Hybrid Cars Newsletter: Issue No. 028
IN THIS ISSUE:
Announcing the AutoFutureTech 2007 Conference
Detroit. The birthplace of the automobile. Nowhere else in the world will the profound changes in automotive technology be felt as strongly and as immediately. Companies with vision who are first to adapt will thrive and survive. Others will not.
> Learn more
The Loss of a Hybrid Guru
David Hermance, Toyota’s top American executive for hybrids, died Saturday, Nov. 25, when the single-engine airplane he was piloting crashed into the Pacific Ocean. We revisit our 2004 interview with Dave.
Hybrid Market Dashboard
Are the vicissitudes of monthly hybrid sales—one month a little higher, another a bit lower—nothing more than cyclical changes in the auto industry, or do they signal broader long-term trends for eco-friendly transportation? Our new dashboard will let you know which way is up.
Toyota’s "Flying Clouds" & GM’s "Moon Shot"
If there were any doubt that hybrids are the future, you wouldn’t know it based on comments from Masatami Takimoto, Toyota executive vice president, and Bob Lutz, GM vice chairman. At the opening address at EVS22 in Yokohama, Japan, Takimoto spoke about flying clouds, magic carpets, and plug-in hybrids. Meanwhile, Lutz is talking about hybrids, fuel cells and a GM moon shot to the cleanest, most technically advanced vehicle on the road.
Reviews of Saturn VUE and Mercury Mariner Hybrid
The new Saturn VUE Green Line, the most affordable SUV hybrid, is an appeal to your inner accountant. The Mercury Mariner Hybrid, on the other hand, may be the first great American car of the 21st century.
The Electric Car Revisited
As 2006 comes to a close, the American car dealership showroom lacks a full battery-electric vehicle. Nonetheless, 2006 may go down in history as the year that the auto industry began to combine the freedom to go anywhere with the freedom from oil addiction.
Adventures of a Hybrid Mechanic
In the first installment of "Adventures of a Hybrid Mechanic," our hero—Paul of Art’s Automotive in Berkeley, Calif.—encounters a Honda Insight with an oil leak coming from the joint between the timing belt cover, engine block, and cylinder head. What better time to become better acquainted with the Insight and take a bunch of pictures of parts normally buried out of sight.
Moore’s Law & Hybrids
Moore’s Law is the observation first made in 1965 that the number of transistors on an integrated circuit doubles every 24 months. In other words, the speed and storage capacity of computers keeps going through the roof. Why can’t this happen for vehicle efficiency?
Greetings, Hybrid Car Enthusiasts,
What goes up must come down. This has certainly been true for gas prices in the last half of 2006. With the lower prices at the pumps—almost a buck per gallon lower than in summer—we’re seeing the first real test of hybrid staying power. Did hybrids roll over the tipping point in 2005 and early 2006, only to tip back to niche status in the fall? To help understand the market trends, HybridCars.com partnered with Polk Automotive to establish the Hybrid Market Dashboard. In this issue, we share details about the debut of the dashboard, examine the green car battle shaping up between GM and Toyota, give an under-the-hood farewell salute to the Honda Insight, and explore why improving automobile energy efficiency might not take a quantum leap forward.
A quick update: More and more of HybridCars.com’s pages offer the ability for you to comment. And we’re continuing to roll out and improve our discussion forums. Register today, and send us your feedback.
Perhaps you haven’t noticed, but this our first newsletter since the summer. Do we have an excuse for this tardiness? Yes, a great one. We’ve been working with the Globe Foundation of Canada to create an auto industry conference like no other. We will assemble the biggest names and brightest minds in the world of hybrids, alternative fuels, fuel cells, advanced electronics, auto batteries, and all matters related to what we might be driving in the near and distance future. And we’re taking a multi-disciplinary, multi-industry approach that includes carmakers, suppliers, financiers, oil and gas producers, electric utilities, labor unions, maintenance providers, insurance/reinsurance, and agribusiness. This is the big-picture approach to cars and energy in the 21st century.
AutoFutureTech 2007 will take place in Detroit, the birthplace of the automobile. Nowhere else in the world will the profound changes in automotive technology be felt as strongly and as immediately. Companies with vision who are first to adapt will thrive and survive, others will not. Are you ready?
