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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.

Fake Hondas

August 23rd, 2010 Comments off

When Hyundai entered the North American auto market in the mid-late’80’s, my initial impression was, “Who are they fooling?!  Nobody’s going to mistake that piece of crap for a Honda!”  I assumed, given the similarities in their name – and their cars’ badging – that they were attempting to capture the segment of the car market made up of consumers who thought they were buying a Honda weren’t capable of thought.  Consumers quickly realized that Hyundais weren’t Hondas, however.  Honda had gained a reputation for well-built, reliable vehicles, while Hyundais were quickly discovered to be poorly built, unreliable, and basically not worth the low price in their window stickers.

That was twenty years ago. So, what’s changed since then?  Well, Hyundais have.  After a few faulty starts, they’ve successfully moved into the luxury market with the Genesis.  They’ve also legitimately moved into the performance market with the Genesis Coupe.  And now, they’ve created the 2011 Sonata – a high-feature car for the masses that’s actually quite attractive.  They hired IAV Automotive Engineering (whose clients also include Bentley) to help them trim weight from the Sonata.  Since the car is only available with a 4-cylinder, the engine cradle structure didn’t have to be designed to accommodate any optional V6 – allowing a reduction in mass that translates in weight reductions elsewhere (such as the braking system) without a performance compromise.  (I love whole-systems thinking!)  All of this results in a car that has a little more power than a similarly featured Honda Accord (its most direct competitor), gets slightly better highway fuel efficiency (35 vs. 34 mpg), weighs approximately 100 pounds less, and is arguably more attractive.  The fact that the Sonata combines the impressive 200 horsepower 2.4 liter 4-cylinder (with continuously variable valve timing) with a 6-speed automatic transmission, and an SE trim-level that actually comes with performance goodies like stiffer springs, better shocks, and larger anti-roll bars, makes the $2k discount relative to the Accord all the more impressive.

A 10-year, 100,000 mile powertrain warrantyInitial Quality Ratings at the top of their class? What’s not to like? …Well, there’s that whole “no available V6” point where Honda has the advantage.  Then again, the 274 horsepower 2.0 turbo due out later in the model year should fix that.  And still reach 34 mpg.  …A fake Honda indeed!

2011 Hyundai Sonata

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.