Friday, December 29, 2006

Honda: 12 more years of no choice for consumers

There's really only one way to read the Kyodo News (Japan) report that Honda President Takeo Fukui said in an interview that Honda thinks it will be able to mass produce fuel-cell vehicles for the general market by 2018. For you and me that means gasoline-only Hondas (along with a few NGV Civics for die-hards) for at least another decade. Not surprising from this quintessential internal combusion engine company.

Honda previously announced plans to offer a hydrogen fuel-cell vehicle based on its FCX Concept in Japan and the United States. At the Santa Monica AltFuel Expo in early December, I asked Steven Ellis, Honda AFV Chief, about the FCX. He said Honda would begin selling the car in 2008. I asked if he meant "selling" the car. Yes, he said. So I repeated, with emphasis, "selling?" And he confessed it would be, like the short-lived all-electric EV+, lease only. Press reports had already made clear it was to be lease-only, but seems the big auto guys can't help themselves. Reminiscent of GM referring to EV1 drivers as "owners," despite their unwillingness to actually sell the car. I also tried to find out the size of the battery pack in this battery/fuel cell hybrid car. "It's Lithium," he said proudly as he refused to divulge its kWh rating.
By evolving a next model based on this, I think the level of
technology will become very close to that of mass-produced ordinary
vehicles within 10 years or so. In 2018, I believe the development
[of a fuel-cell car] will have been very advanced. It will become a
real possibility to a large degree.
—Takeo Fukui
Fukui told Kyodo that there will be many customers who want to buy a Honda fuel-cell car if it goes on sale for ¥10 million (US$84,000) in the general market. Of course, the current cost of fuel cell cars is estimated at more than 10 times that figure.

Challenges that still need to be overcome before mass production is possible for Honda include reducing the amount of metals used for fuel cells, improving hydrogen storage and lower-cost production of hydrogen, according to Fukui. Is that all?

I suspect the battery we'll see in the FCX will be big enough to for a great plug-in hybrid. Honda could still sell it's engines with each car, but such a product would be marketable before the end of this decade. Not, I'm afraid, in Honda's plans. Yet.

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

MIT Year End Energy Review touts PHEVs

The MIT Technology Review reports plug-in hybrids a big 2006 energy story:
"The plug-in hybrid-vehicle era begins.
For years, hobbyists and a few companies have been adding bigger battery packs to hybrid vehicles, which have both battery power and an internal combustion engine, and plugging them into electrical outlets. This allows the cars, which typically rely on the electric power only for short bursts or to assist the onboard gasoline engine, to run on electricity alone for short trips. The idea of the "plug-in hybrid" has now caught the attention of government officials and researchers, who note that gas consumption would plummet if drivers could rely almost exclusively on electricity for average daily driving of about 33 miles. The gasoline engine would be available to boost performance and make it possible to use the car for long trips. Now the major car companies are taking notice and are finally developing plug-in hybrids. (See "GM's Plug-In Hybrid.") Meanwhile, researchers are beginning to anticipate benefits from plug-ins beyond gasoline conservation: millions of plug-in vehicles could serve as massive energy storage to stabilize the electric grid and make renewable energy sources more feasible. (See "How Plug-In Hybrids Will Save the Grid.") Battery costs still need to drop before such cars will approach the price of conventional hybrids or gas-only vehicles. But better batteries are already becoming available.

