Interview: EDTA President Brian Wynne

As he collaborates with industry stakeholders to facilitate the broad goal of “the electrification of transportation,” Brian Wynne, president of the Electric Drive Transportation Association (EDTA) says he is encouraged with progress to date.

Based in Washington, D.C., the EDTA exists to usher in all forms of electrified transportation as alternatives – not necessarily as complete replacements for petroleum based vehicles – but to at least give them a solid boost toward “mainstream” acceptance.

“Electrified” vehicles are defined as everything from mild hybrid to hybrid, to plug-in hybrid and all-electric vehicles including battery and fuel-cell-based, and while all have a place, a focus is on helping along the still-new and more advanced forms leading to fully electric.

Brian Wynne, EDTA president.

Brian Wynne, EDTA president.

While there’s been plenty of critical counterpoints questioning the success of electrified vehicles, Wynne’s perspective comes as one who is in it for the long haul while also being deeply involved in the day to day work.

In 2011 he was named one of the 100 Most Influential People in the electric vehicle market by Automotive News. This recognition was given in part because he helped increase EDTA membership to 110 companies by April 2011, from 65 in 2004.

Today’s EDTA membership is essentially a who’s-who of everyone and anyone in the industry who has something to do with electrified vehicles including most automakers, suppliers, major utilities, government entities, and so on.

Along the way, Wynne and the EDTA were instrumental in such things as establishing tax credits first for hybrids, then for plug-in vehicles, and for pushing for other policies to give a leg up to the adoption of electrified cars, taxis, trucks, transit buses, etc.

Last month at the annual EDTA Conference in Washington, Wynne and HybridCars.com had a 50-minute conversation covering myriad aspects of the big picture. He made many fine points, and demonstrated a deep grasp of issues facing the industry and this society. Following are some of the key questions and answers from that talk:

Is the electrification the automobile inevitable?

“It’s happening. I say vehicles have been electrifying for decades,” he said, citing data that has documented incremental changes that started small, have gathered momentum and continue to do so.

“Electric motors are better than combustion engines,” he said of a power source that’s upwards of 90-percent efficient. “Efficiency wise, torque-wise, driving experience wise. It’s just a better propulsion system. And it’s so flexible. Electric drive technology is configurable. So it’s working its way into the fleet. It’s kind of like when logistics met the Internet. You don’t go backwards from that. You just set a new standard of performance and increasingly people are adopting it and that’s true in many many different applications –– our job is to accelerate that process.”

Accord_plug-in

To this we replied “our job is to cover it” – however the future may twist and turn in light of an “all-of-the-above” approach to meet environmental issues, need for energy security, government mandates for fuel consumption and emissions, and to contend with rising fuel prices.

“And it’s just giving consumers a choice,” Wynne interjected. “Right now they don’t have a choice. They have to go to a gas station and pay whatever is posted. They could shop gas stations, but it’s still not a choice.

“So, offering people a choice that’s a fuel that’s essentially not a resource, but a form of energy, that can be produced with lots of different resources. That to me is a very sensible approach. The cars are fun to drive, we just need to get the word out.”

What needs to happen to accelerate change toward plug-in vehicles?

“The most important thing is to increase awareness of the options available, which of course are increasing all the time. The numbers are moving rapidly in the right direction, but don’t forget we just really –– you’re talking about 2011 and 2012 are the full years that we have been working with so far.”

(Consumers in the main are still getting up to speed on choices, and EDTA does sponsor an educational Web site. The new plug-in car sales numbers he said have jumped year over year, hybrid sales are now comprise at least 3 percent nationally, and in some regional markets are close to 7 percent.)

“I don’t quite know what your definition of success is,” Wynne continued, “but I caution against a definition of success which is everybody is driving an electrified vehicle because the fleet just doesn’t turn over that fast and people on average are keeping their vehicles 11-12 years.”

How do you define success then?

“I use an old fashion definition of success which I apply to everything including my day to day work which is ‘the progressive realization of a worthy ideal.’

“So the ideal is as many cars as can be electrified are electrified which makes sense. But we’re on the path to doing that and our job again is to accelerate us down that path.”

Wynne then posed a rhetorical question:

“At what point did we declare the automobile a success?

“I wonder if it was when people stopped riding horses?” he said.

(The answer is of course cars were a success in the early 1900s before that point, and likewise today “success” will not necessarily mean the end of all petroleum-based transportation.)

Spark_EV

“I think we need to recognize that this is a very strong incumbent technology with an entrenched fuel system, a monopoly fuel system and we have to socialize people around how to fuel their vehicles differently with plug-in vehicles,” he said of the petroleum economy, but added, “I’m there. I’ve crossed that Rubicon, I’m not ever going to go back,” he said of his Chevrolet Volt for which he buys “virtually no gasoline at all.”

OK, one politically oriented question: What do you say of “taxpayer money” used to help the nascent industry?

“First off, budgeting in any environment whether federal or your household or mine is about priorities. So from that perspective this is about attacking a huge challenge for this country and working on something that in one fell swoop allows you to contribute to a better environment in the future, better energy security, better national security, a commercial competitiveness standing at the supply chain for advanced tech vehicles, etc.

