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Hybrid Cars Newsletter: Issue No. 029
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IN THIS ISSUE:
Hybrid Electrocution: Responding to the Chevy Volt Concept
The car that created the biggest buzz at this year’s Detroit Auto Show was the Chevy Volt, a series hybrid concept from General Motors. Some say the concept will jolt the industry; others say it’s short-circuited. I spoke with GM’s Bob Lutz to get his take.
I’m a Hybrid, You’re Not
Three short years ago, just three vehicles comprised the hybrid market. At that time, the term "hybrid car" could be described without much trouble. The quadrupling of the hybrid market–11 vehicles are sold today; 10 more are set for release this year–has brought, unfortunately, a similarly savage market in the area of hybrid lexicon.
Plug-in Hybrids and the Battery Question
In a contemporary high-tech version of Waiting for Godot, carmakers are hoping that lithium ion batteries will arrive to one day to save the day. Dr. Menahem Anderman, a world expert on auto batteries, thinks the wait might be longer than most expect. (HybridCars.com visitors don’t agree.)
Lawmakers Get Hybrid Fever
Bush’s new fuel proposals follow a flurry of bills from Capitol Hill and California aiming to reduce gas consumption, oil dependence, and the emission of greenhouse gases from automobiles. "The amount of activity is overwhelming," said Therese Langer, transportation program director for the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy.
Nissan Altima Hybrid: The Eight-State Hybrid
If you’ve been intrigued by the fuel savings and advanced technology of a hybrid, but find the Toyota Prius’s shape unappealing or a lack of styling in other hybrid offerings, then the Nissan Altima Hybrid might be the hybrid that puts you behind the wheel of a gas-electric vehicle. If you live in the right state, that is.
Hybrids on Detroit Roads
Vehicles that Detroit auto executives see on their morning commutes and in their neighbors’ driveways influence their perceptions of what is popular and what is not. Six years after the launch of hybrids in the United States, auto executives in Michigan still have almost no exposure to hybrids.
Saturn Vue Green Line: Coming and Going
Six months after the launch of the Saturn Vue Green Line, General Motors will halt production of the vehicle. What’s up with that?
Greetings, Hybrid Car Enthusiasts,
In the past two months, the hybrid world has gone the way of Salvador Dali. General Motors has unveiled a plug-in hybrid, but they say it isn’t a hybrid. President Bush, U.S. Senator Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, and California’s Republican Governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger, all proposed plans to address our energy problems – yet none is likely to become law. Nissan introduced its first hybrid, but you can’t buy it in most states. And GM has temporarily halted production of its first hybrid, which was introduced just six months ago. Are we coming or going? In this issue of our newsletter, we try to understand what’s real and what’s phantasmagoria.
HYBRID ELECTROCUTION: RESPONDING TO THE CHEVY VOLT CONCEPT
The big hybrid buzz from this year’s Detroit Auto Show was the Chevy Volt, a series hybrid concept from General Motors. The Volt concept promises all-electric, gas-free driving for 40 miles, extended driving range up to 600 mile, and use of a so-called "eflex" system to allow a full range of fuel sources, including gasoline, hydrogen, and biofuels. The Volt would put much greater emphasis on the electric part of the gas-electric combination than today’s hybrid offerings.
The Chevy Volt concept announcement, like GM’s recent announcement about producing a plug-in hybrid version of the Saturn Vue Green Line, is earning praise from environmentalists and advocates of electric cars and plug-in hybrids. But some, such as Walter McManus of the University of Michigan, see subterfuge. "GM has come up with another future magical technology that isn’t quite ready yet. They will tell you they are doing everything they can to improve the internal combustion engine. I don’t buy it."
I ran into Bob Lutz, GM’s product guru, and asked him about the key questions regarding the Volt.
Availability of next-generation batteries: "I think we can get the batteries relatively soon that will demonstrate the proof of concept to where we can put people in the car and demonstrate it to the press and make it do all the things we say it’s going to do."
Likelihood of delivering the Volt: "You can’t be sure when you are dealing with advanced technology. Let me put it this way, we would not be doing this, if we weren’t confident that it could be done."
