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Posts Tagged ‘Toyota Prius’

Post-Election Musings

November 25th, 2012 Comments off

Now that the 2012 elections are behind us, and the pundits – of both the left and right persuasions – are backwards-analyzing everything that was said and done, and how it culminated in the slate of political “leaders” that will take us forward for the next several years, it’s also an appropriate time to take a look at things from an automotive perspective. Below are a few random thoughts, including statistics which may be completely made up.

What you drive says a lot about who you voted for. And I don’t simply mean the Obama/Biden or Romney/Ryan sticker on your rear bumper. For example, in the Presidential election, more than 100% of Volvo wagon drivers voted for President Obama. Similarly, nearly every Toyota Prius driver went with the incumbent. On the other hand, Mitt Romney captured the vote of 3 out of every 4 Ford Mustang drivers. The same ratio holds true for Chevy Camaro owners – although the 25% that voted for Obama are all General Motors employees. Cadillac owners voted overwhelmingly for Romney – obviously. And Nissan Leaf owners – both of them – cast their ballot for Obama. Subaru drivers also helped keep Obama in the White House, as that brand is not only a favorite among outdoorsy hippie-types, but also lesbians. Scion drivers? Well, they didn’t vote in this election, since they’re all under the age of 18.

There is a lot of ignorance about where our energy comes from. Especially for our cars. Not long before the election, I heard conspiracy theories every time gasoline prices dipped a bit, proclaiming that the President was manipulating them in order to win the election, as if there were a knob located underneath the Resolute Desk that controls the digits you see on the sign at your local gas station. Gasoline prices are driven, for the most part, by the price of oil, which is a commodity traded in a global market, with prices dictated by supply and demand. The only way to keep gasoline prices low are to (1) increase supply (which is very short-sighted, given that petroleum is a finite resource), and/or (2) reduce demand (which we can do – with significant effort – domestically, but it will likely have little impact due to the expected exponential growth in demand from other countries like China and India, unless they follow suit). The only way the federal government can directly affect gasoline prices is via the federal gasoline tax – which hasn’t changed from the level of 18.4¢/gallon since 1993. (For an honest look at domestic oil production, check out what my smart friend Patrick Bean has to say.)

The partisan fighting extends to the automotive world. On a road trip earlier this year, I was stuck in traffic next to a Ford Mustang Shelby GT500 – an impressive piece of machinery with a supercharged 5.8L V8 making 662 horsepower. And although we were doing the stop-and-roll on I-95 South out of Washington, D.C. averaging about 15 mph, that exhaust sounded so sweet. I was impressed – until I noticed the decal which featured a fat middle finger pointing upwards, with the caption, “F*ck your Prius” in his passenger-side rear quarter window. I’m still not sure what the sentiment is there, unless it’s “I paid twice as much for my muscle-car as you did for your *overpriced* hybrid, and now I’m stuck in traffic going the same speed as you.

CAFE standards will become significantly more impactful through 2025. One of the current administration’s first-term achievements was the issuance of the joint Final Rule for fuel efficiency standards, developed by the Environmental Protection Agency and U.S. Department of Transportation, which will effectively set the fuel economy target of light-duty vehicles at 54.5mpg by 2025. As with most every other signature accomplishment of the current President, from the beginning of the primaries the field of challengers nearly all promised to change course and rid the nation of such “job killing” regulations. But now that there’s more certainty that the new standards will be around for a while, the automakers will start commercializing technologies to meet them. And that’s a good thing.

Climate change, recently pushed to the back-burner, has now fallen off the stove. Four years ago, much of the political discussion was around a price for carbon – whether in the form of a carbon tax or a system of cap and trade. Climate change was becoming a mainstream topic of debate. And while a few actions have been implemented (see CAFE standards above), the topic of global warming has all but melted and flowed down the Potomac out of D.C. Perhaps this is the success of a relatively few climate change skeptics who operate at the fringe? Which would be unfortunate, given that, of the 13,926 peer-reviewed scientific journal articles that related to climate science, only 24 reject the notion of climate change. As I’ve said before, the science is proven – the only remaining question is the degree to which we’ll alter the climate system.

Maybe I should start printing bumper stickers that read, “F*ck your climate.” I expect there’ll be quite a market.


(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.

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.

Piety

April 7th, 2010 Comments off

On my commute to work this morning, a Toyota Prius passed by me in the HOV lane.  (It wasn’t traveling at a high-rate of speed, so I suspect the throttle was not stuck open.)  The personalized license plate on the Prius read “H8 GAS“.  Although I could only see the back of the driver’s head, I’m quite certain his expression bore a certain degree of smugness.

