Published December 14th, 2022
On A Quest For The Car Of The Future
Maggie Philbin: Hi everyone, welcome to Climb by VSC. My name is Maggie Philbin. I'm a partner at VSC and a guest host for today's episode on all things electric vehicles. I'm excited to be joined by my friend, Levi Tillemann, VP of Policy and International Outreach at Ample. Ample is a startup that's making charging your electric vehicle as fast and as convenient as going to a gas station through a new model that they call battery swapping. Levi is bringing a wealth of knowledge to us today as he's had 15 plus years experience on the policy side, working with the Department of Energy and the World Economic Forum. He's also the author of The Great Race. Levi, I have your book here. It's about the global quest for the car of the future. I'm just so honored honestly honored that you're here. So welcome. Thank you.
Levi Tillemann: Well, thank you for having me, Maggie. And I would I would never pass up an opportunity for an extended conversation with us. So I'm looking forward to it. I think there's a lot happening in this space right now. And especially in the policy side of electric vehicles. So let's jump in.
MP: Yeah, let's do it. I figured why don't we actually just kick things off by looking back a little bit. I know that you come from a long line of generations of your family being in politics, but for you clean energy and electric mobility have always remained at the focus for your career. So I just figured, do you want to give us a little TLDR on where you are today and why the mobility space?
LT: Sure. Yeah. So I was always fascinated with the natural world. When I was a kid, I spent probably way too much time at the local pond catching frogs and crayfish and turtles and studying ecosystems. And I think as a result from a really young age, I was highly attuned to what was happening in terms of climates and I can't remember a time when I didn't think that was a big problem. So I got involved with electric vehicles actually kind of through a side door. I had been working on a startup with my father who was an inventor on actually more efficient internal combustion engines. There was a lot of thought in the 2000s that biofuels were going to be a big part of the solution when it came to climate change. But as it became clear that biofuels were not likely to pan out in the way that some had predicted, I shifted my focus to electric vehicles, and I decided to write a PhD dissertation on industrial policy in the automotive industry, specifically focused on policies that drive socially beneficial innovation. I feel like a lot of the predictions that I made in my book, The Great Race are coming true. The electric vehicles industry is about 20 times as big as it was when my book was published.
MP: For our listeners who didn't have the chance to read your book, what were some of the predictions that you had and how are you seeing it fold out today?
LT: Well, it's hard for people to remember this but in 2014 When I finished writing my book, the electric vehicle industry was still very speculative. People didn't know if this was just a flash in the pan if it was a momentary trend, like NFTS or or some of the other things that we've seen kind of rise and fall. I said no, you know, this is the future this is what's going to happen within decades. It's going to not just be a big industry, it's going to be the entirety of the automotive industry.
MP: We have such big ambitious goals in the US, globally, Europe. What do you think it's really going to take to move to a fully electric future?
LT: Well, first of all, electric vehicles are fantastic. I have an electric vehicle. I love it. It has terrific acceleration as great performance in other ways. They are being held back by charging technology today. And I think that there are a couple of other challenges in terms of making sure that we have enough resources to build the batteries that are required for electric vehicles, in terms of rare earth elements and critical materials. But I think the biggest thing that is holding electric vehicles back today is fast, convenient, affordable charging. And Amples solution of battery swapping is a way to address that challenge.
MP: You should follow Levi on Twitter becauseI really do see you poking the bear a little bit often about your charging experience when you're waiting, or they don't work. It's just like a host of issues that I see you often complaining about on Twitter, but for good reason to know
LT: I'm poking the bear. I'm trying to make our competition stronger. So that we can all succeed together. You know, I don't really see it as a competition between battery swapping and charging. I see it as a competition between electric vehicles that are much better in an ideal world for the environment and non-electric vehicles. But as it is now there's a lot of innovation that has to happen in order for electric vehicles to really take over the job of the internal combustion engine.
MP: Yeah, that makes sense. And so let's go back to battery swapping, though, because I don't know if everyone that's listening knows about battery swapping. So can you just kind of give us an explanation of how it works and maybe why it's better.
