Ford's first electric models include a battery-powered version of its Focus sedan. Photo courtesy of Ford
By mid-October, Ford is expected to choose 10 U.S. cities for the launch of its first fully electric passenger cars, and Richmond may be among them.
"We're on the shortlist," says Buck Ward, executive director of the Sustainable Transportation Initiative of Richmond (STIR), a coalition largely of business and education leaders that's been collaborating with Ford. "We're trying to do everything we can to get noticed," Ward says.
For the time being, details about the launch are being kept under wraps. But Ford is expected to introduce fully electric versions of its Focus and Transit Connect, a small delivery vehicle, according to Alleyn Harned, program coordinator for Virginia Clean Cities, which is leading a government-industry partnership to prepare for the adoption of electric cars not only in Richmond but throughout the state.
It's not clear how many vehicles Ford would try to sell in Richmond. But just to get the launch, Richmond must demonstrate that it has a market of about 1,000 potential customers for the vehicles, says David Berdish, Ford's Chicago-based manager of sustainable business.
Wherever it takes place, the Ford launch will be part of a larger move by several carmakers —including Nissan and GM — to begin mass marketing their first fully electric vehicles in cities across the United States by 2011.
Transportation experts say that a transition from gas- to battery-powered vehicles is inevitable because the electric versions are cleaner and cheaper. "You can drive an electric vehicle about 40 miles for a nickel," says Harned. And while a gas-fueled car produces about 5.5 tons of CO2 per year, an electric one only creates about 2 tons per year, he says.
Richmond is smaller than most cities being considered for the Ford launch. But it's still a contender because it has a large population of students, expected to be among the first adopters of electric vehicles. City residents' driving patterns — short distances within the city rather than commutes — are well suited to electric cars.
But perhaps most important, Berdish, a graduate of Virginia Commonwealth University, has taken a personal interest in bringing Ford's electric cars here. "I've been lobbying really hard for Richmond," he says.
And he's been collaborating with a group of high-powered and equally determined regional leaders. Members of STIR include Gary Rhodes, president of J. Sargeant Reynolds; Kim Scheeler, CEO of the Greater Richmond Chamber of Commerce; Mary Doswell, senior vice president for alternative energy solutions at Dominion Resources; and Byron Marshall, the city's chief administrative officer.
STIR sees electric cars as part of a broader plan for more efficient and greener transportation that would include everything from more bike paths to improved public transportation.
For the time being, traffic in Richmond is still manageable, Rhodes says. "But we have to have a plan or we will become like Northern Virginia," he says, referring to the bumper-to-bumper traffic that clogs roads outside of Washington.
"Ford is extremely important," says Ward, referring to the possible launch in Richmond. But, he says, "This [transition to electric-powered vehicles] is going to happen one way or another. STIR is about making Richmond a national leader."
STIR is part of Virginia Clean Cities, which is already in the middle of efforts to refine a plan for a transition to electric cars in Northern Virginia, Charlottesville, Hampton Roads and Richmond. The government-industry partnership includes numerous state departments and agencies, utilities such as Dominion, and members of the transportation industry.
Gov. Bob McDonnell endorsed the collaboration in June, saying, "I am committed to having Virginia state government lead the way. … The easier we make it for electric cars to operate in the Commonwealth, the more we will encourage private citizens and businesses, and local governments and agencies, to purchase these vehicles."
One of the major players in that effort is Dominion, which must make sure that the power grid can handle the extra demand electric cars would bring. For example, Dominion has to ensure that the grid can accommodate demand if everyone chooses to recharge their car batteries at the same time, say, around 7 p.m. after they've returned home from work. Dominion will also work with government agencies to build free public charging stations, one of which already exists in New Kent County.
Doswell says that Dominion is already involved in preparations throughout the state and in Richmond. "We'll be trying to work parallel to Ford so that we will have charging facilities in place when the cars arrive."
Harned says that adoption of electric cars is likely to be gradual in Richmond and elsewhere in the state. In a few years, there probably will be thousands of electric cars in Virginia, probably tens of thousands in a decade, he says.
In a recent interview, City Council President Kathy Graziano said that Richmond could be perfect for electric cars because its residents — unlike New Yorkers and San Franciscans, who use public transportation — drive within the city.
But Graziano warned that any plan for improving transportation must include mass transit not only in Richmond but also in the surrounding counties. She says Richmond is the only metropolitan area of its size in the nation without adequate public transportation into its suburbs.
In Washington, commuters take the Metro from the city to Arlington County and other suburbs. For decades in San Francisco, travelers have used the transit system to go under the San Francisco Bay and out to adjacent cities.
But Richmond was once ahead of the curve. While San Francisco was the first city in the United States to adopt cable cars, Richmond was the first to install an entire system of streetcars powered by electricity. At the end of the 19th century, an electric trolley system designed by Connecticut-born Frank Sprague began shuttling Richmonders around the city. It replaced horse-drawn public transportation.
In subsequent decades, Richmond suburbs and landmarks were built around the trolley system. Amusement parks were built at the end of trolley lines at Lakeside Park, Forest Hill Park and Westhampton Park, which is now the University of Richmond.
Richmond's former trolley-car suburbs once again might share a transportation legacy powered by electricity. If chosen by Ford for the fleet rollout, Richmond could boast anew of a forward-thinking, cleaner approach to its transportation future.