Friday, December 22, 2006

The Beast in the Rumble Seat

There is more to Dan Neil's recent LA Times column than a favorable review of yet another gasoline-only hybrid. He likes the Nissan Altima Hybrid well enough. Calls it a "Camry hybrid in tight jeans." More important, Neil says, is that it comes from an automaker that had scoffed at "hybridization." In December, Nissan announced its "Green Program 2010," projecting a line of hybrids, plug-in hybrids and all-electric cars utilizing lithium-ion batteries of its own manufacture. We are at a tipping point according to Neil:
"Let's bookmark this moment in the history of cars, because what is emerging is something like consensus. Hybrid doubters — who once railed that the batteries were sketchy, the costs of the so-called hybrid premium unrecoverable, the mileage gains overstated, and so on — are beginning to look like the Flat Earth Society. As underscored last month when GM announced it would build a plug-in hybrid version of its Saturn Vue, the logic of electric propulsion is compelling. Electric motors are clean, lightweight, maintenance-free and powerful. The latest lithium-ion batteries are energy-dense, durable, compact and recyclable. Putting these components together opens a world of oil- and carbon-saving possibilities."
The automakers have been engaged in a snail's pace race toward greater efficiency and lower emissions. The Europeans have placed their bet on the more efficient diesel engine, achieving mpg ratings in excess of the Prius without the complication and expense of hybridization. Essentially, the Europeans believe cars will be all petroleum all the time for the forseeable future.

Toyota had a different take. Integrating highly efficient electric drive componentry into a gasoline-dependent internal combustion (ICE) vehicle results in desired greater mpg, but also provides a pathway to a better place, should the market or the government demand it. For the time being, the gasoline-only hybrids on offer are ICE preservers not ICE breakers. But add more batteries and an electrical plug to the design, and they've got instant access to power that radically changes the efficiency and emissions equation. Of course Toyota has little incentive to let the electrical genie too far out of the bottle. They've got their own profit-maximizing timeline. Hence, CalCars, EDrive, Hymotion and Hybrids Plus aren't waiting for the OEMs. They are putting plugs on hybrids today.

As it stands now, Toyota can incrementally improve their gasoline-only hybrids, staying out front in the mpg wars. No real motivation to plug in. Desperation, however, is a great motivator. Ford and GM, it would seem, need to throw a Hail Mary pass to get back in the game. Dan Neil suggests the ball is already in the air.
"Run this through your wetware: What about a car that uses a powerful electric motor to drive the wheels, that you would charge overnight like a cordless phone, that would deliver per-mile costs at a fraction of gasoline? And if the car should need to exceed its all-electric range, a small, hyper-clean gas-powered generator would be aboard to charge the battery. Such a widget, known as a serial hybrid, could get over 100 miles per gallon. Fantasy? Let's talk after next month's Detroit auto show."
As the price of gasoline returns to its pre-election season highs, the plug is looking mighty attractive and close at hand. Let's hope Detroit is taking another look. With a push from Bush such as Thomas Friedman recently fantasized, instead of another greenwashing concept car for the forever-future, Neil's serial plug-in could hit showrooms in eighteen months. Perhaps, at long last, truly what's good for GM might be good for America.

Thursday, December 21, 2006

Auto Lobby Deals a New Card

Changing of the guard at the auto makers' industry group the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers (AAM). Former Democratic Congressman Dave McCurdy takes his lobbying skills from Electronics to Autos. As reported at the Washington Note, just seeing a Democrat in this top spot once held by Andy Card, who went on to become Bush's Chief of Staff, is a positive sign of the times. Still, this is the industry group (and its predecessor) that has opposed every attempt at auto sanity passed by the people's representatives - from seat belts to the ZEV Mandate to the California Greenhouse Gas bill. No reason to believe that stance will change.

But with change in personnel comes change in personal networks. As Steven Clemons points out in his report, McCurdy and Clinton's CIA chief Jim Woolsey, two guys from Oklahoma, go way back. Woolsey is one of the higher profile advocates for plug-in cars. Woolsey's gasoline-only Prius has a "Bin Laden Hates My Car" sticker, but he knows the only way to cut the cord in the near term is cars with an electrical plug. (Woolsey, pictured right, holding the plug for Felix Kramer's Plug-in Prius.) See his presentation at the Santa Monica AltFuel Auto Show below this post.

Here's to hoping Woolsey and McCurdy sit down for a nice lunch real soon. Perhaps their relationship can help break down the wall the auto industry has constructed to postpone the inevitable, electric future for cars.

