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Talk with car company executives and you will find most agree that the challenges faced in the adoption of electric vehicles are less about a need for better technology than they are about better educating the public.
Deb Frodl, chief strategy officer for General Electric’s Capital Fleet Services and the global alternative fuel leader for GE, agrees. That’s why she led the creation of the company’s Innovation Center for Alternative Fuel Vehicles and Solutions in Eden Prairie, Minnesota.
The 6,000 square foot center, located on the campus of GE Capital Fleet Services’ headquarters has classrooms and showrooms, a large service bay to demonstrate electric charging and compressed natural gas fueling stations and infrastructure technologies, and a half-mile test track where fleet representatives can experience first-hand the operation of more than 20 alternative fuel vehicles that are kept at the facility.
General Electric has made a significant commitment to electrification of transportation—at the end of 2010 the company announced that it would convert at least half of its own fleet of 30,000 vehicles to electrics and would partner with its fleet customers to deploy 25,000 electrically powered vehicles by 2015. According to Beth Comstock, GE’s Chief Marketing Officer, since GE introduced the new technology into its fleet last year, the company’s employees have driven more than 8.5 million miles in electric vehicles.
Frodl came up with the idea for the Innovation Center as a tool to help reach her goal of increasing the number of alternative fuel vehicles used by fleets.
“The best way to accelerate adoption of alternative fuel cars and trucks is to experience them,” said Frodl. “Once they get behind the wheel, they can see that these vehicles are real and ready for action.”
To launch its Innovation Center, the company invited 19 automotive partners to bring more than 30 vehicles to the half-mile test track and invited guests to experience electric vehicles and hybrids and natural gas, hydrogen, and diesel powered vehicles for themselves.
The list of electric and hybrid electric vehicles was particularly impressive, including everything from the micro-sized Mitsubishi iMiEV to the Ford Focus EV, Nissan Leaf, Chevrolet Volt, Toyota Prius Plug-in and RAV-4 EV, Volvo C30 EV, and BMW 1-Active E, a luxury Fisker Karma sedan and a Zero S electric motorcycle.
For many guests it was their first drive in an electric vehicle, and the sophistication, fit and finish and usability of the vehicles made it clear that the technology has graduated from the experimental laboratory and is ready for primetime. What’s more, standing next to the row of cars waiting to enter the track, one was struck by the near silence coming from the electrically powered machines.
GE hopes putting fleet managers and customers into actual alternative fueled vehicles and letting them experience will result in increasing sales for the new technology. This will serve to spur further research and cost reductions through manufacturing efficiencies, which can only help bring about better understanding and more widespread adoption of electric and hybrid electric vehicles.
“The technology is ready to be put to work right here and right now,” Frodl said.
Kevin Clemens is a freelance journalist and author who trained as an engineer and environmental educator and has been an editor and contributor at some of the transportation industry’s most influential magazines. He lives in Lake Elmo, Minnesota.