Fundamental to the success of combating global climate change and reducing dependence on oil is changing each person’s behavior. This includes moving a critical mass of people from traditional gas-powered vehicles to eco-friendly electric vehicles. This means we need to create high demand for electric cars.

We will always need electricity for our refrigerators, computers, lights, phones, you name it. We are an electricity-dependent world. Where we obtain it from is up for discussion, but we will have electricity.

We have to change not just what we drive, but how we drive.

Everyone has a role. This is a global, planet-wide issue, and every segment uses transportation, and therefore has a role in the success of “greening” mainstream automobiles: government, industry, academia, and consumers.

Here are recommendations for taking electric cars mainstream gleaned from experience including marketing the only comparatively mass market electric car company in business for over 11 years, Global Electric Motorcars (a Chrysler company, GEM, manufacturer of neighbourhood electric vehicles or NEVs), and the Los Angeles Metropolitan Transit Authority.

To encourage the use of electric vehicles, we need to make it easy, attractive, affordable and convenient. We also need to perceive it as the popular thing to do. We need what Sunstein, Thaler and other behavioural economists call “choice architecture.”  That means, we need infrastructure, rewards, and communication.

1. Infrastructure: 
The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (aka “the stimulus bill, ARRA) takes important steps toward funding the infrastructure for electric and other alternative fuel vehicles. However, ARRA has flaws: minimum funding requirements are too high, which makes for complex projects (e.g. $5 million); the funding offset is too low (e.g. $2,000 on a $10,000 vehicle); some electric vehicles are ineligible (NEVs are ineligible for many grants); and the time frame to develop the programs and apply for the funds is too short. State universities called me at GEM wanting to use ARRA grants to buy GEM electric cars, but they didn’t have the cash to make up the difference per vehicle.

Speed limits: High speed roads drive higher gas consumption, encourage the use of larger vehicles, and are vulnerable to more and worse accidents. Lower speed limits are safer, more fuel-efficient and roads posted 35mph (or below) generally permit eco-friendly, 100 percent electric NEVs. They are also friendly to bicyclists, scooters, runners and other slower moving, eco-friendly traffic. If we truly want to encourage people to drive electric, and to start immediately, we need more lower speed roads on which they can drive electric today in the electric vehicles commonly available today – NEVs.

Mapping: Drivers should be able to map routes for low-speed NEVs on only 35 mph roads. There should be an entity in the Department of Transportation that collects and tracks local speed limits to enable more eco-friendly low-speed transportation, especially around urban areas, campuses, and master-planned and retirement communities.

Charging and building codes: To make it easy – and popular – for people to drive electric, people need to feel that it’s easy to recharge, just as easy as finding a gas station. Many NEV’s such as GEM cars, plug in to standard 110 volt outlets, and can be opportunity charged anytime – like a cell phone. Therefore, to encourage electric driving, we need external and accessible outlets (parking meters and street lamps?). Building codes could require external outlets, especially for retail commercial spaces, such as restaurants and shopping malls, and could require preferential parking for alternative fuel vehicles (similar to the model for handicapped parking) with charging access. Residential building codes could universally include outlets in garages dedicated to electric vehicles, avoiding the choice between plugging in secondary refrigerators and charging their car.

2.  Incentives and rewards:
To encourage and expedite the mass adoption of electric vehicles, we need an energy use standard and cash rebates, as well as communications strategies (others are talking about the gas tax and urban planning, so we’ll set those aside):

A. Energy use standard: Develop a government standard for energy use similar to the “recommended daily allowance” used in food labeling, with a corresponding energy facts label. It would rate the “carbon footprint” of products, including vehicles, against that standard.

B. Cash rebate: Provide a cash rebate for buying any alternative-fuel vehicle: The stimulus plan includes a tax credit of $2,500 – $7,500 for buying an electric vehicle, but the buyer still has to spend the same dollars to purchase the car, and the middle class especially in tough times, may not have the requisite income to offset the credit.

3. Communication and feedback:
Studies particularly among behavioural economists show that people change their behaviour based on immediate feedback, peer pressure and the belief that “everybody’s” doing it. As Sunstein and Thaler write, “the costs of pollution are hidden, while the price at the pump is quite salient.”  “People want to do what they think others will do,” Robert Cialdini, author of Influence is quoted as saying, and we all know the bandwagon effect.

A. Sell the electric vehicle message aggressively: The US government should do a better job of promoting the use of electric vehicles, making it the popular thing to do and emphasising “green” as the new status symbol. They could also promote the Energy Star and Green Light programmes more, and make participating in those programmes more valuable. The US Green Building Council has done a good job with their LEED-certification programme, for example – it has become a popular goal for builders, perceived as a competitive advantage.

Governments need to aggressively support the marketing and advertising investment of the private sector in encouraging the use of electric cars, especially with key opinion leaders, such as community leaders and women. Women are employers, employees, and heads of households, and actively and enthusiastically share good ideas with their friends and families.

The media also has a role. The trend-setting traditional automotive press can shift from focusing on and praising big, brawny, muscular, and fast vehicles to giving louder applause to more fuel∞efficient and smaller cars. Production companies can integrate electric cars into their television and movie productions on a regular basis.

B. New Labels: Revise the labels currently on new and certified used vehicles in showrooms commensurate with the new “recommended daily energy allowance” standard described in the previous section, comparing the vehicle (or other product) to those standards. Since that label would likely be removed upon purchase, have a permanent label on the back window that other people could see reflecting how that car rates against the recommended standard energy allowance. These would provide information, make people think about the choice in relation to their overall energy use, and would provide feedback and peer pressure (everyone sees the rear label). Manufacturers could promote the “green” rating as a competitive advantage (similar to “100 percent of daily vitamins“ or the LEED-certification).

C. Energy Efficiency Card: A “green” vehicle identification card issued by the Department of Motor Vehicles certifying this vehicle is energy-efficient (based on the above new standards). This card could entitle the registrant to discounts on products and services from companies (much as they agree to accept credit cards).

In summary, there is much each of us can do. We can use “choice architecture” to help us drive “green” – one electric vehicle, one citizen at a time.

Today, governments can incentivise “green” driving with standards such as the “recommended daily energy allowance.” Each of us can stop before we jump in our SUV’s or gas-powered cars when running to the market. We can think about how to accomplish our daily tasks in a more environmentally sound manner – including driving electric – and we’ll likely save money too.

It’s not just about flipping engines. We need to change how we drive, not just what we drive.  Can we change our ways? Yes, we can.