When Chelsea Sexton was 17 years old, she took a job with Saturn, hawking cars to help pay for college. She was good at her job, and three years later she found herself involved with GM’s most exciting new project: bringing the EV-1 electric car to market.
She threw herself into the mission, to the point of marrying an EV-1 service technician. But in 2001, GM abruptly killed the EV-1 program and dismissed most of its personnel—including Sexton.
What GM didn’t realize was that it had created a monster, which was now set loose in the world.
Sexton went on to become one of the country’s leading plug-in vehicle advocates. She led protests against GM’s decision to scrap thousands of EV-1s, and appeared in the Oscar-nominated film Who Killed the Electric Car? She formed advocacy group Plug-In America, and led the creation of the Automotive X PRIZE in 2005.
Fortnightly caught up with Sexton in June to discuss the electric vehicle market, and utilities’ role in developing it.
Fortnightly: Tell me about Plug-In America. What have been the group’s most significant achievements?
Sexton: The most visible progress is all the plug-in cars that have been announced by automakers. A few years ago not a single company was working on it, and now we have at least a dozen.
The most important thing we do is to work with consumers, teaching them about what’s possible and getting them to ask for it. Automakers are saying people aren’t asking for electric cars by the millions, so the demand isn’t strong enough. But people won’t ask for what they don’t know is possible. Nobody wanted an iPhone before Apple created it.
Also we work with the auto industry and various utilities, teaching about electric vehicles and helping companies interface with each other and the markets. We also work with lawmakers to develop policies and mandates that support this movement, as well as things like electric codes and vehicle-to-grid (V2G) standards.
Fortnightly: Do automakers see this as a real market?
Sexton: They’re not entirely convinced, but companies are starting to see that if they want to save themselves, particularly the domestic automakers, they have to build cars people want to buy.
There’s a saying in the auto industry: “It’s not real until it’s in your driveway.” But there are a lot of concept cars out there and several have been approved for production. We’re guardedly optimistic these cars will be available in the 2010 time frame.
Fortnightly: People are shocked now by $4 a gallon gas prices, but won’t they get over it and maybe change their driving habits, rather than give up their gas-powered cars?
Sexton: When GM was building the EV-1, people said, “When gas hits $3 a gallon people will change.” Then it hit $3 a gallon and people said it would have to hit $5 a gallon. The fact is people won’t change if they don’t have the option.
It’s true that electric cars aren’t for everybody,