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…And More Books…

January 20th, 2012 Comments off

I’ve finished reading Peter De Lorenzo’s book, Witch Hunt, which I mentioned in my last post. And I’m disappointed. It’s essentially a collection of De Lorenzo’s posts from his blog, Autoextremist.com, during the past few years of turmoil in the U.S. auto industry. While there are a few interesting observations within its 328 pages, it’s essentially one long rant about the demise of the American manufacturing sector, filled with vague (and not-so-vague) insults hurled at everyone in federal government, the media, the environmental movement, American consumers, the UAW, and the auto industry (excepting Bob Lutz of GM and Alan Mulally of Ford, on whom De Lorenzo heaps praise so excessive it’s embarrassing), and with an overuse of clichéd catch-phrases so prolific that at times it’s difficult to read. (By the end of the book, everytime I read the words “that’s NOTGONNAHAPPEN.COM!” I swear I could hear studio-audience laughter from an episode of Three’s Company.)

Early on in the book, I decided that De Lorenzo must be a newcomer/outside observer to the auto industry (uh, much like I am) to put forth his wildly unfounded opinions with hardly any facts to support them. But apparently I’m wrong – Peter is a long-time auto industry advertising/marketing exec and journalist, and is an acquaintance of many of the higher-ups in Detroit. His background gives some of his anecdotes much-needed credibility. Unfortunately, that credibility is overshadowed by his obvious disdain for anyone who wasn’t entrenched in Michigan’s automobile manufacturing sector for the past several decades, as well as by his thinly veiled fantasy for De Lorenzo himself to be named CEO of General Motors.

I’m glad I read the book. But it certainly didn’t make me smarter.

On the other hand, an acquaintance recently loaned me a book, Turning Oil Into Salt, by Gal Luft and Anne Korin of the Set America Free Coalition. Anytime a book is put forth by a “coalition”, one has to think it’s simply to promote that group’s agenda. And that’s true in this case. Fortunately, the coalition appears to be legitimately non-partisan, and their agenda is to end oil’s status as a strategic commodity, by promoting fuel choice. “So, why would you want to turn oil into salt?” That’s a metaphor: In centuries past, salt was a strategic commodity. It was once the only way to preserve food, which meant that it was a matter of survival. Those with salt held particular power over those who needed it (i.e., everyone else). Wars were fought over it. It had a major influence on geo-politics of the time.

…Sound familiar? …Once the refrigerator was invented, salt became just a commodity. We still need it. But it’s not a matter of our daily survival. We have options.

Turning oil into salt means “stripping oil of its status as a strategic commodity” for our transportation needs. Luft and Korin argue that this can be done by offering fuel-choice in our vehicles. Flex-fuel plug-in hybrids that run on electricity, gasoline, ethanol, methanol, natural gas, or diesel and bio-diesel, from a variety of feedstocks is technologically achievable (though, as the authors rightfully point out, involves challenges that could initially be painful and costly), and would allow us fuel-choice that would demote petroleum to just another commodity, and release the hold that OPEC nations have over us through its manipulation of the global oil market.

Turning Oil Into Salt is a quick read, and it only touches the surface of a variety of issues that must be addressed to achieve what the authors envision. Although at times a little off-putting by its repetitive attribution of many of the global issues stemming from oil as being tied to “radical Islam”, in the end the book makes the reader think.

And that makes us smarter.


Categories: Auto Companies, Books, Policy Tags:

Books

January 5th, 2012 Comments off

It’s that time of year – when we all get to enjoy the bounty which was bestowed upon us by family and friends for the holidays…  By that, I mean presents. And in my case, those presents are quite often automotive-related.

