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Home Depot

March 23rd, 2012 Comments off

Remember when cell phones were new and novel?  Twenty years ago, they were anything but commonplace.  Thanks to Moore’s Law, you can now buy an iPad 3…

Within a decade, we’ll be saying the same thing about electric vehicles.  Case-in-point:  You can now buy your EV Charging Station at Home Depot.

 

And while appearance on the Home Depot website isn’t the only metric by which to classify something as mainstream, it’s certainly a good sign for those advocating electric transportation.

Categories: Electrification Tags:

(Un)Fit to Print

July 1st, 2011 Comments off

The majority of folks these days get their news and information from some form of mainstream media outlet.  Which is a shame. Because, while most of us (myself included) assume “they must know what they’re talking about,” when it comes to subjects about which we ourselves have no expertise, it’s on those occasions when they so ignorantly cover a topic of which we DO have intimate knowledge that we then call into question their comprehension of basically anything.

I know stuff about cars.  Alex Taylor III does not.

In a June 27 Fortune Magazine online article (also published on CNN.com), Alex The Third writes about how all the Chevy Volt enthusiasts out there are incredibly misguided because, although the Volt can travel an average of 35 miles on electricity alone, it only gets 32 mpg in the city (36 mpg highway) once the battery is depleted and the gasoline engine turns on.  The upcoming plug-in version of the Toyota Prius, on the other hand, can be expected to get 51 mpg city / 48 mpg highway (same as the current “regular hybrid” Prius) once its battery is depleted after 13 miles of electric driving.  Thus, Mr. 3 contends:  “On trips of 13 miles or less, the Prius plug-in and Volt deliver the same all-electric mpg: zero.  On trips between 13 miles and 35 miles in length, the Volt beats the Prius.  But after 35 miles, the Prius handily outscores the Volt.”

Unfortunately, Alex has failed to understand simple math. The actual cumulative fuel consumption of the plug-in Prius as compared to the Chevy Volt is shown below.  (I’ve used Taylor’s assumptions here, except for the 32/36 mpg that he cites for the Volt.  Although that’s what Popular Mechanics experienced, the EPA figure is 36/37 mpg, and since he uses the EPA figure for the Prius, we might as well be consistent.)

See, the Prius driver doesn’t suddenly overcome the Volt driver with respect to fuel saved at the 35 mile mark.  It takes quite a few miles of the Volt burning gasoline before the break-even point is reached.  In fact, one must drive 97 miles before any fuel-savings is realized by the Prius compared to the Volt.  Which is a lot more than most people drive each day.

But this isn’t even the full story.  I’ve driven both the Volt, and the plug-in Prius (in near-production form).  The architecture of the Volt lets you accelerate hard on electric-power alone.  It lets you reach triple-digit speeds with no help from the gasoline engine.  It has a true all-electric driving range of around 35 miles.  On the other hand, the plug-in Prius is largely the same as the conventional Prius, but with a larger battery.  The low power of its electric motor means that, if you press the accelerator more than just a little, the gasoline engine turns on.  Due to mechanical limitations of the motor-generator attached to the sun-gear of the planetary gearset in its power-split transmission, its electric-only speed is limited to 62 mph.  So if you’re on the freeway (and not stuck in D.C. traffic), the gasoline engine will turn on.  If you try to pass someone, the gasoline engine will turn on.  If you try to drive it at all like a normal person drives a normal car on a normal road, the gasoline engine will turn on.  The 13-mile “electric range” really isn’t.  This pushes the break-even mileage well beyond my generously calculated 97-mile mark.

Don’t get me wrong – the Prius (especially the plug-in version, which is not yet available) is a technically sophisticated, well-engineered vehicle that offers incredible fuel economy, with an internal combustion engine that is more advanced and efficient than that in the Volt.  And it’s true that the charge-sustaining MPG numbers for the Volt are somewhat disappointing (although that’s the penalty for lugging around a large 35-mile battery).  But Alex asserts – in Fortune Magazine – that the Prius is “a better idea” than the Volt, and that the numerous accolades the Volt has received are “an excess of praise in the wrong place.”

