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Five questions with Brian Wynne, Electric Drive Transportation Association president and electric-car sage

Consumer Reports News: May 25, 2012 01:38 PM

The Electric Drive Transportation Association (EDTA) has grown from a cadre of garage tinkerers in 1989 to an organization counting hundreds of members, and international partnerships including several Fortune 500 companies. The Washington, D.C., based organization works to expand the market for electric cars. Today, EDTA is plugged into a vital and growing automotive and infrastructure sector, the world of electrified cars.

Brian Wynne has been president of EDTA since 2004, and he has focused on lobbying to shape public policy to promote and enable electric cars. He generously sat down with us for almost an hour at the 26th annual Electric Vehicle Symposium (EVS26) in Los Angeles earlier this month to give us the state of the electric-car movement.

Q: Can you share your vision for electric cars, and why you think they deserve public financial support in this era of burdensome and growing public debt?
That couldn't be simpler to articulate, but it's a very intractable problem. That is, we are dependent upon one global, fungible commodity to move people and goods... And we cannot control the price of that commodity in this country, and we never will. That debate's already over. We've already agreed that we need to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels and specifically upon petroleum. The only question is how we're doing it.

I'm not saying [electricity is] the solution. It's a solution. Because at the end of the day, to solve this problem on an accelerated basis, we have to embrace many solutions.

What I like best about electricity is that it's not a resource. It's a form of energy that is produced from a diversity of domestic feedstocks. And the grid in this country, which was built for the hottest day of the year, is underutilized. Pacific Northwest National Labs estimates that we could fuel north of 70 percent of our existing light-duty population with off-peak kilowatt hours. And the foundational infrastructure is ubiquitous; it's already there.

Q: What about that hottest day of the year? If you have all these electric vehicles taking advantage of public chargers during the day, won't that lead to electricity shortages during those days?
You and I pay for an electricity bill based on the capital [investment of utilities] amortized over a long period of time. In order to get a cleaner grid, to pay for the brand-new combined-cycle natural gas plants that we need to put in to retire our coal plants, [those utilities] need load growth. Or you're going to pay higher rates. Transportation represents that load growth.

It's better for this country not only to use electricity, because our energy dollars stay here, and it's cheaper, so people can use their dollars for things other than moving around over time, [but] it's also better for the grid.

Q: Electric car advocates frequently note that most Americans drive less than 40 miles a day, and that a primary benefit of electric cars is utilizing off-peak electricity generation. So do we really need all these fast charging and public charging solutions we're seeing at EVS?
What we're trying not to do is get suckered into layering this technology over the existing transportation system, because most people have a car that'll go 350 miles, but only drive 35 miles a day.

We have maybe the last 50-feet kind of issue with where the chargers go and how we make it accessible to the cars. Our needs are going to shift as more and more [electric] vehicles get out there on the street.

The idea of public infrastructure, and public investment law is, let's keep track. Let's understand what's going on, and then let's have future policy be guided by what kind of data we're collecting. I think that's a good investment. And I don't think that any of those charging stations ultimately will go unused.

What [this] suggests to me is there's no lack of optimism that these vehicles are going to get traction in the marketplace. And they're going to need to be charged.

Q: Many Americans still feel they need a vehicle that can go more than 100 miles a day. Will electric cars' range get better? Or how can the industry otherwise address that desire?
I look at it the other way around, where the vast majority of my driving, and the vast majority the numbers bear out for most people, makes an electric vehicle extremely compelling. It's $1 a gallon equivalent. That's a good deal. Business people love them too, because they live or die by cost per mile. [They will become] more compelling over time as we begin to bring the cost differential largely associated with batteries and power electronics down.

You have to step back and look at the entire picture. Every single one of the battery companies has two lines of business: They have transportation and they have stationary storage. We're going to use lithium-ion battery and energy storage for all kinds of different things.

The constraints that we have with batteries, those aren't going to change over time. What will change over time I suspect is [business] models like [car sharing], where instead of owning a vehicle, I have access to a vehicle. And I can choose the vehicle that's appropriate for the driving that I need to do today.

I think most people will say, for my first-use car it's an electric vehicle. Whether or not I need to get in this particular car and drive from Washington to New York, I think is the big question. Does that mean that we want to build charging infrastructure along the way? Or does that imply that I'm much more likely to rent another kind of vehicle?

Electric vehicles are not the same types of vehicles as internal combustion vehicles. I foresee like with anything else that we will develop best practices, and it will get simpler.

Q: Recent numbers show that about 60 percent of Chevrolet Volts and Nissan Leafs are sold in California. Are electric cars just a response to a California environmental mandate? Otherwise, why would a consumer in other states buy an electric car today, given their high price premium over comparably-sized economy cars?
California is the largest [automotive] market, period. So it's not surprising that there would be a focus by automakers on this market first. They can't roll out everywhere all at once.

The problem that we're trying to solve is a national problem; I think we've got to do this nationwide.

If we get people in the cars and they experience the dynamic[s of an] EV—you step on the accelerator, you go [without] making any noise—[they'll see] the cars are great. They're fun to drive. From there, they'll ask intelligent questions. People want to know more about it, and they'll come to understand the benefits of the technology in addition to the fact that it's so much fun.

See our guide to fuel economy and guide to alternative fuels.

Survey shows high fuel costs cause downsizing, less driving
Consumers still favor gasoline-fueled cars, but most are open to options
Consumers name their leading disadvantages of buying a fuel-efficient or alternative-fuel car
Five questions with CARB: Why is California pushing for electric cars?
Five questions with Henrik Fisker, father of the $100,000 Karma plug-in hybrid
Five questions with: Carlos Ghosn, CEO of Nissan and electric-car champion

Eric Evarts

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