Electric Car Market Gets Useful Jump-Start, Tax Breaks

By dancurranjr On December 25th, 2010

When Toyota unveiled its gasoline-electric Prius hybrid in Japan in 1997, car executives here scoffed that the car was little more than an expensive novelty. When Honda began selling the first hybrid in the U.S. market in 1999, the two-seat Insight was derided as cramped and impractical.

OPPOSING VIEW: Subsidies? Just say no

Eleven years later, more than 2 million Priuses have been sold worldwide, and there are about 1.5 million hybrids on the roads here, including models from the U.S. automakers. That’s still a tiny fraction of the 250 million vehicles in America, but they have helped cut gasoline use.

Now comes Round 2, as General Motors and Nissan begin delivering their first new electric cars to buyers amid some of the same sort of skepticism that dogged the early hybrids. Americans should hope the skeptics are wrong again.

The two new cars, due to be followed by models from other automakers, are promising fuel savers. The Chevy Volt can go 25 miles to 50 miles on battery power alone; after that a gasoline engine kicks in to power a generator for a total range of about 350 miles before fill-up or recharge. The more limited battery-only Nissan Leaf can travel an estimated 62 miles to 138 miles before it needs a recharge.

It’s easy to deride the new electric cars, just as it was the early hybrids. The batteries take hours to recharge, and when the Leaf is out of juice, it had better be at a plug. It presumably would be useful only to short-range commuters with no other need for the car. Both cars are small, though the Volt is no smaller than many sedans, and automotive writers say it’s as quick and responsive as a gas-powered car.

The biggest drawback, and the one critics have made much of, is the cost, and not just to buyers. The Volt lists for $41,000 and the Leaf for $33,000, so the federal government, eager to jump-start a market for electric cars, is helping with the sticker shock by shelling out up to $7,500 per car in tax credits for the first 200,000 cars an automaker sells.

There’s a downside to this. The tax code would be far better if it weren’t riddled with tax breaks such as this one. In addition, the tax credit spends money the government doesn’t have.

But those are bigger, more important issues in which the credit is a bit player. The benefit comes if electric-car technology gets cheap enough to stand on its own, providing a way to trim U.S. dependency on foreign oil, now two-thirds of our use, some of it from countries hostile to us. There’s plenty of skepticism, but the automakers are optimistic enough to invest in the technology, betting that rising oil prices will boost sales, as they did with hybrids.

One of the best arguments for tax breaks is that they helped get the hybrid market where it is today, along with gas prices and the fact that some states allowed hybrid drivers access to HOV lanes.

Those hybrid tax breaks have been phasing out as the law required — just as the tax breaks for electric cars are required to do. Electric cars must eventually live or die without government help.

As the writer of the opposing view argues, there are compelling arguments against the new cars — but there are equally compelling arguments against every other alternative to the status quo as well. Nuclear is too dangerous, coal too dirty, solar and wind too unreliable, offshore oil drilling too risky and so on.

But the most compelling argument is that the status quo — more and more foreign oil — is unsustainable. Electric cars might not be the answer, but they are an answer, and that makes them worth a try.


Hybrid Toyota Pickups Coming?

By dancurranjr On December 14th, 2010

Toyota may have won a near-monopoly on modern hybrid drivetrains over the last decade, but at least until recently its Hybrid Synergy Drive has been limited to use in car and crossover applications. Sensing the vulnerability, GM, Chrysler, Daimler and BMW collaborated to develop a large V8-based hybrid system capable of powering large light-duty trucks. The resulting “Two-Mode” hybrid system has largely proven to be a bust, as BMW and Mercedes have limited its use to one-time X5/X6 and ML Hybrids.

GM and Chrysler have tried to sell Two-Mode versions of their full-sized trucks and SUVs with little success over the past several years, as relatively low fuel prices and high MSRPs conspired against the hybrid truck segment. Now Toyota may be targeting the hybrid pickup market, as its Hino truck unit has begun testing a hybrid drivetrain for light-duty trucks that it hopes to commercialize by net year.  Greencarcongress.com reports:

The hybrid system, which features a clutch between its engine and motor, offers an all-electric drive mode for the truck. Internal Hino testing showed an improvement in fuel efficiency of a diesel truck by about 50%.

