Is the era of the classic American Road Trip dead and gone?
I know whenever I hear the song "Holiday Road" by Lindsey Buckingham I can’t help but smile and think of the movie Vacation with Chevy Chase and flash back to some of our now infamous family road trips.
Maybe it’s about time this went the way of the dinosaurs (pun intended) and maybe the electric car is the thing that will put a stake in the heart of this uniquely American tradition. How many of you have sat in the back seat of the family truckster while going cross country to Wally World or Grandma’s house?
I grew up in Southern California – perhaps the Mecca of Driving. In SoCal you pretty much have to drive everywhere since there is no real concept of mass transit. In SoCal we paid homage to the car --- Need bread from the store – hop in the car. Meeting friends at the local coffee shop – hop in the car. Make the pilgrimage to the Grand Canyon or Las Vegas – hop in the car.
Will the electric car be the end of the classic road trip?
Nope. Not if Shai Agassi has his way.
Shai Agassi, formerly with SAP, has formed a new company called Better Place. Better Place is offering, or at least proposing, five years of free “fill ups” if you commit to his service stations. Where Better Place service stations would swap out your spent battery for a fresh one. Would you do it? Will you have to?
Better Place is committed to a world populated by cars with zero emissions. Not just better gas mileage, not just reduced emissions: no emissions, full stop. (source: The Change Agent – Business Management)
Business as Usual? No way. This is akin to a subscription model for driving. True, with credit cards available from numerous gas companies you can fill up wherever you are as long as you find that brand of fueling station. The subscription model proposed by Mr. Agassi and being espoused by Better is not much different than that. The difference is … right now there are no options to get your “re-fill” battery somewhere else. It may take more planning to get where you need to go, but if Better Place succeeds you will get there with virtually no carbon footprint.
Distribution, Distribution, Distribution
Distribution will be the key. I expect a whole new model of distribution to be developed. Not in terms of the underlying framework to make it possible – rather in the concept of borrowing a battery for a one-time use. I can imagine Wal-Mart, 7-11, and more than likely traditional fueling stations will want to be in on this business. This is similar to what Blue Rhino did with the propane fuel canister exchange. A big difference is the cost. A propane canister is relatively inexpensive and while it is bulky it’s nowhere near as bulky and as unwieldy to handle as a bank of batteries (see sub-industries below(
Will this lead to brand envy?
Will we see electric cars with advertisements showing that they have “Duracell Inside” – I can imagine the catchy little Intel jingle like the Intel Inside ads from yesteryear. Will kids on the schoolyard be telling their friends that their mommy and daddy run Eveready’s or Duracell like in the olden days when people talked about their Pirelli’s? Side note - Do people still talk about stuff like this?
The Critical Components
The Key that will drive the success of the electric vehicle industry is infrastructure
"It's not how far your battery can go, but how far your infrastructure is spread”
There are other factors that will lead to the emergence and probably the eventual success of the electric vehicle market. There is the obvious “cool” factor. This is the same thing that drives the fashion and entertainment industries. There will be countless PR and Branding flacks pushing the latest stars and starlets to show up and tout the benefits of “their” electric vehicle. This is fine and should be expected. There are other less glamorous, but I would argue much more important, aspects that will determine the rise of the electric vehicle industry. These are the sub-industries that are the unseen and often under-appreciate critical components that make up the bedrock on the infrastructure. A few examples of the sub-industries are listed below. I predict an entire category of industries will crop up and existing industries will morph to the new electric vehicle market
- Towing / Delivery of a replacement battery to your location – The current infrastructure of tow trucks could become a lot busier as people try to squeeze out those last bits of juice from their batteries.
- Solar Chargers – Third party devices that are placed on the dash or even built into the vehicles hood and roof by the manufacturers.
- Legal – Someone has to create a contract to allow for the swapping of batteries. Someone will inevitably drop one on their foot or be injured moving them around. Whether we like it or not the legal eagles will become involved – in both the positive and negative aspects (pun intended)
- Material Handling – batteries are heavy. Handling them will require specialty tools, racks, and security mechanisms.
- Storage – The storage of batteries is not all that tricky, but someone needs to do it. The storage industry will be big consumers of material handling, storage, and legal aspects (insurance, contracts, etc.) of the industry. Creating a sub-sub-industry.
- Transportation – Just like with storage the transportation is not all that tricky either, but batteries are bulky and will consume resources to get them to the changing stations and at some point the inventory will need to be swapped out or sent in for service.
- Power Generation – Will homes or offices add wind mills or solar cells to offset charging costs?
- Facilities Management – Companies will need to modify their parking structures to provide easy access to outlets. What if you forget your plug adapter? Will a set of spares need to be on hand?
- What about at Home? I envision there will be Home Charging Stations and home based battery swapping stations. Which brings into effect some of the elements from above – legal, storage, material handling, and perhaps branding.
No, I think we will have many more years of road trips. Kids of all ages will still need to endure the right of passage known as The Road Trip. College bound students and other free spirits will still make their equivalent of Jack Kerouac’s “On The Road” and senior citizens will still do their annual “snowbird” migration. We’ll just do them with less of an impact and perhaps with a little more planning. If Shai Agassi has his way and finds success with Better Place I think we will see electric vehicles taking us to the proverbial rainbow at the end of the road.
For more information:
- THE FUTURE OF ENERGY - Switched-On Highways
NEWSWEEK, Published Jan 10, 2009
- Charging Ahead - Hawaii Looks beyond Oil
Hawaii Business / January 2009
- Detroit Goes for Electric Cars, but Will Drivers?
New York Times Business Section
- Driven: Shai Agassi's Audacious Plan to Put Electric Cars on the Road, by By Daniel Roth 08.18.08 WIRED MAGAZINE
About The Author:
I have spent the better part of the last 16 years working in various aspects of the ECM space. I spent time at Kofax, Microsoft, FileNet, K2, and most recently Captaris (which was acquired by Open Text in Nov 2008). Prior to that I was a Unix VAR running my own company.
Photo Credits: Warner Bros. films, California Driving School