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Shill for a Withering Lie

No, I'm not referring to John McCain or the other remaining defenders of the Iraq adventure, predicated on so many lies. I'm speaking about Mark Phelan, columnist for the Detroit Free Press. You see Phelan was in North Carolina recently to test drive the new Toyota Tundra. one of the ever-larger vehicles that has catapulted Toyota's profitability. 15 miles per gallon, thank you very much. As Toyota planned it, we see Prius, they sell Tundra. But that's another story.

As Phelan tells this tale
, (registration required) midway through their Tundra talk, Ernest Bastien, Toyota Motor Sales vice president for vehicle operations, surprisingly rose to defend GM. '"The movie 'Who Killed the Electric Car?' was terribly one-sided," he said intensely.' Phelan assures us this is conventional wisdom at dinner parties in Detroit, but this "completely unexpected" aside from Toyota surprised him.

Then comes the real shocker. "If it's not surprising enough to hear Toyota defending GM, try this on for size: The film's director pretty much agrees." As Jon Stewart would say: Whaaaa? Phelan quotes Chris Paine: "'We let Toyota off the hook for how they subverted the program' to sell electric cars because GM had a higher profile." See? The director concedes the film is unfair. Of course Paine was saying Toyota was just as actively involved in the killing, supplying more not less ammunition for the film's thesis. But he had to tell the story in 90 minutes. Just as in a newspaper column, you make a comprehensible narrative, hopefully based on a truthful "facts," giving competing viewpoints voice, to convey the larger story. That's what Paine did, giving auto guys plenty of screen time.

That's not what Phelan did. The conventional wisdom about the electric car is under attack. From the film to the agreements reached between Toyota and Ford with Plug In America to keep electric cars on the road to automakers own statements of late about plug-in hybrids and the "electrification of the automobile," the notion that the electric car failed due to its own shortcomings is slowly coming undone. None of this is reflected in the column, despite the author's having contacted and spoken with a representative of Plug In America in preparation for the column.

Phelan uses the conceit of automaker and filmmaker agreement on the unfairness of the film to shlepp out the same tired lies about what brought the electric car programs of the majors to an end. Just as Dave Hermance's final appearance at CARB in September mystifyingly rehashed the tired, inaccurate justifications offered up three years earlier, Phelan ignores the facts on the ground. PIA member Mike Kane's point by point response to Hermance's presentation provides an explanation of how the RAV4 EV Retail Program actually went down.

Toyota's motivation is understandable. As it is with all the majors, they perceive the postponement of the inevitable grid-connected car to be job one. No company wants to be first, to open the door to a future that portends a radical reshaping of the industry. Better to squeeze every last dollar out of the unchallenged, petroleum-swallowing internal combusion engine.

But what motivation Mr. Phelan? Why did an aside about one-sidedness turn into a one-sided column airing the automakers preferred narrative with no rebuttal other than the director's (who already "admitted" the film is unfair)? Phelan is a long-standing defender of the automakers views on the subject, and perhaps he takes the industry at its word. "Ernest Bastien deserves credit for sticking up for the truth," his column concludes. Whose truth?

I don't mean to pick on Phelan. Really. But his latest column is all too reflective of journalists lack of fair reporting on the electric car story, when they have bothered to cover it at all. As Paine himself has said, he made the film because he got tired of waiting for the media to pick up the story.

Paine deserves our thanks. His film shone a spotlight on a great underreported story, and industry has had to respond, even if in disingenous asides "defending" the competition to friendly columnists.

Friday, December 15, 2006

Wind Beneath his Wings: How Green Power and Plug-in Cars Can Save Bush's Legacy

Thomas Friedman of the NY Times has been on his geo-green kick for a while now, merging his eco-consciousness with his hawkish neo-liberalism. Going green is necessary, and it can get the US out of the pickle of the Mid East. Agreed. Ending our dependence on foreign oil is essential if we are to eliminate its perverting influence on our foreign policy.

Not content to offer an overarching theory to save America's environment and democratic internationalism, Friedman today ambitiously suggests a way to achieve the impossible - save George Bush's ass, I mean legacy. All I can say is "From your lips to God's, I mean Karl Rove's ear."