Testing by the Japanese postal service, and several private firms should give a better sense of the efficiency benefits of this system, but that will still leave the question of price. And gas prices. And America’s willingness to buy pickups from Toyota in Detroit-like numbers. On the other hand, it’s not safe to underestimate any Toyota hybrid. If this new drivetrain can do for trucks what Hybrid Synergy did for cars, things could get interesting…

SOURCE: Truth About Cars

Lincoln MKZ Hybrid Lands Top Product Design Award From Global Green USA

By dancurranjr On December 8th, 2010

The Lincoln MKZ Hybrid – the most fuel-efficient luxury sedan in North America – adds another distinction to its list of attributes as a winner of Global Green USA’s award for design innovation.

Global Green USA honored the newest Lincoln at its 11th Annual Sustainable Design Awards in New York on Monday night. Kelly Rutherford, an actress best known for her role in the popular TV series “Gossip Girl,” presented the honor to Sue Cischke, Ford Motor Company’s (NYSE: F) group vice president for Sustainability, Environment and Safety Engineering.

“The Lincoln MKZ Hybrid offers a real choice for consumers. Its superior fuel economy reflects the kind of environmental responsibility our society demands, yet this luxury sedan delivers all the comforts customers really want,” said Cischke. “This vehicle is another important part of our plans to help make fuel economy and greener driving affordable for millions of people – including luxury buyers.”

Since the first Lincoln MKZ Hybrid was delivered to a former Toyota Prius customer in San Francisco in October, sales of the car have outperformed the Lincoln team’s expectations. In fact, since September, the Lincoln MKZ Hybrid has helped the brand double its overall MKZ sedan segment share.

The identical pricing strategy for MKZ Hybrid and gas engine-powered MKZ models has allowed Lincoln to present customers with the opportunity to make a lifestyle choice based on their vehicle needs – without compromising on strong fuel economy performance.

The gas engine-powered MKZ sedan delivers 18 mpg, while the MKZ Hybrid – Lincoln’s first hybrid – is the most fuel-efficient midsize luxury sedan in America. This car delivers 41 mpg fuel economy in the city, topping its only near competitor – the 2010 Lexus HS 250h – by 6 mpg.

“The Lincoln MKZ Hybrid represents a significant achievement by a car company to create the first hybrid luxury vehicle to get more than 40 mpg in the city,” said Global Green President Matt Petersen. “We are so pleased to recognize the vehicle’s environmental benefits, as well as Lincoln’s commitment to make the vehicle accessible to more of the public by offering the car at price parity with its conventional gas only version – the first hybrid vehicle to be sold this way.”

The award marks only the second time a green vehicle has been honored by Global Green USA for environmental leadership. Global Green USA’s Annual Sustainable Design Awards were inspired by former Russian President Mikhail Gorbachev and recognize specific advancements in industry, building, media, organization and public policy.

More in store: A star is rising

Lincoln has seven all-new or significantly refreshed vehicles on the way in the next four years, all promising refined, modern design, the most fuel-efficient premium powertrains and industry-leading technology creating a unique driver experience both in the cabin and on the road.

Future Lincolns are building from a strong base. Along with the MKZ midsize sedan and MKZ Hybrid, Lincoln also features its flagship MKS large sedan, significantly upgraded 2011 MKX crossover and MKT seven-passenger crossover.

SOURCE: PR Newswire

Designer Putting Some Va-Vroom in the Hybrid Car

By dancurranjr On December 14th, 2009

Fisker KarmaNot long ago, Henrik Fisker was dashing up Interstate 5 from Los Angeles to San Francisco when a highway patrolman clocked his Aston Martin roadster — a car that Fisker himself designed — going 97 mph.

He protested. (“It was 90 at the most.”). He got a ticket and set the cruise control at 70. For the next four hours, “I was overtaken by every grandmother,” he said. Running late, he pressed down the pedal.

This time, the radar gun caught him going 88 mph.

“How long since your last ticket?” the officer asked. Fisker paused, but decided to confess.

“Well, actually, not that long ago,” he replied.

Over the last two decades, Fisker has designed some of the sexiest cars on the road: sleek BMWs and Aston Martins that accelerate from 0 to 60 in the time it takes to count the fingers on one hand.

Now the Danish designer has his own Irvine-based car company and a half-billion-dollar loan from the U.S. government to build gas-electric hybrid cars that plug into a home outlet, go 50 miles without a drop of gas and don’t look a bit eco-friendly.

