This is the interview with Chelsea Sexton, about electric cars, on Monday Night Radio. Monday Night Radio is an online (Internet-based) talk radio show where different experts are interviewed, and people around the world can listen via the Internet, and call in to talk with the expert, and ask them questions.
The Internet Patrol’s Anne P. Mitchell, Esq., is the host of Monday Night Radio.
This Monday Night Radio show with Chelsea Sexton was first aired on 9/27/10. In addition to reading the interview below, you can listen to the recorded show via iTunes – where you can also subscribe to the podcast of all of the recorded shows. Here is the iTunes link: [destination content has been removed at other end :~( ].
Links to the guest’s website and book, if any, are at the end of the interview.
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Anne: …or if you are not in the chat room and you are listening some other way if you could also somehow give me a signal, give me a sign and there are many different ways you can do that. The first one is to call into our hotline, which is 877-NYKRADIO. That’s 877-NowYouKnowRadio, also known as 8776957234. You can also send us a message on Twitter. Our Twitter account is @nowyouknowradio. You can message us on AOL Instant Messenger. Also our account there is nowyouknowradio. Finally, you can e-mail us at firstname.lastname@example.org. So there are all kinds of ways that you can get through to us, get a message to us. Right now I am asking you all to make sure to let me know that you can hear me! I see from the chat room we have a, “Yes, loud and clear.” Thank you very much. That was from my lovely assistant Tyler Mountain (?), who is manning the chat room right now. I guess the PC version of that would be personing the chat room. As I said I am very sorry to announce that Bryan is no longer able to produce the show due to other commitments. For those of you out there in radio land who aren’t sure what it is that a producer does, a producer is the person who basically mans the switch board, runs the radio back end, and does all those sorts of things. So, we are now breaking in a new producer. His name is Evan. Actually I have muted him, because I have that power, but I am about to un-mute him so he can say hello. Evan, are you there?
Evan: I am here.
Anne: Hi, Evan. Why don’t you say hi to everybody?
Evan: Hi, everybody. I’m Evan. Glad to be here producing the show.
Anne: Evan, this is everybody. I am going to now mute you again so that you aren’t on the spot and you can sort of go back to the work that you are doing. I would ask for the people that are out there listening right now, even if you do not have a question for our guest who we will talk about in a minute, if you have just a minute or two that you could call in and let Evan practice screening on you. We would really appreciate that. Let him practice taking those calls, because Evan is a very capable person, but this was not anything that he had ever signed on for when he started working with me. I have to say that he really just stepped right up to the plate. He’s doing a fabulous job, but it is certainly not what he was originally planning to do, so if you are out there and you have a couple of minutes that you could call in just to let Evan practice on you. Who knows, you might actually have a question for our guest. Again the number to call in is 877-NYKRADIO. That’s 8776957234. You can also send us a message with a question on Twitter. The account is @nowyouknowradio. That’s the same account that you can reach us on AOL Instant Messenger, or you can send us a question at email@example.com. Ok, so we are here to talk about electric cars and all sorts of things having to do with electric cars. My first question is who among you out there has seen the movie Who Killed the Electric Car. You can’t see me, but I’m raising my hand because it was quite an interesting and eye opening movie to watch. I have to confess I really never had much of an interest in electric cars. It wasn’t an area of interest for me. Yet, when I watched that movie I found myself getting so swept up in it. The story is so compelling. Even if you are not even the least bit interested in alternative energy (I don’t know how you couldn’t be at this point in this country, but even if you are not) it is a tale of corporate intrigue, corporate greed, corporate mismanagement, and it is very much a David versus Goliath. Or, in this case Chelsea versus the man sort of movie. It is a tale of someone whose heart is compelling them to act out of deep belief in what is right. Taking on the big corporate powers that be, and it is a very, very interesting movie. With that, I would like to ask you to call in and tell me what you thought of the movie if in deed you saw the movie. Again you can message us through Twitter @nowyouknowradio, or via AOL Instant Messenger also @nowyouknowradio or you can e-mail us firstname.lastname@example.org. For those of you who weren’t here for the announcement last week, we also have a spiffy new page on Facebook. That Facebook page is facebook.com/nowyouknow. You don’t even have to use the radio on that one. Ok, now I do have to tell you that we seem to have misplaced Chelsea. So, if it seems that right now I am trying to fill some time. That is in fact exactly what is going on. We are having some technical difficulties, but she is in the process of calling. If you could just hang on one second, I am going to ask Evan. I am going to put him back on the line in fact. So, Evan, I know that Chelsea has been trying to dial in. Do you happen to know what kind of problem she is having?
Evan: Yeah. I just got a hold of her on her cell phone. She is trying to call in through the toll free number and for whatever reason…Ok this is probably her.
Anne: There she is. Evan, I am going to mute you. I am going to let you pull her in. You can let me know when she is ready.
Evan: Ok, great.
Anne: So, that was some very good timing. Of course in the mean time we have as I mentioned Tyler Mountain, and he is in our chat room. If you want to chat with Tyler it is another way that you can ask a question. You can relay it through the chat room. We have so many different ways that you can talk to us tonight, that you can tell us what is on your mind about the state of alternative fuel, electric cars. You can ask Chelsea Sexton a question. All these different things you can do in all of these different ways. Again, give us a call at 877-NYKRADIO. That’s 8776957234. You can reach us by Twitter or AOL Instant Messenger @nowyouknowradio, or you can e-mail us at email@example.com. Alright, so, Evan, is Chelsea ready to talk with us?