> Learn more
THE LOSS OF A HYBRID GURU
David Hermance, Toyota’s executive engineer for advanced technology vehicles, died Saturday, Nov. 25, when the airplane he was piloting crashed into the Pacific Ocean. He was an avid pilot and, in his Interavia E-3 plane, a frequent competitor in International Aerobatics Club competitions.
Dave was widely regarded as Toyota’s hybrid guru for North America. I interviewed Dave in 2004, and asked him if his involvement with the Prius was an environmental mission. Here’s his answer:
"It is for me, personally, but I’m not sure it is for the mainstream marketing folks. I’m convinced that global warming is real, and that if we’re not principally responsible, we’re at least contributing to that. I’d like to leave the planet a little better than I found it. It’s going to be hard work to do that."
Read the interview and leave a comment about Dave and his legacy.
HYBRID MARKET DASHBOARD
Are the vicissitudes of monthly hybrid sales—one month a little higher, another a bit lower—nothing more than cyclical and seasonal changes in the auto industry, or do they signal a broader long-term trend for eco-friendly transportation? That’s what we wanted to know, so HybridCars.com partnered with R.L. Polk & Co. to look at actual hybrid vehicle registrations, available only from Polk, as well as widely published sales numbers. We crunched the numbers, put in an accessible visual format, and created the "Hybrid Market Dashboard."
November was the inaugural version of the monthly report—a resource that will continually dig beyond the surface of reported sales numbers. For example, we not only looked at total registration numbers per state and market region; we also looked at "hybrids per 1,000 residents." Slicing the data in this way yielded somewhat surprising results. For example, residents in the New York City area put more than 9,000 new hybrids on the road this year. But when you adjust for population, you discover that Portland, Ore.—a city that has fewer overall vehicles (and thus fewer hybrids)—has more hybrids per capita than anywhere else.
October was a tough month for hybrid vehicles in the United States, and November wasn’t much different. Visit the dashboards for details:
TOYOTA’S "FLYING CLOUDS" & GM’S "MOON SHOT"
In a performance of dueling "cool green car visions," we’ve been hearing big talk from the world’s No. 1 and No. 2 carmakers.
Masatami Takimoto, Toyota’s executive vice president in charge of powertrain development, gave a glimpse of his vision in late October at EVSS, the 22nd International Battery, Hybrid, and Fuel Cell Electric Vehicle Symposium in Yokohama, Japan. Takimoto spoke about flying clouds, magic carpets, and plug-in hybrids. Today’s hybrids do not need to be plugged in; however, the idea of extending a hybrid’s electric capability by plugging into a common household electrical outlet has been gaining momentum in the United States.
Until recently, Toyota dismissed the idea as impractical. Earlier this year, Jim Press, president of Toyota North America, gave hints that the company may be researching plug-in technology. Takimoto’s talk added fuel to the fire. He showed slides comparing the current generation Prius with a plug-in version, and discussed the implications for fuel use, greenhouse gas emissions, and operating costs. While he made no announcements about vehicle launches, Takimoto made it clear that a plug-in vehicle could be in Toyota’s future.
Breaking ranks from other car companies that view hybrids as a stepping stone to some other ultimate goal, such as fuel cell vehicles, Takimoto positioned hybrids as a core capability to be paired with any number of potential technologies. Toyota is shifting the question of future automotive technology from an either-or position—hybrids or diesels, hybrids or fuel cells—to a multiple choice question. Judging from Takimoto’s comments, Toyota’s answer will be “all of the above”: gas-electric hybrids, plug-in hybrids, diesel-electric hybrids, and fuel cell hybrids.
GM may not let Toyota run away in the race for the cleaner, greener car of the future. In the Nov. 20 issue of Automotive News, Bob Lutz, GM’s product guru, said, "We’ve decided as a company to seize the initiative on the whole issue of who’s got the best technology. Our intent is that nobody will beat us." There’s a seriousness and focus in these claims that sounds much different than previous GM chitchat. GM’s Chairman, Rick Wagoner, has been repeating his regrets for halting the EV1. He told Motor Trend magazine that "axing the EV1 electric car program and not putting the right resources into hybrids" was the worst decision of his tenure. Lutz is calling for a "very substantial" financial commitment to moving research into hybrids and fuel cell vehicles into real-world vehicles. He’s calling it GM’s "moon shot."
