Rise of the green machines

There are early adopters.

And then there’s Rob Neighbour.

Neighbour, an airline pilot who lives in Laurel, bought his first electric car 15 years ago — a converted 1984 Pontiac Fiero he found on eBay. Since then, he’s acquired four more, his latest a $77,000 Tesla Model S.

“I needed a car that would give me sufficient range,” he said, refering to his new electric model that is supposed to take him 265 miles on a single charge.

Neighbour’s quest for range might be a metaphor for the Washington area, which was early to show interest in hybrids and other alternative-fuel vehicles, but is still looking for more. Automakers descended on the Washington Auto Show this week to pitch their latest offerings, which included a wider selection of battery-powered cars and the infrastructure to recharge them.

The market is still in its infancy.

This past November, for instance, 4.53 percent of new cars sold in Washington were hybrids, higher than the national average of 3 percent and up from 3.64 percent in the region in 2011, according to vehicle registration data compiled by R.L. Polk, an automotive research firm in Detroit. The D.C. market now ranks second, just behind Los Angeles and ahead of San Francisco, in percentage of hybrid sales for Ford Motor Co., which has the greatest share of the market among U.S. companies. Sales of its most popular hybrid model, Fusion, jumped 21 percent here last year compared to 2011.

The Central Atlantic region, which includes Maryland and Virginia, also accounts for 9 percent of all sales of Toyota Prius models, of which there are more currently on the road in the United States than all other hybrids combined. That ranks fourth nationally, behind Los Angeles, San Francisco and the Southeast region.

Hybrid benefits

“People like [hybrids] for their fuel economy, advanced technology features, and in our region, they make great commuter vehicles, especially where they have access to HOV lanes,” Martha Voss, a Woodbridge resident and Toyota spokeswoman, said in an e-mail, noting that restricted lanes on some highways around the District now allow drivers with “clean fuel” plates to drive on them during rush hours.

In just the past couple of years, said Joe Taylor, director of training at Darcars Automotive Group in Silver Spring, interest in the technology has also spread to a wider base of consumers, noting that he now has “customers who are 20 years old and customers who are 80 year old buying hybrids.”

He added that “the older ones are often much more impressed with some of the new technology in these vehicles, while the younger buyers who grew up in a digital age are looking at these vehicles because they have come to expect being surrounded by the latest technology.”

Meanwhile, early-adopters are starting to come back for new cars, and dealers say they are closely monitoring how many hybrid buyers are electing to stick with the alternatives for their subsequent purchases.

So far, Jack Ballinghoff, general manager at Koons Tysons Toyota, said “a very high percentage of them are choosing hybrid vehicles again,” estimating the renewal rate at between 50 and 75 percent.

Emerging electric market

But while hybrid sales are rising, the national market for fully electric vehicles is still waiting to take off, and that holds true in Washington. Only 0.09 percent of vehicles sold in November were solely electric-powered, hovering just below the national rate of 0.10 percent. Additional data based on analysis of national data by Denver-based market research firm Pike Research suggests that just under 1,000 plug-in electric and plug-in hybrid cars were sold in the Washington area in 2012, up from about 600 in 2011.

A number of deterrents are holding back electric car sales, including the availability of battery-charging stations and extended charging times, which can take up to several hours for 100 or 200 miles of driving distance. Arlington resident Mel Hsieh, who now owns a Tesla Roadster, had to convince the management board at his condo to install charging stations for electric vehicles while he waited for his car to be delivered.

“I did all the homework myself,” said Hsieh, who paid about $2,000 for the charging station, most of which went to the condo board’s legal counsel. “It would have been only a few hundred dollars for the electrician, but I had to pay for the condo association to okay everything.”

But perhaps more than anything, the limited driving range of most fully electric vehicles makes them impractical for many professionals, especially in this region, where so many have long commutes. That was one of the reasons Neighbour selected the Tesla Model S. His commute to and from Dulles International Airport — about 60 miles each way — was just out of the range of his fully electric Toyota Rav4. Before the Tesla, Neighbour was forced to adjust his schedule based on when and where he could charge his car.

“I could drive there an hour early and charge [the Rav4] for when I come back into town, or just drive there and back and dip deeply into the battery — into the yellow zone, which I try never to do — and lessen the [battery’s] life expectancy,” he said.

Electric vehicle owners and local businesses are also building their own network of available plugpoints, which drivers can generally use for free or for a small fee. Web sites such as Plugshare and ChargePoint map where to find available outlets.

Nicholas White, manager and part owner of Prime Street Grille in the Charles County community of White Plains, installed two chargers after a guest requested it. A state grant covered the cost of the chargers, and Prime Street Grille paid $1,500 for the installation in February 2011. The chargers are free to guests and passersby, and White estimates about 10 or 20 people use it a week, bringing a small number of extra customers to the restaurant.

Drivers often come in for a bite because it “gives them something to do; otherwise there’s nothing around us,” White said. Though he doesn’t think the small bump in business will bring in more than the installation cost, the restaurant has caught the attention of local tech groups and car dealerships, who have started hosting events at the restaurant because of the station.

Some energy firms are also making bets on electric vehicles and plug-in hybrids taking off here. On Thursday, Nissan and New Jersey-based NRG Energy announced they are teaming to build 40 publicly available “eVgo” electric charging stations in the Washington region over the next few years, hoping to create one of the most dense concentrations of charging ports of any metropolitan area in the country.

Adding infrastructure

The idea is to build a network of charging stations spaced to give drivers “more confidence and [reduce] that sense of ‘range anxiety’ by providing infrastructure for these vehicles,” Carly Kade, communications manager for eVgo (NRG Energy’s privately funded electric vehicle network) said in an interview. The group is focusing on Texas, California and the Washington region in building its initial charging networks.

Though the infrastructure developments suggest experts believe electric vehicle sales will eventually take off in the region, widespread adoption may still be years away.

“The electric market seems to be right about where the hybrid market was back in 2000, in that it’s still mostly environmentally minded buyers who are looking at those cars, rather than consumers who are looking to save money,” said Taylor, the Darcars Automotive representative.

4.53%

Share of vehicles sold in November in the region that were hybrids, up nearly a percentage point from 2011, according to Detroit-based research firm R.L. Polk.

J.D. Harrison covers startups, small business and entrepreneurship, with a focus on public policy, and he manages the Post's On Small Business blog.
Mohana Ravindranath covers IT and small business for the Washington Post and its weekly Capital Business publication.
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