The TH Interview: Keith Johnston, Managing Director of GoinGreen (Part 1)

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Keith Johnston is the Managing Director of GoinGreen, a company that has pretty much single-handedly created and developed the electric car market in London. GoinGreen’s main product is the G-Wiz, or Reva, a Californian-designed, Indian-built electric city car which we have previously featured here and here on TreeHugger. Keith has an extensive background in start ups, and in advertising and marketing. These skills have helped develop GoinGreen’s unique approach to marketing and retailing their cars, turning the traditional approach on its head. In part one of this two-part interview, Keith tells us how GoinGreen began, he shares his thoughts on why London has proved such a successful market place, and he explains the principle advantages of electric vehicles.

TreeHugger: GoingGreen started after founders Steven Cain and Nick Hewson took a trip to India and discovered the Reva, a Californian-designed, Indian-made electric car. Can you tell us a little bit about how GoingGreen was born, and how you have got to be one of the leading electric vehicle [EV] retailers in the world?

Keith Johnston: When they came across the prototype of the Reva in India, they were aware that London would be introducing the first congestion charge zone. They also knew that emission free vehicles would be exempted from that charge. At the time there were no emission free vehicles in London, so they saw this as a commercial opportunity, as well as an environmental one.Steve and Nick worked firstly to win the distribution rights in the UK, and secondly to make various amendments to the vehicle to ensure it achieved full EU approval, which it did after about 12 months. That’s the point where I got involved. I have a background in start ups, and in advertising and marketing.

Three years ago we started to put together the operating model and, very softly, to market the Reva G-Wiz, as we brand it, here in the UK. We knew from our research that most people were interested in reducing the environmental impact of their transport options, but that they were not willing to pay a premium to do so. Therefore the operating model was focussed on taking as much cost out of the retail price of the car as possible. To do that we turned the traditional model of car retailing on its head – we have no dealers, we have no showrooms, we have no brochures, and we have no advertising. All of our marketing and sales is internet based, and it’s all viral – people learn about us by word of mouth, and through awareness raising by the media.

Interest has built slowly over the last three years to a point where we now have nearly 800 customers just here in London. We have nearly 650 cars on the road, and we have just placed our factory order for our thousandth car. So the momentum is really starting to build here, and we know from some of the blogging and media coverage that we’ve seen that there are cities all around the world now that are talking about introducing measures such as congestion charging, and exemptions for emission free cars.

TH: Just how critical to your success have these measures, such as the congestion charge and free parking, been?

KJ: It’s difficult to tell precisely, but we do track primary and secondary reasons for purchase. Initially the primary reason was environmental, with perhaps two thirds of our customers indicating environmental grounds as the main driver. That has now reversed, with two thirds citing financial reasons as the principal motivator, and environmental considerations coming a strong second. It would have been very difficult without the congestion charge and the free parking rights – about half our customers take up the free parking rights. So it’s not an absolute driver, but it certainly contributes.

The product is also at an early stage of development, like the first computer or the mobile phone. So while the good news is that it’s here, the reality is that it also has some way to go in terms of development. What has happened as a result of the success we’ve had here in London is that we now have two or three other competitors helping to grow the market. But, clearly, the exemptions that exist now will not exist forever. What we’ll see is a sliding balance. We will reach a point where it‘s not economic anymore for local authorities to give the huge incentives that are there currently, and they will gradually be scaled back.


TH: So what are the principle advantages of EVs, such as the G-Wiz?

KJ: There are three main benefits. The first is clearly environmental. We had the publication of the Stern Report here in the UK which really put an economic price on climate change for the first time. The media, here at least, are covering very thoroughly what is happening. We’ve moved beyond the debate of whether climate change is happening or not, and it’s now about what can be done to stop it. With the possible exception of a house, your choice of car as a consumer is going to have a greater effect on the environment than anything else you purchase, so it’s an area with enormous potential.

The great thing about electric vehicles is that they are zero emission. Now, the first objection that is usually raised about this is that EVs are simply displacing emissions from the exhaust to the power station. However, we’ve had independent research done on the G-Wiz that shows a reduction of emissions of at least 74% compared to a similar sized small car. And that’s only if you are charging your G-Wiz with electricity from a coal fired power station, which is the most polluting kind. If you charge your car from renewable energy suppliers, something that is available all over the UK now and almost all of our customers choose to do this, then the reduction is more in the region of 100%. There is probably no other product available in the world today that can have asdramatic impact on individual and household carbon emissions.

The other aspect of that is financial, and this is where it gets really exciting, because not only are you reducing your carbon emissions, but you are saving money at the same time. Here in London, if you are a commuter driving five or ten miles into the city centre every day, then it is possible to reduce your motoring costs by up to 80%. Again, there is probably no other product in the world today that enables you to do that.

The third benefit of EVs is that they are actually tremendous fun. They are a little different to drive, but the great thing is that the power is there immediately – you don’t have any lag like you do with a petrol car. The G-Wiz, for example, always surprises people by how nippy it is, and how quickly it pulls away at the lights, even though it is actually a fairly low powered car. Because they are small cars and they are automatic, they are very easy to drive around town. You can slip them into spaces too small for other cars. Westminster Council, in London, allows you to park two G-Wiz in a single parking spot! You go to certain squares in London now and it is almost like an invasion – the G-Wiz is just taking over. And the great thing about this being viral, is that just a few years ago there were one or two of these around and people wondered what they were. Now they are everywhere, and people know what they are – we’ve reached a certain tipping point and it is just going to get better and better.

Photograph of the G-Wiz was taken by Phil Sills.

Stay tuned for Part 2, later this week, in which Keith discusses GoinGreen's new product lines and future development, he shares his views on the flurry of eco-concept cars coming from Detroit, and gives tips on how the average treehugger can help support the clean transport revolution.

[Interview conducted by: Sami Grover]