Held during Earth Week in the heart of America’s capital, this year’s Electric Drive Transportation Association Conference & Annual Meeting was a converging of private, corporate and government stakeholders involved with the promotion of electric vehicles.

The event ran from April 19-21, and was begun with a speech by U.S. Department of Energy Secretary Steven Chu, and an “Innovation Motorcade” – a parade of EVs and hybrids through Washington, D.C.

In its own words, this is how the coalition describes itself: "EDTA performs public policy advocacy, education, industry networking, and international conferences. EDTA’s membership includes automotive and other equipment manufacturers, energy companies, technology developers, component suppliers, and government agencies."

GM's Rob Peterson (left, facing) discusses the Volt with a visitor, while Tony Posawatz (seated, profile) entertains a number of others with his boundless enthusiasm for the car.

Advanced-tech transportation has come a long way since 1989 when the EDTA was begun. This was a year prior to GM's Impact electric concept car, and seven years before production of its EV1. It was a time when electric drive transportation was more a wish than "the future” as many say it is today.

One guest speaker, addressing a breakout session with over 125 in attendance, said he remembered when only 10 people might have shown up to such a talk about a sub-topic related to the EV industry.

If a summary could loosely capture the attitude of this year’s meeting, it might be along the lines that leaders and attendees were enthusiastic over how far electric drive transport has progressed, while acknowledging how far it yet has to go.

Yes, this is a UPS electric delivery truck – circa 1930s! UPS wants us to know it has embraced electric powertrains before, and is doing it again.

Unfortunately, partaking in all the conference offered was impossible for any one person. At best one-third of it could be taken in because of the way it was structured.

In addition to a large exhibition area where automakers, component manufacturers, and others had their displays, the conference was comprised of breakout sessions held three-at a time during 1-hour, 15-minute time slots throughout the day.

We're not sure if plug-in privileges are open to all at the Renaissance Marriott across the street from the Walter E. Washington Convention Center where the EDTA conference was held, but it made for nice advertising for Toyota.

This meant having to pick one to sit in on, while deciding which of the other two sessions to miss. Following up was difficult because the organizers chose not to video the breakout sessions. Some private recordings were done, but otherwise, the event was not recorded at the request of some of the speakers.

In any case, the conference was worth it to get a feel for the general state of affairs as several industries grapple with questions of where EV transportation is going from here.

Siemens was on hand to show a progression of its electric motors.

Already known are the obvious successes: EVs are for sale now, supporting infrastructure is evolving, and growth is accelerating on all fronts.

Naturally, GM was present with its Chevrolet Volt, and very much a key player in the lead. Additional participating automakers were Toyota, Nissan, Mitsubishi, Volkswagen, Tesla, Coda, Think, Volvo, and more.

Notable this year was that marketers for some of these automakers held center stage at one breakout session to discuss what their companies are doing, and will be doing. This contrasted from last year, when, for example, GM’s Line Director for the Volt, Tony Posawatz, would have been in the position of describing its future E-REV car.

Now the questions are how to make rollout as seamless and mainstream as soon as possible. The most optimistic U.S. projections at this juncture are EVs could comprise 10 percent of all cars by 2020, and auto executives openly expressed doubt that even this is attainable.

Coda will offer this BEV sedan for an estimated $44,900 before the end of the year.

Utility company executives were also there, commenting on – among many other things – how they and automakers for the first time in a century are sharing the same set of customers – and their information.

Both sides recognized this, and GM spokesman Rob Peterson noted it reached out years ago to the utility companies’ non-profit research arm, the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI).

Since there are something like 20 potential electric automakers, and 3,000 utilities spread across the U.S., one question was how to get utilities and charging service providers to facilitate such things as updating their systems to handle current loads from level 2 chargers, or how to help EV buyers have the juice available in their garage in the first place.

All sorts of things were to be seen at the exhibition.

Mention was made that the National Home Builders Association has been looking at "EV ready" new home construction.

Another issue was the question of the buzz word “smart grid.” Representatives from EPRI said the broader shape of this is a few years away, and auto manufacturers are still not building smart-grid-ready cars.

