In 2001, I never expected when I started thinking about better cars that I’d devote a decade to a quest that began as quixotic and ended up as the best work experience of my life. I’ve met amazing people, and joined with them to start to turn around one of the world’s biggest and hardest-to-change industries.
Along the way, we’ve formed a coalition that inspires people to look for –and find! — points of leverage to move mountains. Our success shows what we need to solve two huge global problems — our dependence on fossil fuels and our uncontrolled experiment with our planet’s air and water .
That’s fortunate, since we have just a few decades to transform almost everything. We can succeed only by finding a path that unites unlikely allies around common goals — and shows entrenched interests how they can profit from disruptive change.
I’ll highlight some of my peak experiences, then consider the implications of the plug-in campaign for the giant challenges ahead.
IN 2001, having just sold a small Internet company, I was blown away by the Rocky Mountain Institute’s vision of 99MPG vehicles. I went to Aspen and began discussions about new ways to advance that project. On my way back, I found out I’d need surgery for a benign brain tumor. That summer, things could have gone many ways. I ended up with just one of two balance systems, no hearing on one side and poor hearing on the other. At 52, I could have thought my life had peaked. But this decade’s been my most productive and satisfying. I’m so fortunate to have had a chance to make a difference in as I’d always hoped to do.
In 2002, RMI’s Hypercar, Inc. co-sponsored the founding meeting of what became the California Cars Initiative (CalCars.org) in Palo Alto. There I first met many of the entrepreneurs, environmentalists, engineers, and EV advocates who’ve helped us immeasurably ever since. We started with a basic idea: Let’s figure out what cars we need, then round up tens of thousands of people to say to carmakers, “Here’s what we want, build it for us.” That’s how I described CalCars’ strategy the first time I testified as an unknown newcomer at the California Air Resources Board at the end of 2002.
Back then, I was still thinking about futuristic solutions that could be ten years away. But that same year, when I saw my first plug-in hybrid (PHEV) at the Electric Power Research Institute, after I recovered from the shock of an epiphany, I realized today’s technology could get us started. That’s where I met some of the visionaries in the utility and car worlds who’d been trying to get plug-in hybrids out of the ivory towers of theoretical designs and academic modeling.
Then I met Prof. Andy Frank of UC Davis, who had been converting vehicles to PHEVs for years and needed some outside evangelists. He’s been an inspiration to us all. Thanks, Andy, for NEVER giving up. PHEV fans had the great hope that the cars Andy has been dreaming of since before many of us were born would be in showrooms before he retired. Our wishes and his dream come true today!
How did this happen? We knew we needed to show people something real, and it wasn’t long after I got one of the first Prius hybrids in late 2003 that we realized we could start by adding batteries and charging to that car to make it a prototype. Fortunately, Ron Gremban was thinking along the same lines. He became CalCars’ Technology Lead, and we formed the
Putting that car together in Ron’s Marin garage felt like setting sail for a new world. I have no technical background but I soon got pretty good at banging and bending copper. And Ron and I became great partners, each doing what the other couldn’t. It’s been amazingly virtual. Since April 2004, over 300 weeks, I bet we’ve been face to face less than 50 times.
We worked like crazy and agreed to a tough trip to Michigan to meet the chief auto reporter at The New York Times. When we’d unveiled the first PRIUS+ to the world, we got a giant wave of publicity. That started us on a media rollercoaster with journalists from around the world, and geostrategists like Fareed Zakaria and Thomas Friedman, who repeatedly put PHEVs in his columns, book and documentaries. Dozens of international delegations came to see our cars. I went to Iceland and Ron to Belgium to talk about PHEVs. Now dozens of books feature substantial sections on PHEVs.
By 2007, conversions (for us a strategy to build awareness and support) became the rage, first in California and then all over, as utilities, elected officials and people who wanted to be first to have the “world’s cleanest extended range vehicle” paid lots of money to retrofit their hybrids. They provided battery companies platforms to test their components. Government labs got to document PHEVs’ benefits. It all led Austin Energy to launch Plug-In Partners to expand our “buyer pull” strategy with a national “soft buy order” fleet campaign.
Our open source approach meant we gave everything away. That included advice, plans, and techniques for physical installations and electronic solutions. Companies sprang up to install conversions. And government agencies began to think about how they were going to certify new and converted PHEVs.
That’s when our high-tech roots kicked in. Since 2006, we organized open-to-the-public conversion events by volunteer teams at five Maker Faires. That helped bring in high-power advocates like Silicon Valley Leadership Group. And we got more attention from Google, which supported us and other groups, assembled the first employee PHEV fleet, and brought in Enterprise Car Rental.
