A Look at the Next Generation of Electric Vehicles

People began filling the main atrium of the National Building Museum early on a chilly Wednesday morning, greeted by the welcome sight of a table full of DC’s famous Astro Doughnuts and hot coffee. While tasty creations are the norm at many district events, these in particular had a unique story. All the appliances needed to make these confectionaries drew their power from a brand-new hybrid-electric truck, built for utility Pacific Gas & Electric’s rapidly growing fleet of alternative fuel utility vehicles.  The truck was busy charging a new Cadillac ELR as attendees arrived, highlighting its ability to transfer serious current when necessary—an essential part of its job in fighting power supply disruptions on the grid. Wednesday’s event, “The Next Generation of Electric Transportation,” was hosted by The Hill and PG&E and consisted of a series of panels on the technologies and policies driving the adoption of electric vehicles (EVs) today. Introductory remarks were heard from U.S. Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) and Congresswoman Janice Hahn (D-CA), both of whom showed marked excitement for the future of EVs in America. The first panel kicked off with PG&E’s Des Bell explaining that the expansion of its electrified fleet has resulted in significant fuel savings, and with an added twist: Battery technology in the new vehicles allows workers to avoid noise regulations in neighborhoods, meaning they are able to get repair work done quicker and more reliably. The trucks, with an exportable power output of 120kW, are able to replace a transformer in a pinch, shortening, or preventing altogether, inconvenient power outages. According to the U.S. Department of Energy, battery costs have fallen 70 percent in 5 years, lowering a significant barrier to EV up-front cost. This is good news for fleet operators, as they are already a specialty market, and often require vehicles for tailor-made applications than can become expensive, with or without electric drive. It’s developments like these that make a compelling case for an electrified transportation sector, not only within fleets, but across a spectrum of light-, medium-, and heavy-duty applications. Advanced battery technology, more efficient drivetrains, and support for innovation across the board has driving similar experiments with load balancing on the grid using EV’s, as well as giving power back to the network in times of high demand. Making the transition to electric brings opportunities for increased efficiency and new technology, but these aspects tie into a larger strategic vision for the United States. Energy security, ending America’s dependence on the violent ups and downs of the global oil market, can only be accomplished with the help of sweeping changes in the U.S. transportation sector. Electrification Coalition President and CEO Robbie Diamond illustrated to the crowd the dangers of overreliance on oil and its ability to influence U.S. economic health and national security. Currently, 92 percent of U.S. transportation runs on oil, giving petroleum unprecedented control over a large swath of the American economy. Consequently, billions are spent every year on its consumption, nearly $900 billion last year, and billions more are used to secure vital supply routes across the planet. This striking vulnerability, Diamond noted, is the most important reason to work to electrify American transportation:
  1. Electricity, powering EVs, draws on a diverse array of fuel sources (of which oil is negligible).
  2. Prices are far more stable than those of the global oil market.
  3. Infrastructure is already in place to enable widespread EV deployment across the country.
On the question of if there is a role for government in promoting electric vehicles, Diamond spoke to the national security implications. “We don’t question the government when it invests time and resources into building an aircraft carrier. The same should be true about supporting electric vehicles.” Being a D.C. event, attending speakers stressed the importance of long-term policy certainty and public-private collaboration to drive increasing EV adoption. Some believed fleets, who make automobile purchases in bulk, will be responsible for the first strides toward mass adoption of electric vehicles. Others cited the fact that since 2011, U.S. consumers have purchased over 260,000 EVs on their own, thanks in part to tax incentives and other perks that reduce up-front cost. Either way, it is becoming clear to many inside and outside the Washington establishment that with the right set of tools, electric vehicles are poised to make a major contribution to diversifying the fuels available to the U.S. transportation sector. Furthermore, the technologies demonstrated at the event helped show the multitude of creative and useful applications for these vehicles, further enhancing their value and mass appeal.