This year, I received a copy of Bob Lutz’s book Car Guys vs Bean Counters – The Battle for the Soul of American Business.  It’s a pretty interesting inside-look at Bob’s final tenure at General Motors, beginning in 2001, up through and including the bankruptcy and restructuring of GM.  Once the reader gets past Lutz waxing moronically about the left-wing-socialist-media propagating the great hoax of global warming, and ignorant government bureaucrats promulgating regulations which favored foreign manufacturers (which, in his mind, played a role in the events that led to GM’s demise), there are interesting tidbits about the inept product-development practices within GM that led to mediocre cars that didn’t appeal to consumers.  Lutz’s focus is product design – creating vehicles that people want to buy – and he disparages what he calls the overly academic, data-driven analysis approach that the glut of MBAs that infested the ranks within GM espoused.  His bottom line is that you must create a great product in order to succeed.  Developing streamlined, efficient business processes to produce perfectly pedestrian vehicles will lead to failure.  Cars should be created by car guys. With this, I agree.  (Lutz’s book also gives an interesting GM-centric perspective on the government bailout of the company, which is a nice counterpoint to [while being consistent with] the version contained in Steven Rattner’s book Overhaul.  Which I was given last Christmas…)

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Coincidentally, I also received another book this year:  Cars: Freedom, Style, Sex, Power, Motion, Colour, Everything, by Stephen Bayley.  This mini-coffee-table book views automobiles as art, and the vast majority of its pages contain black-and-white photos of Bayley’s list of the most beautiful 86 cars ever produced.  The first 30 pages, however, contain text that set the stage for the reader, and describe how the automobile was at one time designed to appeal to the senses.  These moving masterpieces were metaphors for personal achievement, and captured the essence of what people aspired to be.  They moved people, rather than just moving them around.

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…Which I think is sort of what Lutz was trying to get GM back to.  It’s sort of ironic that the beginning of Bayley’s book effectively summarizes the point that Lutz is trying to make:  “…It was art that really made the car America’s primary product.  And later Europe’s, then Japan’s.  The management consultancy pioneer, Alfred McKinsey, believed everything can be measured and if you can measure it, you can manage it.  But art is as notoriously resistant to both measurement and management as it is powerful in its effect.  From the moment car manufacturers discovered art in the 1920s, there have been attempts to manage it, to systematize it, but none has been successful.  Even in an industry as hierarchical and stratified as automobile manufacturing, the great cars have been products of creative genius – aberrant, cussed, irreverent – not of scientific management.”

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As a final note, I also received a copy of Peter De Lorenzo’s book Witch Hunt: Essays on the U.S. Auto Industry and the Blithering Idiots Who Almost Killed It.  I’ve only just begun reading it.  While De Lorenzo, too, makes the point that, in the car business, product is king, the lesson that I’m really taking from this book is:  Bloggers shouldn’t publish their work in hard-cover.

 

Settled

September 10th, 2011 Comments off

Not long after my last post on CAFE regulations (where I mentioned that the White House was leaning towards a 2025 target of 56.2 mpg), the matter was “settled,” at a proposed 54.5 mpg.  (The difference doesn’t amount to much – less than 6/100ths of a gallon of gasoline for every 100 miles that a vehicle travels.  But, the lowering of the goal was enough to get some of the major auto manufacturers to fall in line and support the proposed regulation – at least publicly.)

Behind the scenes, however, automakers and other opponents to tighter CAFE rules complain that the target is too tough, and that it will lead to slow, underpowered cars that people won’t want to buy at significantly increased costs.  Being a realist, I tend to think that – yes, it’s true that new, advanced technology does tend to cost more than the old, but the benefit far outweighs the cost.  On the other hand …

Reading my latest issue of Autoweek magazine, I came across an article about the new Range Rover Evoque, which states that its 4-cylinder engine “generates 240 hp and 251 lb-ft of torque, which is more than the 233 hp and 234 lb-ft from the 3.2-liter six currently in the Land Rover LR2.”  It’s also rated at 24 mpg, vs 17 mpg for the LR2.  Now in this case, the Evoque does come at a premium (approximately $44k as compared to the LR2’s $37k), but it’s a completely new model, in a higher-end segment than the LR2, and you’re paying for more than just a more powerful and more efficient engine.  So …

A few pages later is an article about the new Jeep Wrangler, which gets a new V6 for 2012.  As compared to the 2011 powerplant, Autoweek tells us its “output grows by 83 hp and torque gains 23 lb-ft, to 260 lb-ft.  That blows the old 3.8-liter engine and its 202-hp, 237-lb-ft raings off the trail.  Despite the power boost, fuel economy also increases to up to 21 mpg on the highway.  The base price remains the same…”  More power?  More efficiency?  Same price?  And then …

