I recently had the opportunity to attend the Business of Plugging In Conference in Detroit, where people from all over the country and various industries – automotive, energy/utilities, IT, startups, media, government and even a few consumer enthusiasts – gathered together to share their thoughts about and solutions to the growth and future of plug in electric vehicles (PEVs).

As I sat in the large auditorium during one of the sessions, it was evident and maybe obvious that we won’t be dropping oil-based transportation in the next 5-10 years, or even the near future after that. And it was clear that there were some disconnects, or questions among attendees and participants – some overly optimistic, others distinctly pessimistic/skeptical, and some in between.

Despite this disconnect, during a keynote session as part of an informal live poll, when asked how many attendees were seriously considering a PEV, about half the people in the room raised their hands. That’s a lot of early adopters for one room of 400 people! But the underlying question remained, how do we break beyond these early adopters? Perhaps into the next 10 percent of consumers?

I don’t have the answer to that question (sorry), and it didn’t seem like anyone else at the conference had THE definitive answer. With the help of various speakers and attendees, I started thinking it’s more about realism: where are we going today? And what is going to change between now and 20 or 30 years from now? What are the goals, and what targets are all the players going to set collectively to get there?

One way is to invest in new alternatives for powertrains in the next 5-10 years, according to Dr. Neil Armstrong, Mercedes-Benz president of research & development North America, Inc. – eDrive & powertrain USA division. Armstrong emphasized the need to have a better balance, to ensure there is not too much investment in a single field, and the need to consider the TOTAL emissions of a “green” vehicle.

He’s right – why put all our eggs in one basket? There are existing technologies like the exhaust heat recovery system (EHRS), which optimizes a traditional powertrain engine by leveraging internal-combustion exhaust to reduce the amount of time that engines need to heat the cabin, ultimately helping improve fuel economy and lower emissions from the vehicle.

Based off of Armstrong’s perspective, keep in mind the true total emissions of a “green” vehicle. Do we really know exactly how green a low- or zero- emissions vehicle really is? Consider the amount of energy it takes to get to the green vehicle and what kinds of “dirty” aspects are involved in the development and production of a green vehicle.

Are we investing more emissions in the development to get to a perception of lower emissions at the dealership? How do we even measure that? And from a PEV standpoint, what do we do with the batteries once they’ve become unusable by a vehicle? ABB, Inc.’s, Rick Hepperla, president, discrete automation & motion, North America, suggested they be repurposed for other industries.

—Jenn Korail