Which simply illustrates that he doesn’t know much about either car.

Education

April 29th, 2011 Comments off

Earth Day recently came – and went – and, given the push for green transportation these days, a lot of the major car magazines put forth issues devoted to fuel-efficient vehicles in honor of the event.  Autoweek was one of these, with an Earth Day Special Issue, containing a bevy of articles about hybrids, plug-in hybrids, electric vehicles, and clean diesels.  But the article that caught my eye devoted a third of its page layout to a photograph of a Nissan Leaf being loaded onto a tow truck, with the title, Riding the Flatbed of Shame.

The author of this article, Mark Vaughn, describes his 45-mile (one way) journey to a track to conduct testing of the new all-electric Leaf.  Track testing – as in 0-60 mph acceleration tests, pedal-to-the-floor quarter-mile runs, and skid-pad exercises.  (In other words, activities that won’t do much to preserve the state-of-charge of his Leaf’s battery.)  He began this journey with 73 miles of range showing on the dash – which should have made it obvious that he wouldn’t be returning home on the same set of electrons with which he began.  But rather than deal with that reality, Vaughn continued to test the car, even with visual and audio “low battery” warnings of increasing ferocity.  Eventually, our fair automotive journalist set out to an auto electric shop, to cobble together an adapter to connect the Level 1 charging cord that came with the Leaf (which allows for connection into any standard household socket) to a dryer plug. Which immediately ruined the charger.  And required the tow-truck.

If you had *this*, and needed electricity at the other end, what would *you* do?

I have a few problems with this article.  Although the message is really, “If you’re an idiot, an EV won’t work for you,” the visual of the Leaf on the flatbed is simply “EVs don’t work.”  Secondly, Vaughn declares that you have to lay out every mile of your trip and compare it with every kilowatt-hour of charge in your lithium-ion battery pack.  If the numbers don’t add up, don’t go, which is sort of an alarmist view of EV usage.  Thirdly, Vaughn didn’t think, for whatever reason, to plug the charge-cord-he-already-had into a plug for which it was intended – instead taking on the challenging task of putting a square peg in a round hole.  And finally, in describing the final outcome of his mistake of plugging the 110-volt, 12-amp cord into a 220-volt, 50-amp outlet, he explains, with 38 amps more than the cable was designed for, it immediately fried.  Although non-electrical-types can’t be blamed for not realizing that the 50-amp rating of the outlet had nothing to do with the charger failure (it was the 220 volts that got him), as an automotive journalist writing in a major magazine, Vaughn should get his technical information correct.

Put simply, consumers must be educated about new technologies, such as electric-drive vehicles.  And Vaughn’s article only serves to miseducate.  (At least he correctly asserts that “it was nobody’s fault but my own.”)

Recently, I watched an episode of Speedmakers on Speed TV, dealing with Electric Vehicles.  It was an interesting piece that highlighted the Chevy Volt, Tesla Roadster and Model S, and Jaguar C-X75.  Unfortunately, the narrator consistently referred to the 16-kilowatt battery pack in the Volt, and the 52-kilowatt battery pack in the Roadster.  Which is sort of like me saying my Audi has a 50 horsepower gas tank. What the gentleman means to say is kilowatt-HOUR, which is how battery capacity is measured.  Education…

Earlier this month, there was a garage fire in a Connecticut home.  The garage was completely destroyed, as were the two cars in it.  One of these cars was a brand new Chevy Volt, plugged in and charging overnight.  The other was a Suzuki Samurai that had been converted by the owner to an electric vehicle, also plugged in (to a home-made charging system) and charging overnight.  Although the cause of the fire has not yet been determined, that didn’t stop local news outlets (such as WFSB) from declaring that the Volt may have ignited the fire.  In the headlines… As for me, I’m suspicious of the home-made conversion and its charging system.  The Volt was almost certainly the victim here.

In any case, I sure am glad that gasoline doesn’t burn.

Education…

 .

Headlines

February 3rd, 2011 Comments off

Politics.  Controversy.  Failure.  Humiliation.  Death and destruction.  …Also, sex.

