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RP Siegel headshot

3p Interview: A Conversation With an Electric Road Warrior

Words by RP Siegel

Norman Hajjar is a man with a penchant for travel, adventure and a strong sense of curiosity. Years ago, when he lived in Venice, Italy, he wondered what it would be like to get off the familiar canals and see some of the surrounding area by boat. He wanted to get a feel for what the place was really like. He took 10 days and an old boat to find out, even though he knew next to nothing about boating. What he found was that he spent a great deal of time worrying about when and where he could fill up his gas tank so he wouldn’t end up stranded in some dark lagoon.

Years later, he developed a keen interest in electric vehicles. Having worked on Madison Avenue, he left to start Plug Insights, a research division of electric vehicle software and analytics company Recargo, Inc. Now he spends his days collecting information about these cars and the people that drive them, providing reports to those who are interested.

So it makes sense that he would set out to set a new record with a 12,000+ mile road trip in a Tesla Model S, to get off the beaten track once again and see what it would be like to see America “through the windshield of an EV." He was wondering what kind of reaction people in remote areas would have to a car like this. Perhaps you could say he has taken it upon himself to go out and survey the boundary between today and tomorrow, to get a feel for how far we’ve come in the transformation of transportation and how far we still have to go.

When I caught up with Norm he was in southern Virginia. He had come down the coast to Los Angeles, then to Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, Utah, Wyoming; then he headed to South Dakota, across the Great Plains, into Ohio. From there it was New York and Portland, Maine, then down the Eastern seaboard. You can follow Norm on his journey using this route map or see his location in real time using this live GPS tracker.

I asked him if he had plans to pass through my area, but he said the “supercharger archipelago” did not go that way. This topic soon changed to the weather, which was great both here and there. It was the first good weather he’d seen.

Norm Hajjar: I’ve seen every kind of weather imaginable. I had a blizzard in Colorado, sandstorms in Wyoming, 50-mil- an-hour crosswinds in New Mexico, torrential rains, you name it.

Triple Pundit: So what else are you seeing, besides very diverse weather?

NH: I’m going through a lot of areas where EVs are uncommon. There is a lot of curiosity but also a sense that people are looking at the future. I think people are really looking forward to the day when they can abandon their gas vehicles.

3p: It’s coming.

NH: Yeah. I see a lot of astonishment when I tell people I am going 12,000 miles. I tell them about the supercharger network and how that enables this trip. But that’s just the first shoe to drop. As the fast-charging infrastructure builds out, things like this will no longer be astonishing.

3p: Why are you doing this?

NH: One reason is to illustrate the power of what is already possible because of what Tesla has done, and also to point out how we need more strategic investment in more Level 3 fast charging infrastructure, to make this category blossom.

3p: So do you see your mission as trying to demystify the whole thing?

NH: Yes, to show that it’s not a quirky or eccentric means of transport. I think the perception is that these are still experimental, and not ready for prime time. If others were to take on the same attitude as Tesla, we could really begin to explode the category.

3p: What is your relationship with Tesla?

NH:  There is no relationship at all. I’ve not spoken with them personally, about the trip. They will tweet encouragement, but that’s about it. This is not about Tesla. This is about EVs in general. Tesla just happens to make the first EV that can do something like this. But it certainly won’t be the last.

3P: You can only do this with a Tesla because…

NH: Well, there are two reasons. There’s the vehicle range. A mid-range EV like the Nissan Leaf is limited to 80 to 90 miles between charges. That’s simply not enough range for a trip like this. Then there’s the charging infrastructure. Mid-range EVs could be suited to regional travel, which is the most common, if the infrastructure was there. In Oregon there is the electric highway, which is studded with charging stations that you can travel freely, all around the area, in a Leaf. There is a similar situation in the U.K. The infrastructure is key. Otherwise it’s like having a hi-def TV, with no hi-def signal available.

We did some research that shows that the longest trip taken by someone with a Nissan Leaf is 96 miles. Clearly these drivers are not ranging outside the circle that the battery affords them. Consequently, they’re not getting the most out of their machines. It’s also the reason many people reject the vehicle as not having the utility they need.

3p: If you had the infrastructure, you’d have to stop every couple of hours to charge up, right?

NH: But you could charge up that car in under an hour.

3p: Okay, so an hour of charging for a two-hour trip. Not exactly ideal.

NH: Our research shows that people are warm to the idea of stopping for a sandwich while they charge up their car -- if they could do it, but in most cases they can’t.

3p: What’s the farthest you've gone on a charge on this trip?

NH: About 220 miles, which is dictated, in part, by the spacing of the superchargers. They are laid out to serve those with the smaller of the two batteries they sell (60kW vs. 80 kW). What’s missing, other than what Tesla has done, is a top-down plan for where these fast-chargers are sited.

3p: Can any car use a Tesla supercharger?

NH: No, only Tesla cars can use them. There’s also the CHAdeMO charging standard, which works with the Leaf and several other Japanese cars. Tesla is coming out [with an] an adapter that will let their cars use these chargers. There is a third standard for vehicles like the BMW i3 that are just starting to appear. A number of American car companies will be following this standard. So there is a bit of a format war going on.

