Greenwashing – Electric Cars and Innovation Stalled

Greenwashing - Electric Cars and Innovation StalledElectric cars seem like the socially conscious, feel-good investment among environmentally friendly consumers. In corporate boardrooms, the innovation seemed well liked indeed.

What’s not to like? Cars like the Nissan Leaf and Chevrolet Volt reportedly can drive for a day or more on a full electric charge. The Toyota Prius reduces a tank full of exhaust to the whir of a hybrid electric/ gas engine.

The numbers are astonishing. The Nissan Leaf is considered the most fuel efficient vehicle in the U.S., tallying 106 mpg on the highway, and 92 in the city. The Volt gets 95/90. The Smart fortwo electric drive gets 94/79. Compared with the 16-cylinder, eight liter Bugatti Veyron, which chugs one gallon for every eight miles, the electrics and hybrids are downright stingy.

Manufacturers are riding the hype to strong brand awareness. Nissan’s international brand appeal accelerated at 17% – more than that of any other automotive brand, notes Millward Brown Optimor-devised’s “BrandZ Top 100 Most Valuable Global Brands” . Analysis attributed the growth of Nissan’s brand awareness to the debut of the Leaf. After all, it had been named both European Car of the Year and World Car of the Year, both for 2011.

Turn back the leaf – or look behind the hard-to-find recharge stations – and you’ll find deeper questions about electric cars. Prices are high, charging stations remain scarce, re-charge cost is unknown, batteries are expensive to replace – and environmentally costly to dispose of.

The real question to ask: Is society being “greenwashed” into accepting electric cars? Like whitewashing, greenwashing is the process of covering up a questionable product’s failings in the cloak of environmental friendliness. Buying products made of recycled packaging; ethanol-enhanced gasoline or an electric car is a good first step toward environmentally friendly consumer practices.

Just know the whole story. Consider “range anxiety.” This new mental issue plagues owners of electric cars. Owners wonder how long their vehicles will last on a charge. In Europe, a variety of facilities have been built (or are under consideration) to charge vehicles away from home.

To that end, the availability of a charge remains a persistent challenge to full consumer acceptance. In Europe, charging stations are comparatively more easily available than in the U.S.

The key issue for any concerned consumer is: Where’s the power coming from? Most electricity in the U.S. comes from nuclear facilities or power plants that burn coal or fossil fuels. If an electric car consumes electricity from a charging station itself fueled by a power plant that uses fossil fuel, isn’t the car essentially consuming fossil fuels?

What are the “true green” alternatives for today’s electric cars? Solar panels on the roof of homes, feeding power directly to the charging station are one option? Another could be solar panels incorporated into the roof or body of the vehicle itself. Or wind powered recharging stations? We’d first need widespread use of wind farms to bring that solution to bear.

Apparently, American consumers aren’t buying it. Sales figures remain soft, leading some to surmise that these vehicles are slow to turn the corner toward broad acceptance.

More than innovation will be needed to charge life into the electric car. One only hopes that from the boardroom to the garage to the neighborhood charging station, solutions emerge that shift these vehicles into the next gear.

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Robert F BrandsRobert Brands is the founder of, and the author of “Robert’s Rules of Innovation: A 10-Step Program for Corporate Survival”, with Martin Kleinman – published Spring 2010 by Wiley (

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  1. Peter Mann on June 15, 2011 at 12:50 am

    The solar source was considered to be the only clean source by Nikola Tesla in the late 1800s. It does not use up our natural resources and doesn’t pollute. Solar panels have yet to hit their sweet spot in terms of economics, aesthetics, or US government support. Perhaps independent thinkers wealthy enough to battle the Coal and Gas energy lobbyists will eventually breakthrough and allow the public to exercise their desire to purchase the entire electric package! Solar panel on your roof today can store in a battery in your garage what most cars will need to drive tomorrow without the need for Gasoline at all, without the need for Coal burning power plants, or atomic energy. The truth is the technology is here to power each man’s home and car with his own energy source- his own roof with solar. Roofs are expensive to install and with the correct solar technology, a roof replacement with solar energy collectors should not be much more expensive than installing a new roof! The solar energy collectors ARE the roof! Simple just like that. Spanish tile collectors, shake roof collectors, flat roof tar paper solar collectors coupled with batteries in your garage smaller than your water heater that plug into your home and car. Comments can be directed to

  2. Marc on June 15, 2011 at 10:38 am

    This comes on the heels of a new British study that says that you’d have to drive 80,000 miles before an electric car emissions show a savings over gasoline cars. And most electric cars will never drive that many miles over their lifetime because the cars are only good for short drives.

  3. Blackhouse on June 15, 2011 at 5:32 pm

    The cost to drive the Leaf is known. Most drivers are reporting it will go 3-5 miles per kilowatt. In my case, I pay 8 cents per kilowatt so it will cost me $.03-$.006 cents per mile to drive making it almost 10 times cheaper to operate compared to my mini-van plus no oil changes and no stops at the gas station. All on much cleaner American produced energy! 56% hydro, 34% natural gas, 5% coal, 5% nuclear in my area. All much cleaner than burning gas. The batteries are reusable and then recyclable once the useful life has been expended. These are not the same toxic lead acid batteries we grew up with. Electric cars are different and take a different way of thinking and driving. Would you buy a car that had 1/4 the size gas tank of a typical car but you have your own filling station at home? The Leaf is a very specialized car. It is the cleanest most efficient commuting car on the market. It is not intended for long road trips. The Leaf meets my needs 99% of the time. The 1% it doesn’t, I will take our Prius or I could rent a car. Do some research before you publish untruths.

