At some point, you’ve probably heard the joke, “It’s 2015: Where’s my flying car?”
Don’t expect to be cruising the troposphere, “Jetsons” style, any time soon, but transportation technology is gradually moving closer to what science fiction predicted long ago — and Asheville is part of that futuristic wave.
Imagine that a slightly older version of you has just flown into Asheville on vacation, and you’re looking to rent a car. Your fully electric vehicle is wirelessly charging in its parking space, and after a 15-mile drive, you plug your rental into the hotel’s parking deck, enjoying an evening of downtown sightseeing on foot while your vehicle charges overnight. The next morning, you check out and begin your fully electric, self-guided tour of the Blue Ridge Parkway.
Don’t worry about running out of juice, either: You’ll have plenty of opportunities to charge up between here and Virginia. In the near future, the Land of Sky Clean Vehicles Coalition “hopes to create an EV charging corridor all along the Blue Ridge Parkway, from the Smokies to Shenandoah,” coordinator Bill Eaker reports.
With the help of BrightField Transportation Solutions, a small, local company, Asheville could soon add electric vehicle tourism to its bulleted list of reasons to visit.
“We’ve still got a ways to go,” Eaker concedes, but in the meantime, chargers have already arrived at another major area attraction.
For the last four years, Land of Sky, the East Tennessee Clean Fuels Coalition and the Great Smoky Mountains National Park have been chasing grants to establish charging stations at the two most popular access points to the Smokies, “one on the Gatlinburg side and one on the Cherokee, N.C., side,” he says.
At each site, the coalition has just installed a new DC fast charger, donated by Nissan, that can deliver up to an 80 percent charge in about 30 minutes. “We had a big ribbon-cutting event about a month ago,” Eaker explains. “They were the first national park in the country to put in one of these fast chargers.”
Meanwhile, there are also about 90 Level 2 chargers, which take 4-5 hours to replenish an empty battery, in Western North Carolina. And in the last six months, four other 30-minute chargers have been installed across the region: one in Waynesville, one at A-B Tech and two in downtown Asheville, at the parking garage under the Aloft Hotel and the Public Works Building on Charlotte Street. The city, says Sustainability Analyst Kerby Smithson, offers time-based charging at those two sites so folks don’t simply park their vehicle there all day while others wait.
And at the Charlotte Street station, notes Eaker, “You’ll see a solar canopy above the chargers. That’s a BrightField Transportation project: The solar canopy is part of what they do. They generate solar power, put it into the grid and then pull it off the grid to charge these vehicles. They like to say you’re driving on sunshine.”
Filling in the gaps
“It’s a new technology, and the time has come,” declares Kent Barnes, who founded EV North Carolina. Working in their Waynesville garage, Barnes and his son, David, convert gas-powered cars to electric.
“Electric was here before gasoline, but back then, gasoline was 10 cents a gallon — and you could start [a gas-engine] easier, without having to crank it,” says Barnes. “Then World War I comes, and the Allies had gasoline as their fuel source. And that’s how decisions get made. So for 100 years, we’ve built a support mechanism for petroleum, yet everything in your house is electric.”
Fast forward about 75 years, and the Land of Sky Regional Council was looking for ways to address air quality issues in the Smokies. “We ended up establishing a regional clean air campaign to educate the public and decision-makers, like local politicians, on all of these air quality issues and possible solutions,” Eaker reports.
At first, the campaign focused on “education and outreach activities, like clean air car fairs, where we put low-emissions and fuel-efficient vehicles on display for the public to see.” Because they don’t burn fuel, electric vehicles have no tailpipe emissions. Depending on how the electricity they run on is produced, they still contribute to global warming, but typically less so than conventional vehicles.
In 2004, however, the head of the state energy office contacted Land of Sky about the U.S. Department of Energy’s Clean Cities program, which encourages cities, states and regions to get involved in the country’s shift from dependence on oil.
“They realized that, to really get these fuels and vehicles deployed and in use all over the country, they were going to need a lot of help,” Eaker explains. “So they began designating different areas of the country as Clean Cities coalitions.”
Land of Sky got interested, and in 2012, after eight years of buildup, a five-county WNC area became the nation’s 85th “clean city.” Since then, the program has just kept on growing.
“We’ve got a pretty good network around the region, but we still want to put in more,” says Eaker. “We’re currently identifying the gaps.”
High-speed vehicles arrive
“About five years ago, we heard that the high-speed electric cars were going to be rolled out very soon,” Eaker recalls. “We had low-speed electric vehicles that could drive around town, but these new high-speed cars could go on the interstate. We realized we needed to start educating the public and working on putting in public-access charging stations, so people would be more comfortable buying one of these vehicles.
“People need more charging options than just at home,” he continues. “There’s what’s called ‘range anxiety’ if they think they’re going to run out of power. To overcome that, we added these charging stations where they could plug in and get an extra charge. We formed a committee and pulled in all the stakeholders, public and private, and did workshops to educate ourselves.
“Five years ago, we didn’t have any public access charging in the region,” Eaker explains. But then the Clean Vehicles Coalition got in touch with Eaton Corp. in Arden, which manufactures electric vehicle chargers. “They were making medium and fast chargers, and we asked, ‘Where would be a good place to put in the first two chargers in our region?’”
