Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Archive for the ‘electric cars’ Category

photo: Todd Woody

I wrote this story for Grist, where it first appeared.

With months to go before the first mass production electric cars hit American streets, the $41,000 question (before rebates and tax incentives) is whether drivers will buy them en masse.

Which is why you should keep your eye on Berkeley, Calif. While I would hardly hold out my hometown as an avatar of mainstream American values, on the environmental front it’s often been in the vanguard of things to come, like curbside recycling.

Take hybrid cars. When I was reporting a story earlier this year on the San Francisco Bay Area as the launch pad for mass-market electric cars, Andrew Tang, an executive with PG&E, told me that the utility was closely watching local sales of the Toyota Prius as a proxy for likely purchases of electric cars. Studying Prius distribution helped PG&E create a heat map of neighborhoods where the electricity demand might spike.

In Berkeley, he said, one out of every five cars sold for the past four years has been a Prius. Made sense to me. Priuses seem as common as Obama bumper stickers and are just part of the visual landscape, like Alice Waters. But it wasn’t until my friend Mike and his son Bryce were visiting from Texas recently that the hybridization of Berkeley really became apparent to me.

We were at REI picking up some gear for a camping trip when Bryce remarked that he had counted eight Priuses in the store’s rather small parking lot. On the 2.8-mile drive home we decided to see how many Priuses we could spot along the road into the Berkeley Hills.

We counted 34, including four on my block.

A few weeks later I played the Prius game on the way down the hill to the Berkeley Bowl to pick up some groceries. I counted 25 Priuses, two Honda Insight hybrids, an old Toyota RAV4 electric and one gunmetal gray Tesla Roadster.

So will Toyota’s hegemony stand once Nissan’s battery-powered Leaf blows into town? No doubt, many will trade in their Prius to go electric. The Leaf sports a distinctive look that, like the Prius, screams green to your neighbors. (And keeping up with the Joneses is just a part of Berkeley’s cultural fabric.)

The Chevrolet Volt may be a harder sell, given it is an electric hybrid and boasts a muscular all-American look that you don’t see too often on the streets here.

But every Prius owner won’t have to switch to electric in order to have an impact. Seeing a Leaf or Volt in the neighbor’s driveway or in the REI parking lot will make an electric car less a curiosity and more just another automotive option when trading in that ’95 Volvo station wagon.

Read Full Post »

photo: Todd Woody

I wrote this story for Grist, where it first appeared.

Judging by the comments on my previous post comparing the Chevrolet Volt plug-in hybrid and Nissan Leaf electric car, more than a few readers are suffering sticker shock at the price of greening their rides.

Now there’s another option for those wanting to take the occasional trip down the electric highway without forking over $41,000 for a Volt or $32,780 for a Leaf (before a $7,500 federal tax incentive).

This week, rental car giant Enterprise Holdings announced it had placed an order for 500 Leafs that will be available in early 2011 at Enterprise Rent-a-Car locations in Phoenix and Tucson, Ariz.; Knoxville and Nashville, Tenn.; San Diego; Los Angeles; Portland, Ore.; and Seattle. (Not coincidentally, those cities are also where Nissan will first roll out the Leaf later this year and where a Department of Energy-funded network of charging stations will be built.)

“There is a lot of conversation and buzz about the electric car and we would like to offer it to our customer base as it comes commercially and economically viable,” Lee Broughton, Enterprise Holdings’ director of sustainability, told me.

Enterprise Holdings also owns Alamo and National Car Rental, but decided to place the Leafs with Enterprise Rent-a-Car as its locations are concentrated in neighborhoods.

“We’re uniquely placed to offer exposure of the electric vehicle to customers,” says Broughton. “When you think about the daily urban commuter, electric cars are in the sweet spot.”

He says Enterprise, which currently offers nearly 7,000 hybrid cars for rent, is also talking to other electric carmakers.

The company has not set a price for renting a Leaf, but Broughton noted that Enterprise’s hybrid fleet commands a slight premium.

“There is a sticker price difference for a vehicle of a similar size simply because of the technology and the infrastructure to support it,” he notes of the Leaf.

Enterprise will qualify for the $7,500 federal tax incentive for each Leaf as well as any available local and state rebates.