Evan: Yes, she is.
Anne: Awesome. Alright, well without further ado, let’s talk with Chelsea Sexton. Chelsea, are you there?
Chelsea: I am.
Anne: Oh, Chelsea, it’s so nice to talk with you again. How are you?
Chelsea: I am well. I am thrilled to talk to you finally.
Anne: I am sorry you had trouble calling in. I apologize because I am almost certain it must have been something on our end. I appreciate you persevering. We are so excited about having you here on the show. We already have some questions lined up for you, but we are not going to just jump on you like that. First, Chelsea, tell us what you have been up to.
Chelsea: Oh, you know sort of raising Cain and causing trouble, a little bit here and there. We are working on another movie after we were very surprised that the first one was seen by a few more folks than just our parents. Which is what we thought would happen. Low and behold did our little movie get seen a little bit, but even better automakers are actually starting to build electric cars again which is what we all wanted in the first place. So we are now a couple months away from cars in show rooms which means there is all sorts of activity on wonky things like chargers and incentives and policy stuff. I get to sort of play in the thick of all of it. There’s lots of fun these days.
Anne: Chelsea, for those of our listeners who may not yet have seen the first movie, which is called Who Killed the Electric Car, could you just give us a little bit of a background. I have to tell you that when I watched the movie at that time I wasn’t really that aware of the issues surrounding electric cars and alternative fuel vehicles generally. I certainly had absolutely no concept of what had gone on with the EV1 and that effort behind the scenes. Certainly not with the owners who from what I gathered from the movie were just in love with this car and basically being told too bad. It was a really compelling story even for someone who isn’t as savvy about cars or indeed as in love with electric cars as clearly you are. You are obviously very, very passionate about this subject. So, can you just sort of give us the thumbnail synopsis of what the issue was that led to the first movie and the first wave of this?
Chelsea: Sure. I come from California. For decades we have had air quality problems and particularly in the 70s, 80s, and 90s really bad smog problems. California was looking for a way to solve this. At one of the LA auto shows, as car companies always do, General Motors showed an electric contest car, and kind of said, “Hey this is what we think is the future.” A few months later they announced in Washington, D.C. on Earth Day, “We might actually build this.” The state of California was watching and said, “Really? You guys can do electric cars. There’s zero emissions, there’s no pollution, which means no smog. If you guys say you are really ready to do this, we are going to actually mandate that all of the major manufacturers if they want to keep doing business in California also do some really clean cars. We will let you sell what you always sell but you have to do some that are really clean.” The top six automakers, the three from Detroit and the top three Japanese manufacturers all made electric cars, but as nobody likes to be told what to do they also really started fighting this law and just went at it in court, legally, through their policy making and various things. They really tried to get rid of it and put some cars on the road in the mean time expecting no one to really like them. Consumers instead really loved them and there were waiting lists for more. They were forming motors clubs and different things, but when they finally got that law watered down enough they decided to take the vehicles back and crush them. With very little…
Anne: Wait, wait, wait, can you back up a minute?
Chelsea: Yeah. Sure.
Anne: Because I want you to repeat that. They decided to take the cars and do what to them?
Chelsea: They would take them back from the people that loved them and they would crush them like little electric pancakes.
Anne: Crush them?
Chelsea: Yeah. They would crush them. They put them in a grinder and crushed them. The vehicles had only been leased, so they were technically allowed by law to do this even though there were people that were trying to buy these cars and loved these cars and lived every day with these cars and thought they were fantastic. The owners that didn’t really get to have a say in the matter decided that they couldn’t let the whole thing go on unnoticed, so they did all sorts of protests. I got involved with them then, and sort of helped try to lead it and do different things. We got a couple of manufacturers to stop the crushing. Ford and Toyota both stopped, and GM was sort of more reticent about the whole thing and decided they really just didn’t want to be in this business anymore. All of the auto makers behaved badly. None of them were good. It was just sort of degrees of badness. At the time a couple of the EV drivers said, “You know what we have to try to tell this story.” So a couple of them got together and made this movie, and it was called Who Killed the Electric Car. It came out in 2006. We really did think we would burn copies for our parents and move on with our lives. Lo and behold, Sony Classics bought it and put it into theaters. It’s been out on DVD and showing on TV and different things. It has gained enough of a following that we thought as auto makers have been announcing new electric programs that we really ought to try to tell the next chapter. So, we have a new movie due out next spring called The Revenge of the Electric Car. It largely covers this next chapter of these different efforts to bring this technology back. But, also in many cases the human interest elements, and can a company like GM save itself with the Volt. Can that Volt play a role in the saving of it at least? Can a smaller company like Tesla really ultimately compete with the bigger boys of the traditional automotive industry? Where do the guys that we endearingly call the mad scientists fit in? The guys who convert cars in their garages and that sort of thing, and within each of these entities there’s all sorts of real personalities. Guys like Bob Lutz and Elon Musk and different folks. So we just sort of followed them on their adventure to capture their own legacies, but also to reinvigorate a technology that we should have always had, but that we are making a true attempt at doing.