Given the stink of political corruption in Texas, one can be forgiven for thinking only foul winds blow. But whatever their source, the wind really blows in Texas. Thanks in part to Bush's support of a nascent wind industry during his tenure in Austin, much of that wind is being turned into electricity. Renewable energy is hot. Everyone save Dick Cheney thinks it's a darn good idea. Since Bush already seems to consider plugging in a car to be a no-brainer, plugging it in to renewable, nighttime Texas wind should be doubly appealing. If Bush grabs Friedman's concept, he's got a positive agenda to focus on during his final two years.

I can't say I expect Bush to be the leader to bring the good news of renewable electricity and plug-in cars to the masses. After all, what would his pals in the oil and gas industry say? But the politics of plug-ins makes strange bedfellows. Bring it on!

Congressional Letter for Plug-ins

Felix Kramer of CalCars reports that this week, in the first letter of its kind, 17 Senators and 21 Representatives from both sides of the aisle wrote to Energy Secretary Samuel Bodman and Office of Management and Budget Director Robert Portman, urging that the Fiscal Year 2008 budget request include at least $90M in funding for Plug-in Hybrid Vehicles (PHEVs). (See full text & signatories below.)

In the Senate, support extends from the far-right (Brownback) to the moderate-left Barack Obama. In the House, we see Southern Republican Conservatives, Democratic hawks and progressives lining up in an unusual alliance. As Sherry Boschert concludes in the final chapter of her new must-read book, plug-in cars have a role to play in "Bridging a Divided America."

Did your Congressional representatives sign the letter? If so, send them a letter of support for this action. If not, write to inform them about it and ask for their support for plug-in hybrids.

Dear Secretary Bodman and Director Portman

As you prepare the President's Fiscal Year 2008 budget request, we urge you to include adequate funding for Plug in Hybrid Electric Vehicles (PHEVs). Specifically we hope the President will request at least $90 million of funding for PHEVs including $45 million for advanced batteries, $20 million in PHEV analysis, system modeling and component study, $20 milliion in support of a pending executive order for demonstration vehicles (light- and medium-duty), and $5 million under the joint flex-fuel/hybrid vehicle commercialization initiative(section 706 of the Energy Policy Act of 2005).

As you know, PHEVs promise to significantly reduce our nation's dependence on oil while saving consumers hundreds of dollars at the pump each year and greatly reducing vehicular pollution and greenhouse gasses. The 2005 Energy Policy Act laid the framework for beginning to reduce oil dependence through a next generation of vehicles. A financial commitment from the federal government is vital if we are to see PEHVs on the road over the next few years.

Thanks for your consideration

Senators Evan Bayh, Sam Brownback, Joe Lieberman, Norm Coleman, Ken Salazar, Richard G. Lugar, Barack Obama, Orrin Hatch, Debbie Stabenow, Hillary Rodham Clinton, Maria Cantwell, Herb Kohl, Dianne Feinstein, Christopher Dodd, Carl Levin, Olympia Snowe

Representatives Eliot L. Engel, Jack Kingston, Bart Stupak, Lee Terry, Jay Inslee, Roscoe G. Bartlett, Bobby L. Rush, John Campbell, Tammy Baldwin, Judy Biggert, Tom Lantos, Mike Ross, Maurice D. Hinchey, Peter A. DeFazio, Howard L. Berman, Linda Sanchez, Lloyd Doggett, Rahm Emanuel, Sandy M. Levin, Allyson Y Schwartz, Doris O. Matsui

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Dazed and Confused in Santa Monica?

Santa Monica AltFuel Expo was by all standard measure an overwhelming success. Thousands packed the hangar to meander through exhibits by companies large and small, trade groups, government agencies and advocacy organizations. Under one roof, all the alt fuels were represented, from hydrogen to biofuels and electricity to (using less) gasoline.

