By on July 21, 2011

In my review of the VW Golf blue-e-motion on Tuesday, I noted that “the holy grail of EV development is a multi-speed transmission,” but that nobody has been able to build one that can reliably handle the 100% torque at zero RPM characteristics of an electric drivetrain. Tesla tried two different multi-speed transmissions (from X-Trac and Magna), before giving up and going with the single-speed setup that every production EV now uses. Nobody has even talked about a multi-gear EV since… until now. With Fisker’s Karma about to go to market, CEO Henrik Fisker tells Autocar that his firm is developing a multi-speed EV gearbox, and that it would improve performance in EVs like the Karma, saying

With the torque at the wheels increased by the use of a gearbox, Veyron levels of performance should be possible.

We’re as excited as anyone else by the idea of an EV with shiftable gears, but this sounds more like Fisker trying to drum up some hype for the Karma launch. After all, the Karma launches to 60 MPH in a leisurely 7.9 seconds in “stealth” (EV) mode and 5.9 seconds in “sport” mode with gas power to up the wattage… a far cry from Veyron performance. As C&D puts it:

The Karma’s initial surge is sufficiently potent to avoid damnation as a slug. But the physics conspire against it keeping pace with other $100K sports sedans.

Lugging over 4,000 lbs is certainly easier with a multi-gear transmission, but given the reliability challenge, we’d be more likely to trust an EV transmission from a reliable supplier rather than a boutique luxury PHEV maker. And until Fisker can back up the Veyron reference with some hard evidence, we’re filing this one under “intriguing but unlikely.” Still, it’s exciting to know that this technical challenge is still out there, unconquered by major manufacturer or feisty startup… in a world where cars are becoming increasingly mundane, the multi-gear EV transmission challenge is a throwback to the golden years of automotive development.

By on July 20, 2011

Tesla will begin supplying Toyota with components for its electric RAV4 a year earlier than previously planned, reports Bloomberg, a move that will have Toyota paying $100m for the drivetrains rather than the previously-agreed-upon $60m. According to a Tesla SEC filing, the EV specialist firm will supply Toyota with

a validated electric powertrain system, including a battery, charging system, inverter, motor, gearbox and associated software which will be integrated into an electric vehicle version of the Toyota RAV4. Additionally, Tesla will provide TMC with certain services related to the supply of the Tesla Battery and Powertrain.

There’s still no word about how many of these RAV4s is Toyota planning on selling over those two years, or where will they be assembled, but it sounds like Toyota isn’t trying to launch quite the EV offensive that some green car blogs seem to be hoping for. As one analyst puts it to Bloomberg, $100 million “isn’t a huge amount for Toyota, so this allows them, with only modest downside risk, to participate in what Tesla is doing.” That sounds about right…

By on July 18, 2011

It’s been 27 months since I wrote a check for $5,000 to Tesla Motors, my deposit on a Model S sedan. As owner number P717, I’ve gotten some modest bennies to keep me interested till the expected delivery date of mid-2012: a test drive in the Roadster, an invitation to the opening of the New York Tesla store, and some nice promotional swag (T-shirt, coffee mug, and, most recently, a cool little remote-control toy Roadster) .

Last week I was invited to an owners-only preview before a Model S promotional event in Greenwich, Ct. Set in the posh clothing store Richards, just across the street from an Apple store, the event featured a sinuous dark red early proof-of-concept prototype of the Model S. Unfortunately, we weren’t allowed to drive, sit in, or even touch the car (“It cost more than $2 million to build,” we were told). But the black-clad Tesla reps on hand offered some intriguing technical info about the car that, to my knowledge, had not been previously revealed. Among the more interesting tidbits:

(Read More…)

By on May 27, 2011

Three times now, GM has planned to build a plug-in hybrid (PHEV) version of its Theta-platform crossovers, once with the Saturn Vue, once with the Buick “Vuick” and now, according to Reuters

General Motors Co has canceled plans to develop a plug-in hybrid vehicle based on the current Cadillac SRX crossover platform, deciding the project was not financially viable, three people with direct knowledge of the project said.

While two of the sources said the plans could still be revived on a future platform, they and two others familiar with the matter said engineers involved had been reassigned to other projects.

Back in early days of the program, the plan was to bring a Vue PHEV to market as soon as 2010, but the death of Saturn (and other difficult-to-identify issues) forced a change of plans. The Buick version was literally laughed out of consideration in what was the first-ever Twitter-based future product killing. But given that hand-picked members of the public were driving mules nearly two years ago (see video), we figured enough development had been done that GM essentially had no choice but bring the troubled Theta PHEV to market. Today’s cancellation of the SRX version is therefore just a little confusing…
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By on May 17, 2011

Yesterday we gave GM kudos for addressing its lingering vehicle weight issues by redesigning the head of its popular 3.6 liter V6, and shedding 13 lbs in the process. It was, we noted, the kind of news that showed GM is staying focused on the nitty-gritty of product development, sweating the details. But, according to a fascinating piece by GMInsideNews, new-product development at GM still has its issues. Specifically, Cadillac’s development of a new BMW 3-Series fighter, known as ATS after its “Alpha” Platform, has faced more than its fair share of what GMI calls “drama.”