Anne: So, let me ask you this. Again, we do have callers, and we promise we will get to you shortly. Before we move on to a point where we may be not talking about the movie, can you tell me two things. What would you say is the biggest impact that the movie has had on both the auto industries and public awareness? Also, what’s the biggest impact it has had on you? I don’t know if you intended to be propelled as you have been into this advocacy role although you do it very well. I’m really curious about both of those.
Chelsea: I think on some level we like to believe it’s had some level of awareness on the industry. At the same time, I don’t think any of us are arrogant enough to assume that. Certainly for a variety of reasons, public awareness and PR problems being one of them, and certainly our film played a role in that. Also, our for current economic reasons most auto makers have come to understand that if they want to continue to have a place in this industry they have to start making something new and things that consumers want, which in turn puts more responsibility on consumers to ask for what they want. This was really the first time, maybe five years ago, that consumers really started en mass to ask for what they want. It embodied everything from calling the 1-800 numbers for your Chevy Company, or Nissan, or whoever your favorite auto maker was, to literally sending personal e-mails to Bob Lutz, who at the time was the vice chairman of General Motors. Really, consumers embraced this idea of, “We are going to express something. We are going to see if we can make a difference here and vote politically but also with our wallets and refuse to buy another gas car until the car company that I like makes one that has a plug on it. I think that has had some impact. Certainly it is an ongoing effort to keep consumers engaged in that regard. I think we’ve all gotten a taste of the fact that consumers and regular people like me can indeed have a voice in this matter. In terms of the personal aspect of it, it has been a bit of a ride. The irony of the whole thing is that I am one of the shyer people in the movement. I was never supposed to be in the movie. I was rather shocked to find myself in the movie, and let alone anything remotely public in the industry or the movement. So, it’s been a little bit of a coming out party. It’s really remarkable to find that you do indeed have an industry. A lot of us who have been around a while joke that we are getting the band back together, but we finally have an audience. That is a really invigorating thing.
Anne: Well speaking of the audience, let’s go to a question. We have Rob in the Santa Clara area. He has a question about batteries. Rob, are you there?
Caller #1: I am here.
Anne: Hi, Rob. You have a question. You are on the air with Chelsea Sexton. You have a question for her?
Caller #1: I sure do. Are you ready? Can you hear me?
Chelsea: I am ready. I can.
Caller #1: Ok. So, my question really has two parts. The first part is, given the technical progression of car batteries, when do you think we will see batteries on the market that will enable an electric car to go as far and as fast as a gas powered car on a single charge? The second part is what are the main technical hurdles to overcome to get there?
Chelsea: Ok. What is interesting is that we do actually have at least one car that can go as far as an average gasoline car and quite a bit faster. The Tesla Roadster has a current range of about 245 miles per charge. Which is about as far as I actually get in my Saturn, so there are some gas vehicles that will go further, but about 250 to 300 is fairly average for a gas car. It will do 0 to 60 in 3.9 seconds for their slower version. So, from a performance perspective we are kind of there. The challenge is price. The Tesla Roadster is wicked fun to drive, but it starts at $109,000 which is a little out of my price range. So the mission for batteries really comes down to getting the price down or energy density, depending on your priority. So, we have a bunch of different electric vehicles coming. Most of them are 100 mile electric vehicles, because the industry really has come around to understand that there is a fairly large market for a 100 mile electric car that is cheaper and that someone would use for commuting in a two car household or something versus a long range electric car that is $70,000; $90,000; or $109,000 or whatever it is. That said, batteries are getting better, they are more energy dense or cheaper on the order of about 7% a year. So it takes to cut down the cost or double the range, but it is certainly happening. In the mean time we have a whole different sort of flavor of plug-in vehicles that are coming, and those are plug-in hybrids. They have a certain amount of electric range and a gasoline backup. So, if you are somebody that has an average commute Monday through Friday, you could maybe never use gasoline during your commute in something like a Chevy Volt which has a 40 mile electric range. Then, on Saturday if you wanted to drive long distance, you could put gas in the same car and go long distance. So it kind of has that best of both worlds feel to it. So, we do have certainly have goals and places we want to go with electric vehicles, but we are already starting to see a nice variety that doesn’t provide something for everybody, but provides something for a whole lot of people.
Anne: Rob, are you there? Did that answer your question?
Rob: Yes, I am. Yes, it does. Thank you very much.
Anne: So, on a somewhat related note, and thank you for the call, Rob. On a somewhat related note, Chelsea, I am curious about the electric cars, well a couple of things. There are some things I really understand well, this is not one of them so this may be the proverbial dumb question. One of the things I don’t quite understand is how come if you have a car that is a hybrid, how come the battery can’t be being recharged by the engine when the engine is running so that you don’t have to plug in before you can go electric again? Is that a question that makes sense even?