  4. @bobbleheadguru on June 15, 2011 at 11:46 pm

    Nice article. Thanks for your thoughts. Just a few clarifications:

    1. Prices are high if you buy, you do not get an incentive and/or you do not factor in fuel savings. I ordered a Volt. My expected costs to lease it plus fuel it will be just about equal to my current 2008 Impala. Here is all of the math if you would like to see the detail: . Please post a comment if there is anything you have a question on.

    2. The Volt (and I think the Leaf) can plug into a normal 110 outlet. Getting a 220 is about speeding up the charging time (from 8+ hours to 3+ hours). Technically, new infrastructure is NOT needed.

    3. The point of the Volt is to eliminate range anxiety. It has basically the same range as an average car, because it has a gasoline engine that kicks in. It is a transition vehicle that hopes to be the best of both worlds.

    4. My power company can let me choose where the power comes from (more “green” costs a bit more). In any case, the emissions are controlled in one place (a big plant) v. lots of little places (tailpipes). That one big place is typically in the US. Also, it is important to know where gasoline comes from… if we would like to compare apples-to-apples… much of it does not originate in the US.

    5. Demand far exceeds supply on EVs. Sales are “soft” because Nissan and GM cannot make them fast enough and they are just now expanding beyond just a few states. Americans “are not buying it” because they cannot buy it yet.

    GM has already stated that they hope to produce 60,000 in 2012 (v. only 2500 so far). They have shut down their entire plant for 3 weeks to do this. If the demand were not there, this would be an absolutely crazy business decision.

  5. Lynn Laumann on June 16, 2011 at 4:30 pm

    I recently bought a Nissan LEAF. The LEAF costs only $22,000 after federal and state incentives in California. The 73-mile range will greatly exceed my daily commute, and now that I have my LEAF I am averaging over 100 miles per charge in ECO-mode. I plug the LEAF into a standard 110v socket in my garage overnight using a charger that is included with the car. The car has exceeded my expectations for quality, acceleration, handling and smooth ride. The navigation system and audio capabilities are sophisticated and easy to use. The EV revolution has begun!

  6. Ed on June 17, 2011 at 1:00 am

    “Apparently, American consumers aren’t buying it. Sales figures remain soft, leading some to surmise that these vehicles are slow to turn the corner toward broad acceptance.”

    Nissan have pre sold every LEAF it can produce. It’s not at all a demand problem, it’s a production problem! Nissan simply can’t produce LEAF’s fast enough to satisfy the demand. There’s presently a wainting list for the LEAF which exceeds 20,000. For an auto company that’s a great problem to have.

    What’s really great about electric cars is that electricity is a domestic energy, not a middle east energy source like gasoline. when you buy electricity you are assured not a penny goes to terrorist.

  7. Russ Conser on June 20, 2011 at 8:39 am

    Robert and Jeff,

    Well it must be strange to hear it from someone inside the industry likely most threatened, but I see within your note the challenge we as innovators have in framing the opportunity of the ‘new’ through the ‘old.’

    I’m reminded of a quote one of my colleagues once gave me from a turn of the previous century’s Journal of the Horseless Carriage – “The biggest problem with automobiles is that they scare horses.” We forget that the emergence of truly new things require new paradigms… but the good news is that the customer perspective is the one that matters.

    Whereas ‘range anxiety’ is absolutely true for mainstream applications, the key benefit of the Leaf over the Volt is focus on a target urban/city car where this is much less of an issue. This allows it to reap the benefits of all electric (short distances) and establish a unique brand position. The genius of the Tesla is to position in a completely different beachhead customer segment – that of the performance sports car where the unique attributes of an electric drivetrain make performance very compelling. Many other players are entering new parts of the value chain to offer re-energizing services in new customer contexts (e.g. quick juice up while you pick up your prescriptions at Walgreens).

    So personally, I think part of the problem is way too much focus on trying to sell EV’s focussing on environmental benefits… which are less tangible to most customers. Much better to sell people something they truly want personally. I think EV’s, like any other disruptive innovation, will do best by focussing on deep understanding of customer ‘jobs’ in peripheral niches during their early years, and then worry about mainstream issues only if they become successfully established in their initial markets. I like Christensen’s provocation on the subject years ago, what customers might actually like EV’s precisely *because* you can’t drive too far or too fast (e.g. parents of teens, elderly, …?).

    Meanwhile, the natural forces of technology learning curves (e.g. redcued cost and increased performance of betteries) will be greatly advanced through adoption in the early markets – making ‘mainstreaming’ much easier as the market matures… and comparisons with old technology largely moot and humorous.

    For now, I’m willing to bet we’re going to agree that we should focus our energy on framing the new through the eyes of the customer, not comparisons with existing/old ways of solving the problem. If EV’s do solve real needs, even terms like ‘MPG’ won’t make sense. Or to paraphrase Levitt from 50 years ago, ‘it’s about the hole, not the drillbit.’


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