They settled on a site along Interstate 26 in Biltmore Park Town Square. That was in 2010 — and five years later, we’re already up to nearly 100 charging stations.
With that rapidly expanding network in place, these vehicles’ popularity has increased steadily. Barnes, however, says his conversion business “is slowly disappearing” because EVs are becoming more affordable.
As the first wave of leased Nissan Leafs has become available for purchase, notes Barnes, “College kids are grabbing them up. The hottest item right now is a used Nissan Leaf. … A couple of years ago, a new electric car would cost $30,000, but now [a previously leased one] is down in the $10,000 range.”
For the latest generation vehicles, though, “The price is up right now because of the battery.”
Older electrics used batteries that were “very inefficient,” he explains. If that technology were still in use, says Barnes, increased demand would have driven down the price of new ones. The newer versions, however, are using more advanced lithium batteries that deliver greater range. But those batteries cost more to produce, and together with other improvements, this has kept these vehicles’ price about the same.
The law of supply and demand still applies, though, so as more and more folks become interested in electric vehicles, “That’s when the prices are going to change,” he predicts. And when Tesla Motors’ massive Gigafactory reaches full capacity a few years from now, the price of batteries is expected to drop substantially.
Meanwhile, sticker price alone doesn’t tell the whole story.
“It’s not only the cost of the gasoline, it’s the amount of emissions that are being put into the atmosphere — and electric is far more efficient,” continues Barnes. “Our problem is there are too many big companies that don’t want electric: the oil industry, auto parts companies and car dealers. All of them make money on tuneups and repairs. But there’s hardly any maintenance for an electric car. Dealers depend on bringing your car back for repairs all the time; with electric, you don’t really do that. They don’t have all the moving parts. An internal combustion engine has cylinders and valves and pistons and oil; there’s plenty of things that can go wrong.”
Down the road
At this point, though, notes Barnes, electric vehicles still suffer from the discrepancy between how people think about their cars and how they actually use them. “People say, ‘Oh, I can’t drive it to Florida.’ But most people drive less than 30 miles every day.”
And for those who are reluctant to give up their gas-powered vehicle for a car with an 80-mile range, Eaker suggests starting out with a hybrid, “where you plug in electric and drive the rest on gas. You stop at wherever they’ve got a DC charger” to save on gas, but you don’t need to worry about keeping a charge. “There’s no range on the vehicles that still use gasoline” — provided, of course, you don’t run out of gas.
Technological advancements, though, promise to significantly alter the equation, both in the near term and further down the road.
Within a year or two, says Eaker, “More all-electric vehicles will be coming out. The Leaf’s going to go from 80 to a 150-160-mile range. If you take a big trip, you’re [still] going to be stopping a lot more along the way — your five-hour trip may take you eight hours — but at a lot of these places, you can get some food, use the wifi, do some work. Or, if you’re rich, you can just buy a Tesla now, and you won’t have to worry about it,” he jokes, noting the high-end vehicles’ 250-mile range.
Advancements in wireless charging promise to take electric vehicles to a whole other level, making it possible to park and charge without waiting in line for a charger. And eventually, mentions Eaker, we could see an electrified highway system.
“They put chargers in the roadway in certain areas, and when you’re driving down the road … your battery will be recharged,” he explains. Implementing this would be expensive, however, so don’t expect it any time soon.
Still, Eaker calls wireless charging the wave of the future. “There’s probably dozens of these companies worldwide, and they’re all in a race to develop the best system and get it out there.”
Here to stay
In one form or another, he continues, “Electric drive transportation is here to stay and will become much more commonplace five, 10, 15 years into the future.”
Modern electrics, notes Eaker, “first came out in the ’90s but never really caught on and were squashed — literally. They crushed all the cars, and the whole thing just kind of went away. But now it’s come back” — with more rev in its engine. “Who Killed the Electric Car,” a 2006 documentary, traces the rise and fall of General Motors’ prototype electric vehicles, which were virtually pried from the hands of consumers who loved them and hastily reduced to scrap metal.
Now, however, federal standards continue to raise the bar on fuel efficiency. “In 2020, new vehicles have to get like 55 miles per gallon,” Eaker points out. “The only way we’re going to achieve that is with electric-drive assist or all electric power.”
Most car manufacturers, he notes, now have at least one electric or hybrid model. “Everybody’s going to be including electric drive: Even if they’re still using gas, you’ll have an electric motor.”
Several companies, including Toyota and Hyundai, are also now manufacturing hydrogen-powered cars, sparking debate about these competing technologies. Each has advantages and disadvantages, but at this point, battery-powered electrics appear to have an edge, since they can be charged at home and there’s more infrastructure in place.
Barnes, for one, is betting on electrics. “Everyone’s rejoicing because gas prices are down. But when businesses go out of business, what do they do? They have a sale. The signs are all over for the industry coming to an end,” he maintains.
Volvo, notes Barnes, recently announced a major commitment to electric vehicles. “Things are happening, and Tesla has got the industry on edge, making big, sweeping changes to the whole thing.
“It’s a big difference: It’s amazing,” he continues. “Once you do it, you don’t ever want to go back. You can actually hear the gravel crunch under your wheels: There’s no engine noise. It’s gone! It’s not there!”