CES perspectives: How America’s car capital is winning the EV race
The automotive industry’s importance to the US economy is undisputed. From providing employment to millions of people to being a major driver of the economy’s manufacturing sector, car ownership has long been a centerpiece of the American way of life.
The are around 280 million road vehicles in the US as of the end of 2022, according to Zippia, and electric vehicles make up a small – but growing – segment. There are around 1.7 million electric vehicles on the road in the US – compared to around 400,000 in Q2 of 2018 – but whether the nation’s car companies, federal and state governments and utility companies are prepared for mass electrification is a moot point.
At CES last month Trevor Pawl, the chief mobility officer for the state of Michigan – which encompasses Detroit, home to the country’s ‘Big Three’ car manufacturers [Ford, General Motors and Chrysler] spoke of both the challenges and opportunities involved in the transition from combustion to EV cars.
Given that one in every five jobs in the state is tied to the automotive industry, a major challenge for Michigan has been balancing its reputation as a key employer and manufacturer-base for automotive, while meeting its own sustainability goals of becoming carbon-neutral by 2050.
“One issue for us is that EVs require less parts,” said Pawl during a CES session on electrification.
“So when you think about that there are over 300 Michigan companies or 45,000 workers primarily in the Detroit area that are going to see some sort of negative displacement.”
“And yet, since 2017 emissions from transportation have surpassed that of built infrastructure – factories, homes… so who the hell else should come and save the day but Michigan?
“We want to have 2 million EVs on the road and 100,000 EV chargers by 2030 and we want 80% of our charging to be off peak,” he added.
The state is putting its money where its mouth is: reaching out to industry with funding that amounts to a $110m Federal government- approved levy.
“We want to find solutions through public/ private partnerships,” said Pawl.
“Come to us with a solution we can put down some seed capital we’re not afraid of that – but come up with a solution, come up with ways to address a challenge.”
Pawl added that for every grant the state issues to electrification projects in a low income areas, the state is able to claim back $1,000.
Another main area of focus, the mobility chief continued, was putting more EV chargers in place and the state hopes to get to a place where public charging points are as ubiquitous as chains of Starbucks and McDonalds.
The state is also working in tandem with others in the Midwest creating initiatives such as the so-called ‘electrified route 66’ around Lake Michigan – a network of electric vehicle chargers covering 1,100 miles of drivable shoreline.
Initiatives like these, he hopes, will help position the Midwest as a place for clean energy and small business growth.
As much as state funding and state planning are helping to electrify Michigan, collaboration between local government, the car industry, the utility companies and other digital data players is also essential, but currently lacking.
Joining Pawl for the CES session was Chris Moyer, CTO at utility company Exelon which serves over 10m customers in several areas, including Chicago, Baltimore and Washington DC.
“There needs to be better planning around EVs and chargers , especially when we already know some of the data is,” said Moyer.
“If you take every governor in every state we service and look at their predictions they are all saying that they will have around 20 times the amount of EVs by 2045.”
“Now look at a fleet and see what the demand for that is. If that starts to exceed 15 megawatts in the charging window then there’s a lot of work to do. We’d need to build additional substations and which means planning and construction.
“So our biggest challenge is being very planful and intentional. We could plan better, especially for the higher draw vehicles,” he says.
Moyer added that utility companies needed more data from OEMs, charging facilities and local government around where cars were most likely to go to refuel.
Car companies say that they too are struggling to access data that might make charging an EV a less frictionless experience. Matt Jones, director of global technology strategy at Ford, suggested that expert groups around charging be formed between key stakeholders in EV.
“How do we get access to this data because at the moment each car company talks slightly different languages about EV? Data about how people move around is out there – it’s just not accessible for EV – but if we can collaborate and get that data out there then I’m convinced that we’ll be able to fix the issues going forwards,” he said.
In terms of public charging investment, fellow panellist Adam Woolway, head of EV at parking and sat nav app, Parkopedia, said that it would play “an oversized role” in the growth of EV, though, nonetheless, “an important one.”
He added: “The majority of charging will be done at home. Public charging – at the very most – might account for 20% – but what public charging [investment] does is provide a comfort blanket where drivers may have range and charge anxiety.”
On the flipside, said Woolway, charging companies were reluctant to spend a single dollar on points that weren’t going to be used – and once again it was a problem that boils down to a lack of data and a lack of collaboration.
“There’s simply not enough communication going on between the charging point manufacturers and the OEMs although this is less of a problem in Europe,” he said.
“When I look on my app for a charging unit most of the time charging point is not in the right location because there hasn’t been enough communication between the installer of that charging point and the OEM or the company managing the process in the middle.
“How do we get charging points in the right place and the correct data? Another concern is that 30% of chargers in US are offline at any one time. How do we communicate that data and make payment options and parking available? How do we get all of this data into one place and into the eyes of the consumer? That’s a huge challenge because the industry has grown fast and has been led by many different companies with many different agendas.”
For Michigan’s part, Trevor Pawl admits that most local government mechanisms were “built in the early 20th Century and designed to deal with 20 Century challenges.”
He added: “We’re still using these same structures but are facing a new set of problems in Twenty First Century and things aren’t joined up.
“When it comes to charging infrastructure, for instance, a different person manages the charging programme from the procurement people who choose partners for the chargers. The consistency isn’t there yet. At a state and local level, the entire thing needs to be looked at,” he admitted.
As states like Michigan roll out their charging infrastructure Pawl added that it was “critically important” that they think about other elements connected to sustainable transport including “digital infrastructure, the future of autonomy and the future of hydrogen.”
He added: “It’s also important that we have designated fuel quotas and hydro funds. We need to make sure we’re drawing maps already for hydrogen autonomous vehicles and the like. Because the smarter a vehicle is the more efficient it is and that means more sustainability and a cleaner planet.”
On a very basic level Pawl added that the state needed to run an education campaign to address some of the inaccurate perceptions around EVs.
“The average person thinks that charging an EV costs as much as filling a car with gas and it’s not it’s $7-12 dollars, but it takes a bit longer…but that will go down.. but I think that people need to understand how dirty they’re communities are right now and what exactly emissions can do to your bodies and your health. The narrative needs to go backwards and fix some stereotypes.”
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