Willingness to sell Chevy Volt at a loss: "We haven’t thoroughly worked out the economics yet. It is possible initially as we start production, we may not be able to sell the vehicle for full cost recovery…We’re probably willing to subsidize the vehicle to the same degree that Toyota subsidized the early hybrid production."
Skeptics out there probably took note of these phrases: (GM) thinks, (GM) can’t be sure, and (GM) hasn’t worked it out.
I also spoke with Dan Neil, the Pulitzer-Prize winning auto journalist from the Los Angeles Times, to try to get clarity. He was positively giddy about the Volt. When I presented my doubts about GM delivering the Volt anytime soon, he said, "The Volt may be the ultimate electric car c*ck tease." He said he didn’t think this was the case, and added, "but if GM doesn’t come through on its promise, I will spit on its grave."
I’M A HYBRID, YOU’RE NOT
When GM made the Volt announcement, GM executives assured the media throng that the Volt is not a hybrid, but rather an "electric car with a gas engine range extender." Score zero for the spin doctors. The press consistently referred to the Volt as a "plug-in series hybrid," or just–ah, simplicity–a "hybrid."
Three short years ago, just three vehicles comprised the hybrid market. At that time, the term "hybrid car" could be described without much trouble: a vehicle that uses gas and electricity to get exceptional mileage. The quadrupling of the hybrid market–11 vehicles are sold today; 10 more are set for release this year–has brought, unfortunately, a similarly savage market in the area of hybrid lexicon. I’m a hybrid; you’re not a hybrid. Wouldn’t you like to be a hybrid too?
Consider: Toyota hybrid drivers call their Priuses "full hybrids" and wag their fingers at Honda’s offerings as "mild." Honda insists that its latest generation Civic Hybrid is actually full, and scoff at the Saturn Vue Green Line as the only mild hybrid. The Union of Concerned Scientists essentially Plutoed Saturn out of the hybrid solar system, dismissing it with the term "hollow hybrid." Environmentalists decry the high-performance Lexus hybrids and the Honda Accord Hybrid as "muscle hybrids." And later this year, the most muscular of hybrids, the gas-electric versions of the Chevy Tahoe and GMC Yukon, will introduce the world to GM’s "two-mode" hybrid system. The Tahoe/Yukon boasts the worst gas mileage of any hybrid – an estimated 18 mpg. One can only imagine how flattering the comments will be from other hybrid manufacturers.
Confused yet? Just wait until the launch in two or three years of the Citroen 4, which will combine power from a diesel engine and electric batteries. Or how about when Saab’s E85 biofuel hybrid hits the streets? Or when the Honda’s FCX, a hybrid hydrogen fuel cell lithium battery vehicle, becomes available?
Just remember that these spin skirmishes is just a prelude for the big brawl to come, as automakers try every possible combination of engine, motor, battery, and fuel–and other hybridizations to come–with the goal of making extinct the car that has a petroleum-only internal combustion engine. At that point, all cars will be hybrids, and – if we’re lucky – we’ll know them by one name: cars.
Do you think a future in which every car is a hybrid is too far-fetched? Jim Press, president of Toyota Motor North America, doesn’t think so. In a recent story about Toyota in the New York Times Magazine, Press asked, "Is fuel going to be cheaper or more expensive? Is the air going to become cleaner or more polluted? What’s the right thing to do to sustain the ability [of Toyota] to sell more cars and trucks?" For Press, the answers all point to hybrids. Press believes that every automobile in the United States will eventually be a hybrid "at some point in the not-too-distant future."
PLUG-IN HYBRIDS AND THE BATTERY QUESTION
In the quest for a solution to the growing global transportation energy needs, plug-in hybrids have recently taken center stage. Plug-in hybrids, unlike the gas-electric hybrids currently on the market, can travel for extended ranges without using any gasoline. Yet, the emergence of plug-in hybrids depends on the viability of mass-manufactured lithium ion battery technologies. That technology may not be available for a decade or more, according to Dr. Menahem Anderman, a leading expert on advanced automobile batteries.
