This year’s AltCar Expo is all about making EVs the norm in Santa Monica

By Stephanie Case

AltCar Expo will host the first public test drives of the new Honda Clarity

AltCar Expo will host the first public test drives of the new Honda Clarity

The 2006 documentary film “Who Killed the Electric Car?” opens with a comically somber scene: a General Motors EV1 sits in a cemetery, draped in a black sheet, while mourners place funeral flowers atop its hood. “We are here today to say goodbye to an idea,” a man says, as bagpipes play.

One year earlier, GM crushed and discontinued their entire electric vehicle fleet, a seeming death knell for the budding alternative fuel movement. Hundreds of eco-minded Californians protested the decision, their dreams of zero-emission freeways slipping further out of reach.

This year marks the 10th anniversary of “Who Killed the Electric Car?” — but one decade later, a different question has emerged: How mainstream can the electric car get?

At this weekend’s 11th annual AltCar Expo, the public can take part in the transportation revolution.

Attendees can test-drive the newest electric, hybrid and hydrogen fuel cell cars, like the BMW i3, the Chevy Spark and the Nissan LEAF; pedal down Pico Boulevard on emission-free electric bicycles; or hear panels of experts discuss the future of clean-energy transportation.

As of January, more than 400,000 people across the country are driving plug-in electric vehicles, and more than 45% of those drivers are Californians, according to the California Plug-in Electric Vehicle Collaborative.

Two percent of cars in and around Santa Monica, the AltCar Expo’s host city, are fully or hybrid electric vehicles, says Garrett Wong, the city’s lead sustainability analyst for climate and energy programs.

While that percentage may seem small, Wong estimates it will increase five-fold over the next few years as more and more locals switch to green cars. That exponential uptick is likely for a few reasons: a growing number of competitively priced models, more enticing state rebates, and the surging trendiness of EVs.

“I think what Elon Musk has done with the electric vehicle is similar to what Steve Jobs did with the computer — that is, make something that’s desirable and cool and fun and sleek,” Wong says.

Musk’s Tesla Model 3 —a slick, relatively affordable, fuel-free sedan — has garnered as much hype as a new iPhone. After unveiling it in March, the car racked up more than 373,000 reservations in less than two months.

Beyond their futuristic design and growing cachet, emissions-free cars are a massive boon for the environment. To Wong, who rides his bike to Santa Monica past gas-guzzlers and fuel cells alike, that impact is palpable.

“I’ve realized that the [gas-fueled] car is violent, in a way. There’s lots of noise that it creates; there’s lots of smells. … But when you’re next to an electric vehicle, it’s calm. It’s quiet. It’s clean. You don’t have to turn away to breathe. It’s a lot more sensitive,” he says.

In 1996, Santa Monica city officials started replacing their outdated natural gas fleet with electric alternatives. To encourage citizens to do the same, they’ve installed 62 public EV charging ports across the city over the past decade.

In the next six months, 30 more charging ports will pop up in parking structures, surface lots, parks and libraries, according to Wong. After that, the city will start experimenting with on-street charging by retrofitting streetlights to include EV ports.

As part of Saturday’s AltCar Expo event lineup, Wong is leading a community discussion on how to maximize the effectiveness of public chargers and build an even stronger civic support system for EV usage.

Those who find themselves curious about electric vehicles can check out the dozens of options on display — including the West Coast debut of the 2017 Kia Optima Plug-in Hybrid — or get behind the wheel of the Honda Clarity Fuel Cell before it hits car dealerships later this year.

Kids without driver’s licenses can try out an array of two-wheeled rides, like the Air33, billed as the world’s lightest, foldable electric bicycle, or the URB-E, an electric scooter made by hand in Pasadena.

The AltCar Expo runs from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Friday and Saturday at the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium, 1855 Main St, Santa Monica. Admission and test drives are free, but registration for Friday’s industry conference is $60. Find more  

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