These are the attention grabbers in the media — the juicy headlines that cause people to click through and see what the story’s about.  I mean, you’ll never see Boy Gets On Bus; Arrives Safely At School in bold print…  (Except just now.)

You might recall that, during the State of the Union address last week, the President stated the goal of one million electric vehicles on our nation’s roads by 2015.  (The wording has since been relaxed, to state one million advanced technology vehicles, but the emphasis remains on the importance of using electricity from the grid to replace petroleum from our enemies.)  Concurrently, the School of Public and Environmental Affairs at Indiana University has released a study, Plug-In Electric Vehicles:  A Practical Plan for Progress.  The report is a very interesting, pragmatic synopsis of the role that electric-drive vehicles may play in our transportation landscape in the future, and it reiterates many valid points that folks who’ve been studying this issue for some time take as truths.  (After all, it was created by an expert panel…)

Unfortunately, a study like this isn’t exactly an attention-grabber.  There’s no murder, or adultery.  That didn’t stop CNN from reporting on it yesterday.  The headline?

So, what’s the roadblock? Well, the report states that “the production intentions of automakers are currently insufficient to meet the 2015 goal,” estimating instead 841,000 sales by 2015 based on a single Pike Research forecast.  (This is probably one point with which I disagree with the report, since depending on which automakers you include and whose production forecasts you believe, you can pretty easily break the 1M-by-2015 barrier.)  To the report’s credit, it does include the disclaimer that “consumer demand for PEVs is quite uncertain.”  Indeed.

But it irks me that Ms. Dimmler chose to frame this reasonable and useful report as a “roadblock” to the administration’s goal.  Nothing has actually happened.  There hasn’t been some great revelation making this EV goal unreachable.  Someone just happened to point out the very logical idea that, in order to sell a million vehicles, people will have to buy a million vehicles.  Somehow this leads to the conclusion that  The President Has Failed!, four years ahead of schedule.

My guess is, whenever it does happen, we likely won’t see the One Million Plug-In Vehicles Hit Nation’s Roads headline.  But the first time one is involved in a tragic accident – or a senator gets caught in the back seat with his mistress – we’ll hear all about it.

Categories: Electrification, Policy Tags:

Sexism

January 19th, 2011 Comments off

This morning, while standing at the bus-stop waiting for the public transit system to take me to work, a woman walked up to the newspaper vending machine next to me to purchase her copy of the Post.  As she turned to walk away (after retrieving her print edition of what everybody else read online yesterday), she asked me, “Sir, would you like the Sports section?”

Now, I’m sure this unexpected gesture was born out of genuine kindness, pure and simple.  But, should I have been offended? I mean, if our roles had been reversed, and had I offered her the Style & Beauty section, would she have been right to feel insulted?

Bottom-line:  there are many things in this world which are, rightly or wrongly, associated with either men or women.  This includes cars.

There are vehicles that are traditionally for guys. Four-wheel-drive trucks.  Jeeps.  Muscle cars.  Anything with a loud exhaust.  And then there are “chick cars”. The VW New Beetle.  The Mazda Miata (until guys figured out it was fun as hell to drive around a race track).  And minivans.  (OK, minivans may be more stay-at-home-mom-schlepping-the-kids-all-around-town car than chick car.  But still.)

Of course, the lines are now blurring – at least when it comes to minivans.  And auto companies (or at least their marketing firms) realize it.  Take for example the “Rock Van” ads about the latest Honda Odyssey, or the “Swagger Wagon” spots about the Toyota Sienna.  (Meanwhile, OEMs like Chevrolet – who doesn’t have a minivan offering – position vehicles like the Traverse as the less demeaning alternative to the minivan.)

I wonder which gender-bin electric-drive vehicles will fall into, now that they’re becoming more and more available. I’ve been told that the Prius is a chick car.  I suspect that the Leaf may fall into that category as well, though the Volt has a more masculine presence.

The Tesla Model S?  I’ll take mine along with the Sports section, thank you very much.

At Least It’s an Op-Ed Column

November 13th, 2010 Comments off

George F. Will is an idiot.

