When Electric Cars Go Viral

By Bill Moore

Posted: 27 Jul 2010

Anyone who has been around our EV world for any appreciable length of time will have heard of Otmar Ebenhoech, or just Otmar or 'Ot'. A virtually self-trained electrical engineer, he is the father of the Zilla controller, the favorite of high performance electric car aficionados across North America. If you're seriously into smokin' electric car performance that not only burns rubber standing still but gasoline-engine competitors as well, then you've got a monster 1000 (Z1K) or 2000 (Z2K)Amp Zilla under the hood.

Otmar lives up near Portland, Oregon, which has long been a hot-house for DIY electric cars, parts and services. Recently, he was explaining to his friends that a real estate developer named Gregg, who owns the Eastgate business center where Ebenhoech manufactured the Zilla, approached him a couple years ago about building his own electric car. He'd seen Otmar's Porsche 914 conversion and decided he wanted one too.

Now according to Ebenhoech, Gregg isn't your stereotypical "greenie."

"Gregg is a great person, honest and caring as can be, but when you see him pull up in his large pickup truck smoking a cigar while managing construction and concrete work, the word "environmentalist" is not usually in my mind," he explained.

Eventually, with Otmar's help, Gregg got his wish. Today, he drives his own 914 conversion powered by 92 Thundersky lithium iron phosphate cells, a Zilla Z1K controller, a ADC 9 inch motor and a DC-DC converter salvaged from a Ford Ranger electric pickup from the late 1990s. The lithium batteries give it a 100+ miles of driving range, and the Z1K, rocket sled acceleration. Since completing the car two months ago, he's put more than 2,000 miles on it.

But that's not what's interesting about this story. It's what's happened to Gregg in the process. He recently emailed Otmar about putting in a charging station at the business center, explaining, "I must admit that the more I get into this, the greener I am becoming. I just smile sometimes when I am driving that car. It is so cool to be a part of this new wave of electric vehicles. I can't think of a better way to help get the country (not to mention the rest of the world) farther away from the oil economy we have become dependent on the last century."

Then he makes what I think is a profound observation, one that sparked the title of this commentary. He writes, "I am convinced that the more common these cars are, the more common they will become. (Is that a conundrum?)"

No, Gregg, it's not a conundrum. It's what we refer to today as 'going viral.' It is a phenomenon of a increasingly networked world where events and trends aren't driven from the top down by self-appointed trend setters and decision makers, but from the bottom across, as something akin to synaptic connections fire across this global 'brain' we call the Internet. An idea, an image, a song, a quotation, a piece of news, a snippet of video, or an experience somehow makes an impression on an increasingly widening circle of individuals, and within days, if not hours, something that was an obscure happening in some far away place becomes known to millions.

The phenomenon of Susan Boyle, the surprise contestant in 2009 on the Britain's Got Talent television show, is just such an example. She went from relative obscurity to worldwide fame in days because of her extraordinary audition performance that someone posted to YouTube and millions shared with friends and relatives around the planet. I heard about her through a long-time acquaintance who grew up in England. She sent her friends links to the video. Moved to tears myself, I shared it with my family, and so it went, thousands of links creating tens of thousands, creating hundreds of thousands and then millions, virtually at the speed of light.

It is my belief that electric cars are going to be the same, just as Gregg observed. Once Volt and Leaf owners start taking friends for rides, those friends will share their experience with others, and so the network will expand, generating curiosity at first, then desire and finally sales.

Let me share with you a very recent example from Avaaz.org. They are a civil justice group that describe themselves as "a 5.5-million-person global campaign network that works to ensure that the views and values of the world's people shape global decision-making." Just today, they announced in an email that they have succeeded in helping pass a law in Brazil that bans politicians convicted of crimes of corruption and money laundering from running for office. Despite efforts by corrupt congressman to kill, delay, amend or weakened the bill, Avaaz wrote, the grassroots, networked campaign won the day; and the results are immediate. Nearly 25% of Brazil's Congress are under investigation for corruption and more than 330 candidates for political office have now been disqualified. That's the power of the network and a simple idea.

Electric cars, be they battery or plug-in hybrids, are just such a concept. Intuitively, they just make sense now. Yes, they are expensive, but so was the first fax machine, the first cellphone, the first plasma flat screen television, the first iPod. Just as Gregg the developer in Portland observed, "more common these cars are, the more common they will become."

When electric cars finally "go viral," carmakers will be hard pressed to keep up with the demand, and eventually prices will fall and we will have become a truly EV world.

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