Adding cars like the Leaf and the Volt to rental fleets could be an effective way to expose people to electric cars and expand the market. They would also seem ideal for urban car-sharing services like Zipcar, which offer hipsters cool rides like the Mini Cooper and the Prius.

But when I talked to top executives at Zipcar and its competitors earlier this year, I found their enthusiasm tempered by the costs of the first mass-market electric cars and plug-in hybrids and worries about whether a sufficient number of charging stations will be available for their customers.

That could well change over the next year as electric cars begin to proliferate and curious consumers decide the best way to go electric is to do a time-share.

Read Full Post »

I wrote this story for Grist, where it first appeared.

Are you a Volt kind of gal or a Leaf guy?

With General Motors and Nissan revving up to put the first mass-produced electric cars in showrooms in a few months, the shape of the nascent market is starting to emerge as the engineers complete their work and the marketers begin theirs.

The cars, the Chevrolet Volt and the Nissan Leaf, take two different technological roads to sustainable transportation, and their differing appeal was on display Monday when I spent the afternoon at the Plug-In 2010 conference in San Jose. (Even the cars’ names telegraph their shades of green.)

First I took a test drive of a metallic blue Leaf parked outside the Hotel Valencia in San Jose’s upscale Santana Row shopping district. Like the Toyota Prius, the five-seater Leaf has a distinctive shape that lets your neighbors know you’ve gone green — that and the logo emblazoned on the side that screams “zero emission” in big letters.

Nissan clearly is targeting the Prius set. Inside, the Leaf features a clean minimalist interior with just enough high-tech touches to let you know you that this is not your grandma’s Sentra. Move the big and round blue LED-illuminated knob in the center console to the left and down and the Leaf is in gear. (Press the button on the top of the knob to put the Leaf in park.)

Like every other electric vehicle I’ve driven, the Leaf accelerates quickly as power is instantaneously transferred to the wheels, albeit not as silently as other EVs. Nissan has implanted speakers under the wheel wells that broadcast a low sound somewhat like a starship going into warp to warn unsuspecting pedestrians that a car is coming.

Touch a button on the big dashboard screen and the Leaf tells you how many miles you can travel on the battery’s remaining charge and displays a map showing just how far you can go in any direction. Another button displays the location of charging stations — which are very few and far between in San Jose at the moment.

Other than the iPhone-like features, the Leaf drives and handle like any other compact car. Which is the point, after all, for automakers seeking to make electric cars as common as the Honda Civic.

Still, Nissan is clearly targeting the enviro crowd that made the Prius a hit and broke down barriers for electric cars.

“Basically everything you see here is made out of recycled water bottles, right down to the floor mats,” the Nissan representative riding shotgun points out about the interior.

If that doesn’t provide enough green cred at the neighborhood cocktail party, there’s the optional solar panel that does double duty as a spoiler. (“Ninety-nine percent bragging rights, one percent function,” concedes the Nissan rep.)

But what about the Volt?

That same evening, I attended a dinner where GM executives at long last revealed the sticker price of the Volt: $41,000, versus $32,780 for the Leaf, before a $7,500 federal tax credit.

Although GM calls the Volt an “extended range electric vehicle,” it is in fact a serial hybrid that will travel 40 emission-free miles on a charge from its lithium ion battery pack. When the battery runs down, a small gasoline engine kicks in to power a generator that delivers electricity to the car’s motor. That lets the Volt go 340 miles, dispelling range anxiety. (Nissan says the Leaf can travel up to 100 miles on a charge.)

“This car is designed for the majority of Americans,” Joel Ewanick, GM’s vice president for North America marketing, said at the dinner. “This is a car that the average person can drive on a daily basis. It’s not something that’s a unique little niche vehicle.”

The Volt has an aggressive muscular stance and an interior choc-a-block with buttons and ports (plus a 32-gig hard drive for your music collection) that should appeal to the Camaro crowd as well as greenies. (It’s also fun to drive, as I found out when I took the Volt for a spin a couple of months ago.)

So, which to choose?

The reality is that both types of cars are needed to accelerate the transition away from gasoline-powered vehicles, and both vehicles present conundrums to potential buyers.

As I tooled around in the Leaf, I realized that if I had driven the car down to San Jose from Berkeley, I wouldn’t have enough juice to make a return trip. On the other hand, if I had taken the Volt, I would have been burning carbon for more than half the trip.

