This is the tenth blog in a series about our Midwest electric vehicle adventure.
The electric vehicle (EV) transition is happening all around us -- trust us, the more you learn about EVs, the more you see them everywhere. As we confirmed on our road trip through the Midwest, transportation electrification is broad-ranging, from EV drivers to auto manufacturers to charging infrastructure companies and more. Below, we’re sharing 10 people’s stories from our trip to illustrate the many faces (as well as the start-ups and small businesses and makes and models) of the EV revolution.
Lori Zekel and Mark Knowles
Chevy Bolt Drivers and Solar Enthusiasts
The Small Farm Setup: “If they get people in to actually drive EVs, they will fall in love,” Mark Knowles said, referring to car dealerships. His wife, Lori Zekel, agreed. “I think we’re going to end up fighting over who gets to drive it.” Not far from Dayton, Ohio, and about halfway between Columbus and Cincinnati, Zekel and Knowles live on a 27-acre plot of land complete with a small flock of chickens, two dogs, a plentiful vegetable patch, a few head of cattle, and a bright red barn topped with solar panels.
The couple bought their first EV, a Chevy Bolt, in May 2019, soon after they both retired (Zekel from her position in university administration, Knowles from his job as a flight pilot). Zekel just wishes she had bought the EV earlier so that she could have commuted to campus emissions-free. From their rooftop solar power to their geothermal heating, the couple says they want to do all they can to make sure their lifestyle -- which they consider energy intensive -- matches their values.
Mitsubishi i-MiEV Driver and Community Activist
Creating Community in Kalamazoo: When we stopped in Kalamazoo, Michigan, we were welcomed to dinner by the Kalamazoo Electric Vehicle Association (KEVA) -- part EV community advocacy group and part intergenerational friend group comprised of librarians, school teachers, university professors, used auto parts salesmen, mechanics, and grounds facility managers. But the group didn’t come together by accident: they came together thanks to the work of Ben Brown.
Ben described himself as having grown up in a “mad scientist farming community,” where he and his neighbors were exposed to toxic agricultural chemicals. He found his environmental call to action after a friend passed away after an asthma attack on a hot and smoggy bad air day--just days after getting married. Ben bought an EV, and used the fuel savings to make energy efficiency improvements in his home. Then he reached out to the local Sierra Club and put out feelers that ultimately brought KEVA together.
“We can’t go around driving old fossil dinosaurs anymore,” Ben told us as a large diesel truck drove by, emitting a visible plume of dark smoke. “Breathing this stuff is hurting us.”
Columbus EV Czar
Driving Toward a Smarter City: Ohio State University is proud of 2011 alumnae Jordan Davis, and considering the cutting-edge work she’s done forging public-private partnerships to move EV deployment forward in the city of Columbus, it’s not hard to understand why.
Also a non-car owner and dedicated user of public transportation options (and walking), Jordan is the director of Smart Columbus, a city-wide initiative to transform and modernize the capital’s transportation sector -- including passenger EVs, electric public transportation, autonomous vehicles, and microtransit.
“We focus on being technology forward and getting people where they need to go,” Jordan said.
Working in a large city in a state without much policy support for transportation electrification has its challenges, but Jordan and her team’s successes in Columbus are setting an example for similarly situated cities across the U.S., and there are plenty.
As Jordan explained, Central Ohio, where big automakers like Honda are making many of their EV component parts, shouldn’t be excluded from the electric transportation experience. Programs like Smart Columbus are making sure they won’t be.
Plug-In Cadillac Driver and Electric Truck Designer
Not Quite Your Average Start Up Bro: Don Wires loves the efficient technology that goes into an electric vehicle, but he doesn’t self-describe as a treehugger. In fact, when he left his senior engineering position at Procter & Gamble to join the electric delivery truck company Workhorse, some of his friends thought he had lost it.
But the Vietnam War veteran’s motivation for joining the electric car industry made a lot of sense to us: “Too many people have died in the sand over a barrel of oil,” Don told us. “I don’t want my kids to die overseas fighting for oil. There are alternatives.”
With contracts with major industry players like UPS, Don’s commitment to a cleaner, safer transportation future seems to be paying off big time. Plus, he gets to sneak the trucks out for test drives.
Chevy Spark (and Racecar) Driver
A Driver with the Need for Speed: Some people have the need for speed… and those people love EVs. Chris Weber is a woman who doesn’t like slowing down for traffic.
“I’ve gotten some jokes from racing friends who think our car is small, but if I can get them to drive it, they stop laughing,” Chris told us. “It’s got major torque.”