3p: How long did it take you to charge back up after 200 miles?

NH: It’s about an hour to charge on average.

3p: So are you trying to make the case that we should consider EVs equivalent to gasoline vehicles, even for long-distance travel?

NH: I’m trying to make the case that they shouldn’t be thought of as specialty vehicles at all, at least not the Tesla. If you had the right charging infrastructure in a metropolitan area or a region, then they wouldn’t be.

3p: Is the electricity free?

NH: Once you’ve paid to enable the supercharging feature, which cost around $2,000. But I figure that on this trip alone, I would have spent $1,200 to $1,400 [on gas], which comes close to paying for that.

3p: Then you just have to pay for the car.

NH: Yes, but as you know, a lower priced version of the Tesla is on its way, with other companies coming along as well. Soon EVs with ranges over 150 miles will be quite common. That will be a true inflection point.

3p: Most people I know, who are in a two-car situation, are looking at one EV and one car with gas capability for longer trips.

NH: Our research shows that the majority of Leaf owners have a second, gasoline-powered vehicle. But more than 30 percent of them said that if there was a fast-charging infrastructure out there that was highly available and reliable, they would get rid of their gas backup vehicle. Think of how that increases the value of the EV.

3p: But in a two-car situation, don’t you think we’ll see a lot of people with one of each?

NH: Yes, either that or a plug-in hybrid, like a Volt or a plug-in Prius.

3p: So in your research, what was the primary reasons people said they bought an EV?

NH: Mostly to avoid gasoline and [for] other environmental benefits. There is a very strong environmental culture in this group.

3p: People are buying Teslas for reasons other than the environment, but these are high-end consumers. The question is when that starts to happen among mainstream consumers and lower-priced EVs.

NH: That will be a great day. We will be tracking those trends. I predict that as the circle widens, the percentage of people doing this for environmental reasons will drop. That will mean we have tapped into a more mainstream audience.

3p: So are you collecting data on this trip? Are you trying to feel the pulse of what Americans are thinking about cars?

NH: Yes, definitely. My background is Madison Avenue, where I was a strategic planner. There I learned to listen in an unbiased way to what people are saying and how they are saying it. So this has been very nourishing in that way, both from people I meet along the way, and those fellow Tesla owners I meet at the superchargers, who also have stories to tell. Many of them are just in love with the way the vehicle performs. They could care less what fuel it runs on.

3p: So what’s the most surprising thing you’ve heard, so far?

NH: Probably the rabid interest I find among people I meet along the way, who want to engage me in conversation about this car. The depth of their curiosity, in many cases the wrongheadedness of their beliefs, and how quickly they are able to be redirected once you give them the facts. People are shocked to learn that this car is able to make a journey like this. Because I’m going for a world record, I am obliged to stop and get city officials to sign letters as witnesses. These folks all have a deep interest in seeing that these types of vehicles are being used in their municipalities. They see this as an important thing for their agendas for the years ahead.

So, my company Plug Insights, which is the research division of Recargo, has a Plugshare app which is in the hands of over 100,000 EV drivers. That list gives us access to these people to opt-into our customer panel. This panel now has over 9,000 people on it. That allows us to look at very specific sectors to improve our understanding. We publish syndicated studies for sale and also do custom research for automakers and others who are interested in using that large panel for learning about the best way to market these cars.

3p: So what happens if you decided to change your route? It’s not so easy given the planning and logistics required.

NH: Well the worst thing would be that I would have to rely on a slower Level 2 charger, which means I would have to stay overnight to recharge.

3p: So that’s a good thing to point out to people. You can always go to a regular outlet to charge up, it just takes a lot longer to do it. What other tales of the road would you like to share?

NH: I blew into the tiny town south of Moab, [Utah] with a population of about 300, and there was a little shop with an espresso sign in the window, so I stopped in. When the people there heard what it was I was doing, the whole place emptied out -- patrons, employees, owner, everyone. They all came out surrounded the vehicle, got in, started honking the horn. It was really a gas, and very typical of the kinds of experiences I’ve been having. People are really excited about this technology.

RP Siegel headshotRP Siegel

RP Siegel, author and inventor, shines a powerful light on numerous environmental and technological topics. His work has appeared in Triple Pundit, GreenBiz, Justmeans, CSRWire, Sustainable Brands, Grist, Strategy+Business, Mechanical Engineering,  Design News, PolicyInnovations, Social Earth, Environmental Science, 3BL Media, ThomasNet, Huffington Post, Eniday, and engineering.com among others . He is the co-author, with Roger Saillant, of Vapor Trails, an adventure novel that shows climate change from a human perspective. RP is a professional engineer - a prolific inventor with 53 patents and President of Rain Mountain LLC a an independent product development group. RP was the winner of the 2015 Abu Dhabi Sustainability Week blogging competition. Contact: bobolink52@gmail.com


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