Clearly, the electric-car market will need both the Volt and the Leaf in the coming years.

And a lot of fast-charging stations.

Read Full Post »

photo: Todd Woody

In The New York Times on Tuesday, I write that General Motors has finally unveiled the retail price for the Chevrolet Volt plug-in electric hybrid:

General Motors began taking orders for the long-awaited Chevrolet Volt on Tuesday, pricing the plug-in hybrid car at $41,000.

A federal tax credit can reduce the net cost of the Volt to $33,500, and a 36-month lease will be available for $350 a month with $2,500 due at the signing.

Production of the Volt will begin in September, and the car will initially be sold in California, New York, Michigan, Connecticut, Texas, New Jersey and the nation’s capital, G.M. said.

The car’s suggested starting price is $8,220 higher than that of the all-electric Nissan Leaf, which will also go on sale this year.

With the Volt ready for the assembly line, executives began a full-court press to persuade consumers that the car’s cutting-edge technology and features are worth a BMW price tag.

“It’s a real car — it just happens to be electric,” Joel Ewanick, G.M.’s vice president for North America marketing, said at a dinner Monday night at the Plug-In 2010 conference in San Jose, Calif. “This car is designed for the majority of Americans. This is a car that the average person can drive on a daily basis. It’s not something that’s a unique little niche vehicle.”

“The marketing challenge is communicating how different this is than what they’re used to,” he added.

The Volt’s lithium-ion battery pack gives the car an emissions-free range of 40 miles. When the battery is depleted, a small gasoline engine kicks in to run a generator that supplies electricity to the motor, extending the Volt’s range by 300 miles.

Mr. Ewanick said that a Volt driven 15,000 miles a year would use 550 fewer gallons of gasoline than a comparable gas-only car.

G.M. executives, however, insist on calling the Volt an “extended range electric vehicle,” underscoring the balancing act between promoting its green credibility and its utility as competitors roll out all-electric cars.

You can read the rest of the story here.

Read Full Post »

photo: Nissan

This post first appeared on Grist.

With the first mass-market electric cars set to hit California roads later this year, the state’s utilities have been working to ensure that early adopters – who tend to be clustered in places like Berkeley and Santa Monica – don’t overload neighborhood transformers and trigger local blackouts.

One way to do that is to encourage drivers not to plug in all at the same time, say when they arrive home from work and also crank up the air conditioning, is to set variable electricity rates that reward those who wait to charge until demand falls late at night or the wee hours of the morning.

What is unknown is whether such rates will actually change anyone’s behavior.

We’re about to find out. On Thursday, the California Public Utilities Commission approved a pilot project proposed by San Diego Gas & Electric to set variable rates for electric car charging.

“This information is critically important as we contemplate a future with widespread electric vehicle usage, given the additional electricity demand these vehicles create and the associated impacts on the grid,” Michael Peevey, the utilities commission president, said in a statement.

The project, which kicks off in January, will accompany the roll out of 1,000 Nissan Leaf electric cars in the San Diego area and the installation of home charging stations for each driver. Some 1,500 public charging stations will also be installed as well as 50 fast chargers that allow the cars’ batteries to be topped off in a matter of minutes rather than hours.

The San Diego effort is part of program backed by the United States Department of Energy called the EV Project that will put 5,700 Leafs and 2,600 Chevrolet Volts in garages in five states along with 14,650 charging stations and 310 fast chargers.

Under the plan greenlighted by California regulators on Thursday, San Diego Gas & Electric will bill Nissan Leaf drivers a range of rates, from a low of 7 cents a kilowatt/hour for summer “super off peak” charging to a high of 38 cents a kilowatt/hour during peak summer demand.

So will someone who has forked over $109,000 for a Tesla Roadster care about saving 31 cents a kilowatt hour? Probably not. What about the middle-of-the-road buyer of a $20,000 (after tax incentives) Nissan Leaf?

Maybe. But survey data that a California utility executive recently shared with me was not encouraging. Polling of likely electric car buyers showed that they were not particularly charged up about the prospect of saving money by delaying their EV gratification.

Another solution is smart charging. Drivers plug in when they get home but the charger communicates with the power grid to determine the optimal time to flip the switch.