There’s the next article about the new Mercedes Benz M-class.  Since car mags are so good at telling us what’s changed between the new model and the old, let’s see what Autoweek has to say.  “Power is up, along with fuel economy, in both versions that will be offered at launch in the United States.  The gasoline direct-injection, 3.5-liter V6 ML350 4Matic, with 302 hp and 273 lb-ft of torque, has an estimated fuel economy of 17 mpg city and 22 mpg highway (versus 15/20 mpg in the outgoing model).  The ML350 Bluetec 3.0-liter V6 turbodiesel has an output of 240 hp and 455 lb-ft of torque and estimated fuel consumption of 20/25 mpg (versus 18/25 for 2011).  Pricing stays the same for 2012…”

It’s not like these are isolated, special cases.  Automakers are great at increasing efficiency and power without increasing cost.  They’ve been doing it for years.  It’s just that they’ve been using that ability to make our cars bigger, heavier, and faster, rather than making any significant gains in fuel economy.  As a result, they now have a long way to go to meet upcoming CAFE regulations.

The automakers (well, not all of them) publicly support the new CAFE targets.    My guess is they’ll find a way to comply.  From a fuel consumption standpoint (i.e., the y-axis on this graph), most of the work has already been done.

 

(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.

Contrast

June 27th, 2011 Comments off

Last month, Autoblog Green writer Eric Loveday wrote about an interview with Bob Lutz – former Ford/Chrysler/BMW executive, most known for his recently-ended stint at General Motors where he retired as Vice Chairman of Global Product Development.  Now, as a car-guy, I’ve always sort of admired Maximum Bob.  He’s a car-guy as much as a businessman, and he oversaw the development of more than a few worthwhile vehicles in his career.  But, he does have some flaws in his thinking, which are painfully revealed in the Loveday interview…

Bob Lutz

Bob’s a climate-change skeptic, and it shows in his opinions related to CAFE regulations and the federal government’s role in the auto industry.  He says of the initial CAFE rules from the 1970’s,The feds basically handed our market to the Japanese.”  He then describes how the American automakers made perfectly desirable vehicles until CAFE came about, forcing the domestic industry to abruptly redesign and re-engineer everything in order to comply.  And since change is hard, American auto quality suffered.  He also blames the State Department for granting Japan a favorable exchange-rate, making American competitiveness even more difficult.  (I’m no economist, but I’m pretty sure the State Department doesn’t set exchange rates.  Am I wrong?)

Bob describes the U.S. federal government as the only one in the world that is hostile to its own auto industry because of the policies it places “against” the automakers, born of what he calls a complete lack of understanding of what is technologically feasible.  He describes a mandate of 42 mpg by 2025 as physically impossible, tantamount to mandating that all cars have to “hover off the highway by two inches.”  (For what it’s worth, 42 mpg is the below the range of what NHTSA has been considering as the 2025 CAFE rule; instead, the agency has been considering improvements of 3%-6% per year beginning in 2017 within the realm of possibility, equating to 47 mpg to 62 mpg by 2025.  Additionally, today the White House “unofficiallyreleased a proposed CAFE target of 56.2 mpg.  I wonder what Bob thinks about that?  …Actually, I’m pretty sure I already know…)

Bill Ford

In contrast, Bill Ford – Executive Chairman of Ford Motor Company – recently spoke at the TED2011 conference, and penned an opinion piece on CNN.com, describing the global gridlock we face as the number of cars on the planet doubles or quadruples over the coming decades from the nearly 1 billion vehicles we have now.  Bill accurately describes the downside:  traffic jams, squandered time, stifled economic opportunity, and the resulting loss of mobility options and lower standard of living.  He then suggests a few solutions:  better mass transit systems, smart cars, smart infrastructure, and cooperation among corporations, entrepreneurs, NGOs, universities, and governments.  In stark opposition to Lutz’s tack, Ford anticipates the unsustainability of the current paradigm, and envisions possibilities to overcome the challenge.  (Lutz, on the other hand, only envisions external factors as the cause of difficulty for his industry.)

The contrast between these two auto executives – and their view of the world – couldn’t be more apparent.  It’s a good thing for GM that Lutz is now a former executive.

