Reviving the Electric Car: An Interview with Chelsea Sexton

Electric cars, undergoing a renaissance today, did not always find themselves in such wonderful times. Who Killed the Electric Car?, a 2006 documentary which explored early, and unfortunately failed, brought to light underwhelming attempts to make electric cars available to the public in the 1990s. One person who rose from the ashes of this though to continue the EV fight was Chelsea Sexton. Sexton, according to Wikipedia, got involved with General Motors’ failed EV1 electric car program early on. She was unfortunately laid off from GM when the program was shutdown in 2001, but since then has been a tireless advocate of alternative fuel – most specifically electric – vehicles. She has been involved with Plug In America and now serves as the founder of the Lightning Rod Foundation.

We caught up with Sexton over email just prior to Thanksgiving to get her thoughts on the status of electric vehicle acceptance in the United States today and whether or not consumers and car makers are ready to welcome these cars into mainstream society.

EarthTechling: Tell us a little bit about your background in the electric vehicle world. How did you come to get involved in it?

Chelsea Sexton: Unexpectedly! When I was 17, I started working for General Motors (Saturn)- I was insistent on paying my own way through college and liked what the company stood for. A few years later, GM announced the EV1; I was intrigued enough to move over to that project where I found my inner geek. Ok, it may have had something to do with that first test drive and the torque of an AC motor- I was definitely smitten!

ET: Many people know you from the documentary Who Killed the Electric Car? Did you ever expect your presence in that film would elevate you to being such a spokesperson for electric vehicles today?

image via Chelsea Sexton

image via Chelsea Sexton

Sexton: Not a chance! For one thing, I’m incredibly shy by nature and was never supposed to be in the film- it remains a joke among the crew that when we did the main interview, they assured me they’d only use about two seconds of it because I was so nervous. Of course, we didn’t know if the film would ever end up in theaters anyway- we thought we’d end up burning copies for our parents and moving on with our lives. So seeing it premiere at Sundance was a bit of a shock, and it’s been an adventure ever since. But much as it still feels strange to be the one on the stage instead of behind the curtain, I’m grateful to have had the opportunity to help bring electric vehicles back after a lot of dark years. And we’ve been thrilled to see how much the film has been embraced by the public..so much so that we’re working on another one, called “Revenge of the Electric Car”.

ET: Explain, in your own words, the differences you see between regular hybrids like the Prius and plug-in hybrids/electric vehicles. Do you feel the Prius is just a temporary evolutionary step in consumers adopting in mass mainstream amounts vehicles which are more eco-friendly, or will electric vehicles eventually pass up regular hybrids in sales?

Sexton: The currently-available hybrids like the Prius are still gasoline vehicles at the end of the day, and they’ve been a double-edged sword. They certainly deserve credit for getting people to embrace efficient driving, and for those who never had the chance to experience an EV, they’ve helped to get folks used to the idea of electricity in vehicles. The flip side is that they’ve also helped to foster complacency; for several years, consumers (and several car companies) thought that hybrids were enough and there’s no reason to do better. We lost a lot of momentum in those years that we’re only now starting to get back.

That said, hybrids can can be made even better with the addition of a plug. One of Plug In America’s founders, Marc Geller, has been known to say that the best way to get people to use less oil is to give them the opportunity to use none, and he’s right. Electricity is cleaner (even with our current national grid) and cheaper than gasoline, and it’s domestically-produced. They key is that there’s room in the market for several types of electrified vehicles, whether a plug-in hybrid (PHEV) like the new Ford Escape in SCE’s test fleet that drives electrically up to a certain speed, an extended-range electric vehicle (EREV) like the Chevy Volt that drives in all electric mode for a given number of miles, or a battery electric vehicle (EV) like the Nissan Leaf that doesn’t use a liquid fuel at all. The cool thing for the consumer is that there are several of each type coming to market over the next few years in all sorts of shapes and sizes- but that doesn’t mean that there won’t be a place for hybrids and even efficient gasoline and diesel vehicles for years to come.

Unfortunately, companies like Toyota and Honda used their gasoline-hybrid advertising campaigns over the last decade to denigrate EVs of all stripes with tag lines like “you don’t have to plug it in”, as if that were a downside instead of the convenience and economic benefit EV drivers know it to be. So in addition to the new technology education we need to do as plug-ins get ready to come to market, we also have to undo a fair amount of damage done by some of the very car companies planning to make these cars.

I am the editor-in-chief and founder for EarthTechling. This site is my desire to bring the world of green technology to consumers in a timely and informative matter. Prior to this my previous ventures have included a strong freelance writing career and time spent at Silicon Valley start ups.