Speaking at the Society of Automotive Engineers 2007 Hybrid Symposium in San Diego in February, Dr. Anderman said, "The reliability of lithium ion technology for automotive applications is not proven." In a
briefing to the U.S. Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources in January, Dr. Anderman said the commercialization of plug-in hybrids with a gas-free range of 20 miles faces a long list of obstacles, including battery performance, longevity, reliability, and cost. "Pending significant improvements in battery technology, plug-in hybrids could possibly start making an impact in about 10 years," he said.
Read the full story about Dr. Anderman’s assessment, and the reply comments by members of the HybridCars.com community:
LAWMAKERS GET HYBRID FEVER
In his most recent State of the Union address, President Bush proposed a sharp increase in production of alternative fuels and changes in automobile technology, including the use of more gas-electric hybrid cars. His proposal aims to cut gasoline usage in the United States by 20 percent within a decade. One day after delivering the State of the Union speech, Bush signed an executive order requiring federal agencies that operate fleets of at least 20 motor vehicles to reduce petroleum consumption by 2 percent annually through the end of fiscal year 2015. The executive order also requires fleets to use plug-in hybrid vehicles, when plug-ins "are commercially available at a cost reasonably comparable, on the basis of lifecycle cost, to non-plug-in hybrid vehicles."
Bush’s proposals follow a flurry of bills and proposals–from Capitol Hill and California–aiming to reduce gas consumption, oil dependence, and the emission of greenhouse gas from automobiles. "The amount of activity is overwhelming," said Therese Langer, transportation program director for the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy. Here’s a quick sampling:
California’s Low Carbon Fuel Standard
On Jan. 18, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signed an executive order, known as the Low Carbon Fuel Standard, requiring fuel suppliers to reduce the amount of carbon dioxide emissions in vehicles by at least 10 percent by 2020. Lower carbon fuels might include ethanol, natural gas, biodiesel, and electricity. California Senate President Pro Tem Don Perata said, "Executive orders are not enforceable laws. Only legislatures can create those."
The DRIVE Act (Dependence Reduction Through Innovation in Vehicles and Energy) in the U.S. Congress is an updated version of last year’s Vehicle and Fuel Choices for American Security Act. Among the steps outlined in the bill is a new vehicle technology requirement, which sets a target for manufacturers that 50 percent of their new vehicles be flexible fuel vehicles (FFV), alternative fueled vehicles, hybrids, plug-in hybrids, or fuel cell vehicles in 2012.
Higher Fuel Economy Standards
In perhaps the most dramatic ideological U-turn on fuel economy, Senator Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, astounded many on Capitol Hill when he introduced legislation that would require passenger cars sold in the U.S. to get an average of 40 miles per gallon within a decade–a 12.5 mpg increase from today’s standards. Stevens supports oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, and has been a dogged climate-change skeptic.
While these proposals are theory, there are a couple of very real updates on HOV lane access for hybrid drivers.
Arizona: On Feb. 9, the Arizona Department of Transportation and Democratic Gov. Janet Napolitano announced that three hybrid models are now permitted to use carpool lanes on freeways in Arizona. The decision clears the way for the estimated 9,000 Toyota Prius, Honda Insight and Honda Civic Hybrid vehicles in Arizona to use the carpool lanes, regardless of the number of passengers.
California: The Department of Motor Vehicles is no longer accepting applications from drivers who own a Toyota Prius, Honda Civic or Honda Insight for carpool stickers. State law allowed the DMV to issue 85,000 stickers, but the agency had 700 applications over that level and no longer wanted motorists to send in an application.
Virginia: Since the mid 1990s, the Virginia General Assembly has allowed clean fuel vehicles bearing clean fuel plates to use the HOV lanes without the required occupancy. Currently, the law is set to expire on July 1. The possible extension of the rule will be decided in the 2007 session of the General Assembly.
NISSAN’S EIGHT-STATE HYBRID
If you’ve been intrigued by the fuel savings and advanced technology of a hybrid, but find the Toyota Prius’s shape unappealing or a lack of styling in other hybrid offerings, then the Nissan Altima Hybrid might be the hybrid that puts you behind the wheel of a gas-electric vehicle.