In his Washington Post Op-Ed, dated Sunday, November 14 (which is odd, since today’s only the 13th), Will pens a sarcastic piece trivializing the technology contained within the Chevy Volt, and ridiculing the U.S. government’s role in preventing General Motors’ complete collapse.  I’d like to correct a few of his statements.

Will writes that “the Volt is not quite an electric car, or not the sort GM deliberately misled Americans into expecting.”  He explains that it’s “just another hybrid,” and claims the public was duped when it was revealed that, under certain operating conditions, “the gas engine will power the wheels.”  It’s true that the Volt is a hybrid – effectively, a series hybrid – which everyone even remotely involved in the auto industry has acknowledged for quite some time now.  (Sure, GM describes it as an extended-range electric vehicle, to emphasize the fact that it is the electric motor that is responsible for making the car go.)

GM's Patent Application: Output-Split Electrically Variable Transmission with Electric Propulsion Using One or Two Motors

GM never deliberately misled anyone.  Will, like a few other folks, is making a big deal out of the fact that, when GM’s patent application for the Volt’s transmission was discovered recently, it was realized that there exists a potential mechanical path linking the engine with the wheels.  It doesn’t seem to matter that, the vast majority of the time, this path will not be engaged.  (Those of us who have seen the maps illustrating the operational controls of the Volt’s transmission understand this.)  Nor does it seem to matter that, when this path is engaged, it does so simply to increase the efficiency of the complete drivetrain as a whole – the engine can never provide motive force to the wheels on its own.  …Nope, Will has been duped.  And he is pissed.

Will goes on to complain that, in a recent Volt ad, the fine print explains that the car will only available in 6 states plus Washington DC at the end of 2010.  Of course, he fails to mention (or simply is ignorant of the fact) that, come March 2011, several more states will receive Volts.  By the end of 2011, the Volt will be available in most places around the country.  By mid 2012, the car will be available nationwide.  So don’t worry, Will – you’ll be able to get yours soon enough.

Next on Will’s gripe-list are the numbers:  $41,000 for a car that only seats four, before the $7,500 “bribe” that the feds will pay you to buy it, not to mention state-level subsidies for both the car and a Level 2 charger.  He adds that gasoline will have to cost $9 a gallon before these cars will make it “on their own merit.”  (He makes no mention of the subsidies that we already pay to keep gasoline from being $9 a gallon.)  He also dings GM for predicting they’d produce 60,000 Volts in the first year of production; however, the citation he gives is anything but a forecast.  Instead, it’s a news story from over three years ago – when the Volt prototype was first revealed, and well before the implosion of the North American auto industry – describing potential volume levels needed to drive the price of the car down.

Will also trivializes the environmental impact of the Volt, saying it simply stores electricity produced by coal- and gas-fired power plants.  Of course, only about half of our nation’s power plants are coal-powered.  A substantial portion is nuclear.  There’s also quite a bit of hydro power.  And while renewables such as wind and solar play only a small role now, their impact is certainly growing.  (It doesn’t take a lot of effort to predict what Will’s opinion of federal money going towards accelerating the market viability of these technologies would be…)  The point is, electric motors are much more efficient than gasoline engines, and on the balance, electric-drive powertrains are an environmental win.

Will concludes his obtuse argument by criticizing the financial position in which GM currently finds itself, having had its bankruptcy financed by the U.S. and Canadian governments.  The pitfalls and benefits of the government preventing the loss of tens and hundreds of thousands of jobs associated with The General and its supply-chain can be debated forever.  History will tell us whether it was the “right” decision or not.  We may not have to wait that long, however, as GM plans for its IPO.  Then again, it may be investors in Asia and the Middle East that end up laughing all the way to the bank.

I’m in no position – nor do I have any ammunition with which – to defend GM.  But I do understand automotive technology.  Obviously, George Will doesn’t.  OK, so maybe that doesn’t make him an idiot.  But it should give him pause before scripting an ill-informed Op-Ed about it.

The End?

November 7th, 2010 Comments off

In music, a coda is a movement that brings a work to a conclusion.  In other words, it’s the end.

