between the road noise and shaky handling, 55 mph on the interstate was the limit. I sweated as the air conditioner struggled to keep up with an 80-degree afternoon. And the on-screen GPS navigation to guide me to my reserved parking spot didn't work, so I pulled off twice at gas stations (irony) to consult Google Maps. That damaged left fender also caused a metal scraping sound when I made sharp turns.

For all of its shortcomings, I did make it to my destination in 49 minutes. I plugged it in and got confirmation by text that my ride was complete. The cost: $22.93 — about what it would have cost me to ride Uber the same distance.

It was just one ride, and maybe I was just assigned the wrong car, but the experience paled compared with the comfort and simplicity of Uber or even a taxi. I wondered how many Hoosiers have been inside a BlueIndy car and concluded that's what electric transportation is all about.

Electric Road Trip

E&E News reporters take a 6,000-mile road trip in an electric vehicle to explore how the switch from gas to electric transportation will change the economy, environment and daily life of America.

It's all-electric for the nuns of Nazareth

NAZARETH, Ky. — Sister Molly Thompson is still getting used to the features of her electric Chevy Bolt. As she rolls up to a stop sign on the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth campus here, the regenerative braking brings her up short.

And then there's the racy accelerator pedal that she secretly enjoys.

"In fact, I need to really watch it," said the nun in her knit sweater. "I can be looking at the speedometer and, oops, what happened there?"

The 80-year-old nun, who just celebrated her birthday, is a den mother of sorts among the sisters who live at this 200-year-old convent. She joins Sister Theresa Knabel to help remind people of the congregation's mission to be stewards of the environment.

That means trying out new technology.

She drives one of the four electric cars purchased by Nazareth in the past two years. Three are at this campus, which is about 30 miles south of Louisville, and the other is in the city, where it helps shuttle around older members of the congregation.

"Not putting pollution into the air. That's one contribution I can make to saving the planet," Thompson said.

The congregation started defining what it means to care for Earth in 2000. Its members pledged to analyze their own habits. Then they passed guiding principles in 2014 around managing the land. In 2017, the set a target for zeroing out their greenhouse gas emissions.

When they brought on Carolyn Cromer, the convent ecological sustainability director, to help think through what more could be done, its fleet of cars came up. Transportation has eclipsed power plants as the biggest emitters of carbon dioxide emissions tied to global warming.

"The sisters are ahead of the curve by far," Cromer said. "They're putting their money where their mouths are."

What happens next? They look for opportunities to replace more combustion engines with electric cars. But Cromer and Knabel, who chairs the congregation's Western Province Car Committee, said it's still hard to find electric cars on sales lots.

Western Kentucky is "Ford country" to people around here. Ford Motor Co. is behind other automakers in introducing electric vehicles. Locally, it builds the Ford Escape and Lincoln-brand cars in a 3-million-square-foot plant in Louisville. It employs nearly 4,000 people at the site.

Ford employees are abundant in local pews, and the nuns know that the local plant makes traditional Ford SUVs. Still, the nuns take it on faith that the example of their vehicles, paired with a bully pulpit, can turn down the brakes and hit the accelerator.

Electric Road Trip

E&E News reporters take a 6,000-mile road trip in an electric vehicle to explore how the switch from gas to electric transportation will change the economy, environment and daily life of America.

The future of U.S. auto suppliers, EV manufacturing

This week, the Electric Road Trip wrapped up its tour through the South and found more going on than we thought.

One reader told us calling the South an automotive center "sounds odd to my old ears." Yet it is, and one that is shaping up as a vibrant hub for electric vehicles. We visited the country's biggest electric bus factory and the site of a huge new battery plant — one built by a Korean company to supply a German automaker. The world's eyes are on the South as an electric auto producer.

Next, we push north toward Detroit and the traditional homeland of the auto industry. Our big story this week reveals how electrification is giving some reason to worry.

Things are getting newsy on the Electric Road Trip, so be sure to check the blog and join the conversation on Facebook. And alert your friends that they can get the newsletter, too.

— David Ferris

"The outlook for the forging industry is devastating," says an expert, noting just one segment of the auto supply chain that stands to suffer as electric vehicles take off. EVs are both simpler and more modular than internal-combustion cars. That spells trouble for hundreds of smaller shops that aren't ready for the jump.

