Should Pollution Factor Into Electric Car Rollout Plans?

Across the auto industry, companies are on the hunt for electric vehicle launchpads: cities and regions most likely to give the upcoming generation of plug-in cars the smoothest possible entry into the market, and help them move into the mainstream. Many of the factors that come under consideration — a willingness to adopt new technologies, a forward-thinking utility and EV-friendly policies, for example — tend to reflect well on a city, and end up being touted the loudest (e.g. the race among some mayors to make their cities the world’s “EV capital”). Should part of a city’s darker side — its air pollution levels, which electric vehicles could help to reduce — also factor into the rollout plan?
French automaker Renault suggests today that it should, saying in a release that it has found in a city once dubbed the pollution capital of Europe what it calls the “perfect” place for an early trial of plug-in vehicles. “Milan in particular and Lombardy in general,” Renault said today, “are perfect testing grounds for the electric vehicles,” due not only to the government and population’s “pronounced enthusiasm for sustainable development,” but also the fact that this is “a region confronted with high levels of pollution.”
Most automakers working to launch plug-in vehicles over the next few years agree that they’ll need support from utilities, governments and other partners to help build the nascent market. And Renault isn’t the only automaker to point to air pollution as one qualifying factor for lead EV markets in recent months. China’s BYD Co. said in December that the Los Angeles area ranked “at the top of the list” for its planned electric model due to its air pollution problems, in addition to the region’s relatively high population density, sizable car market, affluent residents and willingness to adopt new technologies. Earlier this year, when Think released its index of the top 15 “EV-Ready” cities, CEO Richard Canny said in a statement that one element figuring into each city’s score was “the opportunity for EVs to provide the maximum benefits possible from electric drive.”
General Motors’ (s GM) Britta Gross, who heads up the global energy systems and infrastructure commercialization efforts of the automaker, argues, however, that the markets that will max out those benefits — including reduced vehicle emissions and decreased reliance on fossil fuels — are those that have “market reach beyond just their geography.” Starting with its Chevy Volt, GM is aiming for “an overall transition,” she said, “not just a local transition.” For GM, the strategy is to target population centers and big media markets. “The transition doesn’t last a long period,” she said. In picking its earliest markets, an automaker placing “a finite set of vehicles” in a few lead markets ahead of a larger scale launch needs to ask, “Can you see yourself successful two years down the road?”
Gross commented that for an electric car, the “chances of success are much greater in markets with broad influence.” The air pollution issue offers a simple message for the small scale — something more tangible than say, the potential for greater national energy security or reducing global greenhouse gas emissions. “Here, look how great this is in our local market — it’s easy to say, easy to understand,” said Gross. But heavily polluted areas offer something to work toward improving, not a roadmap. “When we’re successful, we will have higher penetration in high pollution areas.”
Photo courtesy of Flickr user biofriendly