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National Drive Electric Week Draws New Attention to Electric Vehicles

Electric car enthusiasts, and anyone even mildly interested in electric vehicle technologies, will have a chance to check out the latest tech at some 290 events nationwide.

Hundreds of cities across the country are planning events and other efforts to raise awareness and adoption of electric vehicles in a weeklong push to make the electric car at once welcome and familiar.
The electric vehicle group Plug In America is organizing National Drive Electric Week, set for Sept. 8 - 16, with some 290 events across the United States, up from 242 events last year. The effort has grown significantly since its first year in 2011, with only 29 events.
“The event is indeed geared toward education and awareness building,” said Noah Barnes, a spokesman for Plug In America. “Many people are surprised by the number of EVs available, with more than 40 models of plug-in vehicles, including models with longer ranges at more affordable prices than just a year or two ago.”
Even though electric cars make up only about 1.5 percent of the vehicles on the nation’s highway, the movement is seen as one of the car industry’s most significant technological shifts in decades. In just the last few years, numerous car companies from Chevrolet to Mercedes have either introduced new electric models, or plans to do so. Meanwhile, cities and states are taking bold action to encourage the adoption of EVs through a cluster of incentives and plans to build out infrastructure.
“Anything that can make owning an electric vehicle cheaper, easier or more convenient than a gas-car will be effective in encouraging people to purchase the vehicle,” said Scott Hardman, a researcher with the Plug-In Hybrid & Electric Vehicle Research Center within the University of California, Davis, during a recent Meeting of the Minds webinar.
Columbus, Ohio, which has numerous smart transportation and transit projects in the works, announced that the city has already met half of its goal to introduce 300 electric cars to city fleets. In this year alone, Columbus has purchased 93 EVs, with plans to buy an additional 32 in the coming months, according to a city press release. The cars include Nissan Leafs, Ford Fusions Energis and a Chevrolet Bolt.
Several months ago, the city also opened what it calls its Experience Center in downtown, where residents can learn more about electric vehicles and even test drive them. And the efforts seem to be paying off.
"We’ve received more than 2,000 visitors, hosted 25 events and conducted more than 50 electric vehicle test drives in the eight weeks since our grand opening," said Jordan Davis, director of Smart City Strategy and Collaboration at the Columbus Partnership.  
Since January 2017, electric vehicle registrations in the Columbus metro region have increased 65 percent, according to Smart Columbus statistics. Furthermore, EV registrations through the second quarter of this year have outpaced both the Midwest and the nation, which has seen a 57 percent increase since the same period a year before. Columbus’ market share of EVs stands at about 0.8 percent.
The city also launched an incentive program to encourage the installation of electric vehicle chargers for multifamily housing units, with 16 chargers either installed or to be installed in the near future, said Brandi Braun, deputy innovation officer for Columbus. 
On the other side of the country in Bellevue, Wash., officals are planning an National Drive Electric Week event for Sept. 11 in Downtown Park, where more than 30 electric cars will be on-hand from 18 carmakers. Attendees can take a drive in the cars, learn about incentives and chat with others about owning and operating an electric vehicle.
Despite so many efforts to grow EV adoption, research suggests the consumer knowledge and interest in electric cars remains at roughly the same level it was four years ago, said Hardman, who advocates for a range of approaches to grow interest and awareness. The strategies can take the form of traditional media, events like ride-and-drives as well as better-informed dealership officials.
“We’re finding that dealers and car salesmen have very little knowledge of [EVs,] so that when people go and they finally want to buy a vehicle they can become very dissuaded from buying it because the dealers aren’t able to tell them what they want to hear and answer all the questions they have,” said Hardman during the Aug. 29 webinar.  
Even if consumer knowledge of EVs doesn't seem to be budging, there are clear signs the electric car movement is taking shape, in part, through a jolt by Electrify America, a company formed in the wake of the far-reaching Volkswagen emissions tampering scandal in 2016. As part of the massive package of fines and fees against Volkswagen, Electrify America is investing some $2 billion in zero-emission vehicles infrastructure. A large part of that infrastructure investment will involve the buildout of high-speed electric charging centers to allow motorists to power up EV batteries in minutes rather than hours.
A larger network of high-speed charging plazas — think of these facilities like today’s gas stations — are needed to truly grow EV adoption to a more mass market level, industry officials say.
“Once you have enough infrastructure, you’re going to see behaviors change,” said David Finn, CEO and co-founder of Tritium, an Australia-based EV-charging equipment company with an office in the United States.
“At 350 kilowatts, you’re talking about a 15-minute stop to gain 300 miles on your vehicle. So you can do long-range driving across country in a very similar manner to the way in which you do with gas-powered car,” said Finn, referring to the sort of high-wattage recharging equipment his company is developing.
Researchers in EV adoption have disputed the importance of high-speed charging plazas, saying home-charging is the most logical approach to recharging an electric car.
Others in the electric car community say consumers should just think of their electric car as a really big cellphone.
“People are also sometimes confused about how to charge an electric vehicle because it's different than the gas pump we grew up with,” said Barnes. “However, most EV drivers simply plug in their car at night and wake up to a full ‘tank,’ like charging a cellphone. EVs can be charged by any regular wall outlet or, for a faster charge, drivers can install charging equipment.”
Editor's note: A previous version of this story stated the Experience Center in downtown Columbus, Ohio has received 200 visitors. The center has received 2,000 visitors.
Skip Descant writes about smart cities, the Internet of Things, transportation and other areas. He spent more than 12 years reporting for daily newspapers in Mississippi, Arkansas, Louisiana and California. He lives in downtown Yreka, Calif.

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