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Archive for the ‘green cars’ Category

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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In my new Green State column on Grist, I write about GreenRoad, a Silicon Valley startup that uses technology to change drivers’ behavior to cut fuel use — and greenhouse gas emissions — as well as accidents:

I recently took the Chevrolet Volt for a spin near San Francisco’s ballpark, checking another item off my electric-car life list. (Getting to drive pre-production EVs is one fringe benefit of covering green tech.)

Then the other week, I took a drive in another car that promised to help cut greenhouse gas emissions. The car itself was unremarkable — a Lexus RX hybrid that anyone with a spare $42,000 can buy. What was potentially revolutionary was the little black box sitting on the dashboard to the left of the steering wheel.

The box had three lights and when the car’s driver makes a fuel-wasting or dangerous move, such as slamming on the brakes, making fast, sharp turns or weaving through traffic — the LEDs go from green to yellow to red.

See, the problem, dear reader, isn’t just your carbon-spewing car, it’s you.

“There are habits that people fall into that they get away with all the time and by making slight changes in those habits you crash a lot less often and you burn less fuel,” says Dan Steere, chief executive of GreenRoad, a Silicon Valley startup that installs that little black box and other technology in commercial vehicle fleets. GreenRoad is backed by Richard Branson’s Virgin Green Fund and Al Gore’s Generation investment firm.

The road to a sustainable future, in other words, will be paved not just with shiny new gadgets that help cut fossil-fuel consumption, but also by new technology designed to change people’s planet-unfriendly behavior.

“Most of the focus around safety and fuel consumption has been about making a vehicle less lethal when it crashes or inventing entirely new systems like the Volt to try and make the vehicles better,” says Steere. “Ninety percent of crashes are caused by a bad decision the driver made, and the EPA has said that 33 percent of fuel consumption is due to driver behavior.”

GreenRoad attempts to change drivers’ fuel-wasting ways by giving them constant feedback — the little black box — and by sending them weekly emails that analyze their driving and offer tips for improvements.

The payoff for GreenRoad’s corporate customers, according to Steere, is fewer accidents and a lower bill at the pump, all without having to make capital investments in new vehicles.

You can read the rest of the column here.

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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.

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photo: Todd Woody

In a story I wrote with Clifford Krauss in Monday’s New York Times, I look at how the San Francisco Bay Area has is scrambling to prepare for the arrival of mass-market electric cars later this year:

SAN FRANCISCO — If electric cars have any future in the United States, this may be the city where they arrive first.

The San Francisco building code will soon be revised to require that new structures be wired for car chargers. Across the street from City Hall, some drivers are already plugging converted hybrids into a row of charging stations.

In nearby Silicon Valley, companies are ordering workplace charging stations in the belief that their employees will be first in line when electric cars begin arriving in showrooms. And at the headquarters of Pacific Gas and Electric, utility executives are preparing “heat maps” of neighborhoods that they fear may overload the power grid in their exuberance for electric cars.

“There is a huge momentum here,” said Andrew Tang, an executive at P.G.& E.

As automakers prepare to introduce the first mass-market electric cars late this year, it is increasingly evident that the cars will get their most serious tryout in just a handful of places. In cities like San Francisco, Portland, Ore., and San Diego, a combination of green consciousness and enthusiasm for new technology seems to be stirring public interest in the cars.

The first wave of electric car buying is expected to begin around December, when Nissan introduces the Leaf, a five-passenger electric car that will have a range of 100 miles on a fully charged battery and be priced for middle-class families.

Several thousand Leafs made in Japan will be delivered to metropolitan areas in California, Arizona, Washington state, Oregon and Tennessee. Around the same time, General Motors will introduce the Chevrolet Volt, a vehicle able to go 40 miles on electricity before its small gasoline engine kicks in.

“This is the game-changer for our industry,” said Carlos Ghosn, Nissan’s president and chief executive. He predicted that 10 percent of the cars sold would be electric vehicles by 2020.

You can read the rest of the story here.

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