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Time Running Out for Plug-In Owners & Drivers Community -- Key Missing Piece
Sep 10, 2010 (From the CalCars-News archive)
CalCars-News
This posting originally appeared at CalCars-News, our newsletter of breaking CalCars and plug-in hybrid news. View the original posting here.
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The Volt and the LEAF are coming this fall! Other plug-ins will follow soon. Will their first owners like them? How will the stories from satisfied and "happy but wanting more" owners be heard? Will they be lost in the noise or among sensationalist and incomplete anecdotes? What impression will future customers get of the launch, from social networks or so many media sources?

There's one still-missing ingredient that could significantly improve the chances of success for this new generation of plug-in vehicles. We at CalCars have identified it and tried to spark it -- but this is a rock we haven't been able to push up the hill. We've just spent five intensive weeks in conversations and email exchanges trying to gain support for a "LEADING WEB-BASED COMMUNITY WHERE CURRENT AND POTENTIAL PLUG-IN VEHICLE DRIVERS CAN POST AND SHARE INFORMATION AND EXPERIENCES."

We've gotten encouragement from automakers and others since the opportunity came up at Plug-In 2010. But the key players needed to make this happen have either not been able to act quickly. From our perspective, even knowing how full their plates are, we think it's short-sighted not to make this a top priority. Having done all we can privately, we're releasing our proposal to the 7,118 subscribers of CalCars-News, to those who receive it by RSS feeds, and to the media that pick up our stories. YOU CAN HELP ACCELERATE DECISION-MAKING AND SPONSORSHIP. We hope that those among you with contacts among the large companies and institutions vital to moving moving this forward -- especially their PR and corporate strategy executives -- will both forward and advocate for this proposal.

We start with a THREE-PARAGRAPH SUMMARY, followed by the proposal we've circulated, including background on how this idea evolved and details of how it might work. We hope you'll appreciate the scope and ambition of what we're proposing. We hope you'll agree that its benefits are so great and that it is so time-sensitive that you will work to help make it happen! (We've updated and clarified the proposal from the one privately circulated, deleted names of possible partners that have not publicly come forward, and for readability online via email, we've removed much of the original document's formatting.)

WHAT WE PROPOSE: A consortium create the leading web-based community where current and potential plug-in vehicle (PEV) drivers can post and share information and experiences. We envision a "semi-official" site, independent but cooperatively sponsored by major corporate, non-governmental, and public organizations, all of whom can be active partners to help accelerate understanding and enthusiasm -- and sell many PEVs batteries, motors, circuits, and charging stations.

WHAT'S NEEDED: To launch before the first production vehicles arrive, we need to start now -- which we can do if we get a commitment for a total of $125,000 from institutional sponsors from OEMs, utilities, charging companies and trade associations. We hope they will recognize the value of this opportunity. CalCars can manage the project but we don't have to; we're happy to be advisors if any other entity wants to lead the effort.

WHAT WE DON'T PROPOSE: We see no value in creating yet one more among the many worthy sites that already exist. Adding a few different features but not gaining broad buy-in won't help. It's critical that any effort be supported by the automotive and other companies that are members of the Electric Drive Transportation Association And EDTA's emerging National Plug-In Vehicle Initiative http://www.electricdrive.org/­index.php?ht=d/­sp/­i/­13529/­pid/­13529 logically could be the umbrella under which such a consumer-focused community could develop. We're not suggesting we ignore the existing websites: this could be built in partnership with a company that understands the value of partnerships, that a "small piece of a big pie" is better than complete control of its own territory, that's open to evolution, mergers, and outside investors. And we re-emphasize that CalCars will be happy if the community comes into existence even if we're not centrally involved.

BACKGROUND & INTRO FOR AN IDEA WE'VE BEEN PROMOTING FOR ALMOST FOUR YEARS

We might not be nearly as far along in commercializing plug-in cars were it not for: 1. the advocacy efforts of drivers of the previous generation of EVs; 2. the open-source initiatives for Prius conversions; and 3. the excitement created by hearing from drivers of those vehicles. All these helped spark the broad campaign promoting PHEVs and EVs. All were amplified by online communities that foster communication and action. Now that we're about to get new cars, their impact will continue to be shaped by social media. The auto industry and its allies can be part of that not only on their own but with partners.