Panels and keynote addresses were well attended. Each alternative put its best face forward. Not all speakers adhered to the organizers call not to bash the other alternatives. Rock 'n roller and ex-CIA chief Jim Woolsey led the renegades. His presentation on the national security need to promote biofuels and plug-ins did not pull any punches on the problems and expense of the hydrogen project. He waved one of Felix Kramer of CalCars' simple $10 110 volt dongles to demonstrate the infrastructure required for plug-ins. Hydrogen booster Edwin Black reportedly walked out. [CORRECTION 12/15/06 Seems I was wrong about that. As the next batter up, Mr. Black was simply getting into the on deck circle.)

Black's presentation later was an amusing and rousing call for radical changes to move away from petroleum, calling consumers to task for continuing to buy gasoline cars. He remained "fuel-neutral," supporting electrics as part of the solution, but his focus is elsewhere. He repeatedly praised Honda's "vision," a pathway via CNG (Civic GX) to hydrogen (FCV). Why he should take seriously the utopian "Home Energy Station" given Honda dribbling out a few thousand Civic GXs and the slow to market PHIL home unit is beyond me.

But what did the show mean to the thousands looking for some direction and options? Did John and Jane Q Public leave the hanger more or less confused? If the guy in this LA Times story who left believing he'd be converting his truck to hydrogen power is any indication, bamboozlement continues apace.

I can't help feel the event should have held a debate. How would ethanol answer the assault on corn, hydrogen on its inefficiency and expense, electric on the grid and recharge times, etc. The gloves need to come off in a public context.

Friday, December 8, 2006

Santa Monica AltFuel Expo Sets up

Spent the day at the press event and setup for the Santa Monica AltFuel Expo, being held in conjunction with the LA Auto Show. One can be quite encouraged by the 30 odd alternative fuel cars of all shapes and sizes. I should feel heartened that battery electrics predominated, if you include NEVs and bikes.

I drove the AC Propulsion eBox (thank you, Tom), my first time behind the wheel of the ACP system. No real opportunity to let it rip in our pokey NEV-dominated parade on city streets, but as impressive as everyone says. A real car, by any measure. Phoenix Motors AltairNano powered SUV was the other full BEV. I hope to find out more tomorrow.

The production of Neighborhood Electric Vehicles and electric bicycles is picking up. ZENNs and Miles Motors and scaled down pickups and jeeps from companies I'd never heard of. But this is unlikely to have a large impact on the availability of full BEVs.

A few bio-cars were there. Honda with the remaining CNG vehicle from a major and two hydrogen fuel cell cars. Daimler Chrysler's FCV made an appearance.

And everyone was well behaved, as requested by the organizers. No internecine altfuel warfare. Ed Begley is representing Phoenix's BEV, but spoke optimistically of a clean hydrogen future. An actress was introduced and praised for her altfuel vehicle, which she said was a Lexus Hybrid SUV. Grumbling about her gasoline-powered altfuel car remained unspoken.

It remains to be seen how such fuel ecumenicism actually advances alt fuels into the real world marketplace. Lots of good words about fighting global warming and ending petroleum dependence. Yet each makes its most minimal contribution as all are essentially relegated to the future (or past) equally.

Wednesday, December 6, 2006

Hertsgaard: It's Worse Than You Think

Environmental author Mark Hertsgaard spoke at the San Francisco Department of Environment today. He has come to believe we are so far down the global warming road and its consequences that the time has come to move beyond mitigation to focus on adaptation. Of course, he said, every effort must continue to move toward a zero-carbon economy, but we need to get our collective head around the idea that our carbon emissions have warmed up the earth, and it's going to get even warmer. We can still make it worse, but we can't make it stop. More Katrina's. Summers hotter than the killer of 50,000 in Europe a few years ago.

Hertsgaard says environmental leaders shudder at the poltical consequences of such knowledge. Will everyone stop replacing their lightbulbs and stop buying hybrids if the next generations are screwed regardless?