The gas-hating Prius-driver obviously feels he is doing right by the environment by purchasing one of the most fuel-efficient vehicles available.  (I mean, he did go so far as to plaster the motivation for his good eco-deed on the back of his car!)  The irony here, however, is that this driver sat alone in his Toyota, taking advantage of the policy that’s in place in most major metropolitan areas that allow drivers of hybrid vehicles to travel in the HOV lanes regardless of the number of vehicle occupants.  Meanwhile, I was motoring down the carpool lane while seated on a bus – powered by natural gas – along with several dozen neighbors.  (Once disembarking from the bus, we all boarded a subway – powered by electricity.)

Now, I don’t want to fault the Prius driver too much.  Perhaps he had a good reason for taking up space in the HOV lanes today.  And he did, afterall, make a good vehicle purchasing decision from an environmental standpoint.  I do have to question his taste in license-plate personalization, however. It exudes the same self-righteousness as the stock broker whose plate says MONYMAKR.  Or the Christian’s whose plate says FORGIVEN.  …Or the urologist’s whose says GR8FNGRS

I also have to question the HEVs-in-HOVs policy that so many people exploit.  Much like Cash for Clunkers, the intent is a legitimate one (to accelerate the deployment of fuel-efficient hybrid vehicles), and it has been somewhat successful – many folks buy hybrid vehicles solely for the privilege of traveling solo in the carpool lane.  However, I cringe at the large number of single-occupant, HOV-traveling hybrid Ford Escapes and Toyota Highlanders I see – both reasonably fuel-efficient vehicles, but nowhere near as economical as many smaller conventional vehicles.  (God help me the first time I see a BMW X6 ActiveHybrid exploiting the rule..)

Don’t get me wrong – I’m all-in when it comes to promoting the development, manufacture, deployment, and market penetration of hybrid vehicles.  (In fact, that’s what I do everyday.  For my job.  For which I get paid.)  But perhaps it’s time to revisit some of the policies that were put in place to spur the HEV market, and instead focus on policies to promote public transit.  (Some places, like California, are starting to do just that.)  After all, if he hadn’t been able to drive in the HOV lane alone in the Prius, the Gas H8r may have been enticed to keep his conventional vehicle and make a few carpool buddies.

…Or even ride the bus – leaving him time to think of other ways to advertise how proud he is of himself.

Tweeting Our Way Out of Oil Addiction

February 3rd, 2010 Comments off

The year was 1987. Ronald Reagan was president, The Simpsons appeared on TV for the first time, and disposable contact lenses became commercially available.  …That was also the year I became a licensed driver.

When I was a teenager, reaching the age of licensedom was the most anticipated and celebrated event in a young man’s life.  No more having your parents shuttle you to meet your friends – or your date – on a Saturday night.  With that little piece of plastic, you could go wherever you wanted, whenever you wanted … as long as it was before dark.  (You had to wait another year for completely unrestricted driving privileges.)

According to a story last week in the Washington Post, the trend of teenagers applying for a driver’s license as soon as the clock strikes “16 years” may be changing.  According to the story, in 1998 nearly 45% of 16-year-olds got their driver’s license.  In 2008, that percentage had dropped to just over 30%.

Why the apparent decline in interest among teens to jump in their car and drive?  Well, according to the Washington Post story, one contributing factor is social networking.  Back in the day, if we wanted to … social network … with our friends, we had to go see them.  In a pinch, we could talk on the phone.  (Three-way calling was cutting-edge technology!)  But then mom would have to use the phone, so we’d have to to hang up – and break the 3-way-calling-chain that had connected all of our friends.

Since then, we’ve seen cell-phones, broadband, and social networking come into existence and become mainstream.  Teens spend countless hours on Facebook, Twitter, and texting (or otherwise instant-messaging) with their friends.  And when they do this, they’re not driving.  (Well, OK, some of them do text-and-drive.  Which is dangerous. And hard.)  In fact, some teens would actually prefer to be chauffeured around by dear old mom and dad simply so they can continue to OMG and LOL with their BFF!

When a friend of mine recently told me he offered his teenage daughter a choice – a new car, or an iphone … and she chose the iphone, I began thinking, “I wonder what the impact that this phenomenon might have on the amount of fuel we use in our cars is, compared to the impact of, say, hybrid vehicles.”  Let’s assume there are about 10-million teenage drivers in the U.S. – a reasonable guess.  Assuming about 2.5-million of these are 16 years old, then the Washington Post article suggests that about 375,000 of these kids who would’ve gotten their licenses 20 years ago now choose not to.  If each of these kids would have otherwise driven 10,000 miles a year at an average of 25 mpg, that’s about 150-million gallons of gasoline per year that we’ve avoided burning.  Conversely, if Facebook didn’t exist and these kids still got their license and all drove 45 mpg Prius’s (without the faulty accelerator), then we’d only save about 67-million gallons of gasoline each year (compared to the 25 mpg baseline).  Wow.

