Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Toyota Snags a RAV4 EV

The storyline is meant to be changing. From Who Killed the Electric Car? to Who Revived the Electric Car? Now that automakers seem to be reevaluating plug-in cars, you'd think the era of automakers taking extraordinary steps to keep electric cars from private ownership would be over. You'd be wrong. As GM talks up the Volt, it ensures EV1s at museums and universities not be returned to the road as electric cars. As Toyota gets headlines for suggesting it will offer a few fleets a few plug-in hybrids in 3 or 4 years, it does what it can to take the myth-busting RAV4 EV out of private hands.

In mid-January a 2002 RAV4 EV south of San Francisco came to the end of its five year lease. The leaseholder chose not to buy out the lease, and returned the electric car to the dealer. Very few RAV4 EVs have been returned to the dealer when the lease ends. Most people have been so pleased with their electric Toyota that they choose to buy the car outright. Some, recognizing the market for the cars, pay the $27,000 balance only to turn around and eBay the car, earning a quick $5,000 to$15,000. Why this leaseholder simply turned in his electric car to his Toyota dealer is unknown.

But Eric Doebert, a salesman at Magnussen Toyota in Palo Alto, knew there was still interest in the car. The dealership did well with the RAV4 EV during the brief period it was offered, selling twenty one of the $42,000 electric SUVs. And as soon as the word got out that a used RAV4 EV had been returned and would be offered for sale, the calls of interest began to pile up. Ordinarily when a leased car is returned the dealer gets first dibs - if they choose they can buy the car and sell it.

Since no leased RAV4 EV had ever been returned to the Palo Alto dealer, Doebert was unprepared for Toyota's unusual next steps. The Toyota computer had a block on the car - the dealer couldn't buy the car. The dealer wanted to work out something with Toyota due to the great interest in the car. They simply wanted to do a little business, sell the used electric car. But Toyota refused. I know that at least once before a leased car was returned to another dealer, and ultimately that RAV4 EV was resold to a private party. Apparently Toyota decided that would not happen again.

So just before closing time on Thursday January 24th, without any notice and after the sales and used car staff had left, Toyota corporate in San Ramon sent two of its agents to retrieve the car. The lot boy gave up the keys, and the staff returned the next morning to find a good sale on a great Toyota had been denied them by Toyota.

The situation isn't as bad as it might have been. Toyota agreed with Plug In America in 2005 to stop destroying RAV4 EVs, and I trust that this car will remain "in service." But it won't be driving around the San Francisco Bay Area, taking someone to work, some kids to school, heightening interest in plug in cars and proving the viability of electric cars. RAV4 EVs in private hands prove daily that electric cars are not dead yet.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

First Production Tesla Roadster on its Way to US

Tesla has sent a letter to those who have ordered one of its Roadsters with some good news. The first Roadster is on its way. All necessary EPA, DOT and NHTSA approvals have been received. And series production begins in March, beginning at the rate of one per week.

The much discussed problems with the original 2 speed transmission will be resolved with an interim one speed so as not to delay early production. Initial acceleration will slow from 0 to 60 in 4 seconds to 5.7. This laggard will be replaced later this year by a new one-speed that will achieve the original design specs once testing is completed. The cars' transitional transmission will then be replaced free.

Tesla stores in LA and Menlo Park are under construction and will be open when cars are delivered to provide service.

And what should be an exciting Q&A session for owners will take place on January 30.

And Motortrend is the first of the big car mags with a review, here.

Monday, January 21, 2008

Government, Renault and Agassi: Making Israel a Better Place for Electric Cars

Shai Agassi's ambitious Project Better Place takes a step forward today in Israel. The government will announce its support for the venture which has been developing between Agassi and Renault to bring electric cars to the virtual island that is Israel. Carlos Ghosn, chairman of Nissan and Renault will participate in the announcement.

As I have commented before, there is no better proving grounds for EVs than Israel. No oil. Lots of cars but no great distance to travel. Intellectual and financial resources aplenty.

Agassi's project focussing on the infrastructure side with its talk of charging points and battery swapping has long struck me as interesting, well-intended, but suffering from some misconceptions endemic to those who think about this stuff but don't drive an electric car.

I've long believed the problem is lack of cars not "fuel." My first electric car was a 50 mile range 57 mph top speed Th!nk City. Not quite a real car in the conception of the average American. Not what I wanted for my next car in 2001. But I gave it a shot as by then the automakers were no longer making available the better EVs I'd come to covet. I came to realize my little Th!nk had its considerable benefits and limitations. But the problem was certainly not availability of "fuel." Electricity is ubiquitous. Even 220 volt power in a 110v world was obtainable tapping in to friends' dryer outlets.

Raising a couple of hundred million dollars not to build electric cars struck me as peculiar. But the plan is becoming clearer as at least one car maker appears to be buying in. As reported in the NY Times today here:
The idea, said Shai Agassi, 39, the software entrepreneur behind the new company, is to sell electric car transportation on the model of the cellphone. Purchasers get subsidized hardware — the car — and pay a monthly fee for expected mileage, like minutes on a cellphone plan....Renault and Nissan will provide the cars.....Mr. Agassi’s company, Project Better Place of Palo Alto, Calif., will provide the lithium-ion batteries, which will be able to go 124 miles per charge, and the infrastructure necessary to keep the cars going — whether parking meter-like plugs on city streets or service stations along highways....
Where these batteries will come from hasn't been announced. But certainly if the energy storage isn't the responsibility of the automaker, the car becomes quite affordable. If Agassi has a better place to get batteries, and can leverage the investments into a profitable financing scheme for the energy, he could be on to something.

