By TIM FAULKNER/ecoRI News staff
PROVIDENCE — Despite big demand from eager car buyers, only a handful of mass-marketed electric vehicles, such as the Nissan Leaf and Chevy Volt, are on the road. Manufacturers are slowly and deliberately increasing production, so don’t expect them in Rhode Island showrooms until October or November.
But at least they’re on the way.
“This is the year when it’s really going to happen,” said Al Dahlberg, the Rhode Island director for Project Get Ready, a national campaign aimed at increasing electric vehicle (EV) use.
Since Dahlberg launched Project Get Ready’s Rhode Island initiative nearly a year ago, he’s delivered a comprehensive public awareness campaign highlighted by a packed EV conference at the University of Rhode Island in October. He also helped create local media excitement in August over the instillation of the state’s first public plug-in charging station, at Cardi’s Furniture store in West Warwick.
Yet there’s still plenty of work to do before the new cars arrive.
To establish EVs as mainstream cars and trucks, Dalhlberg said, they need to total at least 10,000, or 2 percent, of all cars and trucks on Rhode Island roads by 2015. He expects that rising gas prices and predictions of $100–a-barrel oil this year will spark initial demand. Across the country, interest is already strong for both vehicles, which have some 50,000 pre-orders for the plug-in electric sedans.
But convincing a meaningful portion of the public to get behind the wheel of an EV may require more infrastructure, such as charging locations, or charge spots, that keep batteries powered.
EV manufacturers offer at-home charging kits, but remote charging stations, Dahlberg said, also will be needed to assure the public that EVs won’t run out of juice, leaving drivers stuck in the breakdown lane.
Other than the Cardi’s charging station, Dahlberg said he has neared his goal of getting 30 “commitments” from car dealerships, schools and other businesses that intend to build charge spots. But, so far, none have announced plans to break ground.
State officials have so far stayed out of the planning for public charge spots or other infrastructure upgrades. Department of Transportation Director Michael Lewis said consumer demand, not pre-existing infrastructure, will determine the future of EVs. Rhode Island, he said, is not big enough or dense enough to kick-start the EV market. “I think it will grow over time.”
Dahlberg said he doesn’t want the state to spend tax dollars, but rather designate a member of Gov. Chaffee’s administration to play a role in the EV process, which would include regional planning with Connecticut and Massachusetts. To raise awareness and usage, state and municipal officials should also consider EVs for future car and truck purchases — as long as they are price competitive, Dahlberg said. “It would help if they endorsed this as the technology of the future,” he said.
Until production speeds up, the only sighting of a Chevy Volt, which recently earned Motor Trend magazine’s car of the year award, will be at the Northeast International Auto Show at the Rhode Island Convention Center later this month. Dahlberg hopes the buzz created by the Volt will draw attention to Project Get Ready.
And right now, he said, because the public is looking to go electric.
“There’s plenty of demand,” he said. “The only unexpected issue so far is that auto makers didn’t think interest would be so great this early.”