Chelsea: It certainly makes sense, and that is how roughly a lot of today’s gasoline hybrids like the Prius operate. You put gasoline in it, it has an electric motor, it has a battery, and the only way that battery ever gets recharged is through the gasoline engine. To a certain extent, that is a little bit how the Volt operates. Although, rather than try to recharge the battery, after your 40 miles, you plug it in, you go 40 miles and after that the engine runs just enough to give you range and not so much to try to recharge the battery on top of that, because why would you want to burn more gasoline than you have to. The effort is more get you where you need to go, but let’s not burn more petroleum. The reason that we tend to still want to plug in is because it’s a whole lot cleaner than gasoline even with coal on the grid. We are about 50% coal give or take a couple percent in this country. Even with that, the plug-in version of a vehicle is about twice as clean as your average gas car. So, that is the worst case scenario, twice as clean. But, it is also a whole lot cheaper to drive on electricity than to drive on gasoline. So your average cost per mile in an electric car or the electric portion of a plug-in hybrid is generally one to two cents per mile versus on the low end ten to twelve cents running on gasoline. So, between cleaner and cheaper, it is already pretty compelling to run on electricity. A lot of people really resonate to electricity because it is domestic. We are not importing petroleum from anywhere in order to run your vehicle. A lot of people really love the self-sufficiency, empowerment aspects of driving home at night, plugging it in your own garage, never having to go out of your way to a gas station, and running on domestically made fuel.
Anne: Ok, we have a question that has come in through Twitter, but first let me just remind everyone that you can reach us by Twitter and also by AOL Instant Messenger. Both of those accounts are @nowyouknowradio. You can also call in at 8776957234. That’s 877-NYKRADIO, or you can e-mail us at firstname.lastname@example.org. Also, we now have a weekly newsletter that tells you about upcoming shows, gives you links to the interviews once they are published. You can sign up for that right at our website at nowyouknowradio.com. Chelsea, the question that has come in through Twitter has to do with…It says you are talking about the batteries, but they don’t seem to go a whole day yet. What about charging stations? Isn’t this sort of a chicken and egg situation where if there aren’t enough charging stations, then people can’t really run these cars as their daily drivers?
Chelsea: Chicken and egg is the common perception. What we actually find in regular practice is that the vast majority of EV drivers plug-in at home and at night while you’re sleeping. The cool thing is the car fills up overnight you leave every morning completely full. Usually with an EV that has at least 100 miles of electric range if you are a pure electric car, if you are a plug-in hybrid than you have 20, 40 however many miles and then gasoline as a backup. Most people get well through their average day, and even two or three days without really needing to plug-in. But, most people do plug-in anyway, just so they are always full. We absolutely believe in a sprinkling of public charging. That has always happened in the areas where we have had cars. California, Arizona, Georgia, and various places have some public infrastructure. It has always been free to use. So you can plug-in at the shopping mall or gone to the movies or wherever. People can use that either to extend their range or just as a comfort measure. Some people just want to make sure that they are always full so they will plug-in as they run around from place to place and never have to worry about being empty. That is continuing to happen. As auto makers have started to announce their early market areas, we have two electric cars coming before the end of the year, the Chevy Volt and the Nissan Leaf. Both of them have announced which market areas are coming first and so we have already started to put charging in in those cities to make sure that it is a little bit ahead of the cars that are coming. Ideally we’d start with a sprinkling and then layer on more as we see where the cars go and where the people that have those cars drive and where need the charging. So we keep a small amount of resources serving the most amount of vehicles.
Anne: Now you’ve mentioned a couple of different states. California certainly, you said something about Georgia, which kind of surprised me for some reason. I don’t know why. I guess I just haven’t thought of Georgia as a hot bed of electric vehicle technology. What do you see in terms of adoption in the state in their power grid infrastructure to support electric vehicles? I’m surprised and heartened to hear you say that most people for their regular daily use wouldn’t need to actually plug-in every day even. Still there is definitely the perception that people need that ability. I know California is talking about putting in more charging stations. You mentioned support in Georgia, but generally are you finding that adoption and support in the state legislature, is it an uphill battle? Are they really interested? Are they just not sure what to do? How are you seeing that playing out?
Chelsea: We are seeing a variety of interest. Certainly not all places are interested. It’s always been the case that if you just sort of draw a u around the country. So, the northwest, the northeast, and the south, Austin and various areas, but also Atlanta, South Florida and various places among the south, there’s always been that market interest. We always call it the easy smile, because it kind of looks like a smile around the country. Those areas have always been into it. Georgia was kind of our last generation. We put some easy ones there. This generation we are seeing the most interest and the earliest deployments in Washington, Oregon, California, Austin, New York, a little bit in Florida, and Tennessee and Arizona. Certainly, Hawaii has gotten on board most recently. So, it is still kind of sticking to those rough areas that you would expect. We are seeing not only a certainly a market interest that has always been there, but some policy interest in terms of putting an infrastructure and supporting with incentives. Georgia and California both have $5000 incentives toward the purchase of an electric vehicle which helps bring down the price in the case of the Nissan Leaf to $20,000 which really puts it in the category of an affordable car. Something we hear is that new technology is really expensive.
Anne: Wow. Awesome.
