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Environment

Colorado drivers could use a “coach” to get them to buy more EVs

These things won’t sell themselves, according to a new series of public-private partnerships that say retiring gas vehicles to stop climate change can’t be left to the free market.

  • Credibility:

One seldom-explained job of an electric-vehicle coach is to assure people they’re not seeing ghosts. 

Julia Moravcsik likes to take the EV-curious to the parking lot at National Center for Atmospheric Research, on Table Mesa above Boulder, and demonstrate her car’s “Smart summon” mode. With an all-electric Tesla, the driver can stand at the curb and hit a button on the key fob, and the parked car — with no one at the wheel — backs itself out and comes to the waiting driver. 

Not all of the other drivers are impressed or titillated by the electric ghost ship docking itself at the curb. In fact, some get so irate when the ghost Tesla passes them — slowly — in the parking lot that their all-too-real profanity persuades Moravcsik to keep quiet and stop promoting EVs for a moment.

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Tesla enthusiast Julia Moravcsik uses her cell phone to summon her 2018 Tesla Model 3 (driving autonomously) to her location in the parking lot of NCAR on May 7, 2021, in Boulder. (Kathryn Scott, Special to the Colorado Sun)

So the EV coach simply waits for her next chance to explain EVs to uninformed drivers. “Summon mode,” not available on all EVs, mind you, is just one of the things Moravcsik loves to talk about. 

“I’ve never had a reason to use it, but it’s still fun to see the car just sort of moving around towards you,” Moravcsik said. “Some of the features are just funny, some of them are cool and some of them are useful. But it’s sort of like the car never gets old.” 

Moravcsik’s unpaid, semi-official “coaching” position for wannabe EV owners is part of a growing public-private partnership to spend taxpayer money touting the benefits of electrifying Colorado’s vehicles. DriveElectricColorado.com already exists, answering questions and linking people to “coaches,” using money from state and federal grants and contributions from car dealers. 

Colorado’s Energy Office also has awarded a $550,000 contract to Edelman public relations for an “EV Education and Awareness Campaign,” all aimed at boosting the state’s chances to get 940,000 electric vehicles on the road by 2030. Gov. Jared Polis’ Greenhouse Gas Pollution Reduction Roadmap says that number is key to overall emissions cuts needed within 10 years. 

TODAY’S UNDERWRITER

Colorado was on pace to sell about 15,000 electric and plug-in hybrid vehicles in 2021, according to first-quarter registration results from the auto dealers.

“It’s all about acceleration,” said Bonnie Trowbridge, executive director of Denver Metro Clean Cities and Drive Electric Colorado. “If we let the market take care of it, people will start to understand the benefits and so forth pretty quickly. But we’re really trying to move that needle from being a 10-year process to being a five-year process, so that we get the air-quality benefits and the grid benefits to happen in the shorter term.” 

Transportation is such a key part of stopping climate change, and adopting EVs is such a huge part of reforming transportation, and consumer emotion is such a large part of EV adoption, that of course a government marketing push is necessary, said Britta Gross, managing director of mobility for Boulder’s Rocky Mountain Institute, an energy and climate analysis nonprofit.

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The electric car charging station in the parking lot of the National Center for Atmospheric Research. Convincing EV shoppers there will be chargers everywhere they need to go is a big part of the state’s marketing job. (Kathryn Scott, Special to the Colorado Sun)

“It is very, very clear to anyone who’s worked in the industry for a long time that it’s got to be an all-hands-on-deck strategy,” said Gross, who previously worked for GM and other automakers.

Marketers, coaches, nonprofit analysts and others all mention three key areas for creating awareness about EVs and educating consumers on the current reality: 

  • Charging. Potential EV buyers see a world designed with gas stations on every corner, and want to know where their alternative will be to charge up their EV. Moravcsik, Gross and others spend a lot of time reminding them that nearly all of the charging they’ll ever need will happen at home in their garage, through an existing 110-volt outlet that juices a vehicle overnight. 

Meanwhile, the state is working with utility companies and the private sector to add thousands of higher-speed charging stations along Colorado interstates and at places along any major roadway or traffic area where errands and commuting get done. 

  • Availability and price. Consumers still aren’t convinced there are many EVs out there on the lots to buy. Or that the EVs will be in the SUV/pickup shape that Colorado buyers want. Or that they’ll be at a price comparable enough to that of a gas vehicle to erase lingering doubts. That is a tough challenge, Gross acknowledges, since her own estimate is that a wide line of electric vehicles that Americans expect will not be available at prices they are currently used to paying for gas until about 2027. That means government entities need to keep pressure on for expanding tax credits for EV buyers, while highlighting those that already exist. 

And the “coaches,” websites and dealers need to emphasize how much consumers’ annual operating costs will drop when they’re not paying $3 a gallon for gas, changing the oil every six months, and handling thousand-dollar repairs of combustion engines. 

  • Reliability and performance. Some of the EV-curious still seem to think, advocates say, that storage batteries spontaneously combust, or that the complex electronics are always going haywire, or that their relatively small vehicle will drive like a low-powered sewing machine. That’s where the marketing and education side need to double down on the lower costs of long-term maintenance in EVs, which have far-fewer moving engine parts than their gas cousins. 

Moravcsik and others like to emphasize the drivability of EVs — and not just the sportier Teslas. Even the smallest EV sedans and hatchbacks on the market have far-faster and more-responsive acceleration than a comparable gas engine. Electric cars have no lag when you step on the accelerator, making highway entrances a sport instead of a nightmare. 

Moravcsik tells people that she is not usually the first to try new technology, but that EVs for her were not a risk: “My philosophy is to be a kind of early adopter, but not really early. This was very unusual for me, I signed up sight unseen for the Model 3 before it was even out. I did it based on two things: First of all, the environment, which I’m very concerned about, and secondly, safety.”  

Drive Electric Colorado has been quietly testing its website and setting up education networks such as coaches, whom they put in touch with consumers seeking more answers from current EV owners. The publicly funded websites won’t be running “Super Bowl ads,” as Gross puts it, but they will pay for some advertising and will work with dealers. 

More important is the network of word-of-mouth, Trowbridge said. Organizers are tapping into a network of EV enthusiast clubs meeting in various parts of the state. Representatives of the clubs testified, for example, at a Colorado Parks and Wildlife public hearing on whether to allow Rivian to install fast chargers at every state park. (They are.)

“There are a lot of them, believe it or not,” Trowbridge said of the clubs. “They’re truly the evangelists. They really just want people to know about EVs and, in most cases, have been driving them for a while. So we tap into those groups.” 

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Dashboard and phone apps that show EV drivers where their next charging stations are will also be key to educating potential buyers about the reliability of the Colorado EV network. This dashboard map is from a Tesla; other popular charging station maps are on Google Maps or an app called PlugShare. (Kathryn Scott, Special to The Colorado Sun )

Sometimes, the coaches say, getting a potential EV buyer over the edge is as simple as downloading an app. Google Maps, which is on nearly everyone’s cellphone, instantly pops up the nearest grid of public chargers when you type “electric charger” into the search bar. Trowbridge likes the free app PlugShare for its ease of use, as well as the fact that it provides consumer ratings of the workability of the particular charger and provides details about the comfort of the surroundings. 

When all else fails in the coaching sessions, Moravcsik can either demonstrate her “ghost” mode or mention the other periodic bonuses that make her laugh. Tesla likes to provide new horn sounds when it sends out new computer instructions. 

Her car, she said, “has little dings and stuff like that, so it doesn’t look as pristine as when I first got it, but it always seems new, because it’s always updating like a computer.”

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