That requires a smart grid and the California Public Utilities Commission on Thursday also approved a comprehensive plan to digitalize the state’s power system.

Read Full Post »

photo: Think

This post first appeared on Grist.

“Honey, could you run down to the store and pick up some milk, tofu and one of those new Think City electric cars?”

That could be a conversation you’ll be hearing soon in Switzerland (in French, German Italian and Romansh, of course) now that Norwegian electric automaker Think has struck a deal with Swiss retailer Migros to market the City.

Sort of a cooperatively owned Costco, Migros is Switzerland’s largest supermarket chain and operates more than 600 stores across the country. In a deal announced Wednesday, Migros will sell the battery-powered Think urban runabout through a new division called M-Way.

“We have the key central retail locations all over Switzerland and beyond, now we want to use these bases to spread the news and sales of electric vehicles such as the Think City,” Herbert Bolliger, President of the Federation of Migros Cooperatives, said in a statement.

The announcement caught my attention because it’s a reminder that, one, not all green tech innovation is destined to happen here in California, and two, business model innovation will be just as important as technology itself in transforming electric cars from a niche to a knockout.

From its reincarnation a few years ago under the leadership of then-chief executive Jan Olaf-Willums, Think sought not to sell so much a car as mobility. Internet-enabled and connected to your mobile phone and the power grid, the plastic-bodied City was designed to plug into the transportation and electric power networks rather than be just another isolated hunk of metal rolling down the road.

You might buy the City but lease it’s battery or drive one when needed through a car-sharing service like Zipcar. Or from your neighborhood grocery store.

James Andrews, a Think spokesman, told me that sales of the City will begin this summer at Migros supermarkets. M-Way will initially set up retail outlets at Migros stores in urban areas.

It’s a smart strategy to expose consumers to electric cars. After all, how often do you casually stroll through car dealerships, which, in the United States at least, tend to be isolated in “auto rows” off the beaten path.

Now how often do you pop down to Whole Foods or Safeway for a gallon of milk? You’re probably likely to check out the City or another electric car if you pass it on the way to the wine aisle. Maybe you’ll even take one for a test drive around the block.

Migros’ M-Way already has sold a fleet of 60 Citys to Alpmobil, an eco-tourism company that will provide them for the use of its guests at a resort in the Swiss Alps.

Back in the 1990s, Think leased a previous version of the City to San Francisco Bay Area residents as part of a pilot project that let them plug the cars in to charge at train stations. Among the Think early adopters was a guy named Sergey Brin.

San Francisco is likely to be among the first U.S. cities to receive shipments of the latest City when Think begins selling the car in America later this year. Who knows, you might even be able to buy one at the farmer’s market one day.

Read Full Post »

photo: Todd Woody

In my new Green State column on Grist, I test drive the Chevrolet Volt in San Francisco and ponder if General Motors’ electric hybrid car will persuade Californians to buy American again:

If you happened by an empty parking lot near San Francisco’s waterfront baseball park Tuesday morning, you would have seen some people  putting a low-slung black sedan through its paces on a makeshift track outlined by fluorescent orange pylons.

What was remarkable was not so much that the car — the Chevrolet Volt — was electric, but that it hailed from Detroit.

Toyotas, Hondas, BMWs, and Mercedes rule the road in the Golden State’s coastal metropolises, where sightings of American sedans are about as rare as a California condor.

Like Ford, Nissan, Coda Automotive, Think, and other electric automakers, General Motors brought the Volt to San Francisco because, as I wrote in The New York Times recently, this is where the future of the electric car is unfolding first. (Driving home that point was Thursday’s news that Silicon Valley startup Tesla Motors is buying the defunct Bay Area manufacturing plant that previously produced cars for Toyota and General Motors and will now build electric cars in partnership with the Japanese auto giant.)

So the Volt may be GM’s best chance to reintroduce itself to two generations of California drivers who wrote the automaker off as the maker of hopelessly staid and low-quality cars.

“The Volt is going to make people reconsider Chevy and GM again,” Tony Posawatz, Volt vehicle line director, tells me as a group of journalists and influential electric car enthusiasts waited for their turn behind the wheel.

You can read the rest of the column here.

Read Full Post »

« Newer Posts - Older Posts »