LT: I think one of the challenges that I find when I'm talking with people about the industry is you know, electric vehicles probably are responsible for about 1% of the vehicle miles traveled in the United States today, which means the vast majority of people don't have a lot of experience driving electric cars 99 plus percent of the miles traveled are non electric vehicles. So people know what it means to refuel a non-electric vehicle. And a lot of people think that refueling an electric car charging an electric car is going to be similar. Well, for me, I have to find a place to plug in my electric car. Most cars in the United States don't have access to overnight home charging. So for me, usually what I do is I will drive 15 minutes away to a Walmart that has an Electrify America charging station. I pray, even though I'm not a particularly religious person, that there's not something wrong with the charging station because frequently there is something wrong with a charging station. I plug it in and in a best possible scenario. I'm going to wait 45 minutes for my electric vehicle to charge from a 20% charge to about an 80% Charge. That means that I'm waiting the better part of an hour for roughly 60% of that battery to be charged and in total that battery has a 270 mile range. That is not sustainable for most people. So what battery swapping is, is it's a way for people who aren't up for that challenge to have an electric vehicle charging experience that is as convenient as seamless and as affordable as gasoline and ideally significantly more affordable than gasoline. What we do is you roll into something that looks a little bit like a car wash, and then robots come and they pull out your empathy battery and they plug in a fresh battery. And that whole process takes about 10 minutes. By the end of next year. It should take about five minutes. And the idea is to basically give people a recharging mechanism that preside provides them with an experience that is very similar to the experience of filling up with gasoline. So that is what battery swapping is.
MP: Oh I love that. So what is it like when you're talking to cities and governments and you're trying to pitch them on why it's a good idea to have an Ample swapping station on the corner just like we would see a traditional gas station or maybe just like we would want to see as many McDonald's but with Amples? What has that process been like for you? What are you hearing? Are people excited about this? Are they skeptical?
LT: Mostly it's a process of education. In the United States battery swapping is not a large industry yet, which is different from some other countries around the world. So in China, there are already over 2000 battery swapping stations and that's a lot if you think about it within the context of industry. The US has about 100,000 gas stations. And the battery swapping station is kind of similar to a gas station in the number of vehicles that it can charge in a given day. Because it's so much faster than normal electric vehicle charging. So sometimes you see numbers out there where people say they're now you know as many electric vehicle chargers as gas stations in the United States or something like that. That's not a very good comparison because it doesn't take you an hour to charge your vehicle at a gas station.
MP: Do you think conscious consumer spending is going to put America back a little bit as we head into this recession? What do you think about that?
LT: In terms of electrification? Yeah, that's a good question. You know, it may Maggie. I think that one of the big challenges is that the vehicle fleet turns over very slowly. The average vehicle on the road in the United States is more than 10 years old. And as a result, you know, it takes a while for those old vehicles to go away and the new vehicles potentially the electric vehicles, to replace those old gasoline powered vehicles. Today in the United States, the sales of electric vehicles still only account for sort of single digits in terms of the overall market share. And, you know, until we still get to a point where electric vehicles account for the majority of vehicles sold, when you buy a new vehicle on average in the United States, you're still going to be contributing to that problem of internal combustion engine vehicles that spew out both pollution and and global greenhouse gases.
MP: Yeah, wait, it was interesting. At the top of that, you were saying that the US was lagging? Why does the US continue to lag against, let's say Europe, who has exceeded us in terms of getting EVs on the road? Why is that? Why does it keep happening?
LT: Yeah, I think it mostly comes down to policy. The EU has very aggressive fuel economy requirements that essentially force a certain amount of electrification. I think most Europeans realize that this is an issue of survival. This is an issue of maintaining a healthy ecosystem. Not just for animals, and oceans, but for people and that we all rely on each other. And we want to live in a world where you have that biodiversity, because at the end of the day, that supports not just ecological life, but human life. We are part of that ecosystem, and we rely on that ecosystem.
MP: What would you say are some things you're really proud of in terms of cutting elbows, breaking through on some policy changes, or what you're hearing as you're, going out and selling Ample.