To be sure, the brave new world being labored over is still in the gestational stages in many respects.

Another unanswered question is how to cope with multi-unit dwellings like condos or apartments, should occupants decide they want to buy EVs. If they do not have garages, or park on the street how do they recharge?

The Prius plug-in will reportedly cost several thousand less than the Volt, but offers about one-third the electric range.

At this point, the relative trickle of EV sales has not led to widespread public outcry and challenges are being coped with as they come. Preparing the way for a mass EV deployment is the greater challenge everyone is working on.

Many charger installation details are handled at the state and local municipal level, and cannot be mandated or enforced from a national level. As you might imagine, the field is wide open for innovation from good ideas to not as good. At least recognizing which utilities have thus far demonstrated the best practices as a potential model to follow was another topic.

Gaining as much control of processes as possible, where possible, without being overbearing was another concern. Some utilities have been more control oriented, while others view their role more as facilitators.

The idea of adding load to the grid was generally seen as no big deal – no more than adding a hot tub, or other high current load, and utility executives said they have always built to capacity, it is what they do.

In time, the novelty or confusion surrounding EVs will wear off, it was said, as more and more EVs come into neighborhoods around the country.

The Volvo C30 experimental EV uses a 24kWh Ener1 battery, as does the Think City EV. Volvo has said it would lease 400 copies of the car to green corporate clients for $2,100 per month.

Keep in mind also, that electric drive is not the sole realm of consumer autos.

Another key driver to EV deployment are fleets – be they government owned, corporate delivery trucks, rental vehicles, or other service-oriented vehicles.

While electric work trucks are a small market, in the case of some medium to heavy duty work trucks, pure electric is not seen as feasible. Rather, plug-in hybrids that need not plug in if they don’t have to are seen as a path of least resistance, thus easier sell to early adopters.

It was pointed out that for individual consumers, EVs are now both an emotionally based and rationally based value proposition. Typically, fleet managers don’t buy for the emotional reasons so much.

The Nissan LEAF was named World Car of the Year at the New York Auto Show which was held while the EDTA conference in Washington was also taking place.

To get them to sign up, the bottom line has to make sense. Nor do they want to re-train operators to learn a whole new set of behaviors.

Further, even though medium and heavy duty work trucks are much more expensive than autos, they do not even qualify for a $7,500 tax credit, so the proposition really has to make sense.

Clearly, legislative, infrastructural, technical and production-oriented pieces of the EV puzzle need to be worked out.

While stakeholders in respective industries were quick to point out their successes, they were equally unambiguous in pointing out the U.S. has no clear cut road map to EV proliferation.

The estimated $36,495 Think City EV will feature through-molded plastic bodywork. If you scratch it, the color is the same underneath, and it resists dents too. Not a bad driving little runabout.

The overall attitude was one of confidence however. Ready or not, the race to profitability is now on, and no one was calling quits at this early stage. On the contrary, the only way to go is up, and all bets are on this happening.

The dawn of the modern EV age has been likened to the advent of petrol-based motor cars of the early 20th century, but this analogy only goes so far.

Where the picture differs today is we already have national highways, broad-based expectations and customs from more than a century of autos, trucks and motorcycles, so introduction of the EV is not exactly like replacing the horse and buggy.

Seven weeks into this and I finally got to drive a Volt. It's a zippy car, and very well appointed. That same day, 240 miles to the north at the New York Auto Show, it was being named the 2011 World Green Car.

What is more, we are a far more demanding society while at the same time more sophisticated and technically able to see where this EV experiment could be going – and better equipped to do what it takes to get there. As such, momentum is snowballing.

Many questions remain that will determine whether it will be sooner or later, and what “game changers” could present themselves in the coming years, if not months. We shall see.

The conference closed with a luncheon in which awards were given out to industry leaders. During that time Tony Posawatz took opportunity to announce the Volt had just been named 2011 World Green Car at the New York Auto Show.

Coupled with positive exposure gained at EDTA's conference in Washington, it was a good week for the Chevrolet Volt.