Chelsea: Yeah. It will continue to be a bit more expensive than regular technology but we are also trying to get it supported and incentivized such that it really does kind of come close to what you would expect to pay for a new car. As the technology gets cheaper, the vehicles will as well. The other thing we are seeing is sort of some regional competition. We are seeing places like Raleigh, North Carolina really want to be one of the EV capitols. So they have gotten the local McDonald’s to put in charging stations and different things. In some cases it is incentives and in some cases it’s infrastructure. In some cases it is free parking at parking meters and that kind of thing. Each place is trying something different. A few years ago we got together with the Rocky Mountain Institute and a bunch of the stake holders got in a room. We created something called Project Get Ready. It really is a blue print for any city, region, county, or area that wants to make itself plug-in ready. It’s kind of a matrix. It’s available for free at projectgetready.org. You can go see this nice little blue print of all of the things that people who have been doing this for a while really have thought are the most effective. Not every area has to do them all, but it has helped give any particular city or region a place to start in terms of, “If I want to get my area ready for this, what do I do and how do I do it?” We have some places that are being more forward thinking than that even and more creative. Places like San Francisco that are redoing their building codes, so that if you are building a new apartment building, you have to wire a certain amount of parking places that could be EV spots. Even if the chargers aren’t there yet, the wiring will be there. We have a couple of home builders that every time they build new model homes, they wire the garages in case that new owner wants to have an EV. Because when you build the home it costs a couple of hundred dollars to put in the wiring versus a few thousand dollars to try to put in the charger later. Really sort of thinking ahead to how can we make this as easy and cheap as possible, and if you don’t get one it’s no big deal, it didn’t add but a couple hundred dollars to the price of the house. If you do want one, we certainly have made it easier for you.
Anne: It also would add to the resale value of the house even if you don’t yourself use it. That’s really interesting. We have another caller that would like to talk to you. Let me just remind everyone you can call in to talk with Chelsea Sexton about the alternative vehicles, the electric vehicles at 877-NYKRADIO. That’s 8776957234. You can send us a message by Twitter or AOL Instant Messenger to @nowyouknowradio. You can e-mail us a question at email@example.com. I have been remiss at not mentioning that you can also dial in as it were and talk to Chelsea via Skype. You just go to our website at nowyouknowradio.com. There is a link right there to click on and it will launch your Skype and voila you will be with us. Let’s go to Jeff in Boulder. Jeff has a question about electric vehicles and job creation. Jeff, are you there?
Caller #2: Yes, I am here. Thank you for letting me ask a question.
Anne: Jeff, you are on the air.
Caller #2: Hi I was just wondering what you thought the prospect of electric cars would have on job growth in terms of infrastructure creation and the like, building them I suppose?
Chelsea: Actually we are seeing quite a bit of opportunity in this space and then tangential areas. In terms of electric cars we always end up in conversations about renewable energy and solar and all of those different things which exist on their own as their own industries. But, also each form combined helps make the other one make a little bit more sense, so we are seeing a lot of job creation in those areas. Certainly as these technologies become more popular, but the number one factor has been the fact that we have the first president ever who is actually supportive of these technologies. President Obama became very supportive long before he was president, but certainly drew a line in the sand when he did get elected and said, “Look we are going to have a million plug-in cars on the road by 2015.” backing that up with stimulus dollars, not just for the vehicles but very much for the components. We now have an emerging battery industry that has historically only existed primarily in Asia: Korea, Japan, and China for building battery packs for these vehicles. So, now we have a number of plants that are opening in Michigan and Indiana and different places to help support all of these vehicles. So, between the vehicles themselves and keeping plants open that had been closed or keeping them open where they would be closed, and that kind of thing. We just had a Saturn plant that was bought by Fisker automotive which is a new emerging, entrepreneurial auto maker. Certainly on the manufacturing side, but also on the component side whether it is batteries, we will ultimately see it with power electronics and capacitors and all of the different things that have to go into these vehicles that really help on the job creation side.
Anne: Ok, well thank you for the call, Jeff. Chelsea we have a question that has come in by e-mail from Susan. I am not sure where she is from, but she says, “Would you please tell us about the new movie? The Revenge of the Electric Car is a great title. What is the movie about?”
Chelsea: This film is…It is an interesting title. Our first movie was very much a murder mystery. We had seven suspects, we declared some of them guilty by the end, and it sort of had that framing about it. We kind of thought after you’ve made a murder mystery, where do you go from there? You’ve got to make a monster movie. So, we have The Revenge of the Electric Car. It’s a little bit; at least in our heads it has that sort of Frankenstein’s monster revival kind of thing about it. We are very much tracking some of the various efforts to bring electric cars back. I think certainly when we envisioned it we would have been able to cover all of the efforts. Now this thing has grown so big that we can only cover a few of them. Frankly, we couldn’t be happier about that. So, we have a couple of major auto makers and their role in this and particularly a couple of years ago were rabidly against electric cars and now are the most are the most aggressive for them. That’s GM and Nissan and pretty much every automaker now has some electric car project. Some are more aggressive about it or more sincere about it than others, but they are all in the game somehow. Then, we have this emerging class of entrepreneurial automakers that didn’t really exist before. Companies like Tesla and Fisker, Better Place and Koda, and these guys, we can’t cover them all. We’ve picked one to cover there, so we will certainly talk about Tesla a little bit. Not only the ambition like Elon Musk or any CEO of such a company, but also there are the barriers to entry. The fact that we haven’t had before Tesla, we hadn’t had an ITO (?) since Ford in the automotive industry. This is a really old school industry, and now we have all these scrappy new upstarts largely based in Silicon Valley trying to challenge the old guard. How will that go? Certainly we have a lot of grass roots sort of consumer oriented folks that have been converting their own cars and creating kits for other people to do it. The people that we really endearingly call the mad scientists and not all of them are average Joes. Guys like Andy Grove who are known for running intel are kind of mad scientists in our industry because they put forward these really ambitious provocative plans to convert millions of vehicles across the country and do it by next year and these different things. So, it is mostly a human interest story about all of these people that are trying to change the world in their own ways and how even when you can agree on the goal, putting electric cars back on the road, it’s still really hard for us to get out of our own way as a society and all of the challenges that really are resident in such a mission.
