Old habits die hard. Whether it’s GM’s desire to slice-and-dice its fuel economy achievements to make them look better than they are, or our instinct to correct the record, it’s all just a little bit of history repeating.
When government, media and industry agree that a trend exists, it’s generally taken as fait accompli. After all, these three institutions wield immense cultural power, and together they are more than capable of making any prophecy self-fulfilling. But there’s always a stumbling block: acceptance by the everyday folk who actually make up our society. And when a trend is taken for granted, the ensuing rush to be seen as being in touch with said trend often generates more heat than light. Such is the case with the trend towards “green cars.” Few would deny that they are “the future,” but at the same time, there’s been precious little examination of how this future is to be realized. And when such examination does take place, it tends to raise more questions than it answers.
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Ontario’s 2012 budget was released this morning, and while the United States under the Obama administration seems intent on boosting subsidies for alternative fuel vehicles, including EVs, those in the Great White North’s most populous province are able to see the writing on the wall with regards to EVs.
“The electric things have their life too. Paltry as those lives are.”
Phillip K. Dick, Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep?
At the High School I attended, progress reports were never a good thing. Halfway through each term, students who were averaging a D or lower would receive a print-out of their grade accompanied by a line from the teacher explaining how the miscreant in question was failing to live up to expectations. True to form, the White House’s just-released “One Year Progress Report” [PDF] on President Obama’s “Blueprint For A Secure Energy Agenda” includes some devastating evidence of abject failure. But unlike my post-progress report conversations with the parental stakeholders, Obama has a lot more to explain to voters than a simple “insufficient homework turned in.”
General Motors announced changes to the Chevrolet Volt’s design after a NHTSA investigation into why a Volt caught fire following crash testing.
The changes will go into effect once production restarts at the Hamtramck, Michigan facility, but customer cars already sold will follow a different protocol.
This is one of my favorite music knock offs, the Hindi version of Europe’s “The Final Countdown”. My point? If the folks at Mahindra Planet are right, it’s only a matter of time before the Bollywood Music types rip off Skynyrd’s classic, “Sweet Home Alabama.” Which will be pretty awesome, I assure you!
With NHTSA opening a formal defect investigation into the Chevy Volt, GM is moving to defend its rolling lightning rod (no pun intended) and allay consumer fears about its safety. Yesterday I briefly appeared on Fox Business’s Your World With Neil Cavuto show to talk about what the intro to my segment referred to as “the hybrid from hell” and the “killer in your garage.” I tried to explain that the danger to consumers was basically nil, and that the real concern is for rescue, towing and salvage workers. And I would have explained why NHTSA’s tests still leave some serious questions open, but my “fair and balanced” approach meant that my segment ended up being extremely short. So let’s take the opportunity now to look past the hysteria and pinpoint the real issues with NHTSA’s investigation into the Volt.
As Bertel pointed out earlier today, peak oil is here: the graph above is not from some fly-by-night EV firm, but Toyota, an auto industry giant. What years of environmental and security arguments failed to communicate, economics is now explaining with little difficulty. Namely, that demand for oil is growing faster than supply, forcing developed economies to look beyond oil for future growth. And, as you might expect from a conservative player in a conservative industry, Toyota argues that the solution to this growing disconnect is a portfolio of drivetrain technologies. But what if, instead of trying to adapt an existing business model to the new oil reality, you built a new business model from the ground up? That’s exactly what Project Better Place is trying to do, and the contrast between its approach and that of Toyota is fascinating to anyone interested in the future of the automobile.
Ever since the messy collapse of solar panel maker Solyndra just two years after it received over half a billion dollars in government loans, the political climate around all green energy loan programs has heated up considerably. As the White House opened an investigation of the Department of Energy’s entire loan portfolio, loan recipients and startup automakers Tesla and Fisker found themselves under attack. And why not? Fledging firms with unproven products in brutal, scale-driven industries are hardly safe bets, even in the best of times. And with the government drowning in deficits, who’s in a gambling mood?
What gets left out in the hue and cry is that Tesla and Fisker between them represent “only” about a billion dollars worth of DOE loans in a program that was supposed to be able to loan out $25b (the final tally could be closer to $18b). Dwarfing the half-billion-each investments in Fisker, Tesla, and Solyndra are projects that seem a lot less risky in contrast to the startups. Here, in Smyrna, TN, I got to see one of them being built.
The Detroit News reports that the White House has ordered a review of the Department of Energy’s various loan programs in the wake of the Solyndra scandal, noting
White House Chief of Staff William Daley ordered an independent analysis on the state of the Department of Energy’s loan portfolio — including loans to solar, nuclear and auto companies.
“The president is committed to investing in clean energy because he understands that the jobs developing and manufacturing these technologies will either be created here or in other countries,” Daley said.
One of those programs is the so-called “Advanced Technology Vehicle Manufacturing” loan program, which was nearly used to fund the Detroit bailout and has since come under fire from various quarters. Twice already the Government Accountability Office has questioned the ATVM loan program for its lax oversight, weak goals, lack of technical support, inconsistency in awarding loans and the undetermined impact of funded vehicles. And those internal issues could help explain why the Center For Public Integrity has accused the ATVM program of operating a patronage scheme, alleging that major Obama donor and Tesla board member Steve Westly personally benefitted from loans made to the company. And on the Fisker side of things, backer John Doerr of the VC firm KleinerPerkins is another major Obama donor, suggesting a pattern of politically-motivated loan awards to well-connected EV firms that carry high risks. With government intervention in the auto industry still a hot-button issue in the wake of the bailout, this scandal has huge implications for the legitimacy of America’s emerging “industrial policy.”
