Earth2Tech’s Top 15 Connected Car Influencers

On the cusp of a new generation of electric vehicles and the buildout of a smart grid, connected cars — vehicles linked to the power grid as well as communication networks — have the potential to give us a transportation system for the digital age. Smart charging infrastructure, energy storage tech and devices, telematics, the vehicles themselves, and even smartphone apps for automotive platforms, all add up to a sizable market opportunity.

A web of key players is starting to take shape as entrepreneurs and global corporations race to carve out a piece of the nascent EV market, as government agencies dole out billions of dollars to jump-start that opportunity, as big thinkers churn out innovative ideas and business models based on the intersection of information technology and advanced vehicles, and as the pressure to reduce carbon emissions from vehicles grows. Listed alphabetically, not order of importance, here’s Earth2Tech’s top 15 most influential people in the connected car space.

  1. Shai Agassi, Founder and CEO of Better Place
  2. George Arnold, National Coordinator for Smart Grid Interoperability, NIST
  3. Robin Chase, Founder and CEO of and Meadow Networks
  4. Steven Chu, Secretary of Energy, DOE
  5. Mark Duvall, Director of Electric Transportation, Electric Power Research Institute
  6. Wan Gang, Minister of Science and Technology, China
  7. Carlos Ghosn, CEO of Renault-Nissan
  8. Scott Griffith, CEO and Chairman of Zipcar
  9. Lisa Jackson, Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency
  10. Jon Lauckner, Vice President of Global Product Planning, General Motors
  11. Elon Musk, CEO and Chairman of Tesla Motors
  12. Fumio Ohtsubo, President of Panasonic Corp.
  13. Danilo Santini, Senior Economist, Center for Transportation Research, Argonne National Laboratory
  14. Allan Schurr, Vice President of Strategy and Development for Energy & Utilities at IBM
  15. Jonathan Silver, Director of the DOE green car loan guarantee and loan programs

Shai Agassi, Founder and CEO of Better Place
Influence: Heading up one of the highest-profile, biggest-budget efforts to build out infrastructure for electric vehicles with an innovative business model.

When former SAP exec Shai Agassi founded Better Place back in 2007, he had one of the most audacious business plans around: Build nationwide networks of battery charging and swap stations for electric vehicles, and sell electric mileage like minutes on a cell phone plan. In the years since, the startup has won over governments and some deep pocketed investors — and helped to put the need for innovative business models and software front and center in discussions about how to deploy large numbers of grid-connected vehicles.

George Arnold, National Coordinator for Smart Grid Interoperability at NIST
Influence: Leading the standards-making process for the smart grid, including standards required for large-scale integration of plug-in vehicles.

Appointed last spring to lead the intensely complex task of developing standards for the smart grid, Arnold joined the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) after more than three decades in the telecom and IT industry (he served as a VP at Lucent Technologies Bell Laboratories, among other firms). Ultimately, the standards emerging from Arnold’s group will shape the basic platform needed to enable widespread adoption of plug-in vehicles and two-way flow of electricity and information between vehicles and the grid.

Robin Chase, Founder and CEO of GoLoco and Meadow Networks, Co-founder and Former CEO of Zipcar
Influence: Developing innovative business models for greener mobility and advancing ideas about how to reinvent the transportation system.

Robin Chase, one of GigaOM’s Top 15 Mobile Influencers, co-founded car sharing startup Zipcar back in 2000. She has since left the company, founding a new venture called GoLoco, which puts social networking to work in the service of carpooling, as well as the transportation consulting firm Meadow Networks. She’s pushing for further reinvention of mobility systems, envisioning ways to dramatically reduce emissions from the transportation sector using open standards and wireless mesh networks.

Steven Chu, Secretary of Energy
Influence: Overseeing national energy directives and allocation of federal funds for advanced vehicle technology.

Secretary Chu, a Nobel Prize-winning physicist and former administrator of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, said in his confirmation hearing more than a year ago, “These first electric hybrid cars don’t have the energy capacity and the battery lifetime we need…Let’s push hard towards more fuel-efficient personal vehicles.” As energy chief, he has done just that, helping to get long-delayed funds (as well as a heap of new cash from the stimulus package) flowing out for projects across the spectrum of energy tech for connected vehicles, next-gen battery materials and smart charging systems for electric vehicles.

Mark Duvall, Director of Electric Transportation, Electric Power Research Institute
Influence: Overseeing partnerships and collaborations with electric utilities, automotive companies, government agencies, national laboratories and research institutions.