Anne: So, tell me…You bring up something that’s always been in the back of my mind ever since I watched the movie. Talking about the big automakers and they are sort of change of heart or their turn around. You mentioned at the top of the show that GM recalled these cars and then they were just crushing them. Even though, as I recall from the movie, as you said because they were leased to the people driving them rather than sold, they were able to do that. It was just heart breaking to see these people who loved these cars, who wanted to pay for them. They wanted to buy them. They wanted to be able to keep driving them and keep them on the road. They were told, “No. You are not allowed to. We are just going to take them and put them in lots and never let them be driven again and in some cases literally crush them flat and just make them into scrap.” It was heartbreaking. It was almost like, even though they are not alive, it just almost felt like they were actually, literally killing these things. First of all, I couldn’t understand from a financial perspective how that could possibly make sense. I don’t know if maybe you can understand having spent some time in retrospect now, if you have been able to put yourself in sort of the mindset of what GM was thinking. How that could have made any sense from a business perspective? If you could answer that, then I will give you my follow up question.
Chelsea: Sure, one of the things that we kind of always knew being in the thick of it, but that really congealed as we were trying to make this first movie and condense it into 90 minutes, is that the story is really complicated. People love to ask, “What was the moment in which GM changed its mind?” or any automaker. It went from an automaker that seemed to be when we launched EV1, very much behind it, couldn’t be more so. It had the full weight of a multinational company behind it, and then all of the sudden seemed to not be behind it anymore and suing the state of California and different things. It was always the case that where there were people from day one that loved car like I do, people that never wanted to see it happen, and there are people probably of both stripes that exist in the company today. But, from a financial perspective, it started out as a very small program. It was meant to get bigger. It was certainly sustainable in terms of a business case on its own. But, in the volumes that they ever built the car, it was very expensive to build. GM loves to talk about number. It cost $100,000 to build each one and that kind of thing, and when you are building four a day that is probably true. Supplier relationships when you are asking for 250 of something versus thousands, the costs are going to remain high. So, from a financial perspective, to continue to build at those volumes was probably not sustainable. That said, once you’ve built them and given them to customers and they love them, I’m not sure how much cost you recoup from taking them back and crushing them. So, certainly that was a question. The warranty costs were blamed and things, but the cars were largely trouble free. So, certainly if nothing else, it was a massive PR mistake. The financial ramifications of that, from taking the cars back. At the same time, you can’t help but compare an attitude like that with something like the Prius or even the first Honda Insight at the time, where those companies didn’t sell very many their first couple of years out. In fact they only sold a couple of thousand vehicles each, not nearly enough by any automotive standards to keep going. And yet, they said, “We think this technology is going to be a huge feature player and we are going to keep at it.” Now they can’t build enough. So, it’s hard not to look at the various EV programs. EV1, but the Rav4 and the Nissan and various other ones as well and think if they had just kept going. It was a niche product then. No one who’s got any experience will pretend it was a mass market product, but it was a good niche product with a good following that probably could have been a much more mass market product today. The automotive industry might merely had spotted that had they been more forward thinking. But that’s just not how the industry worked at the time, and they are still struggling to work that way now. It’s a very short term thinking industry who looks at things by the quarter not by the year and certainly not several years. At that time SUVs were wildly popular and they were making at least $10,000 gross on each vehicle versus not nearly that much on an electric car. I think it really boiled down much more to a philosophical question of how do we get behind these green cars that make our Suburbans and every other car we make a lot of money look really dirty. There’s a comparative issue there between a core product and their future looking product that a lot of people had a hard time getting their heads around. It boiled down a lot to a basic humans are afraid of change kind of struggle. They still struggle with it. They’ve come a long way and we’ve come a long way. It’s starting to happen, but there’s still a huge danger to becoming complacent right now. Thinking, “Oh this is happening car companies are building electric cars. It’s all going to be fine.” Because, we went through that, we had years of cars on the road and still had the ball go south. There’s a few of us that are still really kind of guarded about getting too comfortable now before we really get to a place where the market takes over and we no longer have to push so hard.
Anne: Well let me ask you this, Chelsea, this is my sort of follow up question to that. I have to imagine that when the movie first came out and at the height of its popularity and viewing, that GM could not have been very happy with you.
Chelsea: I’m sure that’s true.
Anne: I would imagine, knowing as I do how large industries work, that that might have transferred to other of the big automakers also being wary of you. Yet you seem now to really wield quite a bit of influence. You seem to have a lot of friends in high places at these same automakers. I am wondering if you are able if you could talk a little bit about how you are able to sort of win their hearts and minds or at least their respect despite the fact that you really came up swinging at first.