It was clear to Felix Kramer, both as a member and participant in online discussion groups about PEVs since 2002, through his experiences as CalCars founder, and as the world's first consumer owner of a PHEV, that the successful commercialization of PEVs could benefit from the online world far more than what would automatically grow out of existing communities and new websites. He also drew upon his experience in the 1980s as a co-founder of user groups for computer users and desktop publishers, and in the birth of the Web in the mid-90s followed by the dot.com heyday, to bring forward the idea of driver communities.

Back in early 2007, in conversations with some stakeholders, CalCars began exploring the idea of a national all-vehicle plug-in drivers user group. We circulated a short proposal, which led to the expanded update of that effort we're promoting in 2010.

That year, CalCars engaged in discussions with one large automotive website. It agreed to partner on the initiative and commit some staff and development time. We then attempted to secure funds from it and others. (In retrospect, our effort may have been premature -- we were so far from mass-production.) When we were unable to raise the money, we put the proposal on the back burner -- until 2010.

We shelved the project with considerable regret, knowing how important it was. Periodically we had discussions with possible funders (including joint proposals to USDOE for stimulus funding in April 2009) -- but have not yet located anyone willing to take a leading role.

At the closing session of the July Plug-In 2010 conference, Felix's proposal to create a broadly-sponsored "semi-official" drivers' group was greeted with a strong round of applause, followed by encouragement from panelists and audience members that he (and CalCars) take the lead in developing the project. Felix made clear he would welcome the opportunity to help and advise a collaborative effort -- and that it needed to be broad to succeed. That said, CalCars is willing to be a prime mover if others join with significant time and resources. With adequate levels of support for staff time, CalCars could lead the effort, along with another social media/publishing partner.

We emphasized we didn't need to run the show or get the credit; we welcomed anyone who steps up to make this happen. Since then, we've had discussions with several energetic possible specialists in building national campaigns using social media; partnering with one can help us get this project running quickly. One in particular is quite interested [discussed in private emails].

The biggest hurdle remains to gain sponsors and funding in this challenging environment. IF THIS MONTH, FIVE COMPANIES/ORGANIZATIONS WILL STEP FORWARD AND EACH SEED THIS EFFORT WITH $25,000 and agree to help find additional sponsors, we can then get working very rapidly on design/launch/partnerships as well as enlisting additional sponsors from the constituencies listed below. We think this investment will pay off enormously for all those whose businesses require a rapid acceleration of demand for PEVs, and for a society that needs to start getting off fossil fuels ASAP.

We would hate to miss a unique window of opportunity! We originally said if we didn't get a strong response by Aug. 16, we would circulate this proposal very broadly in the hope that someone else can make it happen quickly. We then held off until mid-September to do so.

We welcome your reactions as soon as possible.

IT'S ALMOST NOW-OR-NEVER IF WE'RE GOING TO START THIS IMPORTANT & VALUABLE PROJECT!

The first mass-production PEVs in many years are arriving soon; people are getting test drives and will soon have their own cars. This is the best-ever opportunity to bring to large audiences compelling messages and experiences about the benefits of PEVs.

Media coverage about choices, features, and benefits is building rapidly; until December the focus will be the first vehicles. We can make it easy for the next wave to be happy human interest stories.

Many people have questions and everyone's looking for answers and experts. Once people pick social networks -- even free ones -- moving involves switching costs and loyalty issues. It will of course be better than nothing if this community arrives a year from now -- or if one of today's sites emerges as most successful -- but we'll still be missing many important features and benefits listed below, and we'll have lost precious opportunities in the first months to shape the new plug-in electric world.

WHAT DO TODAY'S ONLINE DRIVER DISCUSSIONS LOOK LIKE?

Feeding off the breaking news and the enthusiasm for PEVs, we're seeing a proliferation of many worthy, well-intentioned and well-executed efforts. Yet we wonder if any will be able to scale and evolve to achieve the goals we aim for, and to emerge as the authoritative site.

These range from single-vehicle-focused sites started by individual enthusiasts as stand-alones or at Yahoo Groups and Google Groups, to green or plug-in areas at existing automotive sites, as well as sections sponsored by green car news and advocacy sites, and entirely new sites devoted only to plug-in vehicles.

Some sites now or later intend to gain revenue from advertising or from lead-generation. In general, the for-profit, non-profit, and volunteer-created sites lack staff or have not allocated resources to monitor postings for highly off-topic, "troll," or otherwise destructive postings, though some invite users to "rate" quality of postings or "report" violators of community standards or terms of service. We don't know of any whose distribution/promotion strategies include spotlighting and announce newsworthy discussions. Many are hard to navigate, fail to show up in web searches, and have "buried" archives.

