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In Print: JOLT! by James Billmaier '77

Friday, Feb. 25, 2011

NOT YOUR GREAT GRANDDADDY'S ELECTRIC CAR

It’s taken more than a century, but the auto industry is about to come full circle. Introduced in the 1890s, electric vehicles (EVs) soon eclipsed gasoline cars in popularity. By the end of the decade, EVs outsold gasoline cars 10 to 1. The trend did not hold. Henry Ford’s gaspowered Model T appeared in 1908, igniting the century-long reign of the internal combustion engine. But, according to James Billmaier ’77, EVs are poised to dominate once more—this time for the long haul.

Billmaier, a Silicon Valley veteran with three decades of experience in the computer systems and software industries, is the author of JOLT! (Advantage, 2010), a primer on the coming dominance of the electric car. An unabashed EVs enthusiast, Billmaier does have a stake in the outcome he prophesizes; he’s a founding partner of Charge Northwest, a company focused on hardware, software, and consulting solutions for charging EVs. But he is also a reliable guide for consumers seeking answers before deciding to invest in the first wave of the new generation of EVs—the plug-in hybrid Chevy Volt or all-electric Nissan LEAF— or those to follow.

One of the strengths of JOLT! is in dispelling myths that threaten to slow the adoption of EVs. Billmaier raises, and deftly dispatches, nagging questions: Won’t EVs merely swap emissions at the tailpipe for emissions from a (likely coal-fired) smokestack? Aren’t EVs much more expensive than gas-powered cars? Will an EV leave me stranded roadside? Won’t EVs overload the electricity grid? The answer in each case, writes Billmaier, is a resounding “No.” Take just one: cost. After the (for now) higher upfront cost, which is offset by government tax incentives, EVs are cheaper to maintain—with 70 percent fewer parts than gas-powered cars, and no smog checks or oil changes either—and cheaper to drive each mile. At $3 a gallon for gas and 10.2 cents per kilowatthour for electricity (the average U.S. price), “a highly efficient gas-powered car getting 30 miles to the gallon costs around 10 cents per mile; an EV running on electricity costs just 2.5 cents per mile,” writes Billmaier. And it’s a cost differential that will only grow as oil becomes scarcer and batteries cheaper over the next couple of decades.

Billmaier is confident that within the next 20 years all of us will be driving electric cars. “Electric vehicles are our future no matter who builds them,” he says—but he also believes smart incentives can speed their adoption in the United States and ensure we don’t cede market advantage to competitors such as China. In the last chapter, Billmaier outlines the “JOLT Program for America,” a policy framework for government, business, and consumers that aims to have 100 million electric cars on the road by 2020. Get the incentives right, Billmaier believes, and the market will flip. He predicts electric cars will make up 60 percent of all new car sales by 2030.

“By 2021,” he writes, “there will be no reason not to buy an EV.”

Justin Gerdes

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