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Archive for the ‘green cars’ Category

photo: Todd Woody

In The New York Times on Thursday, I wrote a follow-up to my story on efforts to reinvent the internal combustion engine:

As I wrote in Thursday’s Times, several start-ups backed by Silicon Valley venture capital firms are developing a new type of internal combustion engine that promises a striking boost in fuel economy while reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

It sounds a bit too good to be true, but the companies have had their claims verified by independent firms, and some of them have signed licensing deals with major engine manufacturers.

The start-ups that I profiled – Achates Power, EcoMotors and Pinnacle Engines – all are building variations on what is called an opposed piston engine. Such engines do away with heavy cylinder heads that serve as combustion chambers in conventional engines. Instead, the space between two opposing pistons forms the combustion chamber where fuel is ignited.

That makes opposed piston engines lighter and cheaper to make. And because opposed piston engines have a greater power density, they waste less energy as heat and thus operate more efficiently.

“The technology is viable,” said Dean Tomazic, vice president of FEV, an engineering company in Auburn, Mich., that has tested opposed piston engines to verify their developers’ claims. “It is obviously a completely different concept compared to conventional engines.”

Athough such engines were used in the mid-20th century as power plants for ships and World War II-era fighter planes, they were long considered too expensive and impractical for automotive use.

Pinnacle, based in San Carlos, Calif., is developing a four-stroke, gasoline opposed piston engine. One of Pinnacle’s key innovations is a sleeve valve invented by the company’s founder, Monty Cleeves, that helps ensure that energy is used for propulsion rather than wasted as heat.

Mr. Cleeves said that Pinnacle’s engine could run on a variety of fuels, including compressed natural gas and ethanol without a loss of performance experienced in conventional engines.

He has kept the start-up in stealth mode for nearly four years, operating from a small unmarked office and garage a few miles from where Tesla Motors developed its electric Roadster sports car.

Earlier this month, Mr. Cleeves gave me a peek at a prototype of the Cleeves Cycle engine being tested at engine factory in my hometown of Berkeley, Calif. (Who knew?)

Pinnacle has signed a deal to license its technology to a major Asian scooter maker that it declined to identify. The one-cylinder, 15-horsepower engine connected to a maze of wires and tubes dangling from the ceiling of Hasselgren Engineering is larger than the model planned for production.

You can read the rest of the story here.

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

When it comes to the future of electric cars, as with other green technologies, the wild card is China.

The People’s Republic has invested billions in renewable energy and has become a solar superpower in photovoltaic manufacturing. It’s also poised to one day potentially blow away the competition in wind turbine production. China’s new five-year plan calls for dramatic increases in energy efficiency and designates electric cars as a strategic industry. (The government has set a goal of five million electric cars on the roads by 2020.)

The country already is the world’s largest automotive market — General Motors now sells more cars there than in the United States — and its support of electric car and battery makers has attracted investors like Warren Buffett, who has put his money into EV manufacturer BYD.

So far, domestic demand in China for electric cars is tiny, even compared to the nascent U.S. market. According to a report from GTM Research — yes, that report has been a gold mine of data for posts this week — there are but 295 electric cars on the road in China. That’s not a typo. Not that the U.S. is exactly racing down the electric highway, as there are only 2,000 electrics in service here, the report says.

But other numbers in the report foreshadow China’s potential to dominate the electric car market.

The Chinese government’s $17 billion investment in the electric car industry so far outstrips the $5 billion the U.S. government has put into EVs. China has 120 domestic automakers compared to 13 in the U.S. And most telling, some 33,200 people work in the Chinese lithium-ion battery industry, compared to 1,100 here. By 2020, GTM Research estimates that new car sales will reach 27.5 million annually in China compared to 17 million in the U.S.

“How aggressively China will mandate EVs is one of the more interesting considerations in looking at the global market potential, as this nation now has the means to affect not only global production, but also the global demand for electric vehicles,” wrote David J. Leeds, the report’s author.

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photo: Todd Woody

In The New York Times on Thursday, I wrote about a slew of Silicon Valley-backed startups developing new kinds of internal combustion engines that are more fuel efficient and less polluting:

BERKELEY, CALIF. – In this city where Toyota Priuses clog the roads and battery-powered Tesla Roadsters and Chevrolet Volts can be spotted at the organic farmers market, the engine factory in a gritty industrial neighborhood near San Francisco Bay is a throwback to the automotive past.