LT: We've had pretty spectacular success with respect to the inflation Reduction Act. You know, it was it was like Santa's coming down the chimney for Ample and I will explain what I mean. When I say that there were a lot of policies in the previous infrastructure bill that was being put together, kind of right when I got hired by Ample. From my standpoint, that was really bad policy and the reason it was bad policy is because again, 99% of the miles on our roads are not electrified, the kinds of technologies that are going to electrify that remainder that that remaining 99% of miles are not necessarily the same technologies. You should make that technology eligible for whatever programs you're rolling out. But secondly, kind of more concretely, you should look at the specific metrics that you want to achieve with respect to distinct technologies. So for instance, in the case of electric vehicles, what is the most important metric each vehicle miles traveled? We want to make sure that as many vehicle miles traveled as possible, our transition from internal combustion engine vehicles to zero carbon electric vehicles, and you should incentivize the technologies that are able to do that most efficiently and most effectively. And I think that those arguments really resonated with the offices that we worked with on Capitol Hill. And so they went the extra mile to make sure that a lot of these policies were technology neutral, and they even put some carve outs in some of the bills that specifically incentivize fleet drivers, people who drive commercial vehicles to Go Electric, more so than private individuals and that's a good thing. So we feel really proud about a lot of the provisions and made their way into the inflation Reduction Act and we can see our fingerprints all over that bill.
MP: I'm actually really curious too, about how you went about for other startup founders. What does your team look like at ample? Is it you and 10 others? How did you recruit for these folks? Do you have people that you used to work with on Capitol Hill?
LT: So I hired a lawyer who worked with me when I was at the Obama administration and also has experience on the hill and working on campaigns. So he brings a lot of important things to the table and that he has legal expertise. He has policy experience. He has a good network, and he and I have a great relationship. Because we've been friends ever since we've worked for the Department of Energy together, we also bring in a lot of subject matter experts to supplement our abilities. And so we have a pretty sizable budget that is allocated to that. We do bring on really great interns and part time help when necessary during the summers and things like that. But for now, you know we have a relatively small team. It's two of us, I would say small but mighty because we have actually been pretty effective in achieving the things that we sought out to do over the past couple of years.
MP: Do you see it as a future where battery swapping will still work with traditional EV charging, is it a winner takes all?
LT: Yeah, I wouldn't want it any other way. I wouldn't want to buy an electric vehicle. They didn't have a plug on it because personally, I love the idea of being able to go home at night plug into my home garage, have a solar panel installed on my roof and wake up every day with a full battery. I think that sounds terrific. It's just so many people don't have that as an option. I don't have it as an option. I've never had it as an option. I grew up in Denver, then I moved to New Haven, then I moved back to Denver, and I moved to Switzerland and I moved to San Francisco and every single place that I've lived, I have never had a place where I would be able to plug in an electric car. And I finally just bit the bullet when I bought my last vehicle and I said I'm going electric regardless, but public recharging infrastructure, it's just not practical for the vast majority of Americans.
MP: Chris Sacca at Lower Carbon Capital said he had an allergy to working with Washington at a recent conference about two weeks ago. And I'm wondering for someone like you that has to straddle Silicon Valley, San Francisco and DC you know, what does he get right or wrong about a statement like that?
LT: I'd like to see Chris Sacca’s portfolio because, quite frankly, it's imperative to work with Washington. And if you don't work with Washington, you're not going to get anything done in the clean energy space. None of these industries that are the lifeblood of the clean tech space today would exist without the heavy intervention of Washington. So I'd love to get a little bit more background on that quote from Chris Sokka. But it sounds and I don't want to believe this, but it sounds like he doesn't understand the industry that he's working in. So I'd be happy to chat with him about it and maybe educate him about the important role that policy has played in building up a clean tech sector.
MP: I know you brought up a little bit too about bringing on newer folks in the industry. Sometimes you bring on interns to help out with Ample in the summers. What advice would you have for younger people when they want to make their mark within cleantech or even electric mobility? What advice do you have for them?
LT: Well, I think it's really important to find a mentor to figure out what you're passionate about, and then do whatever you can to get an early job or a first job working with someone who understands the space that you want to inhabit and you want to thrive in and who you can learn a craft from, who you can get advice from, and who you can visit over the years and bounce ideas off of. I had a great mentor when I was getting into the energy space, who interestingly, was not a clean tech guy at all, but he was a towering figure in the energy industry. His name is Daniel Yergin, and he's a Pulitzer Prize winner. He wrote a book called ‘The Prize’ that is still one of the best books on energy ever written. And I think probably the only book on energy that's ever won a Pulitzer Prize, and I worked for him while I was a PhD student.
MP: What does he think, do you keep up with him?