Oh, and they’ll also be fast.

“People feel very emotional about cars, and I don’t want them to feel bad about driving a fast car,” said Fisker, as he steered his growling roadster through rush-hour traffic in Los Angeles. “We’re building beautiful and fast cars that you can drive without having a bad conscience or ruining the environment.”

Many auto industry analysts are skeptical. History is scattered with the wreckage of car companies started by big dreamers, Preston Tucker and John DeLorean among them. Building eco-friendly cars, even eco-chic cars, is one thing, analysts say. Selling them to a fickle public, with pump prices at less than $3 a gallon, is another.

But Fisker, one of the world’s most highly regarded designers of luxury automobiles, likes his chances. And he’s a focus group of one.

“As a car lover, I ask myself: What am I going to be buying in the future?” he said. “Will it be a boring, underpowered dorky car because the government tells me I shouldn’t pollute? Or do I come up with a cool-looking, sexy dream car that is also part of the future?”

Tall and fit, tanned and blond, Fisker, 46, is a dream front-man for a car maker, with a resume that few designers can match. He is best known for designing the BMW Z8 and the Aston Martin DB9 and V8 Vantage, vehicles with six-figure sticker prices and ageless, eye-catching silhouettes.

The story of how Fisker became a heralded car designer and the head of what he likes to call “a new American car company” began in Denmark, a country with no automobile manufacturing industry. He had his first inkling that he might one day design cars when he was 5, riding in his father’s Saab near their home in suburban Copenhagen. A Maserati raced past.

“I got butterflies in my stomach,” Fisker said. “It was then that I knew I had to do something with the way cars look.”

He began drawing cars for fun and continued long after boys his age outgrew the phase. His teachers discouraged his ambitions; Denmark, after all, had no jobs for car designers.

But Fisker’s father, an electrical engineer who had visited the United States as a teenager, encouraged him.

“America had inspired him to believe that you can do whatever you want in life, and that’s what he always told me,” Fisker said. “That was not a typical thing to say to your kids in Denmark.”

Two years ago, Fisker and Bernhard Koehler, a German car executive who had worked with Fisker at both BMW and Ford, launched Fisker Automotive. The U.S. Department of Energy awarded it a $528.7 million loan in September to build two cars.

The first will be the Karma, an $87,900 plug-in hybrid sedan with solar panels that will run the climate control system, keeping the car cool when the vehicle is shut off. The Karma will be assembled in Finland, with a majority of American parts, and production will start late next year, with a target of 15,000 annually.

The majority of the federal money, though, will go to Fisker’s next-generation vehicle, code-named Project Nina, a “family oriented” plug-in hybrid sedan that will cost $47,400 (less a $7,500 federal tax credit). The Nina will be built beginning in 2012 at a former GM plant in Delaware, with an annual target of 100,000 vehicles a year.

“A lot of cars have a stylish and sexy sculpture,” Fisker said, but the Nina “will definitely be the most radical, sexy family car on the planet.”

The design of Fisker’s Nina remains under wraps at company headquarters, where fingerprint identification is required to access the design rooms. But Fisker executives say it will be as dramatic as the 4-door Karma, which has been on display.

In designing the Karma, Fisker said, he was mostly focused on what it wouldn’t look like: an eco-friendly car.

“We’re not making cars for everyone,” he said. “I want to have some character in the car. I don’t want a design that is a milk doughnut.”

Milk doughnut? “Oh, what’s the word in English? Milquetoast. That’s what I mean.”

Fisker particularly relishes his time behind the wheel, where he keeps the radar detector on and the cell phone off.

“A car is one of the last things in our civilized society where we can still control amazing power,” he said. “If the car were invented today, it wouldn’t be legal.”

He fondly recalls one particular day in Germany when he was driving to work on the Autobahn around 5 a.m. He looked up at the speedometer and was surprised to see that he was going 196 mph.

“That’s why you can’t use cup holders in Germany,” he said.

SOURCE: HeraldTribune.com

6 Myths About Hybrid Vehicles Unplugged

By dancurranjr On November 22nd, 2009

insightWhether you call them myths, urban legends, fables or old wives’ tales, there’s a lot of misinformation out there about plug-in electric hybrid vehicles. These vehicles, abbreviated PHEVs, hold great promise as the key to weaning America from its dependence on imported oil, which represents nearly two-thirds of all the petroleum burned in the United States today.