Along the way I got educated about climate change. It became so clear that electrifying transportation and cleaning the power grid were an essential and complementary global strategy. Then scientists like James Hansen and Joe Romm of Climate Progress began talking about PHEVs as a “core climate change solution“. By the time Step It Up (precursor of 350.org) started organizing global events to advocate for a rapid transition to a low-carbon future, our cars had become stars of the show.
Environmentalists were slow to embrace PHEVs and EVs. They bet on hybrids. When I went to back to testify in Sacramento in 2004, I said PHEVs were the “elephant in the room” when people were talking about increasing fuel economy by 20-30%.
Some were still hypnotized by hydrogen. Those who worried about coal-fueled electricity didn’t get that electric motors are four times more efficient than gasoline engines. When they noticed plug-in owners who had rooftop solar systems, they began to understand, as EV advocates have been saying for years, that “plug-in cars are the only cars that get cleaner as they get older, because the grid gets cleaner.
Soon media and experts started picking up on it. It was a thrill to join entrepreneurs and environmentalists in mid-2006 to help nail down legislative support for California’s global warming bill, and along the way to successfully pitch the importance of plug-in cars to thought-leaders like venture capitalist John Doerr, Al Gore, Bill Clinton, Maria Shriver, and scores of others.
Once we had a car, we had a potent symbol. We also had a lot of fun finding ways to explain PHEVs and their benefits to people. Some things worked and some didn’t. We never came up with a better name than plug-in hybrid — which describes the design of the car, not why it’s a good idea. We found the slogan, “99MPG” didn’t work, but “100+MPG + a penny a mile of electricity” caught on. We got a screenshot from my dashboard to prove it: 124 MPG plus 123 watt/hours/mile for 50.8 miles.
Soon we boiled down our benefits statement to “cleaner, cheaper, domestic.” Then we tied each word to a constituency: plug-ins “tackle global warming, save money and revive the auto industry, and build energy security, all at the same time.”
We began invoking the idea that we were at a Pearl Harbor moment. In 1942, in one year, a giant American industry went from making cars and trucks to producing planes and tanks at a rate several times faster than they’d told FDR was impossible. Now, three score and ten years later, were fighting for the life of our planet, and to win, we need to rally like that again — at that speed and at that scale.
The fact that people could want this car for any of these reasons — or just to save money — helped spark an inconceivably broad, bipartisan coalition. Former CIA director James Woolsey said it best when he called it “a coalition of tree huggers, do-gooders, sod busters, cheap hawks, evangelicals — and Willie Nelson.”
We saw that coalition in all its glory in 2006 after we flew my just-converted Prius a to Washington DC to show members of Congress the opportunities from existing technology. That’s when we realized that the short “dongle” cable that linked a car and an extension cord could be a powerful symbol of one of PHEVs’ biggest selling points: their ability to plug in anywhere without additional infrastructure or new technology. The legislators who left their offices to see the car acted like the dongle was a sacred object, passing it from person to person as they addressed the audience and the cameras. We’ve presented dongles to dozens of new PHEV advocates as placeholders for a charged-up future.
The press relied on our analyses of every statement by each automaker about PHEVs. We tracked their advances in fits and starts, from denial to put-down to cautious interest, and eventually to acceptance, advocacy, and now, advertisements!
Back in 2004, we told Toyota, “Watch what we’re going to do to improve your hybrid; we’re not asking your permission.” In 2006, architect/designer Bill McDonough brought us to Ford’s Dearborn headquarters, and we tried to get them to be first with a production PHEV. Then when GM announced the Volt as a concept car in early 2007, we switched gears. We began to cheer on all the carmakers and spread the idea, which journalists enthusiastically picked up, of a new race in the auto industry.
GM came out swinging, determined to do things differently. The company embraced transparency. GM opened its labs and welcomed tough questions at press conferences. It recognized plug-in advocates as its allies, and encouraged amazing new communications channels like GM-Volt.com, which never misses a nuance. We kept up the pressure, reassuring those who’d been most bruised by the death of the last wave of electric cars that strong advocates throughout the auto industry were now coming into their own.
One of my favorite afternoons came in August 2008, when the Volt’s Vehicle Line Director, Tony Posawatz, came out to San Francisco and met with a dozen plug-in advocates and drivers to brainstorm and see our cars. We loved exchanging ideas that day. And 28 months later, it looks like some of our suggestions are in this great new car.
In 2006-09 we had the pleasure of seeing two Presidents and legions of candidates and elected officials jump to get photographed in and around PHEVs. It often felt unreal, as did the $7,500 buyer incentives and large loan manufacturing loan and research programs begun under the previous administration and since expanded. And ove time, people stopped separating PHEVs and EVs, and talked instead of plug-ins — the goal being to displace as much petroleum with electricity as possible.
