EVs at scale: The race to electrify transportation
About the salon
We’re moving faster than ever toward an electric vehicle (EV) future. Technology and infrastructure continue to evolve, and the recent Inflation Reduction Act is set to provide much-needed financial incentives. But how do we overcome the remaining hurdles to wider consumer adoption? What will it take to scale passenger, commercial, and city EV fleets? And what insights can designers offer to help transform mobility?
Vartan Badalian is a Transportation Analyst & GreenBiz Transport Network Lead who is working to accelerate the fight against climate change and developing the electric vehicle (EV) industry.
Keith Kerman is a Deputy Commissioner at New York City’s Department of Citywide Administrative Services (DCAS) and NYC’s first Chief Fleet Officer, covering 50 agencies including police, fire, parks, and sanitation. New York is a national leader in EV adoption, operating the nation’s largest municipal fleet with around 28,500 on-road and off-road fleet units.
Dan Winston is the Vice President, Business Development – Mobility at Inspiration Mobility, a sustainable infrastructure investment platform exclusively focused on the real assets that enable the EV transition.
Smart Design strategy director Cameron Hanson and associate design director Jasper Dekker led the discussion, which was informed by Smart Design’s work on innovative mobility projects, such as Ford’s Mobility Last Mile Delivery. They asked our green transportation experts about key issues surrounding EVs, including what is driving (and also what’s holding back) EV adoption, how EV fleets are poised for growth, and why EVs may someday help power cities.
Here are the highlights of the evening’s discussion:
Over the past decade, electric vehicles have gone from pricey niche products to make up 7 percent of all new U.S. car sales—from 1 percent in 2018—reaching what is regarded as a technological tipping point to much broader adoption. What changed? Gas prices continue to soar; tax credits for EV purchases abound; government mandates are influencing manufacturers; and perhaps most crucially, some new EV models can go more than 500 miles on a single charge. At the same time, billions of dollars are being invested in charging networks. The conditions are now right for “a massive wave of growth over the next few years and beyond,” Vartan Badalian, transportation analyst at GreenBiz, predicted.
One sector of the market with enormous potential is fleets, as corporate fleets, rental car companies, taxis, and rideshare giants like Uber and Lyft switch to electric (in New York City, they must achieve 100 percent zero emissions by 2030). To smooth this transition, Inspiration Mobility offers transition analysis to find an “optimal” EV transition strategy. They’ve worked with fleets around the country, including the rideshare firm Revel. Fleet managers have been thinking in the same way about their vehicles for decades, but nowadays they have to plan for things like charging station access and replacing EV tires, Dan Winston, vice president of business development, pointed out. “Our clients are the decision-makers who are having conversations about the very important objective of reducing carbon emissions, and they have a lot of questions.”
For his part, Keith Kerman, Chief Fleet officer for New York City, needs a wide mix of electric vehicles with batteries that last longer and have shorter charging times to provide vital city services—plowing snow, answering emergency calls, and even operating on a beach. “In my world, we’re dealing with a lot of complexity and nuances, testing the limits of what an EV is and can do beyond what an average consumer worries about,” he said. With the largest EV and hybrid municipal fleet in the country—including more than 4,000 electric vehicles out of some 24,000 on-road vehicles—Kerman wants the relatively new industry to go beyond their core sedans, SUVs, and pickups to produce street sweepers, garbage trucks, and school buses. The city aims for a fully non-emergency electric fleet by 2035, including vehicles that can, for instance, “operate for 24 hours at a time in a hurricane,” and to train city workers to safely use and maintain them.
Address user needs—and anxieties
The transition to EVs is part of a much larger transformation of how we think about mobility—from bicycles and electric scooters for getting around urban areas to high-speed trains that now link many European cities, and soon, American ones as well. Critical to the success of these new modes of transport is a deep understanding of consumer needs, what influences driving behavior, and how users can adapt and change in ways that will have far-reaching implications on their daily routines.
