Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Nissan and Toyota had Better Worry About the Volt Fires And So Should You

You have to be wondering how closely Toyota and Nissan are watching the NHTSA investigation into the Chevy Volt fires.  Actually, all car makers should be watching for fallout very carefully.  But specifically, Toyota just started taking orders on the Plug-in Prius.  And the Nissan Leaf has been competing (sales-wise) with the Volt from the beginning.  And consumers are not going to make a distinction between any of the car makers when it comes to battery fires.

They've seen too many cases in laptops and phones now of spontaneous combustion to ignore the issue.  Mind you, the opposite argument could be made, that they have gotten used to the risk of having batteries that could overheat near them on a constant basis.  But I doubt it.  There's something different about the batteries in electric and quasi-electric cars (the size!).

Imagine if consumers stop trusting large battery packs.  What will the automakers do when it comes to the new fuel efficiency guidelines if they can't sell at least some electric or extended range electric vehicles?  They are all working on them.  Imagine if all the research investment, time and money, has been wasted in the effort as they have to pull up and wait for a new generation of batteries to come forward?  Imagine what that will mean when they lobby for a postponement to the new fuel economy laws?

I can see it now.

"I'm sorry senator, we really would like to build and sell electric cars, but we just can't yet.  The technology isn't there.   I'm sure you understand why we can't put voters, err... I mean drivers at risk just to meet these fuel economy guidelines." - any car maker lobbyist in D.C.

In case you're not familiar, the NHTSA was conducting crash tests on the Chevy Volt (5-stars!).  They put one through it's paces (i.e. smashed it up, really good!) and then placed it into storage.   A few weeks later, a fire broke out in the battery pack (the coolant line had been severed) and burned up the Volt, plus several nearby cars.  Since then, in cooperation with Chevy (General Motors), they have subjected several other Volts to similar circumstances in an effort to start more fires.  They were successful (smoke and sparks, at least).

GM says this is a known factor when dealing with these battery packs.  One of the safety measures they've outlined is to discharge the battery pack after an accident to keep a fire from starting.  But the NHTSA didn't follow their guidelines and that's why the fire occurred.  In the meantime, they emphasize their cars are safe (noting the 5 star rating they received) but just in case anyone's nervous, they will let them drive a loaner for free while the investigation continues.  A 'handful' of customers have done just that.

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Wednesday, November 02, 2011

Competition Between Leaf and Volt Heating Up

Everybody's talking about the competition between the Nissan Leaf and Chevy Volt (Detroit News, AutoBlog, GM-Volt, etc...).  But really, does it matter all that much that the Volt outsold the Leaf this past month?   Does it matter that the Leaf has been outselling the Volt since May?  Does it matter if either company makes their 10,000 sold in the first year?  Not really.

The difference between the two cars is profound.  GM may call the Volt an extended range electric vehicle, but the Leaf is all electric.  That means they are very different.  The Leaf does not have a gas option, meaning it can only go 70-100 miles on one charge. The Volt can go only 30-40 miles on electric before switching to gasoline (to charge the battery, but still it's running on gas at this point).  The Volt is $5-10 thousand dollars more than the Leaf.  But when you can get 1000 miles on 11 gallons of gas, maybe that's worth the extra money to those people who can afford the $35 thousand just to be able to choose between the two.

In their first year, the Volt and Leaf are depending on similar buyers; very financially sound; environmentally minded; and risk-minded individuals.  These people are willing to take a risk on something new, something they want to support.  They know there will be issues, but they are OK with being the guinea pigs.

The real question isn't how many of these people either company gets to buy (although I will say the more that buy, the better off the company is).  It's how, or even if, they are going to transfer to the more general public.   At these prices, maybe they won't be able to.  But if they don't, that 10,000 sold maybe the best they can do every year.  And considering both companies are planning on ramping up production to 5X or more, that's what really matters.