Observations From an Auto Show

January 28th, 2011 Comments off

The Washington, DC Auto Show kicked off today.  And although it’s not the premiere event on most automakers’ calendars, it is an important occasion, given the vast intersection between the auto industry and policy makers.  It’s also the auto show that’s easiest for me to attend, given that it takes place in the city in which I work…

So, as I wandered through the automakers’ displays, taking note of the new models on the floor (…and I’m talking about the cars, not the barbie-esque spokespersons demonstrating how to recline the seats…), I made a few observations.  And here they are.

Fiat 500 Sport

Fiat is here. Yes, I’ve been excited about the arrival of the Cinquecento for some time.  And Chrysler … err, Fiat had quite a few on display in various colors and trim levels.  This is a nice car. ..It’s a small car.  (Grown people may not be able to fit in the back seat.)  But I think it will sell at least as well as the Mini Cooper (its only real competition) has done.  Molto bene!

Chrysler may be back from the brink, but its future isn’t certain. One of two automakers that the government saved from complete collapse (the other being GM), Chrysler finally has an updated line-up reaching the market.  It is much improved (the new Jeep Grand Cherokee is awesome, and the new Durango and Charger are impressive as well); but I get the feeling their first step post-rescue, while big, is still a little shaky.  I’m skeptical that any of these vehicles (other than the Cherokee) will sell in large numbers.  And it’s telling that their Fiat 500 display was the most crowded spot in the entire Chrysler/Dodge/Jeep/Fiat area while I was there.

Buick is relevant. GM started turning Buick around not long before the General found itself at the edge of the cliff.  Through their restructuring, the Buick brand was saved, and now has an expanded (and impressive) model line-up.  The Enclave is arguably the best looking vehicle in its class, the Regal GS is bad-ass (yes, I said a Buick is bad-ass), and the upcoming Verano is a small car for grown-ups.  Now, if only they could come up with better model names…

Acura isn’t. Honda’s premium brand, for some reason, has decided to make cars that nobody wants to buy.

Ford C-Max

Ford is on a tear. From where I stood, Ford had the biggest presence at the Washington Auto Show, and had the vehicles to back it up.  They’re making great cars lately – the new Taurus, Focus, Fiesta, and Explorer (not to mention the EcoBoost powertrains, as well as hybrids and pure electrics) are at the top of their class.  The new C-Max is impressive as well.  Ford was the only Detroit automaker that didn’t require government assistance – and now they’re flaunting it.

The Mercedes Benz SLS AMG isn’t nearly as attractive in person as it is in the pictures. Sad, but true.

Hyundai Sonata Hybrid

Right now, I’d rather be Hyundai than Toyota or Honda.  It used to be that the Korean imports could only hope to match the quality, performance, styling, and reliability of the two biggest Japanese brands.  Now Toyota and Honda would do well to aim for Hyundai.  Hyundai claims that the Sonata hybrid is designed to be the first hybrid you want to buy.  They may be right.

Mini is a brand. Sure, the modern Cooper has been around for a few years now, but it’s basically been thought of a sub-brand of BMW.  Now with the (ugly) Clubman and the (still ugly but I want one anyway) Countryman, they’ve got a whole line-up. And they don’t have any competition.  (Well, scratch that, due to my first observation above!)

Nissan may be a one-trick pony. With all the (well-deserved) hype about the Leaf, people may have forgotten that Nissan makes other vehicles, too.  Apparently, so has Nissan.  They still make some good cars, but their design language – which had gotten just a little avant-garde in a desirable sort of way – has taken a wrong turn.

2011 Audi RS5

Audi makes the best interiors.  And exteriors. VW’s premium brand gained a reputation for making the inside of their vehicles one of the most eye-pleasing environments into which a person could deposit him (or her) self.  That’s still true.  And the exteriors have followed suit.  Add to that cutting edge technologies such as Quattro, TDI, TFSI, and the aluminum space frame, and it’s no wonder Audi saw sales increase last year more than rivals BMW or Mercedes.

And finally, people need to be informed by folks who understand. The official auto show guide, in describing the 10 most efficient vehicles (as rated by the EPA), said that if a (all-electric) Nissan Leaf had a 14-gallon gas tank, it could travel over 1300 miles… What?  How does that work?  What good is a gas tank on an electric vehicle?… (OK, it works by calculating the energy content of gasoline – approximately 33.7 kWh per gallon – and falsely assuming that, because the EPA fuel economy label says that the Leaf uses about 34 kWh to travel 100 miles, it could travel over 1300 miles on the energy content of 14 gallons of gasoline.  The EPA fuel economy label also says the Leaf gets 99 MPG.  Which is a nonsensical metric for an electric vehicle.)