Today we begin a new journey. We new owners and continuing advocates have our work cut out for us, showing off the new plug-in cars, telling everyone what we like about them and what could be improved, combatting misinformation, and working in every way to accelerate their arrival at scale.
In October, 2009 we declared victory on our first goal: getting mass-produced PHEVs. It’s really great to win! We owe it to so many people everywhere.
Now we’re starting all over on a new goal: retrofitting tens of millions of vehicles already on the road. We need to do this because putting a few million new plug-in cars on the road in the next few years — or 10 or 20 million in a decade — while absolutely essential, will make little more than a ripple within the 250 million vehicles in the US and 900 million in the world today.
Cars are part of the built environment. They stay on the road for decades. Just as we need to retrofit our homes, offices and factories, we need to “fix” lots of gas-guzzlers. CalCars and Andy Frank have a few allies like Intel founder Andy Grove who “get” the importance of this approach. We’re demonstrating there are technical solutions and a business case to do it. We promote startup conversion companies, but it’s happening too slowly. We need entrepreneurs and advocates to make the cause their own urgent priority.
We’re calling this “The Big Fix” campaign. Eventually, converters will need to partner withautomakers. Without them, the volume of conversions can’t get big fast enough.
In this and every case, scale and finding new ways to solve our problems together is the whole game. Change agents need to find points of leverage among the richest and most powerful institutions throughout the world, to peel off those that are at all receptive and find ways to make it worth their while to abandon business as usual. That’s what happened when Liggett & Myers broke ranks with the tobacco industry in 1996, and it’s already starting to happen among coal-based utilities.
In October 2010, I spoke to top officials in the oil industry. I said we had to find some way to work together. Because sooner or later they’ll notice that though they’re making tons of money, our country is going broke paying for oil. (Recessions follow every major oil price rise.) And the U.S. military will show them it’s starting to get off oil that costs $400 a gallon — and the lives of many in convoys — to deliver to the battlefield. And their families will tell them that our extreme weather is increasingly unprecedented and deadly. They’ll accept we already have millions of climate refugees from New Orleans to Pakistan, and they’ll understand how millions more will become desperate for water as the Himalayan and other icepacks melt.
This fall, fresh from the BP catastrophe, I urged industry leaders to truly go beyond petroleum, to find business opportunities locking up hydrocarbons in plastic, fibers and building materials, drill for geothermal energy, and invest in biofuels from algae. They have billions to invest and giant business profit and job creation opportunities.
The free market is a myth that hides massive subsidies and decisions. We’ve always picked economic and technology winners — in Silicon Valley, the radio, aerospace, semiconductor and internet industries all thrived because we knew we needed them. It will take a combination of regulations and incentives, just like it always has. If we can’t find a way in Washington, on Wall Street, at many international institutions, to get oil and other key sectors to change course, as we’re now doing in the auto industry, we will all lose. We need to make them an offer they can’t refuse: evolve and make money in new ways instead of pulling down the walls around us all.
The other side of picking winners is that coal is a sure loser. Even if there’s a way to get “clean coal’ (meaning CO2, not other emissions), it can’t scale in time. We need to find ways to close coal plants globally as soon as that doesn’t result in blackouts. Once again, it will take a combination of regulations and incentives — and in this case, as Google puts it, making RERenewable Energy Cheaper than Coal.
That’s the challenge. I’ve talked since 2005 about how to raise awareness about the climate crisis. We’d understand it if we could envision it as a giant asteroid heading towards the earth. We could unite against such a clear external threat. But climate change is too slow and too abstract — until it isn’t. People who are now calling themselves “climate hawks,” who won’t settle for powerlessness, need to be joined by everyone who wants a livable world.
I’ve given recruitment talks about the plug-in campaign and The Big Fix to smart people trying to figure out what to do with their lives at business and engineering schools at Harvard, Stanford and Berkeley, at middle schools and high schools, at Earth Day events and large and small green and energy security strategy sessions. I can imagine no more satisfying or useful activity, no better career to pursue, than advocacy for renewable energy and cleantech solutions to rescue our planet.
Here are the quotes that have sustained and inspire me, in the order they were first said:
* “First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.” — Mahatma Gandhi
* “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed people can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” – Margaret Mead
* “The best way to predict the future is to invent it.” — Alan Kay
* [When we say throw away,] there is no ‘away’–everything is part of a cycle — Bill McDonough
* “Reinvent fire” — Amory Lovins
And I thank all of you who care enough to have wanted to read this for all you’ve done and will go out and do.
Felix Kramer is the Founder of CalCars.org. His family’s two cars will soon be a Chevy Volt and a Nissan LEAF.