As a woman in the racing world, Chris is used to sticking up for herself and to being different, so she doesn’t mind showing up to the track with her EV (although what’s pictured above is a one-time thing, she told us). She got her EV for its affordability and durability for her regular driving needs. As she explained, making many short distance trips is hard on a gas car because it wears down the starter and gathers condensation in the engine and tailpipe. In a transmissionless EV, that’s not a concern.
In fact, Chris and her husband own two Chevy Sparks. They’re reselling one now -- but only so they can try out another EV with a longer battery range.
Nissan LEAF Driver and Charging Champion
An Early Adopter with No Time for Mansplaining: After being told her old gas car would be more expensive to fix than replace in 2011, Jane Cook was in need of new wheels for her 100+ mile round-trip commute from Indianapolis to Lafayette, Indiana. But this presented a conundrum: she could afford either to buy gas for her long commute or to make financing payments on a new car, but not both. The Think EV she bought turned out to be the solution.
Two clean cars later (plus a new, easier commute), she’s still driving electric -- although now in a sleek Nissan LEAF. Each time she was ready to upgrade, however, Jane had to deal with dealerships that didn’t seem to want to sell her an EV.
“I felt like I knew more about EVs than they did, like they didn’t understand that it would be cheaper and why saving gas is important,” Jane said. “But I wouldn’t go back to a gas car.”
Electric Rideshare Driver and Influencer
Driving from Soccer Stadium to Pride Parade: “Driving the EV fleet and seeing how easy they are to charge has definitely made me want to drive electric for myself in the future,” Michael Stovall told us as he gave us a tour of his favorite parts of Cincinnati.
Michael first learned about Oggo, an electric vehicle rideshare service in Cincinnati, in an Instagram ad. Now he both drives for the company and curates their hip, authentic social media presence. He’s been behind pushes to tailor the rides to Cincy’s culture, including scheduling rides around popular MLS and MLB games, and driving the colorful, attention-grabbing vehicles in the Cincinnati Pride Parade.
Having made money as an Uber driver in college, it’s not Michael’s first spin behind the wheel and with riders. But he says the Oggo experience feels more authentically about accessibility and getting people where they need to go. Plus, the cars are just cool.
Battery Safety Engineer
St. Louis, Missouri
Backing Up Your Batteries: The EV transition is changing the face of transportation, but that doesn’t mean the only jobs are in start-ups and big car companies. Bitrode is a St. Louis company that manufacturers battery-testing equipment and has been in business for more than 60 years -- only now, 80 percent of their sales are for transportation purchases.
Mike Hill joined Bitrode as director of engineering about a year and a half ago and, in that time, he’s started to think a lot more about electric vehicles.
“With the big increase in battery demand for EVs, it’s definitely made me think more about electric cars and emissions,” Mike said. “I’d need an electric pickup, though.” We’ve got our eye on several slated electric trucks that would make his transition to electric possible.
Tesla Model S and Chevy Volt Driver, Net Zero Home Owner
A Physicist, Electric Roadtripper, and Sustainability Advocate: You don’t have to be a physicist to drive electric, but a background in particle physics hasn’t slowed Scott Willenbrock down, either. The University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign professor had a climate change awakening nearly 10 years ago, and he didn’t hold back. He made a full transition to sustainably advocate, whose successes include the installation of EV charging stations around the university’s campus and updating his own home with solar panels and energy efficiency measures.
“Once I felt like I understood the scale of the climate challenge… and what energy had to do with it, everything was different,” Scott explained. “That’s when I wrote my last particle physics paper and started doing this.”
Scott’s net-zero lifestyle extends to family vacations too. Scott and his family have an easy time doing emissions-free road trips in their Tesla -- as far as New Jersey, Colorado, and beyond. Our favorite tip from the many he shared? Bringing along his Level 2 adaptor to plug into friend’s homes along the way. The professor said his charging set-up shows that the EV lifestyle doesn’t have to be high tech.
We went on a Midwest electric vehicle road trip to talk about transportation policy, highlight the already booming benefits of electric vehicles to local economies, and shatter stereotypes about what it means to be an electric vehicle driver. We’re blogging about our findings, including tips for other aspiring roadtrippers and policy suggestions for further progress.
Other blogs related to our electric adventure include:
Driving (on) Clean Energy: Touring the Midwest in an EV
State of the States: EVs and EV Policy in the Midwest
Road Trip Report: How Ohioans Buy EVs (It Should Be Easier)
Avoiding Range Anxiety with an EV Road Trip Checklist
Road Trip Report: Midwest Cities Move Multimodal
Midwest Electric Vehicles in 5 Maps
Electric Vehicle Charging 101
Road Trip Report: On Charging Champions and Public Policy
Electric Vehicles 101