Consumer expectations are high for electric vehicles—and with good reason. For one, they promise not only a faster ride with unparalleled torque but also no more worrying about gassing up or major maintenance for years. And there is the added benefit of knowing your vehicle is not spewing noxious fumes as an internal combustion engine would. “Once a person experiences an EV and sees for themselves while driving or riding in the passenger seat, they’ll never go back to a gas car,” Badalian contends. “It will feel like going back to a horse.”
Yet, as more and more buyers consider an EV, it is critical to address lingering concerns associated with EV ownership, an experience that Winston describes as both “really wonderful, but also kind of scary.” Nothing is more important—and frustrating—for EV owners than range anxiety, the fear of running out of battery juice and not being able to find a charging station. Plus, charging stations being out of order—the “Achilles heel of the industry,” according to Badalian—or simply charging too slowly, are both all-too-common problems. These obstacles can quickly sour enthusiasm for the joys of zooming along an open road in an electric vehicle, because, as Badalian put it, “once you’re stuck you start thinking that an EV sucks.”
New investments in both public and private charging networks will go a long way to relieve range anxiety and make it easier to calculate how far an EV can go. But we must also design thoughtful mobility experiences, a topic explored in a previous Smart Salon. This includes informing and educating consumers about what Winston calls a “cluster of challenges”—such as which service stations have EV chargers, and the right lift to accommodate an EV undercarriage. This will make EV ownership easier and more manageable, especially for less tech-savvy users.
Plug in and go—and power the future
Technology spurred the electric vehicle revolution, and will also help to solve some of the troubling problems it has engendered. For example, the labor practices and environmental consequences from the mining of such necessary minerals as cobalt and lithium for EV batteries. New techniques are being developed for recycling batteries that might eventually eliminate the need for such critical minerals to be mined, especially as more and more EVs leave the road.
Other novel ideas include electrifying roads to charge EVs and bidirectional charging (which means using an EV’s battery to supply power to a house). It is a reminder that the new technologies transforming mobility and how we live does not exist in a vacuum, and as Kerman argued, “if we want to transform these industries, we have to make sure the industries are healthy—think of recent supply chain issues—and can be viably scaled.”
After a slow start, the EV market is gaining momentum. Policymakers are aligning on infrastructure and investment, and new models are winning over consumers with better pricing. Cities and other fleet owners are shifting from gas-powered vehicles to low-emissions electric ones. While the internal combustion engine won’t disappear anytime soon, the transition presents a unique opportunity to learn from the transportation mistakes of the past—and, as Winston said, “to do things differently to help create a more sustainable world.”
Explore a comprehensive strategy
Consider the possible ripple effects of new technologies and the products and services under development, knowing they will impact a range of public policies and consumer behaviors critical to success.
Design for all users
Identify the widest possible user base and the particular needs of each group, accounting for personal, commercial, and government customers that might require more nuanced and customized design solutions.
Think about infrastructure
Investigate the current state of infrastructure to support the introduction of a product or service, recognizing that the best systems must be in place to facilitate implementation and help remove roadblocks to adoption.
Learn from the past
Understand that sweeping technological transformation is not only about the technology but people, offering unique opportunities to learn from prior mistakes and build a better world for everyone.
About Cameron Hanson
Cameron is a Strategy Director who leads multidisciplinary teams to tackle human issues for large organizations. An expert in design research and service design, Cameron uncovers the root of behaviors and motivations to strategize actionable paths for improved products and services. Notable clients include Capital One, Meta, U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, U.S. Department of Agriculture, and Lexus. Cameron has an MFA in Transdisciplinary Design from Parsons School of Design and a BA in International Relations and Media Studies from Claremont McKenna College.
About Jasper Dekker
Jasper is an Associate Design Director who strives to make technology meaningful, useable, and delightful for all people. Next to his UX/UI skills, he brings expertise in embedded UI and design systems and has worked across automotive and mobility, consumer tech, media, healthcare, and gaming. His notable clients include HP, Ford, Amplifon, Google, Gatorade, Merck, and Samsung, and IDSA and Fast Company have awarded his work. Outside Smart, Jasper is an advocate for urban cycling and dabbles in creating hifi gear.