Read the complete story in Energywire.


Video blog — From the cockpit of our Kia, reporters Kristi E. Swartz and Maxine Joselow take what they learned from their EV jaunt around the South and make it go down as easy as a mint julep.

COMMERCE, Ga. — Today it's a patch of dirt and some steel beams. But by 2022, South Korea's SK Innovation expects to finish a giant battery factory to supply foreign automakers that build in the South.

ATLANTA — With the help of an expert and Home Depot, our reporters built a home charger for $30.

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Scientists at Oak Ridge National Laboratory are working to make the gas station an artifact. How? By developing wireless chargers embedded in roadways.


German prosecutors filed the first charges against Volkswagen AG's top leaders for their role in the diesel cheating scandal. New York Times

Electric truckmaker Rivian got an order for 100,000 delivery vans from Amazon.com Inc., an astonishing vote of confidence in a company that has no vehicles on the road. Wired

Nio, one of China's leading electric carmakers, reported a loss of $479 million for the last quarter as sales slumped. The Verge

Honda Motor Co. Ltd. made the largest purchases ever by a carmaker of renewable energy: 320 megawatts of wind and solar electricity for its U.S. operations. E&E News


In the coming days, we head through Indianapolis; Columbus, Ohio; and finally Detroit, where the General Motors Co. strike is in its second week. What's the connection between electric vehicles and labor troubles? We're on the road to find out. Watch for updates on the blog and Facebook.

Electric Road Trip

E&E News reporters take a 6,000-mile road trip in an electric vehicle to explore how the switch from gas to electric transportation will change the economy, environment and daily life of America.

At Oak Ridge, they push charging to the limits

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — The gas station occupies a pedestal of American iconography. Convertibles filling up in the 1950s. Gas guzzlers lining up during the 1973 oil embargo. Rusting pumps along dusty roads in the desert.

The gas station is so embedded in our culture, so a part of our daily patterns, that scientists working on the next generation of electric vehicles know they must match its speed and convenience. Compressing today's hourlong charging session into 10 minutes could be the difference between widespread electric car adoption and the slow road.

During a visit to Oak Ridge National Laboratory yesterday, I met an electrical engineer who has spent two decades pushing the limits of electric motors, inverters and magnets. ORNL is part of a consortium of national labs placing a laser focus on slashing charging times and increasing the range of electric cars.

The Power Electronics and Electric Machinery Research Center here helped build the foundation for what its leader, Burak Ozpineci, thinks could transform the way electric cars fit into our lives: wireless charging.

The latest obsession is called dynamic in-motion wireless charging. It can be embedded in roads and driveways. In theory, it doesn't just match the speed and convenience of a gas station; it does away with the whole notion of stopping to fuel. And it obliterates range anxiety.

"You don't have to think about charging," Ozpineci explained. You go home and pull into the garage, there's a wireless charge. When you head off to work, you're traveling across a charging unit embedded in the highway. "You never have to plug in anything. You just drive."

Last October, ORNL demonstrated a 120-kilowatt wireless charging system with 97% efficiency. Researchers called it a "big step" in the race to put charging times on par with filling up a car with gas. To put that into perspective, BMW's commercial version of a wireless charging system has a capacity of 3.2 kW at 80% efficiency.

Now, scientists are dipping their toes into the practical effect of electrifying roads. What percentage of roads must be electrified to serve an EV-driving public?

The labs I went to were part of the National Transportation Research Center. I traveled from square room to square room with scientists who were happy to let me stick my nose in the powdery nickel-based concoction of minerals used inside a battery. I learned that the lab is trying to get the word out to battery manufacturers that they could minimize or eliminate their use of cobalt, a rare-earth mineral produced not in the United States but in Congo, where its mining is a public health crisis.

I also learned — because I asked, over and over again — nearly everything they do is meant to help bring down the overall cost and volume of batteries and powertrains.

Driving down battery costs is the focus of Department of Energy EV-related research, said Ilias Belharouak, who runs Oak Ridge's Battery Manufacturing Facility. He said DOE's goal is to bring batteries down to $80 per kilowatt-hour. Today, they're around $200 per kWh.