Or a harbinger of the future. In the middle of a metal building, stacked with hulking racecar engines from the internal combustion engine’s golden age, sits a small contraption hooked to a forest of red, white and green wires and tubes that hang from the ceiling and snake around the floor.

In a control room at Hasselgren Engineering, a technician flips a switch and the device roars to life as a large computer screen displays the performance of this new type of engine, which its developer, Pinnacle Engines, says will be up to 50 percent more efficient than today’s power plants.

As the first mass-produced electric cars hit the streets, Pinnacle is just one of several start-ups backed by prominent Silicon Valley venture capitalists aiming to reinvent the century-old internal combustion engine. The big promise: vast improvements in fuel economy and reduced greenhouse gas emissions at a lower cost.

“While the buzz is all about electrics, the people who will actually adopt electrics are not a majority of the market,” said Monty Cleeves, who has kept Pinnacle under wraps since he founded the company in 2007. “The impact we will have over the next 15 to 20 years will be much larger than the impact of the electrics.”

Not long ago, the idea that entrepreneurs could attract tens of millions of dollars in venture capital to develop a new kind of engine would have seemed ludicrous. The big automakers have kept engine development to themselves, steadily improving the performance of a profitable technology that has served them well for more than a 100 years.

“Our engines are built into the DNA of our vehicles,” said Brett Hinds, engine design manager for Ford in Dearborn, Mich. “We at Ford are still committed to thinking of engines as part of our fundamentals.”

But the upheaval in the global car industry, new fuel efficiency standards for commercial vehicles, climate change concerns and the rise of China and India as automotive markets have opened the door to start-ups like Pinnacle

“Many automotive houses don’t buy engines from outside, but in the truck market people do,” said Rohini Chakravarthy, a partner at NEA, a venture capital firm in Menlo Park, Calif., that has invested in Pinnacle. “In Asia, there’s tremendous demand, and you’re not going up against the same level of incumbents.”

Pinnacle executives, for instance, said they had signed a deal to license their engine technology to a major Asian scooter manufacturer, which they declined to identify, for production in early 2013.

EcoMotors, a Detroit area start-up backed by Khosla Ventures and Bill Gates, has signed a development agreement with Navistar, the heavy truck and engine manufacturer, and a Chinese company it would not name. Achates Power, a San Diego engine start-up, is in talks with automakers, according to its chief executive, David Johnson, who said he also had met with potential customers in China and India.

All three companies are developing variations on an opposed piston engine, a technology used in airplanes and ships in the mid-20th century, but long considered too expensive and unworkable for automobiles.

You can read the rest of the story here.

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photo: Todd Woody

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

One of the biggest knocks against electric cars, other than their current range, is the rather steep upfront cost due to the price of the battery.

Of course, you’re essentially pre-paying much of your fuel costs for the life of the car. But that’s a hard message to get across to a potential buyer contemplating forking over $41,000 for a Chevrolet Volt or $33,000 for a Nissan Leaf before state and federal incentives.

However, rising gasoline prices — now topping $4 a gallon in the San Francisco Bay Area — may finally drive the message home that electric cars, despite the expense of the first generation mass production models, are a hedge against an uncertain fuel future. (Not to mention environmental catastrophe.)

In a new report on electric cars and the smart grid, GTM Research includes a handy chart listing average gasoline prices (as of Jan. 2011) in the United States and Europe, along with the price of electricity and the savings from trading in a gas-guzzler for an electron-sipper.

In the U.S., drivers of battery-powered rides can save the equivalent of $2.05 a gallon, assuming gas prices of $3.25 a gallon and electricity rates of 12 cents a kilowatt-hour. Of course, gas and power prices in the U.S. vary dramatically from state to state. In California, both are among the highest in the land. But so are subsidies for solar panels, which can be used to charge your car, a further hedge against peak oil.

But in Europe the savings are particularly dramatic. In nuclear-powered France, the GTM snapshot shows electricity rates at 19 cents a kilowatt-hour while petro prices are at $7.61. Switching to an electric car would save the equivalent of $5.71 a gallon.

Electricity rates in Spain, which has been on a renewable energy building boom in recent years, are just seven cents a kilowatt-hour. Going electric would take the equivalent of $5.20 off the $5.90 price of a gallon of gasoline.