“I would argue that as we electrify transportation, we the taxpayers -– and I am one of them –– will get a return on our investment. The taxpayer is already getting a return on that investment. Absent that investment we continue to be in the throes of a monopoly fuel and the externalities [i.e. extra costs associated with the oil industry and the paradigm built upon it as a monopoly fuel, including] “enormous amounts of federal subsidies and benefits and credits …

Yes, but we’ve seen where the oil industry denies it gets government help …

“Suffice it to say that the federal transportation policy and energy policy gives an enormous advantage to oil –– I don’t think there’s any denying that we have policy in this country that encourages the ongoing availability of the only fuel that’s mainstream right now. It would be foolish not to. I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with that. I’m saying that that’s what government policy does. In this instance and in addition to those costs you’ve got the externalities associated with the supply chain protection. You know we have supply lines all the way to the Middle East to the Straights of Hormuz. Ask any admiral. Ask Admiral Denny McGinn, the head of ACORE who I was meeting with last week who talks about this all the time.

Because we are reliant on one global fungible commodity, we have to protect the supply lines. That’s expensive and the taxpayer pays for it.

There are all kinds of ways taxpayer dollars goes into designing, maintaining, and protection the movement of people and goods in this country; our economy depends on it.

“The dollars that we have gotten through the policy process that have gone into this community are creating options in the future. And creating the ability for a new technology to come into the marketplace and it is doing so at a rapid –– I would say a somewhat unprecedented pace when you look at any kind of technology that requires both vehicles to be bought and infrastructure to be developed. And both of those things you have to have in parallel for electrification to continue to be success.

This was our ride to Washington, and there are "hybrids" for all tastes. BMW's ActiveHybrid3 is proof hybrids are not only frumpy and super-sensible.

This was our ride to Washington, and there are “hybrids” for all tastes. BMW’s ActiveHybrid3 is proof hybrids are not only frumpy and super-sensible.

“To me the most important way to view the federal dollars that have come into this community is they are leveraging an enormously much larger investment by private industry. To listen to the critics – and by the way we don’t take this personally –– right now, anything with a taxpayer dollar on it gets scrutinized. And I’m not saying that’s a bad thing. We don’t mind the scrutiny; we don’t mind the accountability. We think that’s act very helpful for the country. Again budgeting is about priorities.

Tesla may be doing more than any other company today in its marketing of electric cars that actually impress mainstream car fans.

Tesla may be doing more than any other company today in its marketing of electric cars that actually impress mainstream car fans.

“I did want to add, we have had and continue to have bipartisan support for what we’re doing, absolutely. I think it’s fair to say that during the election politicians tend to grab onto anything they can for a political advantage. I think its unfortunate that our particular effort got lumped in with some other efforts, but that’s fine. When it’s all said and done there’s a lot of efforts being scrutinized right now –– and a lot of federal dollars are being scrutinized now in a time when we are fiscally constrained. When it’s all said and done we will be in there holding the ground for this community. With the argument that it is extremely important: very few solutions that come to the table can play across the board in a policy environment – energy, transportation, and environment – very few solutions does the taxpayer get a threefer and I think we will continue to make that argument successfully.

“I hasten to add that we had tax credits for hybrids, we don’t have tax credits for hybrids any more, and we don’t need them. They’re now commercially mainstream. We have tax credits right now for plug-in electrified vehicles, at some point we will be mainstream with those vehicles and we will no longer need them. The objective is for these to be commercially successfully vehicles that compete in the marketplace without tax credits.

How do you define “mainstream” for plug-in electrified vehicles? A certain percentage?

I think its fair to say when you start getting as you have with hybrids when you start getting into the 4-5-6-percent range, that’s a mainstream product.

You’re asking a question that’s a difficult to put an exact number on. But the point is we will get there. It’s a little bit like milestones versus goals.

Summary

Wynne made clear that support the oil industry now enjoys is justified and it does now create enormous economic value worth trillions of dollars. He said its support ought not to be resented, but neither should it be denied that it exists.

And by this token, neither should comparatively small support now being given to sustainable energy initiatives be viewed as necessarily unjustifiable on principle either.

The bottom line is this society pays much more to keep the oil-based economy going, including that of human lives in wars and defensive actions. By comparison, priming the pump toward electrification is a small weight in the balance.

And, it is paying off, he said. Speaking of milestones, as of May, 100,000 of the new generation of plug-in cars had been sold in the U.S. Considering they cost more, and “early adopters” were the ones buying them, this has been seen as one more positive indicator.

Wynne drives a Volt but is considering going all-electric given the daily miles he drives.

Wynne drives a Volt but is considering going all-electric given the daily miles he drives.

Did this milestone pale in comparison to mainstream petroleum-fueled vehicles sales? Yes, without a doubt. And this fact remains fodder for critics, but the argument stands that those with vision don’t see the glass as nine-tenths empty, they see it as 10-percent full with progress accelerating.

It’s accelerating in part due to proactive efforts by Wynne and the EDTA along with many others. These in turn are actually only stoking inherent pressures from society’s need for energy security, national security, a replacement for expensive gasoline that will only get more expensive, need for clean air, and long-term solutions in the face of a world that at present remains addicted to oil.