Still, that's a lot better than it was in 2008, when electric car batteries cost about $1,000 per kWh. That put electric cars out of the price range of most people.

"You can see there was significant effort to bring costs down," Belharouak said. But getting to $80 is a challenge, he noted. It means testing new manufacturing processes and moving away from cobalt as a core mineral ingredient.

Once we're there, he predicted, you'll see more electric cars on the road.

Electric Road Trip

E&E News reporters take a 6,000-mile road trip in an electric vehicle to explore how the switch from gas to electric transportation will change the economy, environment and daily life of America.

Week 3 of the Electric Road Trip: Motor City leg

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — I stare at the map of our route into the industrial Midwest, and the bloody histories of worker revolts and public mutiny spring to mind.

The streetcar workers' strike that plunged Indianapolis into chaos in 1913. The "Battle of Toledo" that pitted 10,000 strikers against the Ohio National Guard. The race riots that consumed Detroit in 1967 and 1968.

What does this have to do with electric cars?

One of the goals of our 6,000-mile reporting trip and the time we'll spend in Ohio and Michigan is to explore what happens when battery-powered cars start to uproot a car economy that over a century has created millions of jobs, from the assembly line to the parts factory. The changes that EVs wreak on job security, income and culture could shape how Americans feel about electric cars. And how do labor unions, the auto supply industry and their home cities respond to change?

Today, workers are picketing outside General Motors factories across the Midwest and South. A week ago, union representatives for nearly 50,000 autoworkers cut a line in the sand that triggered the biggest walkout since 2007. It didn't take long for GM's planned investments in electric car production to find center stage. The auto giant made an eleventh hour offer to reopen its idled Lordstown, Ohio, assembly plant for EV battery production.

But there was a catch. According to Bloomberg News, the workers hired to build batteries for GM's new lines of electric cars would make significantly less money than assembly line workers. That proposal, according to reports, was a last straw that contributed to the strike.

It's a stretch to say the GM strike is evidence the Midwest is hurtling toward a bloody transition to electric cars. But we'll be on the ground, and we'll be asking hard questions about the connection.

On Saturday, after reporters Kristi Swartz and Maxine Joselow handed off our Kia Niro EV after a romp through the South, I went to meet some electric car enthusiasts in Knoxville. I wanted to know what they made of the labor strife. I met Terrence Lyons, a 38-year-old manager at an auto transmission parts supplier. He told me his Tesla Model S has driven a conversation about retraining.

"Every day at lunch someone wants to take a ride in my car, and it sparks a conversation," he said. "They want to know how will this affect my job, how will this affect us. We talk about five years down the road, 10 years down the road, 15 years down the road."

Today I kick off the third leg of the Electric Road Trip with a visit to the Department of Energy's Oak Ridge National Laboratory. ORNL, as everyone here calls it, is a government-led epicenter of research into battery life and EV charging infrastructure.

Everything about the lab's Tennessee River site seems connected to the nation's boldest investments in energy. The Tennessee Valley Authority still supplies electricity to the region. The massive ORNL campus and the adjacent Y-12 nuclear weapons facility tie back to the Manhattan Project.

From here, I head to Kentucky, grazing the edge of coal country and to a place called Nazareth. The enclave near Louisville is home to the most technologically advanced group of Catholic nuns in the country. Our St. Louis-based Midwest correspondent Jeff Tomich joins me in Indianapolis. From there it's on to Columbus, Ohio, and then Detroit, the heart of autos — and of labor discontent.

Electric Road Trip

E&E News reporters take a 6,000-mile road trip in an electric vehicle to explore how the switch from gas to electric transportation will change the economy, environment and daily life of America.

Video blog, week 2: Southern edition

The second week of the Electric Road Trip sent our reporters Kristi Swartz and Maxine Joselow through the automotive centers of the South. They visited with Nissan and Volkswagen in Tennessee and found a surge of interest in electric vehicles in Georgia. Here are their takeaways from a region that offered surprises.

Electric Road Trip

E&E News reporters take a 6,000-mile road trip in an electric vehicle to explore how the switch from gas to electric transportation will change the economy, environment and daily life of America.
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