“The German government recently announced an objective of having one million EVs on that country’s roads by 2020,” wrote David J. Leeds, the report’s author, who cited a German utility industry study that concluded renewable energy could power 50 million electric cars by 2020.

In Copenhagen, where petro prices were $6.89 as of Jan. 21, a Danish utility plans to provide free power to electric car drivers for two to three years, according to the report.

“In terms of the consumer experience and encouraging wider adoption, not having to pay for fuel appears to be a very savvy strategy,” wrote Leeds.

Just don’t expect to see Huge Chavez trading in the presidential limo for a Leaf: Gas prices in oil-rich Venezuela are about six cents a gallon.

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photo: Todd Woody

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

As the first mass-market electric cars start to, slowly, hit the streets, the big question is whether battery-powered vehicles are the future or a fad.

The answer won’t be known for years but a new report from GTM Research offers some interesting insights into where the electric road might lead. The report, “The Networked EV: The Convergence of Smart Grids and Electric Vehicles,” predicts there will be 3.8 million electric cars on the road worldwide by 2016, with about 1.5 million in the United States, 1.5 million in Europe and 760,000 in Asia.

“It is the hope of this industry that just as cellular phones and laptops before them, EVs will begin as luxury products but will eventually become widely affordable,” wrote David J. Leeds, the report’s author.

Leeds notes that it took a decade and three generations of the Toyota Prius hybrid to capture five percent of the California automotive market. He expects it’ll take a third generation of electric cars, likely to be introduced around 2018-2020, for carbon-free driving to break out of Berkeley, Portland, and other early adopter cities.

It’ll come as no shock that Leeds estimates that 20 percent of electric cars will be sold in California, which currently accounts for 11 percent of total auto sales in the U.S. New York will follow with nine percent of electric car sales with Florida, Texas, and Illinois rounding out the top five.

Predicting such numbers is a guessing game, of course, and electric cars sales will be determined by a multitude of factors, including vehicle cost, advancements in battery technology, gasoline prices, government subsidies, and the fickle tastes of car buyers.

The early adopters of electric cars that will like drive the industry aren’t so much all those Prius owners but corporate accountants looking to keep a lid on the cost of company fleets of cars and trucks.

“Electric vehicles make great sense for fleets due to their highly predictable routes, as well as the fact that these groups tend to excel at logistical operations,” wrote Leeds. “More than any other sources, commercial and government fleet purchases have the power to accelerate the adoption curve of this market.”

He noted that fleets account for 15 percent of miles driven in the U.S. and that many of those vehicles travel fewer than 100 miles a day, the range of many current electric vehicles, and can take advantage of centralized parking and charging stations as well as lower electricity rates negotiated by big corporations.

General Electric, which will buy 25,000 electric vehicles over the next four years, is aggressively promoting EVs among its corporate customers.

“We can’t forgot the importance of scale,” Luis Ramirez, chief executive of GE Industrial Solution, told me earlier this month when he came to San Francisco to promote electric vehicles and GE’s various services for them. “An average delivery truck makes 10 deliveries a day in a city like San Francisco. So when you think of electric vehicles, that creates a whole new blueprint that’s more efficient and uses less energy.”

Clarence Nunn, chief executive of GE Fleet Services, noted that a big cost of operating delivery trucks is the fuel wasted when idling in congested urban areas. Noise ordinances also can restrict delivery times for fossil-fueled powered vehicles. That’s not a problem, of course, for electrics.

The blogosphere had been buzzing over reports of low sales so far of the electric Nissan Leaf and plug-in hybrid electric Chevrolet Volt. That, however, may be more of a production than a demand problem. Leeds noted that nearly 250,000 potential Volt buyers had registered on GM’s site.

“We’d like to buy more than they can build,” said Ramirez of the Volt and Leaf.

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

By the third day of any conference, one’s eyes begin to glaze over. But Lisa Gansky provided an intellectual jolt on the final morning of the Cleantech Forum in San Francisco this week when she appeared on stage to talk about “the Mesh.”

That’s what Gansky, a veteran Internet entrepreneur, calls the confluence of social networks, GPS-enabled mobile technology (smartphones, iPads, and the like) and the tagging of physical objects with chips that pinpoint their location.

