A soon-to-open facility in Columbus, Ohio, is taking the sales pressure and car lot feel out of learning more about electric transportation and offering the public an up-close look at some of the region’s smart city technology projects. 

The Smart Columbus Experience Center downtown, set to open this summer, is seen as a place that is first, “manufacture agnostic,” and “a place where people can test-drive a variety of electric cars, learn about them, etc.,” said Brandi Braun, Columbus’ deputy innovation officer.

Facilities like the Experience Center can “demystify” electric vehicles by explaining the technology and hearing driver concerns, said Zach Henkin, deputy director of Forth, which opened an electric vehicle education showroom in Portland, Ore., in May 2017. 

“Demystifying the technology and helping those who are curious about driving a plug-in is the goal and one of the primary means of encouraging test drives of the electric cars,” said Henkin. “For others, we want to move them along the adoption curve and give them enough information to lead them to google their questions or seek out a dealership where they can talk about next steps for leasing or buying.”

Columbus’ smart city efforts are being powered by a $40 million U.S. Department of Transportation Smart City Challenge grant awarded in 2016 to create a smart transportation system in which vehicles and roads communicate to make travel easier and safer. It also came with $10 million from Vulcan Inc., with a goal of reducing greenhouse emissions and auto commutes. The Experience Center, which will be located in a rehabilitated downtown building, will serve as a headquarters office for Smart Columbus officials and will be funded by the Vulcan grant.

“This puts it smack in the middle of our downtown, where people and residents are congregating and gathering, and it will hopefully create some more exposure,” said Braun.

Much of the plans for the Experience Center are still mostly conceptual, but the idea is to create a space where residents can have hands-on experience with the various projects the city is taking on.

“Maybe it will be a demonstration of a certain type of technology,” Braun said. 
However, clearly, the key feature will be the electric cars — a feature that has the potential to “turn the ‘EV curious’ into EV drivers,” said Henkin.

Plug-in, battery-powered electric cars only make up about 1.1 percent of the cars in the United States. However, from 2010 to 2016 the cost of batteries for the vehicles has dropped 74 percent, according to a report by Next 10, a research think tank studying the environment and the economy, based in San Francisco.

Prices are expected to continue to fall, putting the price of an EV on par with many gasoline-powered cars. Also, as charging infrastructure expands, drivers can feel more at ease, knowing there’s less of a chance they will be stuck with a dead battery and no place to charge it.

“By creating the world’s first smart city experience center, we’ll create a global stage to showcase our city’s mobility transformation,” said Alex Fischer, president and CEO of the Columbus Partnership, in a statement. The Columbus Partnership is one of the lead organizations behind the Experience Center.

“We’ll seek input from our residents and perspectives from industry thought leaders that will inform how we pursue growth and change,” he said. “We’ll also share what we’ve learned with cities from around the world, enabling global advancements that will start right here in Columbus.”