Of all the persistent questions faced by the auto industry in these tumultuous times, perhaps the most pressing is: how many consumers would actually consider buying an electric car? There’s no single answer to this question, but we do have one new perspective on it today, courtesy of a study by Deloitte [PDF] which analyzed potential EV demand around the world through some 13,000 survey respondents. The major takeaway?
The reality is that when consumers actual expectations for range, charge time, and purchase price (in every country around the world included in this study) are compared to the actual market offerings available today, no more than 2 to 4 percent of the population in any country would have their expectations met today based on a data analysis of all 13,000 individual responses to the survey.
That assessment is well in line with other studies we’ve seen, most of which estimate global EV demand at somewhere between one and five percent of the market. But because potential EV demand has a lot of moving parts, from government regulations to the state of EV technology, there’s more to the study than that conclusion alone…
TTAC’s Twitter followers already know that I’m at the 2011 APEC Transport/Energy Ministerial Meeting in San Francisco, rubbing elbows with key decision-makers from the world of energy and transportation across the Asia-Pacific region. Earlier today I had the opportunity to sit down with Better Place CEO Shai Agassi, the intense, formidable CEO of Project Better Place. I’ll be writing about that conversation shortly, but many of the major points are covered in the speech Agassi gave shortly afterwards to assembled ministers, media and businesspeople. The speech boils down Better Place’s hugely ambitious plan to tackle one of the most complex challenges the world faces: transportation’s dependence on oil. If you’re looking for an Al Gore-style “green” speech, keep looking. Agassi tackles the problem from an economic and technological approach, and he makes a case that is well worth about 17 minutes of your time.
If you’re not familiar with Better Place, you can read some of TTAC’s coverage of the battery-swapping, network-managing, mileage-leasing project at our Project Better Place tag here (much of it on-the-ground reporting from Tal Bronfer, who has been following its rollout in the Israeli market). A comparison of battery swap to other EV business models can be found here, and a study of EV grid management issues can be found here.
Today’s announcement of a memorandum of understanding between Ford and Toyota, uniting the two firms’ pickup truck hybrid drivetrain efforts, took quite a few industry-watchers by surprise this morning. As the industry leader in hybrid technology, Toyota has limited past hybrid cooperation to licensing its drivetrain wholesale to Nissan and a patent-sharing agreement with Ford. Moreover, the last big alliance aimed at developing hybrid technology for full-sized pickups, the Two-Mode V8 hybrids developed jointly by GM, Chrysler, Mercedes and BMW, have been a huge flop on the market, with the German partners walking away from the technology after using it in only a single application each (X5/X6, and ML Hybrid). Though Toyota and Ford have worked together to prevent a messy patent war over hybrid technology, there was little to suggest that they would take the cooperation any further, let alone join forces to hybridize full-size pickups. But if you’re looking to the marketplace to explain the Ford-Toyota tie-up, you’re looking in the wrong place: this is all about the freshly-announced CAFE standard and its generous credit system.
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I am sitting in a parking garage in a throng of torpid auto-journalists, nearly all of whom are wearing the same glazed expression of terminal information overload. On-screen, molecules of fuel and air are doing a complicated little computer-animated dance, as narrated by Susumi Niinai, program manager at Mazda’s powertrain development division. His English, while Japanese-accented, is better than, y’know, mine, but the concepts he’s explaining approach the limit of comprehensibility to the lay-person. Mind you, it’s a pretty nice parking garage.
Some of you, like me, may have been hearing all the rumblings about Mazda’s new SKYACTIV technologies and been wondering whether it’s going to turn out to be a series of technological breakthroughs or, alternatively, a load of complete cobblers thought up by some Zoom-Zoom marketing guru.
Good news everyone! It’s the former. Bad news everyone! I have to try to explain it to you. And I borderline don’t understand it myself. Here goes…
A final rule for 2017-2025 CAFE standards won’t be published until September, but a pre-publication notice by the EPA [PDF here] reveals some of the key details we’ve been looking for. The broad strokes, which we are already well aware of are shaping up as follows:
NHTSA currently intends to propose standards that would be projected to require, on an average industry fleet wide basis, 40.9 mpg in model year 2021, and 49.6 mpg in model year 2025. For passenger cars, the annual increase in stringency between model years 2017 to 2021 is expected to average 4.1 percent, and to average 4.3 percent between model years 2017 and 2025. Like EPA, in recognition of the utility requirements of full-size pick-up trucks and the unique challenges to improving fuel economy compared to other light-duty trucks and passenger cars, NHTSA intends to propose a lower annual rate of improvement for light-duty trucks in the early years of the program. For light-duty trucks, the proposed overall annual rate of fuel economy improvement in model years 2017 through 2021 would be 2.9 percent per year. NHTSA expects to change the slopes of the fuel economy footprint curves for light-duty trucks from those in the 2012-2016 rule, which would effectively make the annual rate of improvement for smaller light-duty trucks in model years 2017 through 2021 higher than 2.9 percent, and the annual rate of improvement for larger light-duty trucks over the same time period lower than 2.9 percent. For model years 2022 through 2025, NHTSA expects to propose conditional standards with an overall annual rate of fuel economy improvement for light-duty trucks of 4.7 percent per year
We had heard that trucks would improve their efficiency at a rate of 3.5% rather than 2.9% for the 2017-2021, and a 2022-2025 growth rate of 5% rather than 4.7%. But then, cars were supposed to improve by 5% in the 2017-2025 period, so both truck and car standards seem likely to end up lower than what the president’s report seemed to promise. But that’s not the only bad news for anyone hoping for tough fuel efficiency standards (or, good news for truck-dependent automakers)… with the release of this notice, we have an initial sense of the loopholes that will be included, and they appear to be of the hefty variety.