L.A.’s New Take On “Car Culture”: Green Car Launchpad

The meaning of Southern California “car culture” may be poised for a makeover, as the regions around Los Angeles, long notorious for smog, traffic congestion and endless freeways race to take on a greener profile. LA Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa announced this week at the LA Auto Show that he’s shooting to have infrastructure ready for electric vehicles in the city by next fall, upgrading or installing 500 charging stations and setting aside up to $10 million to help pay for home charger installations for the first 5,000 residential customers, as the Los Angeles Times reports.

Villaraigosa’s plan comes as part of a larger effort to attract cleantech investment and manufacturers of batteries and charging stations to the area. Countless regions around the country are engaging in similar efforts, assembling juicy incentive packages for companies like A123Systems (s AONE), V-Vehicle and Tesla Motors. But Southern California is building momentum toward a significant role in the growing EV ecosystem: the launchpad, where some of the earliest plug-in vehicle models will roll out to customers, and where many of EV-related challenges for the power grid will be figured out.

California as a whole offers an early test market for plug-in vehicles, thanks in no small part to state incentives and regulations tied to goals for reducing greenhouse gas emissions. For Southern California in particular, key figures in the push to become a green car hub include utilities Southern California Edison (a partner in Villaraigosa’s plan) and San Diego Gas & Electric (which is partnering with the Renault-Nissan Alliance and planning to install 2,300 charging units in next 1-2 years), both major players in the smart grid buildout. Back in March, President Obama stopped by SCE’s 15-year-old Edison Electric Vehicle Technical Center, which has teamed up with Ford Motor (s F) to deploy a test fleet of plug-in Ford Escape Hybrid SUVs.

On the tech innovation side, plug-in car startups Fisker Automotive, Coda Automotive and Aptera are all headquartered in SoCal. And AC Propulsion, which first developed the prototypical technology that evolved into the Tesla Roadster, calls San Dimas, 30 miles east of Los Angeles, home. When it comes to manufacturing, Tesla Motors, while based in Silicon Valley, will likely assemble its planned Model S in the Long Beach area, making use of facilities once used for the region’s aerospace industry.

But while Southern California is home to key players across the spectrum of work to produce electric vehicles for the mass market, it may be the region’s charging infrastructure efforts in coming months and years that ultimately transforms its old car culture. As Enid Joffe, president and founder of infrastructure installer Clean Fuel Connection said at this summer’s Plug-In 2009 conference in Long Beach, putting in a plug — a basic necessity for drivers to switch off gasoline — may not be rocket science, but it’s complicated by the amount of coordination that’s required.

SDG&E’s Bill Zobel told us earlier this year that when electric cars hit California in the 1990s, utilities, car dealers, the local government and drivers lacked understanding of the “requirements for an owner walking off the lot with a plug-in car.” With the next generation of EVs, he said, “We’ll be much more prepared than we were last time.”

Image courtesy of Eyeshotpictures Creative Commons Flickr.