Santa Monica’s AltCar Expo contemplates a future without cars as we know them

By Joe Piasecki

The all-electric 2015 BMW i3

The all-electric 2015 BMW i3

A decade ago — around the time that GM was recalling and crushing its EV1s, prompting the documentary “Who Killed the Electric Car?” — Santa Monica city officials launched the AltCar Expo to give residents alternative transportation choices that most automakers refused to offer.

If the market wasn’t ready to support Santa Monica’s goals to cut carbon dioxide emissions, their thinking was the city would have to help it along.

A lot has changed since.

Visitors to the 10th annual AltCar Expo, happening Friday and Saturday at the Santa Monica Civic Center, can choose among two dozen hybrid or electric vehicles available for test drive or purchase. There’s even a hydrogen fuel-cell car: the Toyota Mirai, one of the first vehicles of its kind to enter commercial production.

Compared to the scant offerings available during the first AltCar Expo, this is green-car nirvana.

But the future of the automobile is much more complicated than that.

App-driven rideshare services such as Uber and Lyft are quickly eroding the necessity of owning a car in Greater Los Angeles, once taken for granted.

Google, meanwhile, is expanding its fleet of autonomous vehicle prototypes — cars that could someday render the very act of driving obsolete.

“This year we’re looking not just at alternative cars, but alternatives to cars — technology that would reduce the need to have a car,” says Rick Sikes, who helped organize the first AltCar Expo in 2005 when he managed Santa Monica’s city vehicle fleet, 75% of which now runs on alternative fuels.

At 12:45 p.m. Saturday, KPCC 89.3-FM and Orange County Register auto critic Susan Carpenter leads a panel asking whether people will even need cars in the not-so-distant future.

“The day is coming,” says Carpenter, an early adopter of hybrid and electric cars. “The arrival of autonomous vehicles is synching up with the aging of the baby boomers, and that technology will help older drivers whose skills are declining. If you have the option of being mobile or immobile, you’ll choose mobility.”

At the same time, tomorrow’s work force is growing up at a time when ridesharing and electric cars are commonplace, making them less wedded to the notion of personal car ownership than their parents, she says.

“Climate change has become part of the school curriculum, and these kids are very well aware that bad things are going to happen if they don’t deal with the sins of their grandfathers and great-grandfathers,” says Carpenter.

But change does not happen overnight, nor does it progress in a straight line. Back in 2005, consumers wanted hybrid and electric cars but car companies were unwilling or unable to deliver. In 2015, car companies are rolling out more such vehicles than ever before, but many consumers are hesitant to buy.

National sales of hybrids and EVs have plummeted in the first half of 2015 due to lower gas prices, a reduction in government purchase incentives in some states and a shift in consumer tastes from compact sedans to sport utility vehicles, according to The Detroit News.

“Americans tend to focus on upfront costs and have an overwhelming preference for cars powered by gas,” Carpenter says. “What I’m seeing now is that the car companies are way ahead of public sentiment on everything, with the exception of Uber — people are excited about Uber because it’s easy to use.”

Despite current consumer reluctance, transportation experts believe government mandates to reduce carbon emissions all but guarantee that hybrid and electric vehicles will eventually takeover more and more of the market share in years to come.

That creates a new problem for cities: How will all these electric cars plug into the grid?

Home to a greater share of alternative vehicle drivers than most American cities, Santa Monica is working hard to stay ahead of the curve when it comes to plug-in infrastructure, says Garrett Wong, the city’s lead sustainability analyst for climate and energy programs.

At 11:30 a.m. Saturday, Wong will lead an AltCar Expo panel titled Santa Monica’s Sustainable Future. So far, that future looks pretty bright, especially on the transportation side.

The city currently maintains more than 70 public electric vehicle chargers and is currently planning to install about two dozen more. In the past year alone, the city installed 30 public chargers in the public parking garage at Broadway and Second Street.

And people are using them.

“We’ve seen a higher demand for EV chargers. There’s increasingly competition for space at those locations,” Wong says.

That’s where UCLA professor Rajit Gadh, founder and director of the Henry Samueli School of Engineering and Applied Science’s Smart Grid Energy Research Center, comes in.

When it comes to the future of green transportation, “infrastructure is probably the most critical point,” says Gadh, who is partnering with the city to maximize the availability and efficiency of electric vehicle charging locations.

About two and a half years ago, Gadh started measuring how much energy electric vehicle owners were using and at what time of day. That data is going into a new study to help optimize EV charger energy output to avoid taxing the power grid during peak demand hours, he says.

The first study “convinced me there is going to be a shortage of capacity, and now there is — utilization is going up,” Gadh says. “What we’re asking is: Can you schedule the energy flow into that vehicle in such a way that it’s going to be friendly for the building? If everybody is plugging in at 8 a.m., there’s a peak in consumption, and that’s not good.”

The AltCar Expo is open to the public from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Friday and Saturday at the Santa Monica Civic Center, 1855 Main St., Santa Monica. Admission is free. For more information and a schedule of public and industry panels, visit