MONTEREY -- The co-founder of Draper Fisher Jurvetson, a Menlo Park venture capital firm, paced excitedly and spoke at breakneck speed about the future of electric vehicles, as if bragging about a child who made the honor roll.
Some day -- he couldn't yet predict when -- everything on the road will be powered by electricity, said Steve Jurvetson, whose professional associations include SpaceX, Synthetic Genomics and Tesla Motors.
"In 2010, I was speaking to a room full of executives from Castrol, a $10 billion-a-year company. All they do is make products that work in internal combustion engines -- that's 100 percent of their business," Jurvetson recounted Saturday at TMC Connect, Tesla Motor Club's summer symposium at the Monterey Hyatt Regency Hotel. "What I told them that day is that they're essentially working for a buggy whip company. I told them I feel like I have a sixth sense: I see dead people."
Jurvetson said he felt like his warning mostly fell on deaf ears that day, particularly since Castrol was making more money at the time than at any moment in its history -- in large part because of a booming demand for gas-powered vehicles in China.
What was lost on that audience, he said, is the fact that China now has more than 200 million electric-vehicle drivers -- a statistic that by next year is expected to eclipse the total number of drivers in the United States.
A big part of the electric-vehicle surge in China can be traced to the 2002 epidemic of the SARS virus, during which many mass-transit users became afraid to board a bus and discovered that for $200 to $450 they could instead purchase a 1-horsepower electric motorcycle.
The alternative caught on: In 2013, the Chinese bought 37 million two-wheeled electric vehicles, Jurvetson said.
Electric motorcycles (which look a lot like bullet bikes), electric cars, even electric boats were among the vehicles showcased just outside the Hyatt's convention center as Jurvetson spoke to a large and enthusiastic crowd at the symposium, drawing parallels between the future of electric cars and commercial space-travel vehicles that are the focus of SpaceX.
The three-day event, which concludes Sunday at Mazda Laguna Seca Raceway (where Tesla drivers will test their cars on the world-famous racing circuit), included a wide range of speakers. They included Bruno Bowden, who drove Tesla's Model S 425.8 miles on a single battery charge to get himself in Guinness World Records; Tom Gage, former CEO of AC Propulsion, a pioneer of electric-vehicle innovation; Tom Saxton, chief science officer for Plug-in America, who reported on the effects of calendar age, miles and climate on the battery-pack capacity and longevity; and Diarmuid O'Connell, Tesla's vice president of business development, who devoted much of his keynote speech to the battles Tesla is waging in states like New Jersey and Texas to open dealerships and market their product.
"The lineup of speakers at this event is fascinating to me," said Chip Woods, a Tesla owner who drove from Santa Clara for the symposium. "There's no future for the planet if we continue to drive vehicles that burn oil, and the electric-car industry is still pretty much in its infancy, but I'm hearing a lot of encouraging things today that make me glad I bought the car."
The hurdles facing the electric-vehicle industry are daunting, not the least of which is the development of a coast-to-coast power grid to keep the cars charged and rolling. But, perhaps predictably, speakers brimmed with optimism. Progress is being made, and the health of the planet demands that it continue, O'Connell said.
"EVs strategically work best when paired with clean, renewable energy generation," he said, proclaiming current times as exciting times to be a college kid. Opportunities will be plentiful for graduates who train to enter the industry, he predicted.
O'Connell declined to make any news about the progress of a battery-to-grid system, or the location of Tesla's future $5 billion "gigafactory," a political hot potato that reportedly could generate up to 6,500 jobs.
Texas, Arizona, Nevada and New Mexico reportedly are finalists for the factory, which will produce lithium-ion batteries for Tesla vehicles. Construction could begin later this year.