“The Mesh is a fundamental shift in our relationship to the things in our lives,” said Gansky, who has written a book by the same name. “We’re moving to an economy where access to goods and services trumps ownership of them.  The opportunity of the Mesh is to really design and support better things easily shared.”

“The recession has caused us to ask what the real value of things versus the cost,” she added. “This is a time where we’re more connected to more people than ever before.”

And so in recent years, we’ve seen the rise of a panoply of peer-to-peer services, beginning with music sharing in the Napster era to peer-to-peer money lending to car sharing.

The advent of smartphones and social networks like Facebook, Foursquare, Twitter and Yelp has accelerated the trend. But whether the Mesh is a plaything of the urban techno-hipsters or represents the advent of new economic model, as Gansky posits, remains to be seen.

But what struck me is the truly radical economic notion enmeshed in the Mesh: The more we share our stuff, the less we need to buy all that new stuff that inevitably leads to ever-rising greenhouse gas emissions, environmental degradation, and the pursuit of unsustainable consumption.

“If we look at ourselves as a global community, we have a lot of stuff,” Gansky said. “What we actually use of the stuff we have is a really small percentage.”

Gansky noted that people in the United States and Europe typically use their cars only 8 percent of the day. “For most people, the second most expensive thing we own is just sitting for most of the time,” she said.

So why not make cars share-ready when they roll off the assembly line?

“Not only in terms of their ability of to tap into a network but so when I buy a car and I automatically and easily have the option to make it available to somebody else to use and pay me or not,” Gansky said.

She noted that it took six years for Zipcar, which lets people rent vehicles by the hour in urban areas, to build a fleet of 1,000 cars. But it only took six months for WhipCar, a peer-to-peer car sharing service, to put 1,000 cars in service after its launch last year in the U.K. That’s because WhipCar lets people share their personal cars, much like the U.S. services Getaround, RelayRide and Spride Share.

Now think about embedding that ability to share in all sorts of objects.

Gansky acknowledged that getting people to change long-entrenched habits and cultural attitudes about ownership won’t be easy.

“We have experiences in our lives where sharing was irresistible but how do we do that on a regular basis and in a scalable way,” she said. “Generally, people change their habits when one thing happens — their pants are on fire.”

But you only have to turn on the news to know its getting hot in here.

 

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In The New York Times on Monday, I write about PlugShare, a new iPhone app that lets people share their household outlets and electric car charging stations with EV drivers:

First there was music sharing and then car sharing. Now get ready for plug sharing.

Xatori, a Silicon Valley software start-up, aims to create a network of electric car enthusiasts who make their household power outlets and home chargers available for drivers who need to top off their battery or who find themselves out of range of the few public-charging stations currently available.

On Monday, Xatori released PlugShare, a free iPhone app that lets drivers and outlet owners locate and offer electricity.

“We want to break down that barrier in people’s minds about where it’s acceptable to charge,” said Armen Petrosian, Xatori’s co-founder and chief technology officer. “We think the infrastructure to charge is everywhere.”

Drivers can punch in their destination to see the availability of shared outlets as well as public charging stations along their route.

People who want to share their electricity indicate what type of outlet or charger they have, how to gain access and their preferred method of contact. Given that most outlets are located in locked garages or otherwise behind closed doors, Xatori expects plug sharers will ask drivers to schedule a time to charge by calling or sending a text message.

“I think a big positive of using the app is that you get to connect with other E.V. owners,” said Mr. Petrosian.

In other words, think of PlugShare as a combination of FaceBook and Foursquare, the location-based service, for electric car owners and their supporters.

“People who don’t own an electric car can be part of the electric vehicle revolution,” said Forrest North, Xatori’s chief executive and the founder of Mission Motors, a San Francisco start-up developing an electric motorcycle.

But how much is it going to cost to take part in this revolution if the revolutionaries are giving away their power?

Not much, according to Xatori’s founders, who believe that most people will share their standard 110-volt household outlets. In the San Francisco Bay Area, for instance, they say it’ll cost on average about 15 cents an hour to charge an electric car. (Under a variable rate structure, that cost could go up if a household is a particularly heavy electricity user.)

“This is more like a backup network, like A.A.A.,” said Mr. Petrosian, who says he has a battery-powered Nissan Leaf on order. “Most of the time you’ll drive on energy from your own house. If you miscalculate, you can rely on the community.”

You can read the rest of the story here.

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