So, when it comes to naming your new start-up electric car company, why would you choose the name “Coda”? Would it be to signify the end of the internal combustion engine?  Maybe the end of transportation as we know it?  Or perhaps it might even be a subconscious decision which turns out to be foretelling of the ultimate fate of your company itself.

In the case of Coda Automotive, I’m leaning towards that last, prophetic choice.  Turns out, Kevin Czinger has just resigned as the company’s CEO, just a few days after the Senior VP of Global Sales announced his departure.  And although the company is still theoretically a going concern, one must wonder how the orchestra will continue once the maestro exits.

Coda Automotive spun off from Miles Electric Vehicles – makers of smaller, slower neighborhood electric vehicles (NEVs) – a few years ago, with the charge of producing highway-capable, full-size EVs for the American consumer.  Although Miles EVs aren’t bad (for what they are), my own opinion is that Coda’s aim is slightly off target.  Their upcoming (?) EV appears reasonably capable, though its styling is more like that of a mid-1990s Toyota Corolla than the “effortless blend of style and function … with a classic profile and sleek lines [and an] aesthetic rival[ing] the coolest cars on the road” described on the company’s slick website.

Even less harmonic is the price, at over $37k after the $7,500 tax incentive! This is about $4k more than the much more attractive Chevy Volt extended range electric vehicle, and about $13k more than the also much more attractive Nissan Leaf EV (with similar specs to, albeit with a significantly smaller battery than, the Coda) – both due out in about a month’s time.

I’m excited about the new electrified cars we’re about to see on our nation’s roads.  But as for Coda – well, the next song on their program might just be Requiem for an EV.

Don’t Screw It Up

August 31st, 2010 Comments off

Recently, my boss gave me an assignment with vague instruction, including the solitary bit of guidance:  “Don’t screw it up.

This edict echoed in my mind yesterday, when I read a story at Autobloggreen about some troubles that a few prospective Nissan Leaf purchasers are facing regarding having a car charger installed in their garage.  It seems Aerovironment, the maker of the de facto Leaf charger, has an installation mechanism that may not be as flexible as it needs to be.  The result is that installation fees, in many cases, are higher than they should be.  Significantly higher.  Outrageously, ridiculously higher.

Nissan made it known a while back that the average price for the charger, including installation in your garage, would be about $2,200.  Some folks were surprised (and perturbed) to find out that much of this cost is for the actual installation.  And now, a subset of these people are understandably pissed to discover that, even if their garage is pre-wired for the charger (meaning installation consists of a couple of bolts and actually plugging in the unit), they might be paying $1,200 for the installation alone.

Obviously, there will be cases where the Leaf charger installation will should cost much less (or much more) than average.  It disturbs me to think that installation guidelines and pricing policies may be such that all installation circumstances can’t be suitably handled, with the result being a lot of frustrated (and ultimately former) potential EV purchasers.  When people ask me why I think electric-drive vehicles will be successful THIS TIME around, my honest response is that, this time, we’re doing it differently.  We’re doing it right.  We’re introducing vehicles and building charging infrastructure on a scale that’s unprecedented, and that paves the way for even broader commercialization in the future.  There’s momentum and support from the auto makers, the general public, and federal, state, and local governments.

…But it’s a balancing act.  A few mis-steps could derail the whole process. And this is an example, as trivial as it is, of one such stumble.

Fortunately, purchasers of the Leaf have other sources for a home charger, and may even be able to get one for free.  But if the whole experience of acquiring an electric vehicle and the required charger is a pain in the ass, it’s not going to happen.

So, please, don’t screw this up.

If You’re Not Part Of the Solution…

August 10th, 2010 Comments off

Recently, a friend of mine forwarded me a diatribe written by Robert Bryce of The Manhattan Institute, bellyaching about government funding being used to accelerate the market introduction of electric vehicles.  In his rant, Bryce cites numerous examples of auto makers advertising the benefits of electric transportation and promising affordability for all.  In some cases, these quips are a century old.  Bryce uses these examples as proof that despite the hype, electric-drive vehicles will continue to fail, and that the technology “shows so little promise” and still isn’t ready for prime time.