OK, so my assumptions are arguably faulty.  But, they’re based in reality. And the conclusion? Twitter is more than twice as effective as hybrid technology at reducing fuel use in vehicles.

You heard it here first, folks.  But please – don’t retweet it.

A Battery of Questions

November 24th, 2009 Comments off

cell photoI often think I know more about things than I really do. And one thing I think I know a lot about is batteries – the kind that goes in your Prius, and the kind that will go in your Volt.  As most car-folks know, the battery industry is currently transitioning from nickel-metal-hydride (NiMH) batteries (i.e., what’s in your Prius) to lithium-ion (Li-ion; i.e., what’s in your Volt.  Or Leaf.  Or Tesla.).  And, it turns out, a battery isn’t just a battery – different types of batteries require significantly different control mechanisms to manage how much and how quickly they are charged and discharged, and how they behave while in operation, so that lifetime, safety, and performance are maximized.

But it’s even more complicated than that.  There are dozens of different Li-ion battery chemistries.  Every battery manufacturer has their own idea of the right combination of chemistry and manufacturing process that will result in the winning formula.  But each of these batteries has very unique characteristics that require very specific controls once it’s embedded in an automobile.  Auto manufacturers, on the other hand, would like to be chemistry-agnostic.  (They just want a battery that meets their requirements.)  But, given that the battery dictates the control software, it’s not so easy for a car maker to just pick a battery off the shelf.  Substantial development effort must take place between the auto maker and the battery maker, so that the car and the battery work together as a system.  (Just look at all the effort that has gone into the Volt’s development, in conjunction with Compact Power / LG Chem.)  Once a vehicle has been developed with a particular battery in place, changing battery suppliers would be a major hurdle.  As a result, there have been a lot of joint-ventures formed between auto manufacturers and battery companies, effectively tying their efforts together.

In the end, we’ll likely see each electrified automobile maker tied to one particular type of battery.  But there’s also the issue of standardization in the industry.  I wonder, if each auto/battery manufacturer takes a different path, will this complicate standardization?  How will this effect business models like Better Place – will their entire infrastructure be wedded to one type of battery and one manufacturer?

Aero

September 8th, 2009 Comments off

I’ve said (as have many others) that the Toyota Prius, (new) Honda Insight, and Chevy Volt all look similiar, at least insofar as the overall shape of the vehicles.  (My personal opinion is that that Volt is much better looking than the other two, with the new Prius coming in second, but this isn’t really related to shape.)  The reason for this is that they are all efficient vehicles, so one of their design goals was a low drag coefficient.  An article in this month’s Automotive Engineering International (Aerodynamics Soar) speaks to this, mentioning “complaints that cars like the Honda Insight and Chevrolet Volt, which balance similar missions of efficiency and cabin space, are derivative of Toyota’s Prius, when actually they are all recognitions of the fact that similar goals will produce similar designs.”

A recent video on the Chevy Voltage website talks a bit about the work that went into optimizing the aerodynamics of the Chevy Volt.  One remarkable data-point is that aerodynamic work on the Volt increased the all-electric range by 7 MILES from the original prototype!  Aerodynamic efficiency makes the Volt a PHEV-40, rather than a PHEV-33! To my knowledge, GM still has not announced what the Cd for the Volt is, except to say it’s the lowest of any GM vehicle since the EV1 (which had a Cd of 0.195).  For comparison, the Prius has a Cd of 0.25, and the new Ford Taurus (a modern vehicle for which aero is important, though not as high a priority as it is for hybrids) scores a 0.32.

The drag coefficient (Cd) is directly proportional to the amount of power needed to overcome the force of the air pushing against a vehicle in order to maintain a steady speed.  This power is also directly proportional to the frontal area of the vehicle, the density of the air, as well as the cube of the vehicle’s velocity.  So, fuel economy can be increased by improving the aerodynamics, reducing the size of the vehicle, driving in less-dense air … or, to an even greater degree, slowing down.  The third option seems difficult, and the fourth a bit boring…

If you still think that aerodynamics don’t matter, check out the extreme, where Cd is optimized at the expense of downforce, causing this Mercedes at Le Mans, and this Porsche at Road Atlanta, to become airborn!

Mercedes CLR at Le Mans, 1999

Mercedes CLR at Le Mans, 1999