Chelsea: I’m sure that I still have my face on a number of dart boards out there. I’m sure a lot of them have been at GM and still may be. Although the irony is that I am talking to you from a hotel room in the middle of GM’s renaissance center as we speak. Part of the mission for many of us along the way was to kind of call out what we saw and the mistakes but not condemn the companies behind them. All along I think huge mistakes were made on EV1. Some great things happened on that program too. It was a brilliant car. The engineers were spectacular. The way it ended was awful and no bones about it. Shame on them. There’s no way to defend that. At the same time boycotting companies and telling them that no matter what they do we will never buy a car from them again doesn’t give them any incentive to do better. A lot of the people that played the bad roles sort of speak or made the poor decisions on some of these programs are no longer there. It’s tough to hold a company that’s currently responsible for decisions that were made ten years ago or longer. So, on some level there’s been a little bit of you’re going to have to prove it, but if you can prove it, I am happy to root for you. I still want this technology to succeed. I want these early programs to succeed. Some days I feel like the den mother sort of cheerleading every company trying to do it. Some other days I still know I’m holding the stick going what were you thinking when you said that or you did that or whatever. But I’ve always been very candid, and I’m kind of known for that. Most of the automakers have come around to understand that I’ll say what I think. If you do good things I’ll root for you, and when you do bad things hopefully I’ll come to you privately first and hopefully never have to go public. But that balance I think has allowed many companies to come back to this and to allow me into the room and different things. Because, they know they are just going to get it unvarnished. There’s not going to be a lot of gamesmanship going on with somebody like me. The public kind of resonates to that as well. I’m simply one version of the public they have to win back. In some cases easier for them to learn on somebody like me, because I’ve been where they are. I understand the challenges they are facing. I know how hard this is. We’ve skinned a lot of knees on our own in EV1 days and that last generation. Sometimes it’s frustrating to watch them skin the same knees again. It’s a little bit like parenting teenagers. They have to make their own mistakes, but you desperately want them to learn from yours. But at the same time, there are a lot of new things going on to. So, to be extent that they are willing to let people like me step in and help and prevent at least a couple of those skinned knees, then we are happy to do it. We ultimately want this to succeed. This is not about punishing anybody. Most automakers have come around and see that. There’s a couple that remain uncomfortable, and they might get around to it, and they might not. That’s ok.
Anne: That makes a lot of sense. We have about ten minutes. Our guest is Chelsea Sexton. She is an expert on alternative energy vehicles, particularly the electric cars. In fact, she is the star of Who Killed the Electric Car. She is working on a new movie now The Revenge of the Electric Car. If you have a question for Chelsea, you can call in at 877-NYKRADIO. That’s 8776957234. You can send us a message by Twitter or AOL Instant Messenger @nowyouknowradio. You can e-mail us at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can Skype in through the nowyouknowradio.com website. All of these different ways to connect with us, and we have a question that was left on our voicemail actually, someone that couldn’t listen live but really wanted to get the question to you. It’s a bit long and I’m not going to edit it, because I might miss a part. So, I’m just going to quickly read through it. It’s from Ted in California. He’s very interested he says in the truth about electric cars. However, he’s learned at his age that the money people don’t seem to care what the other people do. You have the Tesla and people still dying from electrocution from voltage and frequency of alternating current in 60 cycles. He’s talking about Tesla the scientist, not the car. He proved that it could be done much better at a million volts and a million cycles per second. It would go around you instead of through you. Then, we had other inventions that came along, like the Chrysler turbine powered car which was destroyed along with the Chrysler Corporation. His question to that is really simple he says. What is that you think you are doing or can do in the near or distant future to change the attitude of the big automakers? To make things happen when they have never happened in our foreseeable not so distant history. Did that make sense to you that question?
Chelsea: Yeah. Yeah, sure. I think in terms of what I can do, and what any of us can do with respect to the automakers themselves. I think he is right. In large part, the money dictates a lot. To the extent that the automakers can be convinced that there is money to be made here, they are going to go there. Ultimately the want to build what sells. If a certain number of people want a certain product they are going to build it and keep building it. It’s actually something that we have been hearing for years from them. “We don’t have people that are requesting electric cars by the million; therefore they must not want them.” On the surface that makes a little bit of sense, but at the same time I sort of come back with, “Well how many of us looked at the walkman twenty years ago and said I wish this was the size of a deck of cards and I could watch TV on the thing.” None of us would have imagined an iPhone, iPod, or an iPad looking at that device. Part of our mission and my mission for my consumer education running around stand point is to help people see the iPod and to help them ask for it. It really does become our responsibility therefore to ask for it and not settle for products that we don’t want and vehicles that we don’t want and to ask for what we do. But also when we have automakers who do start making what we want to support them and not flog them for past mistakes and that kind of thing. Really evaluate them fairly and objectively and what they are doing now. That becomes a lot of the mission, raising awareness, getting people to vote politically. That matters quite a bit as well, but also vote with their dollars. Truly if we demand and prove demand for electric vehicles it’s going to be really, really tough for them not to build them, especially given the history and the awareness that already has been raised, so this could go the way of the Turbine. But, if it does we are going to have ourselves to blame as much as the automakers.