In order to sell 50,000 of these two cars a year; in order to make these cars ultimately profitable, and not just green flags to wave; in order to help transition our gas powered vehicle fleets into something a little less dependent on oil; that's what matters.

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Tuesday, November 01, 2011

GM Invests $325 Million Into Retooling Plant for Electric

GM is going to put $325 million back into their Warren transmission plant, an effort to retool the plant into making electric parts.  This will create or save 418 jobs at the plant, which currently builds transmissions for large crossovers like the Enclave, Acadia and Traverse, as well as the Malibu sedan.

“This investment in the future recognizes the excellent work force and operation of this plant,” said GM Manufacturing Manager Gerald Johnson. “While we aren’t sharing many details about this product, I can tell you that this investment demonstrates how GM, working with our UAW partners, continues to innovate and bring new electrification solutions to our customers.”

The move is part of the current contract with the UAW, which states they will invest in the plant.  It's possible the parts being built will be for a mild hybrid system (start-stop) set for the Malibu next year.

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Thursday, October 20, 2011

Fisker Karma Gets 52 MPGe

The Fisker Karma will begin selling at a measly $95,900. That makes it the most expensive plug-in hybrid to be mass produced and sold. Is 32 miles of electric range, followed by 20 mpg worth that amount?

To put it in perspective, the Volt is supposed to get 35 miles on electric, followed by 37 mpg on gasoline alone. But then again, I don't think fuel economy is what the Karma is truly about. When the Karma can go 0-60 in 5.9 seconds, but still get 52 MPGe, Fisker may be targeting a different demographic altogether.

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Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Good Enough for a Plug-In?

I've been thinking a lot lately about what is good enough for a plug-in hybrid electric car. With Ford deciding to opt out of the Escape Hybrid (they are instead moving the hybrid version into a new model, although it will be similar from what I've seen), I was wondering why no one else has tried to truly duplicate the Prius model.

 Obviously, the Prius is the top selling hybrid car on the road and has been for over a decade. And Toyota has done very well by it. It beats out all other hybrids, with one out of every two hybrids sold in the US being a Prius. That despite the multitude of hybrid models on the road today.

 The truth is, the Prius is still the best of all options. Room for four, best fuel economy, not a luxury price tag, etc... Nothing else is similar. Nothing else beats it out in those three categories.

 So, now with car companies beginning to compete with in the plug-in hybrid category, what's going to be good enough, and what's going to be the best? Is the Volt the best car companies can do? Will the Prius plug-in continue the Toyota domination?

When looking over the specs for the V60 Plug-in Hybrid, where does Volvo try to differentiate itself? They are already warning in the media releases of the cost. The electric only mode is 50 km (31 miles). There is room for four. But does Volvo think that's good enough to compete realistically?

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Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Say Good-Bye to the Altima Hybrid

So, that's it for the Nissan Altima Hybrid.  After four years of leasing the hybrid technology from Toyota, Nissan has decided to drop the Altima Hybrid for next year.  A bad sign for current owners, but may be a good sign for Nissan and hybrid technology in the future.

(Source: Kicking Tires)

Nissan has designed their own hybrid technology, it's just going into the Infiniti line-up.  They also want to concentrate on their EV Leaf for now.  In other words, their halo car is the Leaf and there's no reason to point to the Altima Hybrid as their version of green  anymore.

Altima Hybrid sales have never risen very far, as Nissan never pushed it.  Nissan only sold it in 10 states.  They never really tried to differentiate themselves.  How could they since they were using Toyota hybrid technology?  So the history books will point to the Altima Hybrid experiment as a cash losing proposition.  A halo car that wasn't so angelic.

Maybe the Leaf and it's EV successors will turn out better.  It's no doubt Ghosn and company are hoping so.

