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No Race is Run Alone

Technical advisors coach PGR partner cities for a plug-in future
By Kelly Vaughn

Ready, set, go!

Currently, cities across North America are in the middle of a very important race: the transition to electric vehicles.

As automakers such as General Motors and Nissan prepare to roll electric vehicles off their assembly lines starting at the end of this year, cities are vying to become “select markets” in the initial rollout.

This means demonstrating that significant consumer demand exists and that a solid infrastructure can accommodate an electric vehicle influx. Luckily, they’re not running the race alone.

“When a municipality steps up and really wants to take charge with electric vehicles, that is a great place to start but they need something more,” said Mike Waters, advanced transportation manager for Progress Energy in Raleigh, North Carolina. “That’s where the technical advisors come in.”

Waters is a technical advisor to cities involved with Project Get Ready (PGR), RMI’s transportation initiative to prepare cities for plug-in vehicles. Developed in 2008 after RMI’s Smart Garage Charrette with the ambitious goal to sign on 20 partner cities throughout North America, the program offers cities and advisors—a diverse group comprised of automakers, electric utilities, charging station providers, academic institutions, and other NGOs—a way to prepare for plug-in readiness.

“Our technical advisors are the thought leaders on PGR,” said Matt Mattila, PGR project manager and transportation lead for RMI. “They bring a critical understanding of what is in the pipeline—which technologies, processes, or information cities need to adopt, share with consumers, and help drive a greater market for plug-ins. They really serve as coaches to our cities and have even helped bring cities into the initiative.

What is a Technical Advisor?

PGR technical advisors support cities in a variety of ways. They help develop criteria for whether a city is ready for EVs (see “The Project Get Ready Menu” on p. 15), and serve as a “support group,” answering questions about what’s in the pipeline, sharing knowledge of new products on the market, and giving advice on best practices and rolling them out.

“As a utility, we may not lead the initiative, but we are definitely a key stakeholder in the discussion—we are there to help serve the city and support it,” Waters said. Within any given city, many well-established sectors must change to accommodate plug-ins, and diverse players must build a new system of connectivity in order to coordinate charging times, billing, consumer preferences, and other factors.

“Access to the best available information and knowledge of the most recent research on electrified transportation is critical when city officials are making planning and adoption decisions,” said PGR advisor Constantine Samaras, a post-doctoral fellow from Carnegie Mellon and associate engineer at RAND Corporation. “Having a diversity of perspectives and expertise can supplement the applied experiences of cities and improve the ultimate outcome.”

Getting Cities on the Fast Track

PGR provides the framework to share best practices and expedites the planning process with shared lessons and resources.

And although each city is unique, Mattila explained, questions come up in meetings that are very similar. To address those individually would take a great deal of time. Having technical advisors ensures resources are centralized and ultimately speeds up the process because each city isn’t reinventing the wheel.

Take PGR advisor ECOtality, a provider of vehicle charging products and services and a veteran of the electric transportation industry since the early ’90s. The company has overcome challenges in its market area, including equipment installation: where it should be placed, what the rules for accessibility are, how the permitting process can be streamlined, and what questions are likely to be raised by electrical contractors.

“Many of these questions have since been resolved in our market areas through the collaborative process of face-to-face meetings with the many stakeholders over the years,” said Stephen Schey, a PGR advisor and director of Etec Stakeholder Services, ECOtality’s parent company. “Now, we are able to share this information with PGR through Deployment Guidelines.”

“Different players in the industry have worked on a variety of issues and found that it is definitely more work than you think in the beginning,” Waters said. “Once you dig down, you realize there are a lot of stakeholders involved, and the devil’s in the details when you try to address these barriers. We are glad we started early and can share these lessons so others can mimic our successes or learn from our mistakes.”

Many technical advisors have dedicated tremendous resources to the plug-in transition—resources that cities simply don’t have. For example, PGR advisor Underwriter Laboratories (UL) has already developed new safety standards for electric-drive batteries and charging infrastructure, and UL continues to invest heavily in the R&D of new testing methodologies. By lending its technical expertise to PGR, UL can help certify charging stations and address consumer misconceptions about safety.

What’s in it For Them?

As PGR continues to evolve, it is the symbiotic relationship between the technical advisors and the cities that reflects the initiative’s success and motivates new companies to join.

“It’s important for all of us to be constantly thinking from the mind of a consumer,” Waters said. “But that is not easy because the consumers (for EVs) don’t exist today.” By advising city leaders, technical advisors are privy to citizens’ concerns about what needs to happen and what challenges need to be overcome. At the end of the day, it’s about being flexible.

“Collaboration helps give technical advisors an idea of what needs to happen now at the ground level,” Waters said. “But as consumers are created, we all need to be able to adapt and learn as we go.”

Kelly Vaughn is a public relations specialist at RMI.

--Published August 2010