WASHINGTON, DC — I am in our capital city this week to speak at a conference of the Electric Drive Transportation Association, which has been fighting the good fight for EVs since 1989. That's only 24 years, but it's measured like dog years — we were in the distant past then, with no production plug-ins, and even the General Motors EV-1 still a concept.
In 1989, gasoline was $1.12 a gallon, and hardly anyone would have put fuel economy at the top of their priority list when buying a new car. Small cars were a tiny part of the market, and the SUV was in the early stages of a long reign.
Things looked bleak. If you were an EV advocate, you cobbled together a conversion with parts from the few niche companies that offered them, sourced some lead-acid batteries that were state of the art in 1920, and let it rip. If you were lucky, the car would go 30 miles on a charge, and you'd better make it home because there was no public charging.
EDTA and the smaller organizations it represented held small trade shows, lobbied for legislation, and worked to make the technology better. In 1997, in Orlando, I attended the international EVS-14 event, where there were stirrings of an industry. Chrysler showed its battery powered EPIC minivans, which didn't go anywhere but were a hopeful sign at the time. Far more momentous, as it turned out, were the first U.S. sightings of the Toyota Prius, which went on sale in Japan that year.
Toyota also showed off electric versions of the Toyota RAV4, and some of those are still on the road. The hybrid Hummer shown there? Well, that didn't do much more than make Arnold Schwarzenegger smile.
But that was then. Today, EDTA's show floor is full of production cars. The new and improved Nissan Leaf was there, as well as the Honda Fit EV and Accord plug-in, the Chevy Spark (in cutaway form as well as intact), the Ford C-MAX plug-in hybrid, and many more. The brilliant thing is that these aren't one-off show cars, but ordinary inventory that you can lease for just $199 a month.
If you've ever wanted to put one over on the automakers, now's the time. These lease deals are so good they're losing money hand over fist. Why? Because they have to meet both California and federal fuel economy rules and zero emission quotas or face big fines.
I talked to Brian Wynne, who has headed EDTA for nine years. He's very optimistic that electric cars are here, and here to stay. Tomorrow's cars will be electric. It takes a while, though — we didn't switch from horses and buggies overnight. Gas cars won't disappear — remember, people keep cars for eight or nine years now, and the old clunker has to run its course before they begin shopping electric. But the process is well underway.