Scorpio

November 18th, 2010 Comments off

Karl Alberto Abarth was a Scorpio.

Scorpios are all about intensity and contradictions.  They appear cool and collected on the outside, while underneath boils tremendous power, strength, and passion.  They give the impression of being detached and unemotional, though they possess strong willpower and fierce determination.  They may appear small and frugal, but are a blast to drive.

…What?…

Abarth began converting run-of-the-mill Fiats into small, affordable sports cars in the 1950s, under the sign of the scorpion, and since then, the scorpion-badged cars have represented race-bred performance at a reasonable price.  So, imagine my giddiness when I found out today that the Abarth version of the Fiat 500 will be making it’s way to the U.S.!

As someone who follows the auto industry, I’ve known – and been excited about – the fact that Fiat will soon be returning to the U.S., due to their recently consummated relationship with Chrysler.  I was even more excited upon finding out a few months ago that Fiat’s reintroduction would begin with the diminutive 500.  It’s obvious from this post over a year ago that I’m a fan of small-but-fun cars.  And I don’t mean the slow, decontented ones we typically get here in the States.  The fact that the Abarth is one of the flavors that will be available to us is unexpected icing on the automotive cake! (Go over to the website and build one for yourself!  …Unfortunately, the Abarth option isn’t active yet…)

Fiat 500 Abarth

I’m hopeful that the 500 will do well here.  In my opinion, it should.  It’s in the same vein as the Mini Cooper, albeit slightly smaller.  (Though not so small as the not-so-Smart.)  The Abarth is like the Mini Cooper S – after a brief stay in juvie.  It’s the badass little econobox that says, in a cute little Italian accent, “Per favore, mi scusi,” while punching you in the face.

It’s a Scorpio.


Categories: Auto Companies, Small Cars Tags:

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.

Differences

September 16th, 2010 Comments off

This is a real car:

Nissan Leaf

And this is not:

Edison2 Very Light Car

And if you happened to be walking down L’Enfant Promenade in Washington, DC this afternoon, it’s quite likely you would have seen both of them.

The first car is Nissan’s new all-electric vehicle, the Leaf, which you will be able to buy (or at least order) within the next few months at your local Nissan Dealer.  (And if you haven’t seen the new commercial, go watch it now.)

The second is the Edison2 Very Light Car.  It was in town because the Progressive Insurance Automotive X-Prize winners were being announced.  (You can read about them here.)  The Edison2 won the prize – the five million dollar prize – in the mainstream class. …Really?  Mainstream? This car doesn’t look mainstream to me.  It does meet the definition of mainstream as defined by the PIAXP folks.  It does carry four passengers, and is presumably capable of transporting them around on public roads with some modicum of comfort, safety, and practicality.  It’s motivated by a 1-cylinder, E85-capable 40 horsepower motorcycle engine.  And it can do this because it weighs a scant 800 pounds.

The Edison2 will never be sold to the public. But it’s interesting for a few reasons.  It demonstrates that there are ways to build a 100 mpg car that doesn’t use electricity as its fuel – namely, through the use of lightweighting and aerodynamic improvements.  (It also demonstrates what a group of individuals who cut their teeth in auto racing can do when they focus on fuel efficiency.)

The Leaf, on the other hand, is remarkable in that it’s so unremarkable, while at the same time being unlike anything the mass market has seen.  It’ll cost around $24k (after the $7500 federal tax credit), which is pretty inexpensive considering its 24kWh battery that gives it a 100 mile range between charges.  And it’s a nice car – with better tactile feedback and quality of materials than many other conventional cars in its price range.  It’s roomy, handles well, is quick off the line, and is quite fun and intuitive to drive.  My test-drive was brief, but easily enough to convince me that Nissan likely has a success on their hands.  (It should be noted that the Leaf was not an entrant the Automotive X-Prize competition.)

The Edison2 may have won the Automotive X-Prize competition (and the $5 million purse).  But my guess is that a year from now, it will be the Nissan Leaf that will have won consumers’ hearts.  And even the hearts of a few polar bears.