The "migration path" is not yet clear for existing EV and PHEV-conversion owners as they continue to drive their old vehicles and are among the first buyers of new mass-production vehicles. The enthusiasm, dedication, and storehouse of practical experience of this unique group of idealistic early adopters can help jump-start the effort.

SOME CHARACTERISTICS WE LOOK FOR IN A PLUG-IN OWNERS AND DRIVERS COMMUNITY:

  • A one-stop community for people motivated by any or all goals of: saving money, ensuring energy security, cutting climate pollution, owning the latest gadget, or driving the most fun cars.
  • A "watering hole," where longtime and recent drivers share their experiences, observations and tips.
  • An outward-facing, welcoming site for wannabes and newbies -- those in any way considering buying a PEV -- offering basic information and the opportunity to follow the latest discussions about PEVs.
  • A pipeline to connect them with enthusiastic PEV owners to answer more questions and experience electric driving.
  • A transparent, open-source style effort focused on reducing barriers to information exchange, requiring no registration to post to maximize free discussions.
  • A mechanism for millions of people to register as "handraisers" for vehicle types and models that may initially be in short supply.
  • A window on plugged-in life, previewing a world where everyday transportation is electrified and powered by renewable energy.

WEBSITE/TECHNICAL CONSIDERATIONS:

  • Ideally, piggybacking onto an existing high-traffic website, to reduce overhead and startup costs and to ensure that it reaches audiences beyond those who are already plug-in savvy.
  • At the same time, reachable directly at PlugInDrivers.com with direct access by vehicle type to related vehicle-specific URLs. (CalCars owns and will happily make available this and other relevant URLs.)
  • Lightly moderated by Hosts ("curators") who monitor postings and flag/highlight important/insightful discussions both on the site and to other audiences, journalists, and social media outlets.
  • Easy posting by registered owners/drivers, with all postings public; unregistered visitors asking questions/making comments to be moderated; site facilitating private communications among registered users.
  • Easily and deeply searchable and customizable for both first-time and frequent users.
  • Including microblogging capabilities (Twitter/Facebook/Tumblr) and smartphone integration.

CONTENT AND SITE DESIGN:

  • Range of vehicles: BEVs, PHEVs, EREVs, 2/3/4-wheelers, light, medium, and heavy-duty vehicles.
  • Topics including driver behavior and experience, charging considerations, effect of different feedback designs, cost and MPG issues, all-electric and blended variants, expectations and limitations. Plus comments and future wish-lists of features, performance, usability and marketing for PEVs.
  • Anecdotal data and postings including human interest, driver blogs, slice-of-life print and video stories (data-mines for media coverage and academic interviews/studies).
  • Profile/photo/MPG results eventually including a data reporting system developed by academic/technology partners.
  • Quantified data from both driver input and automatic instrumentation -- if resources are available or technical partners want to showcase their tools, data can be aggregated and analyzed to best communicate the performance and benefits of technologies and vehicles.
  • Developed or hosted print and video collateral created by partners answering such basic questions as: are EVs cleaner; won't the grid be overloaded; are batteries safe/long-lasting/recyclable?
  • Tools to estimate fuel savings and TCO (total cost of ownership), given individual driving profiles, for vehicle types and models (perhaps partnering with existing calculators like those at USEPA and ProjectGetReady).
  • Wiki-style vehicle FAQs, driving tips, opinion/experience surveys, real-time chats (syndicated with partners); co-sponsor and promote local real-world community and national events.
  • "Find a PEV Driver in My Community" and "Get an EV Ride" matching services linked from multiple partners' portals.
  • Syndicated content and possible eventual print version of some content with media/industry partners.
  • Pointers to external resources at partnering and other sites.
  • Some topics left to others who may be better equipped to handle them, including: dealer-level experiences, conversion technologies, emerging technologies, and other fuel/energy sources.

BENEFITS TO THE PEV INDUSTRY (OEMS, SUPPLY CHAIN, SERVICE PROVIDERS):

  • Inspire potential car buyers to become plug-in customers.
  • Freely give immediate market intelligence and feedback from a comprehensive site and large population on what's working and what needs to be fixed -- both for individual companies and locally/nationally (e.g. charging infrastructure).
  • Gain goodwill from current and prospective customers: continue the transformative "buyer-push" model that has helped advance PEVs by giving members confidence their voices will be heard to help shape future automotive directions.
  • Provide case studies, human interest stories, topic threads to give corporate PR departments leads to connect with interview subjects and help media to track evolving stories.
  • Point effectively to rapid third-party and owner/driver responses to inaccurate media stories.

