Gabriel Elsner has always loved cars. As a little kid growing up in California, he loved to go to the Los Angeles Auto Show with his grandparents. Gabe would dip and dash between the cars, hopping into every single vehicle. Not just the Ferraris, and Lamborghinis, not just the Mercedes, and BMW, but every SUV, minivan, and hatchback too. Thus, it’s no surprise that Elsner’s startup ZEV is built to help car dealerships sell more vehicles. But ZEV is about more than just selling cars; the software as a service (SaaS) platform helps dealerships sell electric cars and other zero-emission vehicles. This is because ever since he was my age, Elsner has spent every single day fighting for climate change.
Elsner always considered himself an adventurer, but he never realized how one trip would change his life forever. In his sophomore year of college, Elsner travelled down to Central America where he saw a place slowly being corroded by the effects of resource scarcity and climate change. Clean water was hard to find, and people barely had enough food to put on their plates as ecosystems were being upturned by environmental degradation. Thus, in the summer of 2006, Elsner decided it was time that he join a growing movement focused on fixing climate change, so that people around the world would not question whether they could access the basic resources necessary to take care of their families.
When Elsner returned to college worked with the Energy Action Coalition on “mobilizing thousands of young people across the country to take action on climate change and pressure members of Congress to do something.” As part of the same effort, he helped organize Power Shift 2008, “the first ever national youth climate conference in Washington D.C.” The goal of Power Shift was to pressure members of Congress to pass climate legislation, and brought together six thousand young people across all fifty states. The experience inspired Elsner to work in grassroots activism, and so his “first job out of college was working with a broad coalition…[that was] part of a massive national national campaign to pass a climate bill called Clean Energy Works.” The bill was structured to provide private enterprise incentives to adopt cleaner technology, and phase in regulations (such as limitations on carbon emissions) over several years to avoid disrupting industries. The bill would go on to pass through the House of Representatives, but eventually failed in the Senate. Elsner was dismayed by politics at the federal level, and refocused his efforts on the state level.
Over in California, a battle was ensuing over a referendum measure called Proposition 23 (Prop 23). The goal of Prop 23 was to suspend the Global Warming Act of 2006, a climate law that mandated California cut it’s greenhouse gas emissions to 1990 levels by 2020. The proposition was going to suspend the bill until there were four consecutive quarters with unemployment below 5.5%, something considered a fantasy when the unemployment rate was 12% at the time, and the state had not seen such an extended period of low unemployment in decades. Elsner and his colleagues were fighting an uphill battle against a campaign funded by special interests, most notably major refining companies Valero, Tesoro (now Andeavor), and Flint Hills Resources (a Koch Industries subsidiary). Despite the opposition by special interests, Elsner and his fellow activists helped sustain the Global Warming Act, and Prop 23 lost by an astounding 23% margin in 2010.
After his experience fighting Prop 23, Elsner started a think tank called the Energy and Policy Institute, which acts as a “Watchdog exposing the attacks on renewable energy and countering misinformation by fossil fuel interests.” The Institute is still active today, and Elsner now serves as a Senior Fellow, after leaving his role as the Exectuive Director to attend graduate school.
While the fossil fuel industry has often fought back against renewable energy, Elsner realized, “that industries were leading the way. It was the companies and the trade associations that [he] worked with that were shifting the politics.” A favorite story of Elsner’s is how on the floor of the North Carolina State Senate, a local Republican politician declared he could not vote against a clean energy bill that helped create jobs in his district. Thus, Elsner realized that “it was industry that was changing the politics and wasn't politics that was changing industry.” This led to a major directional shift, as Elsner began the transition from policy expert to business leader, while forever remaining an activist.
Elsner then started his MBA at Wharton, where he is currently a second year student. At Wharton, Elsner has made amazing friends and found a large group of extremely motivated professionals from diverse backgrounds. A positive surprise was finding out how many others were interested in cleantech and how much support there is from clubs such as the Energy Club and the Wharton Sustainable Business Coalition.
In his first summer after beginning his MBA, Elsner worked at a corporation that exemplifies the impact one company can have on politics, industry, and national discourse, Tesla. At Tesla, an electric car manufacturer that has pushed every US automaker into moving towards selling zero emission vehicles, Elsner worked in the finance and business operations group. While he loved working at Tesla, Elsner “knew that Tesla was going to continue to do great things with or without [him] and [he] wanted to launch [his] own company.” Thus ZEV was born, a software company designed to reduce carbon emissions by helping US auto dealerships sell more electric cars.
Elsner re-embraced his childhood love of cars as he realized that while electricity sector was becoming greener every year due to the increasing efficiency and decreasing cost of solar and wind power, the vast majority of Americans were still driving gasoline cars. Elsner’s thesis was that most people were not educated about the benefits of an electric vehicle. On top of this, people were worried about the range of vehicles, the availability of charging stations, and the difficulty of servicing electric cars. Because it was hard to find reliable answers to these questions, consumers were uneasy about making a sizable investment in buying an electric vehicle. People worried Thus in its first iteration, ZEV was a “service that helps [people] learn about driving an electric car because most consumers are buying them for the first time.”
ZEV accomplishes this by calculating the cost per mile to drive a new battery electric vehicle or plug in hybrid, as well as the cost savings a consumer would realize by switching from his or her current gasoline vehicle. Furthermore, ZEV’s software calculates the range implications of making the switch, showing people how far they could drive along their daily commutes, and what charging stations are near their homes. The goal is to help consumers make better informed decisions because Elsner believes that if people understand all the benefits of moving to electric, and their concerns are addressed, they will immediately start making the switch.
ZEV was initially going to function similar to an Autotrader or True car as a business to consumer (B2C) website that earned revenues off of lead generation for dealerships selling electric cars. However, after talking to experts at business school, and in industry, Elsner realized that the model would not be sustainable. Instead, Elsner decided to take advantage of state level policies that require 10 states (CA, OR, MD, NJ, NY, CT, RI, MA, VT, and ME) to grow their combined cumulative electric car sales to four million vehicles by 2025. Selling so many electric cars has been very difficult, uphill battle for dealerships, and so ZEV now operates as a business to business (B2B) company that provides a software plugin for dealerships. ZEV represents “the best product possible that not only helps the dealership salespeople but responds to the end users' needs and provides the best… and most relevant information to potential EV (electric vehicle) buyers.”
Now, car salesmen at dealerships can pull up their website, on which the ZEV’s webapp is embedded, and show potential buyers all the perks of moving over to electric. This helps dealerships sell more cars, and increase the number of zero emission vehicles on the road. In fact, on average, a dealership only needs to sell one extra electric car for ZEV to pay for itself, making it a win-win-win-win-win for car manufacturers, dealerships, state governments, the environment, and, of course, ZEV. The company is currently running a pilot program with Philadelphia-area dealerships, and is looking for others to join their upcoming pilots in California, New York, and New Jersey. The company will initially deploy in the California and the tri-state area, then deploy to additional states with EV sales mandates.
For well over a decade, Gabriel Elsner has been fighting climate change, and ZEV is the next step in his long journey of making the a healthier planet for us all.