Before we get too far, consider that Nissan is only selling the Altima hybrid in these states: California, Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, Rhode Island and Vermont. Nissan was practically forced into the hybrid game in order to comply with stricter emissions standards in California and the other seven states which observe California rules. If it weren’t for their need to reduce their corporate emissions profile, Nissan might have dragged their heels even longer on hybrids. As it stands, it took the company five years between announcing the Altima hybrid in 2002 and actually bringing it to market in 2007.
Now that the Altima Hybrid has arrived, shoppers from outside the designated eight states are figuring out how to game the system. A visitor to HybridCars.com named "Netshopper," posting to the discussion forum, wrote, "Don’t see why I couldn’t buy it in California, and then bring it to Arizona." Justapos99 wrote, "I want one too, but I live in Maryland. Looks like I’ll have to go to Jersey."
See the forum page for the Altima:
DETROIT RANKS 53 OF 62 IN HYBRID MARKET
In the January issue of our hybrid market dashboard, we took a look at the makeup of cars registered in the Detroit area. The streets of Detroit should be a virtual showroom of automotive technology innovation: the area is home to the domestic auto industry and hosts events like the North American International Auto Show that showcase future vehicle designs. But as far as hybrids go, the Detroit area is no leader–car buyers there lag well behind most of the country. In the first 11 months of 2006, residents of metro Detroit bought just over 2,000 hybrids, roughly the same amount that sold in cities half Detroit’s size, such as Raleigh/Durham, N.C. In hybrids per capita, Detroit sits at the bottom of the list of major U.S. metropolitan areas, ranking 53rd out of 62 cities. Statewide, the picture is almost as bad: Michigan ranked 44th out of 50 states for hybrid sales per capita in the first eleven months
Certainly one reason for Detroit’s low rates of hybrid adoption is the city’s loyalty to domestic auto brands. But even the domestic brand hybrids (hybrid versions of the Ford Escape, Mercury Mariner, and Saturn Vue) aren’t well-supported in Detroit. Among major metropolitan areas where the Ford Escape hybrid is most popular, Detroit isn’t even in the top 10.
Auto executives base their decision to launch a new vehicle on many factors, including market research collected from consumers across the country. But the vehicles they see on their morning commutes and in their neighbors’ driveways also influence their perceptions of what is popular and what is not. Six years after the launch of hybrids in the United States, auto executives in Michigan still have almost no exposure to hybrids. In contrast, leaders at Toyota and Honda see five times more hybrids on the roads of their home state, California. Until now, hybrids have been out-of sight, out-of-mind for many Big 3 executives. Sales in 2007 could begin to change their views.
THE SATURN VUE GREEN LINE: COMING AND GOING
Six months after the launch of the Saturn Vue Green Line, General Motors will halt production of the vehicle. In what may be the most bizarre product introduction in auto industry history, GM trumpeted the release of the Vue Green Line last fall–as a sign of the company’s commitment to hybrids and the environment–but will phase out production starting in March, and then start back again in September, replacing the 2007 Vue Green Line with the redesigned 2008 version. This start-stop will leave a six-month gap during which dealers will run out of the Saturn Vue Green Line.
General Motors’ intention to release a hybrid version of the Saturn Vue dates back to the Detroit Auto Show in 2003. At that time, Tom Stephens, GM’s vice president of powertrain, said, "GM will introduce a Saturn Vue with an advance hybrid system in the latter half of the 2005 calendar year." Stephens indicated that "drivers can expect fuel economy gains of up to 50 percent" with the hybrid Vue. At the 2003 Detroit Show, Rick Wagoner, CEO of General Motors, also said the company "would be capable of providing more than one million hybrid vehicles per year" by 2007. The removal of the Vue Green Line, which provides a 20 percent fuel economy gain over the conventional version, will reduce GM’s expected 2007 annual hybrid sales by approximately 4,000 units–to a number unlikely to exceed six figures for the year.
It looks like we’ve come back full circle to a Detroit auto show with big promises for "game-changing" technology. Whenever you hear that term –game-changer–put your BS antennae up. And that holds true whether it comes from a carmaker or a lawmaker. The changes that have proven effective in the past have been slow and steady–legislators increasing fuel economy standards in small steps and/or automakers introducing new products and technology for single percentage point improvements in efficiency. Most efficiently, however, consumers like you push the hybrid market ahead one purchase at a time.
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