The non-profit Electric Power Research Institute, or EPRI, is the “glue” between the utility and auto industries — that’s how founder Felix Kramer put it to us — and Mark Duvall is at the center of EPRI’s activities related to electric transportation and infrastructure. A mechanical engineer by training, Duvall held the post of Principal Development Engineer at the University of California, Davis Hybrid Electric Vehicle Center before joining EPRI. These days he’s focused on projects including plug-in hybrid demos, advanced battery system development, charging infrastructure, analysis of greenhouse gas emissions from plug-in vehicle tech.

Wan Gang, Minister of Science and Technology, China
Influence: Promoting electric vehicle manufacturing and purchasing in China, the world’s largest auto market.

Since taking the helm of China’s Science and Technology Ministry in April 2007, former Audi engineer Wan Gang has helped lead the country’s charge to “leapfrog” the world’s leading automakers when it comes to hybrid and electric vehicles.

For several years starting in 2000, Wan coordinated through Tongji University a nationwide research program for electric (and hydrogen) vehicle technology development. And last spring, when Wan and other top officials outlined incentives and policies designed to make China the world’s largest electric car producer, he explained the move as a key component of the country’s environmental goals — and competitiveness on international markets.

Carlos Ghosn, CEO of Renault-Nissan
Influence: Investing €4 billion ($5.62 billion) in a zero-emissions mobility program, launching a full line-up of plug-in vehicles.

“We are convinced that the mass availability of affordable zero-emission vehicles is the most significant breakthrough our industry could deliver,” Ghosn (on our GigaOM Pro list of Green IT Winners and Losers of 2009, sub. req’d) proclaimed in mid-2008, “and, together with Renault, Nissan intends to be the breakthrough leader.”

The French-Japanese alliance’s first battery electric vehicle, the LEAF — equipped with an onboard transmitting unit connected through mobile networks to a global data center — won’t launch until later this year. But Ghosn’s strategy may provide cues for other automakers. Under his direction, Renault-Nissan has directed a pile of cash into the technology, partnered with battery makers as well as utilities and started looking at battery leasing and recycling as keys to affordable electric cars.

Scott Griffith, Chairman and CEO of Zipcar
Influence: Leading the world’s largest car sharing network.

Few companies have done as much to put the notion of networked vehicles into practice at the scale and speed of Zipcar, the world’s largest car-sharing network. Griffith, who took on the chief executive role in 2003, has steered the company through a 2007 merger with top competitor Flexcar, overseas expansion, the launch of a software-as-service business unit (for fleet management) and to the company’s current status as the world’s largest car sharing network, with an initial public offering reportedly in sight.

Griffith has told us that while the company doesn’t plan to go all-electric anytime soon, he sees Zipcar as “a terrific early platform” for electric vehicles. After all, the startup has a few things electric automakers, utilities and charging infrastructure companies need: a large consumer fleet and mass of data about driving patterns and vehicle status. Each car in the Zipcar fleet has a custom circuit board, processor, and modem that receive data over AT&T’s wireless network and allow remote monitoring. (See “Location-Based Services: From Mobile to Mobility,” on GigaOM Pro, sub. req’d).

Lisa Jackson, Administrator for the Environmental Protection Agency
Influence: Overseeing agency that will develop vehicle emissions standards and new fuel economy rating system for alt-fuel vehicles.

“When it comes to the auto industry, the EPA apparently is the Emissions Permissions Agency,” Jackson said, back in 2007, of the agency she would later come to lead. The EPA under the leadership of Jackson (and the Obama administration), however, has changed course. In December 2009 the EPA issued a ruling that greenhouse gases endanger human health, paving the way to the first regulation of emissions from vehicles and other sources by the EPA.

In addition to helping to shape the regulatory environment for lower-emission and more fuel efficient vehicles, Jackson’s EPA is developing a new system for plug-in vehicle fuel economy ratings— already shaping up to be a competitive marketing point for electric car makers.

Jon Lauckner, Vice President of Global Product Planning for General Motors
Influence: Co-creator of the Chevy Volt.

Lauckner’s a company man — he’s been at General Motors since 1979. Appointed to VP of global program management in 2005, Lauckner is credited as one of the founding fathers (along with Vice Chairman Bob Lutz) of the extended-range electric Chevy Volt, due out later this year, and he has overseen its development. The vehicle  — intended to help restore GM’s image as a technological leader — represents one of the first serious attempts by the Big Three to launch a plug-in vehicle for the consumer market (after the EV-1), and the automaker has reportedly invested a billion dollars or more on the project. As Lauckner said in an interview with BNET, “Whether you are a supporter of the Volt or not, you have to acknowledge that it has changed the conversation.”