I think the question enviros face isn't what doomsday timeline will optimally motivate policy-makers, industry or everyday people. Excepting our disgraced President, it is now conventional wisdom that global warming is real. When Shell Oil's CEO finally believes it's real, as he apparently does, the debate is over, Hertsgaard said,

The question is what are the best policies to support. And this is where we are being let down by environmental leadership, at least as regards transportation. The young man who rang my doorbell for Environment California this evening should have been more than a naive enthusiast for wind and solar and more efficient cars. He could have been an advocate for creating that renewable power and putting it into cars. Killing two birds with one stone, pardon the murderous cliche.

The end game is the cleanest, most renewable power possible for everything. Realistically, the only way we get renewable power into millions of cars is with grid electricity. GM has just given environmentalists a opening with its plug-in hybrid announcement.

GM is rumored to have yet another announcement regarding what Waggoner called "the electrification of the automobile" at the Detroit Auto Show in January. Will Toyota let GM be first to market with a plug-in?

Monday, December 4, 2006

Der Spiegel Catalogs Hydrogen ICE Green Myths

Titled "Not as Green as it Seems," Spiegel Online takes direct aim not only at BMW's vision of the future, but the entire hydrogen enterprise.

According to this review, "BMW has created an energy-guzzling engine that only seems to be environmentally friendly -- a farcical ecomobile whose only true merit is that of illustrating the cardinal dilemma of a possible hydrogen-based economy."

The article dissects the myth of clean, renewable hydrogen, and vividly explains the difficulty of storage.

"Advertizing images display the Hydrogen 7 against a backdrop of wind turbines and solar panels. But the image is one of deceit. Because the hydrogen dispensed at the new filling station is generated primarily from petroleum and natural gas, the new car puts about as much strain on the environment as a heavy truck with a diesel engine."

Similar to GM's plans for its hydrogen fuel cell Chevrolet, BMW plans to roll out 100 cars, lease only (sound familiar?), to get some real road experience. I took this car on a little drive in Sacramento in September at the CARB ZEVTech. Driving on hydrogen, the car is quite sluggish, at least on city streets. There is a noticeable delay, not unlike a slipping clutch, as you drive off. My RAV4 EV would beat it off the line!


Sunday, December 3, 2006

How Big Oil Stays on Top

Almost every American who drives (and for better or worse that's most of us), must pay oil companies for the privilege. And they make a good profit. But it's not enough to sell a product and make the biggest profits in the history of the world.

Today's NYTimes has a big story about one way oil and gas companies continue to steal from us. They drill on public lands and are meant to pay US royalties. One of the Interior Department's auditors, Bobby Maxwell, had been doing his job well for 22 years, recovering hundreds of millions in underreported royalties. A self-described conservative, Maxwell found that agressive pursuit of industry for fair payment didn't fit with the new Bush administration's approach. They refused to pursue his case against Kerr-McGee Corporation. Maxwell was soon "reorganized" out of his job. Fortunately for us, he didn't stop doing his work just because he was forced into retirement. He continutes to pursue Kerr-McGee, now part of Anadarko, as a private citizen. All the major oil companies have joined Kerr-McGee to try and derail Maxwell's suit, but it remains scheduled for January.

Kerr-McGee/Anadarko may be saving up for the possible $50 million judgement in Maxwell's case. It is one oil company absent from the list of contributors to the successful No on 87 campaign in California. The oil and gas companies spent liberally to protect their profits from the California proposal. $3,000,000 from BP (Beyond Petroleum?) on Nov. 1. $2,000,000 from Chevron on October 17. And another $4 million on Halloween. Scary enough? I stopped counting Chevron's contributions not halfway through the report and the total was $19 million. AERA ENERGY LLP, a company I've never heard of, invested over $17 million between Oct 4 and October 27. I guess they decided they were being cheap, so they ponied up another $2.5 million on the 30th. Occidental Petroleum, at least 4.8 million. ConocoPhillips donated at least $3 million. No big surprise, they got the result they paid for.

These mega-corporations, it is not controversial to say, have too much power. As long as we have no choice but to buy their product, their power only increases. To our detriment, as consumers and citizens.