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Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Hybrid Trucks

Unlike hybrid cars and SUVs, the hybrid truck has had a limited consumer response and a limited production. There are several reasons for this, but it really is a shame. Hybrid technology is designed to improve fuel economy and like SUVs, trucks don't have very good mpg. They are designed for other things, towing, drafting, carrying. In other words, they are the workhorses of the vehicle family. the people who buy trucks aren't as concerned with the fuel consumption, so much as the towing capacity for instance.

But hybrid technology can improve both fuel economy and power at the same time. The problem is the price tag. It's too easy for someone who is purchasing a truck to convince themselves the extra price for the electric motor just isn't worth it. If you're running a business, the bottom line is the bottom line. And the $4,000 extra you pay for the hybrid motor is hard to justify.

There are counterarguments, however. Along with the electric motor, you also get a large battery pack that you can run electric hardware off of. And the hybrid trucks come with plugs to make it easy.  You also get higher towing capacity and more power even at low speeds.

You also get the already mentioned higher fuel economy and more power at lower speeds than you might expect. Going from 15 mpg to 20 mpg is worth more than going from 40 to 45 mpg. If your hybrid truck is being driven 12,000 miles a year, you'll be buying 200 gallons less every year. At today's gas prices (say $3.75/gallon) you'll spend $750 less a year. That means even at $4,000 extra you have to pay for the hybrid motor, you can still make that up during the life time of the car. And the more you drive, the quicker you'll make the hybrid truck pay for itself.

Unfortunately, even if you are interested, there aren't a lot of choices out there in hybrid trucks. There's the Chevrolet Silverado Hybrid and GMC Sierra Hybrid.  Dodge also has the Ram Pickup Hybrid. But that's it.  With so few options, it's not hard to wonder why not many are opting in.  Other car makers have dabbled in the field with demonstration hybrid trucks, but no one else has followed up with it. I'm hopeful, like hybrid minivans, more will start coming out sooner rather than later. But with everything else going on right now in the automotive field, I get the feeling there's just not enough of a demand.

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Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Prius V Launch Delayed

Not surprisingly, the Prius V launch for April has officially been delayed.  No word on when the launch will happen, but it was scheduled for April in Japan.  No decisions have been made about the summertime launch in the US.

Something to keep in mind is the delay in production for all hybrids (really, all vehicles depending in any way on supplies from Japan) is going to be affected in the coming months, which will affect pricing and supply.  It's already hitting the used hybrid marketplace, and it won't be long before dealers start worrying about when they're going to get another vehicle in.

Press Release from Toyota:
Toyota Motor Corp. announced today that it decided to postpone launch of the Japan-market Prius-derivative vehicle originally scheduled for launch in late April. No decision has been made at this time on when the launch will be rescheduled.

As announced at the North American International Auto Show (Detroit) in January, the Prius v – as the vehicle is known in the U.S. market – is scheduled to launch the end of summer 2011. No decision has been made in regards to a possible need to change the launch timing.

We're making every effort to minimize disruptions to our overall operations

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Monday, March 07, 2011

New York Loses Out on Hybrid Taxi

After years of courtroom battles, NYC has lost out on their bid to force all taxis to go hybrid.   The Supreme Court has refused to hear their argument, letting the ruling from the lower court stand. 

Taxi owners argued the city was regulating fuel economy, something only the federal powers are allowed to do.  And although some states have created emissions and fuel standards, those have come by a waiver issued by the EPA.

Really, taxi owners simply don't want to pay extra to purchase the hybrid cars.  Taxi drivers love them because of the lower fuel costs and because customers have shown a preference for riding in them.

Still, a large percentage of NYC taxis have already gone hybrid.  And more are expected to, so the effort by the city has not been wasted.

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Thursday, March 03, 2011

Honda Civic Hybrid Recall 2006 - 2007

Honda is recalling MY 2006-2007 Honda Civic Hybrid to replace a DC to DC converter.  The DC-DC converter is part of the IMA system and may experience an internal failure leading to stalling and malfunction of the headlights.

Around 37,000 Civic Hybrids are being recalled for the repairs.  Notification should start on March 18.

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