LT: I see him all the time. When I wrote my book, I dedicated it to my father, my grandfather and my mentor, Dan Yergin. So we have maintained a good relationship over the years, and we understand that we disagree on certain things. And fortunately, that doesn't impact our interpersonal relationship. There might be another book on the horizon as well.
MP: Okay. Okay. What's keeping you up on it?
LT: What's keeping me up at night? That's a good question. You know, I think a lot about carbon capture and storage. We are rapidly overshooting the limits for co2 emissions. And so what that means is we're going to have to build a massive industry that essentially does the opposite of what we're doing today. Today, we burn fossil fuels and we emit those greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. Tomorrow, we're going to have to build an even bigger industry that pulls those greenhouse gases out of the atmosphere and finds ways to condense and store them, geologically most likely, or potentially turning them into different kinds of materials. So I think that that's probably what keeps me up at night.
MP: I know it's really early days to be in that space. Are there any companies that are standing out of ones that you're following?
LT: Oh, there are a bunch you know, there are a bunch I don't want to miss name them because I'll probably get the name slightly wrong if I said so. I'm not gonna I'm not going to do that. But there there are a couple out of Cambridge, that grew out of MIT, that that are working on what's called direct air capture where you literally just pull the carbon from the air and you distill it into a liquid and then you find ways to transport that liquid and to store that carbon. There are companies that are working on what's called BECS, which is bio energy, carbon capture and sequestration, where you literally grow crops and then you burn those crops most likely to generate electricity or heat or something like that. And then you take the carbon that you have now condensed from those crops that you've burned and you catch it as it's being emitted, and then pump it back into the earth and stored in a geological formation or something like that.
MP: Alright, so we're coming close to our time here together. I do have a couple more questions I want to ask that are kind of like a fast round of questions. I recruited some some questions from my team and they were wondering what would happen first, at scale, flying cars or self-driving vehicles?
LT: Well, I think both of those are an interesting, interesting case because it's not an on/off button. Right. And I would say especially with self driving vehicles, it's not an on/off button. It's a spectrum, right? So you know, rather than going from black to white or white to black, you're going to see a lot of shades of grey and that's actually what we see in the industry today. So from that perspective, self-driving vehicles are definitely going to come first. You know, when it comes to flying cars. I think the question is what is self and what is a flying car you know, is a helicopter, a flying car? Is a quadcopter self flying?There are all these different incarnations of flying cars, that could potentially qualify but you know, is it one of those things where you know, when you see it, I don't really know I think that there are going to be a lot of cool, new, most likely what are called V tall vertical takeoff and landing craft that are developed over the coming years, and I'm excited for it. But then you get a whole other set of issues which is related to security and potentially terrorism. What if someone takes over a flying car that has autonomous tech capabilities and slams into a building or something? That's not good, right? And so all of a sudden, our security threats are in three dimensions rather than two dimensions. And I think that we were gonna have to think really long and hard before flying cars are a major component of our transportation system.
MP: I think it's fair and when I see launches like that, I'm like, Why? Why do we need that? There's so many problems in the world to solve. Do we need to solve this right now?
LT: I think I mean, autonomy in some form is probably faster. than flying cars. And I think it's probably more useful than flying cars. That said, full autonomy is going to be a lot harder than we thought. Full autonomy is going to take a long time.
MP: Yeah, that's a fair point. We always read about doom and gloom and such terrible stories, but I'm just wondering what you're optimistic about, you know, like, where do you feel like there's hope?
LT: I'm actually really optimistic about Washington DC right now, which I know is kind of a crazy thing to say. But we had just an incredibly transformative couple of years in Washington, DC. We had some really huge bipartisan wins. We had some really huge partisan winds, which, you know, I would include the inflation Reduction Act, and that was by far the largest climate bill ever passed. And so I see this inflation reduction act as an audacious win for the country. not just for the Democratic Party, but for all of us.
MP: I feel like that's such a mic drop right there. Was there anything I should have asked you to do that we didn't get to talk about?
LT: No, I have enjoyed it. As always, man. It's great to see you. And when I'm back in San Francisco, let's go surfing or something. Oh,
MP: Oh yes. Down. I'm so down. Well, Levi, I want to thank you again so much. I think the biggest takeaway that I'm taking here from our conversation is there's hope working with DC works.
LT: Thanks for having me!
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