BENEFITS OF A "SEMI-OFFICIAL" SPONSORED SITE:

  • A single collaborative space where many key players participate will help commercialization efforts gain strength and momentum.
  • A trusted source by its breadth and openness will reassure many audiences who search online and encounter multiple sites.
  • A "go-to" place for success stories and for rapid responses to inaccurate, misleading or confusing media reports, to negative news about vehicles and technologies, and to "incidents."
  • Anecdotal and scientific data for research and analysis by academics, fleets, government, industry.
  • An ability to coordinate with other sites internationally and perhaps eventually expand globally.

CAUTIONS FOR A "SEMI-OFFICIAL" SPONSORED SITE:

  • If not done well (and inclusively), can be seen as competing with independent efforts or companies (including those that are "left out" if others join an partner).
  • Will need to reassure all audiences of its editorial independence from sponsors and funders.

BENEFITS TO SOCIAL MEDIA PARTNER/PUBLISHER/DISTRIBUTOR:

  • Put publisher on the cutting edge as the leading venue for discussion of the world's cleanest mass-production vehicles and a showcase for the auto industry of the future.
  • Drive traffic to company's other online and print divisions.

STRUCTURE FOR INDEPENDENCE AND RAPID RESPONSE:

  • Rolling launch to establish position and evolve/improve as the vehicles begin to arrive.
  • Ownership of site to be determined; multiple business models possible beyond sponsorships; fundraising also by partners and sponsors.
  • Registration free for introductory period, eventual low one-time or annual membership fee.
  • A team with full editorial authority: Publisher/Editor-in-Chief/Managing Editor/Columnists/Technical & Research Advisors/Content Coordinators, Hosts & Moderators, Marketing & PR, Technology, Usability.
  • An advisory/consultative board with representatives from Industry/policy/media.
  • Some team members part-time; some may divide time with publisher's existing operation.
  • Startup costs through year-end approximately $250,000; estimated annual operating budget $250-500,000 for management, editorial, technology.

POSSIBLE SPONSORS, CO-SPONSORS, ADVISORS, FUNDERS (THE FIRST FOUR ARE THE PRIMARY GROUP; OTHERS ARE ALPHABETICAL):

  • Auto industry (OEMs, component makers, service providers)
  • Charging infrastructure (suppliers and operators)
  • Electric Drive Transportation Association and its National Plug-In Vehicle Initiative
  • Plug-In Organizations: CalCars/Electric Auto Association/Plug-in America
  • Air Quality Management Districts
  • Auto associations
  • Community-focused: Silicon Valley Leadership Group, ProjectGet Ready
  • Companies: Google, SAP, GE, other technology enablers
  • Government Agencies (federal/state/municipal depts. of energy, environment, transportation)
  • Non-Governmental Organizations: Friends of the Earth, GreenAmerica, Natural Resources Defense Council, Sierra Club, Union of Concerned Scientists
  • US National Labs
  • University research and policy centers
  • Utilities; individual companies and EPRI; EEI; APPA, NARUC, NRECA.

With your support, we can create a unique and powerful institution to expand today's creative partnerships between industry, organizations, and customers.

WE URGE ALL THOSE IN FAVOR OF SUCH A PLUG-IN DRIVERS & OWNERS COMMUNITY TO COMMUNICATE YOUR VIEWS TO EDTA'S NATIONAL PLUG-IN VEHICLE INITIATIVE http://www.electricdrive.org/­index.php?ht=d/­sp/­i/­13529/­pid/­13529, TO THE PR AND STRATEGY EXECUTIVES AT GM, NISSAN AND OTHER AUTOMAKERS, TO SUPPLIER COMPANIES, AND TO YOUR LOCAL UTILITY. URGE THEM TO SPONSOR AND FUND SUCH AN EFFORT. SEND COPIES OF WHAT YOU WRITE TO info@calcars.org. (SIMPLY EMAILING TO CALCARS CONTACT NAMES OR SUGGESTIONS FOR WHAT YOU'D HOPE CALCARS WOULD DO WILL NOT BE NEARLY AS EFFECTIVE AS GETTING OTHER ORGANIZATIONS INVOLVED!)

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