The U.S. Department of Energy’s Argonne National Laboratory has taken a lead role in developing and testing plug-in hybrid technologies. At the lab’s Center for Transportation Research (CTR), vehicle systems engineer Forrest Jehlik and his colleagues work to bring these cars to market quickly and cheaply. Here, he dispels some commonly held myths about plug-in hybrids.

Myth #1: A significant number of plug-in hybrids are currently for sale.

Although several major auto manufacturers — including General Motors, Toyota, Ford, Volkswagen, and Volvo — have plug-in vehicles currently in the development pipeline, the first wave of these cars is still at least a year away from officially hitting the market, Jehlik said. The first plug-in hybrid for sale will likely be the Chevrolet Volt, which General Motors claims can travel up to 40 miles on a single charge. The Toyota Prius and other hybrids currently on the roads are not plug-ins — their batteries are charged by kinetic energy transferred from the brakes and wheels.

Myth #2: Researchers can measure the fuel economy for a plug-in hybrid just as easily as they can for gasoline-powered cars.

Establishing fuel economy standards — how many miles a plug-in hybrid vehicle can travel per gallon of gasoline burned — is a complicated question. The answer, Jehlik said, depends entirely on the driving and charging habits of the vehicle’s owner. If a particular plug-in hybrid gets 40 miles on a single charge, then a driver who has a 15-mile commute each way to work and does 10 miles of additional driving each day before charging the battery overnight would, theoretically, use no gasoline at all. If the same driver had a five-mile-longer commute, she’d probably burn just over a gallon of gasoline per week, despite driving 250 miles.

Myth #3: Prices for plug-in hybrid vehicles are currently so high because manufacturers are trying to make a killing on them.

“The truth of the matter is that the components required to build a viable plug-in hybrid are still quite expensive,” Jehlik said. In many cases, the battery for a plug-in vehicle by itself costs nearly $10,000. Because the price of petroleum remains relatively low, consumers may not yet be willing to invest the extra money in a plug-in vehicle — even with sizable government rebates.

Myth #4: The batteries in plug-in hybrid vehicles are unreliable, possibly unsafe, and require frequent replacement.

Most plug-in hybrids currently under development use lithium-ion batteries in their battery packs. Although complex chemical processes produce energy within the battery, vehicle system engineers have built in advanced control systems to prevent fires or other safety issues. “Researchers have devoted just as much time and effort to developing inner-pack safety systems as they have to the batteries themselves,” Jehlik said. “Consumers don’t need to worry about battery malfunction.”

Jehlik and his colleagues in the CTR have also tested the current generation of lithium-ion batteries in what are known as “lifecycle vehicle tests,” which take the car through its paces for more than 150,000 miles. Even at the end of the car’s life, the vast majority of batteries still function quite well, Jehlik said. “When these cars become available for sale, the batteries are going to last as long as any part of them will,” he said.

Myth #5: Scientists have identified lithium-ion batteries as the only battery technology that could work in plug-in hybrid cars.

Although lithium-ion technology came to replace nickel-metal hydride (NiMH) batteries as the preeminent focus of electric vehicle development efforts, scientists at Argonne and around the world are currently investigating several different approaches for energy storage that could help to bring down the cost of plug-in hybrids. “Manufacturers are looking at these possible solutions not as silver bullets but as silver shotgun pellets,” Jehlik said. “The organizations that hedge their bets among a number of different technologies will likely be the ones that bring vehicles to market the earliest and the most successfully.”

Myth #6: America’s electric grid can’t handle the increased load caused by the charging of millions of electric vehicles.

According to Jehlik, the nation’s current electric grid has the capacity to accommodate the imminent rollout of plug-in hybrids onto the country’s roads. “If everyone were somehow able to buy a plug-in hybrid tomorrow, that would probably present a problem as far as the supply of electricity is concerned,” Jehlik said, “but given the pace that they are likely to enter the market, we won’t face a system-wide failure.”

However, Jehlik noted that the country’s electric infrastructure would need to change eventually—not only to keep up with added demand, but to ensure the smarter transmission, distribution and consumption of electricity.

Source: PhysOrg