Magazine September 2019

The New Power Generation

Generation

 Electric cars are charging up in Arkansas

by Dwain Hebda 

Speaking to investors at the company’s annual meeting in June, electric car pioneer and Tesla Inc. CEO Elon Musk expressed in no uncertain terms his optimism over the future of electric cars and self-driving ones to boot.  

“It’s basically financially insane to buy anything other than an electric car that can upgrade to full autonomy,” he said then. “If you buy a gasoline car that is not self-driving, it’s like riding a horse and using a flip phone. Hello — it’s not wise.” 

While no one who follows the industry would ever accuse Musk of understatement, recent sales statistics suggest more and more consumers are sharing this view. Total U.S. electric vehicle (EV) sales, which were below 17,500 units in 2011, have jumped in seven of the eight years since with last year’s sales possibly signaling the EV revolution has actually arrived. 

In January, InsideEVs.com reported total U.S. electric vehicle sales topped 361,000 in 2018, a staggering 81 percent increase over 2017. That’s roughly four times the annual sales increase percentage of the past few years and easily outpaced analyst’s predictions. 

Arkansas isn’t getting left in the dust of this trend, either. According to EVAdoption.com, the Natural State enjoyed a 133 percent increase in the number of EVs sold in 2018 over 2017 numbers and market share of these vehicles jumped 119 percent. Compare that to the previous year where year-over-year sales increased a mere 35.5 percent. 

While all of that is good headline fodder for the industry, there are a couple of caveats that bear mentioning. One, EVs still represent a miniscule percentage of total vehicles sold annually — 2018’s record-setting sales year still only registered about 2 percent of total market share nationally and 0.4 percent market share in Arkansas. By contrast, Ford’s F-Series pickups alone sold nearly 1 million units in the U.S. last year. 

And, the sales bump was disproportionately weighted by three Tesla models last year which speaks well of the company but not as glowingly for the industry as a whole. In fact, the Tesla 3 alone represented a lion’s share of the country’s 2018 EV sales, more than all non-Tesla models combined. Analysts noted if you take out Tesla 3’s 140,000 units, the industry grew an anemic 11 percent year-over-year, the lowest increase since 2011.  

Still, 2018’s sales are enough to make EV advocates optimistic about the future of the technology, even in gas-guzzling truck-heavy states like Arkansas.  

“We have over 10,000 hybrids in Arkansas, and we’ve seen electric plug-ins increase what is comparable to the national bubble of 1 percent per year,” says Jennah Denney, marketing and public relations coordinator with Today’s Power, a wholly-owned subsidiary of Arkansas Electric Cooperatives.  

“We’re seeing the availability of different vehicles coming out in these upcoming years, starting in 2020, which I think will increase adoption even more.”  

To Denney’s point, manufacturers are rolling out new EV models that have industry watchers salivating. This year alone saw highly-anticipated luxury and performance models by Porsche, Jaguar, Audi and Astin Martin as well as more attainable rides by Kia, Hyundai and Nissan. All feature more room, improved range thanks to space-age battery technology and substantially more horsepower than previous models.  

And, as Denney says, the best is yet to come. 

“We’re in the South, and 60 percent of the state is rural. That means trucks and large vehicles,” she says. “In 2020, we’ll see the Rivian which is going to be the first truck that is electric; they’re going to come out with an SUV and a truck. We’re even going to see a Jeep Wrangler in the next five years that’s electric.” 

Denney says despite these improvements, there’s still a stubborn misperception by many people as to the performance and practicality aspects of the new generation of EVs. 

“When a lot of people think about electric vehicles, they liken it to those little bitty two-door cars that you saw a few years ago that are just in town, and they plug into a light pole,” she says. “Those little clown cars are what people still liken electric vehicles to, even though they’ve grown to be much more sophisticated and luxurious to be honest.” 

“Sexying” up the technology’s image and broadening the product line are only part of bringing about wider EV adoption. Infrastructure is also a major challenge for many consumers, even as new models boast ranges of 200 and 300 miles or more.  

“There’s a few barriers, one of which is range anxiety,” Denney says. “That speaks to two points. It speaks to the lack of public infrastructure which is the number one reason that people hesitate to adopt electric vehicles. Number two is the efficiency of the battery ranges.” 

Some public entities are starting to set an example for the private sector when it comes to choosing electric, hybrid and alternative fuel vehicles. 

“State agencies, when they need to purchase new vehicles, go to what’s called the state vehicle contract which is put together each year,” says Patti Springs, coordinator for the Arkansas Clean Cities Coalition, a program managed by the Arkansas Energy Office of the Arkansas Department of Environmental Quality. 

“At this point, that state contract is offering more alternative fuel vehicles than we ever have in the past. In 2014, there were only like three alternative-fuel vehicles on the state contract; for 2019, I believe there’s 11. And that’s not just electric vehicles; that will encompass all alternative fuels.” 

The state also is devoting a portion of the $14.6 million it received in a settlement with Volkswagen to provide rebates for entities that install “level 2” EV charging stations.  

“Level 2 would be a type of station that, let’s say, Walmart would put in its parking lot,” Springs says. “Electric vehicle drivers can connect to that station to charge while they’re shopping. Level 2 is what you’ll see at retail entities; public gas stations might want to put in some of these. There’s a Kum & Go in Bentonville that has an electric station already.” 

An even wider effort to bring attention to the viability of EVs will occur next month with National Drive Electric Week. In Arkansas, EV advocates are organizing a one-day event to mark the occasion at the Clinton Presidential Center which will provide a number of hands-on exhibits, test drives and other information pertaining to owning an electric vehicle. Details for that event, slated for Sept. 18 from 1-3 p.m., can be found at DriveElectricWeek.org. 

“It’ll be a ride-and-drive event, a way to get awareness out to the public and give the public an opportunity to do test drives which will include the plug-in hybrid,” Springs says. “There will also be current electric vehicle drivers available with their vehicles to talk about their experiences driving electric. 

“I think public and private partnerships, such as this one, is one of the main ways we can try to bring the public into learning about electric and driving electric.” 

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