Turf battles, unnecessary “wants” on checklists and ultimately a severe case of “Mission Creep” have created a vehicle that now needs a crash diet, according to GMI’s sources both within GM and at suppliers working on the Alpha/ATS program. For a vehicle that’s taking on an institution like the BMW Dreier (not to mention costing a billion dollars to develop), these are troubling signs indeed.
(Read More…)

By on June 14, 2010

Doubtless somewhat shocked and surprised about GM Chairman/CEO/Non-Car-Guy Ed Whitacre’s decision to take over product planning responsibilities, Automotive News [sub] did some digging into the decision, and offers a full report. According to AN’s GM sources, the decision comes down to one fundamental goal: holding lower-tier executives accountable for decision making. By reducing executive reviews of forthcoming vehicles by one third, or about four times per development cycle, lower-level executives and engineers will have more freedom to make decisions, and will spend more time developing and less time preparing data for executive reviews. And lest you think this decision doesn’t merit your attention, consider this: though GM’s bureaucracy had created incredibly long lead times, most automakers hold about ten executive reviews per new product. By cutting to four, GM is taking something of a step into the unknown.

(Read More…)

By on June 5, 2010

The executive shake-ups show no signs of stopping at GM, as Ed Whitacre ended the week with yet another re-shuffle. And this time Whitacre himself is the big winner. Automotive News [sub] reports that Whitacre has assumed control of GM’s global product planning, leaving former planning boss Tom Stephens with the more prosaic responsibility of overseeing new product development. Whitacre will be assisted by new VP for product planning Steve Carlisle, who, unlike Whitacre, actually has some experience in product planning. Carlisle replaces Jon Lauckner, who will head up GM’s new venture capital unit. But the big news here is that a man who only just learned the term “segment” about five and a half months ago, is now in charge of GM’s global product planning. Quick learner or egomaniac?

(Read More…)

By on May 17, 2010

Honda hasn’t always replaced its bread-and-butter compact, the Civic, every five years. The Mk.1 Civic soldiered from 1972 until 1979. The second through fifth generations were replaced on a regular four-year schedule, before Honda settled into a five-year product cadence with the sixth generation (1996-2000). If it were to keep with that cadence, we’d be seeing a ninth-generation Civic sometime this year, replacing the Mk.VIII, which debuted in late 2005. According to Automotive News [sub], however, Honda is holding off on releasing a new Civic until 2011. What gives?

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By on May 7, 2010

Bob Lutz may have left GM, but TTAC’s not through with the man of Maximum just yet. One quote in particular, from an “exit interview” with gm-volt.com, exemplifies the kind of candor that seems likely to disappear from GM along with Lutz. Possibly for good reasons. Well, good PR reasons, anyway. After all, with Lutz unable to deny that GM will lose money and/or battle sticker shock with its forthcoming Volt EREV, he’s the kind of guy who will tell the unspeakable truth instead of playing coy like a good PR man. To wit:

How do we get the cost down without in any way diminishing the value of the car in the eyes of the customer? By just doing some more elegant engineering than we did the first time around where we inadvertently did some belt and suspenders stuff because we wanted to move fast. Now as we look back at the car we say ‘gee I wish we’d done his different,’ …’ gee I wish we’d done that different’ because this is a very expensive solution and we could have done that for a lot less money.

That faint sound you just heard was Ed Whitacre expelling fillet of rattlesnake out his nose after reading that little nugget. Meanwhile, you’ve heard it from the horse’s mouth: the Mk.1 Volt will be expensive, unprofitable, and unpolished. Or, to use a PR term, “belt and suspenders.”

(Read More…)

By on January 28, 2010

The ongoing kerfluffle over Toyota’s recall of over 2m vehicles for a gas pedal defect which (allegedly) caused unintended acceleration has caught much of the automotive media flat-footed. How could it be, many have wondered, that the automaker most associated in the US market with the concept of quality has slipped so badly? As TTAC’s Steve Lang recently discussed, Toyota has been on a decontenting binge since the mid-to-late-1990s, putting profit above the quality obsession that had defined its operations up to that point. As a result, the current generation of decontented Toyotas and accompanying quality issues and recalls can be seen as the culmination of a long-term trend. But why did that transition take place? Though it’s easy to blame greed and mismanagement for the decline in Toyota’s quality, the decline in standards was actually a natural progression of Toyota’s constantly-evolving, efficiency-obsessed production system.

(Read More…)

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