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photo: Todd Woody

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

When President Obama in his State of the Union address called for 1 million electric cars to be on the road by 2015, skeptics scoffed. But in a report [PDF] released Tuesday, the Department of Energy basically said no worries. We’ve already arrived at our destination.

That optimism comes from automakers’ existing projections of how many electric cars they expect to produce over the next five years.

“The production capacity of EV models announced to enter the U.S. market through 2015 should be sufficient to achieve the goal of one million EVs by 2015,” the report states, noting that 1.6 million hybrids like the Toyota Prius have been sold over the past six years.

If the estimates bear out, 1.2 million electric cars will hit the highways by 2015. That’s about 10 percent of current annual automotive sales. But those rosy numbers includes some big figures from startup companies like Fisker Automotive that have yet to roll a single production vehicle off the assembly line.

According to the Energy Department, Fisker expects to sell 195,000 of its forthcoming Nina plug-in hybrid by 2015, along with 36,000 Karma high-end sports sedans. And Think, the Norwegian electric carmaker, says it’ll sell 57,000 of its urban runabout in the United States within four years. The Chevrolet Volt, which you can buy now if you live in certain cities, would account for nearly half the projected sales of electric cars in 2015.

On the other hand, those estimates don’t count a number of automakers that say they will or are likely to introduce electric cars in the coming years, depending on how the market shakes out. Among them: Chrysler, China’s BYD, Coda, Honda, Mitsubishi, Hyundai, Toyota, Volkswagen, and Volvo.

Which raises a question: Did the president set his sights too low if it’ll be so easy to get a million EVs on the road by 2015?

It’s always hard to forecast the market for an expensive new technology like the electric car, but the short answer is, probably.

The Energy Department cites studies showing that if battery production goes from 10,000 to 100,000 units a year, battery costs will decline 30 percent to 40 percent. And the report notes that electric vehicles’ overall lower operating costs appeal to corporate fleet purchasers that buy in bulk.

The report made clear that the government has a role to play in promoting the retirement of the internal combustion engine, from handing out research and development cash to funding a nationwide network of electric charging stations.

One suggestion is sure to be popular with potential electric car buyers and could stimulate sales: The Obama administration has proposed converting the $7,500 federal tax credit for EVs into a rebate payable upon purchase at the dealer, rather than making you wait until tax time to gain its benefit.

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photo: Better Place

In The New York Times on Monday, I wrote about the challenges of developing electric car batteries that will match the range of gasoline-powered vehicles:

Silicon Valley may be an epicenter of the nascent electric car industry, but don’t expect the battery revolution to mimic the computer revolution, one of I.B.M.’s top energy storage scientists advises.

“Forget Moore’s Law — it’s nothing like that,” said Winfried Wilcke, senior manager for I.B.M.’s Battery 500 project, referring to the maxim put forward by Gordon Moore, an Intel founder, that computer processing power doubles roughly every two years.

“Lithium ion, which clearly is the best battery technology today, is flat, completely flat since 2003,” Mr. Wilcke said last week at a gathering in San Francisco attended by executives from I.B.M. and Better Place, a Silicon Valley electric car infrastructure company.

Mr. Wilcke’s team at the Almaden Research Center of I.B.M. in San Jose, Calif., is trying to develop a new battery technology called lithium air that could allow a car to go 500 miles on a single charge. Most electric cars coming onto the market this year have a range of around 100 miles.

Such batteries theoretically could pack 10 times the energy density of the lithium ion batteries now used in electric cars because they use air drawn in from outside the battery as a reactant. That means lithium-air storage devices weigh less than lithium-ion batteries, a factor that also improves the performance of electric cars.

“I always compare it to climbing Mount Everest,” Mr. Wilcke said. “In the last two months, we just left base camp — meaning that we actually made some pretty significant breakthroughs.”

He declined to give details but said that his team had shown that lithium-air batteries could be recharged, something that had not been done before.

“It will take many years, if ever, before it can be useful,” he said. “It’s a high-high-risk project.”

He illustrated the challenge of building a battery with the energy density of gasoline by recounting that it took 47 seconds to put 13.6 gallons of gas in his car when he stopped to fill up on the way to San Francisco. That’s the equivalent of 36,000 kilowatts of electricity. An electric car would need to pump 6,000 kilowatts to charge its battery.

“The dream that we have today to have exactly the same car charge up in minutes and drive off hundreds of miles cannot happen,” Mr. Wilcke said. “Or at least not for 50 years.”

Mr. Wilcke and Lawrence Seeff, head of global alliances for Better Place, dismissed the idea that the fast-charging stations being tested in California and elsewhere were a solution to the battery conundrum.

Depending on the battery, high-voltage stations can recharge a battery to 80 percent capacity in 20 to 30 minutes rather than in the 8 to 10 hours it takes with a more conventional charging station.

Allan Schurr, I.B.M.’s vice president for strategy, energy and utilities, noted that the cost to drivers of plugging in to a rapid charging station might be prohibitive, given the demands that the devices place on the electric grid.

“It’s physically possible to have a fast-charge mechanism and a fast-charge outlet, but can the grid support it?” Mr. Seeff said. “And what do we define by fast-charging? Is it 20 minutes, 10 minutes, 30 minutes? Because if you have two people waiting to fast-charge, you could be waiting an hour.”

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.

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.

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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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