Jerusalem Post report here.

Financial Times report here.

Friday, January 11, 2008

CARB Races to Rescue Faltering Hydrogen Highway

In meetings reminiscent of Dick Cheney's energy confabs, California Air Resources Board Chair Mary Nichols convened energy companies and auto makers to try to save California's buckling Hydrogen Highway. As reported in the San Jose Mercury News today, Friday, January 11,
"We are getting strong expressions of support from them to increase their level of commitments, including financially," said Mary Nichols, who chairs the Air Resources Board, talking about the energy companies. "We can't discuss the details of this at this point."
Even the hydrogen filling station at the Fuel Cell Partnership itself closed when the lease lapsed on December 31.

Now the state is promising to throw good money after bad. As the state declares a budget emergency,
The Air Resources Board said it will reissue bids for the projects in the next few weeks and will add money to help upgrade two existing stations. There is already $7.7 million set aside for the competitive projects from past budgets. An additional $6 million is being requested for future projects in Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's proposed budget, which he released Thursday. [emphasis added]
This "hydrogen hiccup" should be taken as an opportunity to smother a failed, diversionary research project. It is a shame that California agencies charged with cleaning the air, lowering carbon emissions, and reducing our petroleum dependence continue to hallucinate a hydrogen future and throw taxpayer money at oil companies and auto makers forestalling truly viable zero emission plug-in vehicles. Mary Nichols ought to return the ZEV program to its original mission - near-term commercialization of practical, economic zero emission vehicles. That means battery electric cars. The Board should take such action at its meeting in March when it considers revisions to the Zero Emission Vehicle Program.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Hydrogen Implosion in California

The San Jose Mercury News reports on roadblocks appearing on Schwarzenegger's much ballyhooed Hydrogen Highway. Planned stations aren't opening and existing stations are closing. California utility giant PG&E has turned down $1.5 million in state funds to open a retail hydrogen station in San Carlos.
PG&E officials said they've shifted hydrogen to the back stage and now consider it a distant technology, with electric vehicles and plug-in hybrids moving to the front of the line.

"This is a significant change in attitude. People are simply refusing to participate, even if they get money from the state. If state officials don't step in, the hydrogen highway could collapse," said V. John White, executive director of the Center for Energy Efficiency and Renewable Technologies.
This is very good news. The long term gamble on hydrogen and fuel cells made with public money by the Air Resources Board ought finally receive serious scrutiny. The ZEV program became an expensive research project. The ARB ought return the ZEV program to its original mission - commercialization of practical, economic zero emission vehicles. That means battery electric cars.

Sunday, January 6, 2008

And now, Toyota's turn

An anonymous commenter on my previous blogpost asks,
"GM has alway said that the battery might not be ready.... GM never lied about it but like always lots of people like to knock GM. Why not pick on Toyota for a while."
I've got no problem picking on Toyota, too. Toyota continues to use the Prius to cover a multitude of sins. They are selling larger, less fuel-efficient vehicles than ever; they slap a hybrid drive into a $100,000 Lexus, achieve minimal fuel savings, and earn more green kudos all while continuing to spread disinformation about the value of true electrification by advertising their hybrids as half electric cars "you never have to plug in." Of course the truth is you can't.

But unlike GM, Toyota hasn't promised a plug in car. They haven't had to. (Although they built a damn good one when they were forced to. Read all about it here.) While I have no doubt Toyota will release a plug-in car as soon as someone else does, until then they will join the "batteries aren't ready" chorus.

It truly is, not surprisingly, all about the bottom line. Every automaker wants to continue selling only internal combustion engine cars (hybrids included) because they believe that is the best route toward the greatest profitability in the near term. Needless to say this hasn't proven true in GM's case. They couldn't have been in worse shape had they continued even very limited production, and sale, of the EV1. It would have been their Prius, only better.

GM CEO Waggoner Sows Doubt about Volt Debut Date; Volt Ads Continue Unabated reports on an online chat with GM CEO Rick Waggoner.
General Motors might not be able to hit its target to have its breakthrough electric-powered car the Chevrolet Volt in production by 2010...

GM has already started to build advertising campaigns around the Volt, even though in the best-case scenario it is years away from production. It is seen as a way of trying to change public perceptions about the fuel efficiency and environmental responsibility of the U.S. automaker, which is more closely associated with large SUVs or pickup trucks.
Not the way to mark the 100th anniversary of the company. If GM wants to be believed, they need to do more than flap their lips, run hopeful ads and buy dinner for bloggers.

They ought to have used the 100th anniversary to deliver even a few real electric cars, something they actually know how to build. Hell, they could simply sell the few EV1s they still have running around. They could encourage museums and universities with donated, disabled EV1s to rebuild them as electric cars and allow them on the roads. They could make a preliminary, limited run Volt without waiting for "perfect" batteries - say something like the NiMH that worked quite well in the EV1 (and still do in our RAV4 EVs.)

Had GM taken any such actions, some of the continuing disbelief might be dissipated.

Wednesday, January 2, 2008

Oil Hits $100 a Barrel

NY Times reporting:

Oil prices reached the symbolic level of $100 a barrel for the first time on Wednesday, a long-awaited milestone in an era of rapidly escalating energy demand.

Crude oil futures for February delivery hit $100 on the New York Mercantile Exchange shortly after noon New York time, before falling back slightly. Oil prices, which had fallen to a low of $50 a barrel at the beginning of 2007, have quadrupled since 2003.

Shortly after 2:30 p.m., futures were trading at $99.47, up $3.49 on the day.