I think Mr. Bryce’s fallacy here is looking to the past to predict the future.  (Look at the bottom of the prospectus of your favorite mutual fund.  “Past performance is not an indication of future results.”)  Energy storage (read: battery) technology is substantially beyond what it was even a few years ago.  Much of the government funding that Mr. Bryce feels is ill-spent is being used to establish immense battery manufacturing capacity here in the U.S., and will dramatically reduce costs.  He points out that hybrid vehicles currently account for only about 3% of the new car sales, suggesting that’s a sign of the lack of consumer acceptance.  (On the other hand, what percentage of new car models are hybrids?  If it’s  less than 3%, then I’d say this statistic is a sign of robust consumer demand!)

My main problem with Mr. Bryce’s article, however, isn’t his flawed arguments.  It’s the fact that he offers no mention of an alternative solution.  The reader is left to assume that he believes the government should end any and all subsidies to promote electric transportation, and let the market take care of itself.  (After all, one of the tenets of The Manhattan Institute is to “foster greater economic choice.”)  The problem is, the petroleum industry currently enjoys some of the largest subsidies imaginable, many of which are indirect, due to externalities that aren’t included in the price of a gallon of gasoline.  According to the National Defense Council Foundation, our oil dependence costs us around $300 billion each year.  If this cost were internalized (rather than being subsidized), a gallon of gas would cost well over $5.  (Oh, and don’t even get me started on the cost of the cleanup in the Gulf…)  In that respect, the cost of an EV or PHEV may not seem so high.

I’m all for a free market.  The problem is, there are no perfect markets.  Especially when it comes to environmental issues – in the case of transportation that means pollution and greenhouse gas emission, not to mention national security issues associated with our presence in the Middle East – there are externalities that aren’t priced in.  By funding the development and deployment of electric vehicles, the big bad government isn’t picking winners – it’s leveling the playing field.  And, you know, actually doing something to contribute to the solution.

And as the old saying goes:  If you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem.

Peeks, Leafs, and Curves

April 25th, 2010 Comments off

Just over a week ago, I opened my mouth about V-Vehicle Company, and the fact that they appeared to be dead in the water.  Apparently, the folks at VVC read my post, and thus decided to give a few journalists a sneak PEEK of their affordable, efficient, composite-bodied compact.  According to Autobloggreen, it looks like a cross between a VW Golf and a Dodge Neon. …Who knew ThatCarBlog had such an effect on the automotive start-ups?

2011 Nissan Leaf

In other news, this week Nissan revealed that 6,635 people in the U.S. have paid $99 to reserve a Leaf … in only 3 days.  This is notable for several reasons.  First, lack of customer demand was one of the reasons GM cited in the early ’90s for the limited availability (and eventual cancellation) of the EV1 program.  (Of course, when customers … demanded … the EV1, GM’s stance was, “Oh, they’re not really serious.”)  Demand for the Leaf, which won’t be available until the end of the year, is already stronger than expected – a very good sign for Nissan (and EVs in general).  Secondly, compared to the expectations and media chatter surrounding Chevrolet’s Volt, hype surrounding the Leaf has been relatively limited.  This deserves mention, considering the Leaf will arrive at around the same time as the Volt, and it’s an all-electric vehicle (compared to the Volt’s plug-in-hybrid … er, extended-range-electric propulsion architecture).  Many folks still consider pure EVs to not quite be ready for mass-market consumption.  …And finally, the 100-mile range Leaf will cost $25,280 after tax incentives, about $7k less than the Volt.

2011 Audi RS5

And on a final note … I just can’t stop staring at Audi’s new RS5.  This is one sexy car, with subtly striking CURVES and amazing performance potential.  OK, so the 450 hp, 4.2 liter V8 underneath its hood may not be the most efficient power plant imaginable, but with an average fuel economy of 22 mpg, it’s not nearly as thirsty as most cars of this caliber.  And with such visual appeal on the outside, it’s hard to pay attention to what’s on the inside…