Elon Musk, CEO and Chairman of Tesla Motors
Influence: Funding and later leading the only company selling a highway-capable electric car in the U.S.

For all its delays, detours, financial hurdles and legal distractions, startup Tesla Motors has stuck around for seven years, launching in 2008 what’s still the only highway-capable all-electric vehicle in the country: the high-end Roadster sports car, which deserves more than a little credit for changing public perception of electric vehicles.

Musk invested in the startup early on, and took over the chief executive role in late 2008. Last year, the company won a federal vote of confidence when it snagged one of the first conditional loan commitments under the DOE’s Advanced Technology Vehicles Manufacturing program to help Tesla deliver a long-promised mid-range electric sedan.

Fumio Ohtsubo, President of Panasonic Corp.
Influence: Controlling world’s largest rechargeable battery maker, developing HD-PLC system for integrating electric vehicle data into home network via standard outlets.

Already Toyota’s joint venture partner for hybrid battery production, Panasonic has embarked on a campaign to bolster its energy storage business and become a heavyweight player in the world of electric cars. As of early January (when Tesla announced a development deal with the electronics giant), Panasonic was around the halfway point in what it expects to be a $1 billion investment over three years in facilities for lithium-ion cell research, development and production.

Late last year, it bought a controlling stake in Sanyo, the world’s largest rechargeable battery maker. And as a result of the move, the company is poised to be at the leading edge of an industry shakeup, analysts told Bloomberg, in which “the auto and electronics industries fuse,” and Panasonic/Sanyo’s dominance gives it “more bargaining power” over car companies as they develop electric vehicles. The firm also has a role to play beyond batteries when it comes to connected cars: Panasonic unveiled at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas this year an HD-PLC system (High Definition Powerline Communications) meant to enable integration of electric vehicle data into a home network via standard outlets.

Danilo Santini, Senior Economist, Center for Transportation Research at Argonne National Laboratory
Influence: Producing evaluations of the market potential for plug-in vehicles and quantitative analysis used for development and refinement of regulatory structures related to advanced vehicles.

Santini has served since 2001 as the Department of Energy’s primary technical representative for the U.S. to the International Energy Agency Implementing Agreement on Hybrid and Electric Vehicles. He’s worked for more than 35 years at the Argonne National Laboratory — where energy storage is one of three core research areas, and which often licenses tech to corporations — focusing for the most part on energy and environmental tech. When policymakers or business leaders face decisions related to batteries, plug-in vehicles and hybrids, Santini’s numbers offer a widely respected point of reference — he’s written or contributed to more than 150 reports, articles and conference papers.

Allan Schurr, Vice President of Strategy and Development for Energy & Utilities at IBM
Influence: Spearheading IBM’s work with utilities to implement smart grid technologies and integrate plug-in vehicles.

A veteran of the utility and meter industries (he held posts at both PG&E and Itron), Schurr is now responsible for computing giant IBM’s market strategy, regulatory policy and partnerships with global utilities. He also heads up the firm’s involvement with smart grid legislation, and its work with automakers, researchers and utilities that are building out the smart grid and readying for an influx of demand from plug-in vehicles. For IBM, a spokesperson put it simply to us, “anything EV-related” basically goes through Schurr.

Jonathan Silver, Executive Director of the Department of Energy Loan Guarantee Program
Influence: Heading up the DOE’s potentially king-making $25 billion green car loan program and $32 billion loan guarantee program.

The Obama administration named Silver, a former venture capitalist with Washington, D.C.-based Core Capital Partners, to head up the Department of Energy’s highly competitive loan guarantee program and green car loan program in November 2009. His task? Overseeing the application process, analysis and negotiation for loans and guarantees, as well as staffing — and working to streamline the agency’s operations. At the head of a program that will pick winners and losers in the electric car race, Silver is kingmaker in chief (at least for the short term: see “How EV Battery Startups Can Cross the Valley of Death,” on GigaOM Pro, sub. req’d).

Photos: Danilo Santini courtesy of Iowa State University; Elon Musk courtesy of Flickr user jurvetson; Allan Schurr courtesy of U.S. House of Representatives; Robin Chase credit; all others courtesy of the companies or agencies.