Thursday, May 29, 2008

Tom Friedman on Gas Prices, Honesty, Obama, and Electric Cars

Tom Friedman of the NY Times has been hammering away at the bi-partisan disaster that is the US energy policy for years now. One cornerstone of the policy is cheap gas. Pandering politicians have ensured the true cost of gas remains shrouded in tax policy and the defense budget. Now the pressures of a changing global market have provoked a precipitous rise in gasoline prices for the heretofore protected American driver. Friedman says it's time for some truth telling. We need to pay more for gasoline to keep up market pressure for more fuel efficient vehicles. Good policy according to Friedman would keep gasoline from ever dropping below $4/gallon.

That may seem an unlikely campaign platform for any politician hoping to be elected, but the gas price holiday dust up suggests American voters may be ahead of their leaders. Sen. Obama was not blown away by his opposition to the gas holiday.

Next, Friedman hopes, new leadership will choose the right policy, one that leads us to electric cars.
We need to make a structural shift in our energy economy. Ultimately, we need to move our entire fleet to plug-in electric cars. The only way to get from here to there is to start now with a price signal that will force the change.

Barack Obama had the courage to tell voters that the McCain-Clinton summer gas-giveaway plan was a fraud. Wouldn’t it be amazing if he took the next step and put the right plan before the American people? Wouldn’t that just be amazing?

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Electric cars back on track?

The tide appears to be turning. Electric cars are in the news almost daily. Large manufacturers and startups are responding to changing circumstances and customer preferences. Oil has passed $120 a barrel. The NY Times headlined "As Gas Costs Soar, Buyers Flock to Small Cars." GM lost $3.25 billion in the first quarter. Something’s got to give.

In perhaps the biggest news, on May 13 amidst a generally downbeat report, Nissan announced a serious, forward-looking effort to make electric cars an important part of their automotive portfolio. The announcement has been reported quite positively everywhere, including the NY Times here and the Wall St. Journal here. Even stories that got much wrong, such as The Independent of London, England, here, concluded "the electric car is probably the [alternative] with the greatest potential."

Sales and profits are declining for automakers in established markets. "It is going to be a tough year for the whole industry. Every single element of our environment is negative," said Nissan chief Carlos Ghosn, who also heads the automaker's French partner Renault. After turning Nissan around during his 5 year tenure at the once beleaguered Japanese automaker and naysaying hybrids and electric cars a mere two years ago, Ghosn is moving both automakers toward a leadership position in zero-emission vehicles worldwide. The Nissan plan envisions hundreds of vehicles in 2010, with general sales in various markets including the U.S. to commence in 2012.

This year Renault announced a partnership with Project Better Place to manufacture electric cars for Shai Agassi’s ambitious plan to create discreet markets, beginning in Israel and Denmark. The first prototype debuted in Tel Aviv in May, and it was announced that hundreds of cars would appear in a pilot program in 2009, with a rollout of thousands in 2010.

Smaller automakers continue to make the news. Tesla had a red carpet grand opening for its first showroom and service center in Los Angeles. Tesla has come to terms with its mistaken decision to introduce the Roadster with a two-speed transmission that delayed production a year or more. As of May, two Roadsters have been delivered, and the expectation is that 300 will be in customers hands by the end of 2008. The luxury electric sedan codenamed Whitestar is slated for 2010.

Th!nk of Norway has begun producing cars again, and sales are slated to begin soon in Scandinavia, Switzerland and France. Th!nk has opened an office in California, and announced its intention to begin sales in 2009. Small regulatory hurdles still need to be overcome before the mini-car that turned me into an electric car advocate can be offered in the U.S.

An unusual entrant into the EV arena, Aptera, a three-wheeled futuristic electric car, continues to stir excitement, and would appear to be more than science fiction. Popular Mechanics took the car for a spin, and a video (available on my blog here) shows various members of the team at work developing the car. With an announced price under $30,000, hundreds of prospective owners have shelled out $500 for a reservation. Who knows how many would want the car if it appears as reported in the next Star Trek movie.

Automakers once completely dismissive of battery electrics, are getting on board, at least rhetorically. Smart has begun testing a small electric fleet in England. Audi here and BMW here are reported to be taking another look at all-electrics.

Still, with all the activity, showrooms remain devoid of a highway-legal electric car. Consumers in the market for a new car are trapped into purchasing a somewhat more efficient gasser. Despite ever increasing gasoline prices and looming environmental and political disasters based on our petroleum addiction, governments are taking only small steps and major automakers seem intent on squeezing every last dollar out of internal combustion.

A race, even a reluctant race, to offer electric cars, is a major about-face.
Let’s hope Nissan’s announcement is spurring its competitors to reappraise the potential of the market for electric cars.

Sunday, May 4, 2008

Obama on cars

Today Barak Obama appeared on Meet the Press. (full transcript here.)

MR. RUSSERT: How long before our automobiles are off of gasoline oil and, and using something like an alternative fuel?

SEN. OBAMA: Well, you know, I, I think that if we decided right now that we were going to make the kind of investment I've proposed--$150 billion over 10 years--then I think at the end of the decade we could have a auto industry that has significantly reduced our consumption of oil by as much as 35, 40 percent. And the technologies exist right now for plug-in hybrids. You know, we should continue to investigate the possibilities of electric cars. The problem is is that we have not been serious about it, and Detroit ended up making investments in SUVs and large trucks because that's where they perceived a competitive advantage and that's where they felt they could make the most profit. I think it was a mistake for them not to plan earlier. Now we're seeing a huge growth in fuel-efficient cars that is benefitting the Japanese automakers, and Detroit is getting pounded some more. And I think that we can make those cars here in the United States. By the way, that's going to be our expert market over the future. China already has higher fuel efficiency standards than we do. If we want to compete for those markets, then we're going to have to invest in technology. The government can help, but the automakers have to make some changes. And I didn't say that just in front of environmental groups, I went to Detroit and said it in front of the automakers. That's the kind of truth telling we need from the next president.

Friday, May 2, 2008

Aptera: incredible becomes believable

The Aptera electric car, so futuristic looking it will appear in an upcoming Star Trek movie, is becoming more believable with each passing day. Extremely lightweight, it will be able to get decent range out of a relatively small lithium battery pack. Three-wheeled, it will not be speed limited like four-wheeled NEVs.

They produced a short video from inside their Southern California base station. Check it out.