Anne: Well in that vein, it seems to me that the Prius in many ways did wildly better and still does than I think many of the pundits had anticipated would be the case. I think part of that may or may not have been, and I’d love to have you address this, the price point. Now with incentives, the price point isn’t that much higher than some of the midrange luxury cars for example. So I’m curious if some of the fervor with which other automakers are looking at electric cars has to do with they saw the success that Toyota has had with the Prius. Would you say that is accurate?
Chelsea: Yeah. I think that Toyota’s success with the Prius has certainly been a lesson and a cautionary tale. A lesson that new products and new technologies can succeed even when, if you are looking at it purely from a pragmatic perspective it will seem obvious, the early hybrids didn’t tensile economically. You wouldn’t have saved as much on gasoline as you would have to spend as a premium to get the car. What none of the automakers understood is that’s not why people were buying the cars. All of the automakers struggle with understanding that early adopter market. It’s not a space they are used to playing in. They are used to playing in 100,000 or more vehicles per year, per model really common denominator stuff. Maybe we have a couple of viper-ish programs, small members, and have enthusiasts and stuff, but when it comes to EVs it’s nothing that they understand. It frankly scares I think a lot of the automakers. They see that early market as a bunch of protest-wielding, willing to buy a Tesla kind of money sort of folks that are not pragmatic or understandable in any way. That’s part of the role that people like me end up playing as well, just sort of playing interpreter and helping them ease to this place and be proud of the community oriented technology that it is and how to really use that to their advantage and cultivate ambassadors. So it’s not a pricing issue, because those early adopters aren’t as price sensitive. They tend to have more means than the mainstream consumer, but they have different requirements that certainly have to be played into. Once automakers can get their arms around that really can be successful. I think that’s where some of the automakers that have started to make entre into those communities have really seen this. We brought in old EV1 drivers to drive the Volt or the Nissan Leaf or different vehicles. They have really come back. The most cynical people, “I will never buy another EV. I will never buy another GM product.” have come away going, “Wow that Volt is really cool. That company is really behind it.” I had one guy who would never have bought a GM product again come to one of those drives. He said to me afterwards, “That was not the General Motors that killed my EV1. That was GM that built it in the first place.” I see that spirit again in that company. It really does come down to a lot of experience based stuff more than a commercial or even the car itself. We have these weird conversations. It’s a great car, but I’m sorry building a good car alone is not enough. The last generation didn’t suffer for lack of good cars. You have to do all the soft stuff around that. They are learning. There will be some mistakes. There have been and there will be. Hopefully they will get past them. That is what we are all holding our breath for. Ultimately, we all want to win this.
Anne: That makes a lot of sense and that is very heartening. We have just a few minutes left. We have a question that has come in through AOL Instant Messenger. Again, that AOL Instant Messenger ID is nowyouknowradio. It’s also our Twitter ID. Bryan in Chicago wants to know how plausible it would be to design solar panels for electric cars. He says it seems in certain environments that would be beneficial. I certainly can imagine here in Boulder, Colorado which it has it seems like 420 sunny days a year, to have panels on roof. Would that be possible? Is in fact plausible?
Chelsea: It is technical possible, but not quite to the point of being nearly plausible yet. The challenge of solar panels is they either tend to be very heavy or they require a lot of surface area. They are not yet to the point of being efficient enough at their own technology to really keep a charged, let alone avoid needing to plug it in. We have started to see the Prius that has an optional solar panel on the spoiler to run the air conditioning. You can technically run a little fan and that kind of thing in the car. They are really not robust. They tend to be more for show than performance. Where solar really makes sense is to put it on the roof of your house or your carport or a workplace carport for electric vehicle charging in the workplace, because then you can charge your car all day long or store it and charge it at night, but you can also run your house. As a use of solar panels, it is much better to put it on a building and use that to run the car and the building than to try to put the panels on the car. Ultimately I think we will get to that point of being able to put them on the car and have it make economic sense but we are just not quite there yet.
Anne: Chelsea, I have to tell you we are out of time. You have been absolutely delightful. I so appreciate you joining us on the show. I am wondering would you come back again?
Chelsea: I would love to. I am so thrilled to have been here.
Anne: Well thank you very much for joining us, Chelsea Sexton. This is Anne at Now You Know Radio. Be sure to join us next week when our guest is cult relationship expert Barbara Fifield. What makes her an expert among other things is she herself fell under the spell of a cult leader and was involved in a relationship with him. So, she will be here with us next week to talk about that. Remember you can leave us a message telling us what is on your mind at 877-NYKRADIO. That’s 8776957234. You can send us a message by Twitter @nowyouknowradio, also AOL Instant Messenger, or you can send us e-mail at email@example.com. Finally, sign up for our newsletter. You can do that at our website nowyouknowradio.com. It will give you all the information about upcoming shows. It will also give you the transcripts of the interviews with previous guests. Finally our Facebook page, you can actually sign up for our newsletters through the Facebook page as well. That’s facebook.com/nowyouknowradio. I just want to say thank you so much to our new producer Evan. He did an absolutely fantastic job. Evan, it was a pleasure having you here. Welcome aboard. I think you are on the air now, so you can say hello and goodbye to everybody if you would like to.
Evan: Hi. Bye.
Anne: There you are. Evan, thank you. You did a fabulous job.
Evan: Thank you.
Anne: Thank you everybody. We will talk to you next week.
The documentary in which Chelsea Sexton appears: Who Killed the Electric Car?
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