Report from EVS22:
NEW YORK TIMES REVIEW OF SATURN VUE GREEN LINE AND MERCURY MARINER HYBRID
At the end of the summer, I took the Saturn VUE Green Line and Mercury Mariner Hybrid out for one-week test drives, on assignment for the New York Times. The reviews, as well as a journal of my mileage experiences, ran on Sunday, Nov. 19. Here are a few highlights from the reviews:
Saturn VUE Green Line: Green Bummer
The mild-hybrid Saturn VUE Green Line is GM’s first gas-electric vehicle, unless you count the company’s ultra-mild hybrid pickup trucks. The hybrid field is starting to get crowded—there are now a dozen to choose from—so the pitch for the Saturn VUE Green Line is “the most affordable SUV hybrid.” In other words, this VUE appeals to your inner accountant.
The numbers would impress any CPA. For $22,995, the Green Line delivers an E.P.A. fuel economy rating of 27 mpg in town and 32 on the highway, which is the highest such rating for any sport utility. For comparison’s sake, a gas-only VUE with 4-cylinder engine, front drive and automatic transmission is rated 22 in town, 27 on the highway. I drove the Green Line on two successive 78-mile highway loops, one well below the speed limit and a second in complete disregard of the 65 mph speed limit. As a saint, I achieved an impressive 36 mpg. As a sinner, my fuel economy dropped to 24. I have little doubt that a careful foot applied to the Green Line could regularly produce 30 mpg on the highway.
Were good mileage the only criterion for likeability, this review would be over. The problem, though, is that every automotive credit requires a debit, and accountants’ fingerprints can be seen all over this VUE.
Mariner Hybrid: Eco Yet Macho
If the Saturn seems more driven by green-marketing imperatives than by driver satisfaction, GM’s crosstown rival has come up with a hybrid SUV that really works, albeit one that costs some $7,000 more.
The Mercury Mariner Hybrid combines the most robust gas-electric system available today—it will stay in electric mode longer than any competitor—with the body of a stylish yet rugged-looking sport utility. With its mix of digital-era sophistication and creature comforts, the Mariner Hybrid works so well that one wonders whether, if it had been more aggressively marketed since its debut in late 2004, it could have been the hit that the ailing Ford Motor Company so desperately needs.
THE ELECTRIC CAR REVISITED
GM is talking about "the electrification of the automobile." The documentary "Who Killed the Electric Car?" is out on DVD. And the Tesla all-electric road racer is creating a lot of buzz. So we decided to do a deep-dive on the current state of electric cars. Here are three new articles sharing what we learned:
Freedom, Electric Cars, and Range
One could argue that the defining characteristic of the 20th-century American driving experience is freedom—and as long as you have your own car and a full tank of gas, you’ve got plenty of it. The privately owned vehicle offers the ability to go where you want, when you want, as quickly as you want—and as far as the seemingly endless American highway will take you. If you buy this premise, then the electric car of the 1990s—such as GM’s EV1, Honda’s EV Plus, Toyota’s RAV4 EV, and Ford’s Th!nk and Ranger EV—wasn’t the proverbial ticket to ride.
An Inconvenient Lack of Electric Vehicles
Today, no major car companies offer electric cars. Should we wait patiently for a better zero-emissions car to come along?
The Power of the Gas Pump, By the Numbers
If you tried to get the same amount of energy from a household outlet as you get from a gasoline pump, it would take about nine days. Of course, it doesn’t take nine days to recharge an EV, because the efficiency of an EV allows the driver to put less energy in the “tank” and still receive an adequate charge.
ADVENTURES OF A HYBRID MECHANIC
What’s the best way to understand hybrid technology? You can read the carmakers’ marketing literature—or you can discuss theories with hybrid engineers. Or you can get the straight dope from the mechanics who see, touch, and smell actual hybrids after the vehicles have been on the road. Intrepid hybrid technicians experience the everyday adventure of maintaining and fixing hybrids—and most of the time, they live to tell.
There’s no better adventure guide than Paul Cortes of Art’s Automotive in Berkeley, California.
In the first installment of "Adventures of a Hybrid Mechanic," our hero—Paul—encounters a Honda Insight with an oil leak coming from the joint between the timing belt cover, engine block, and cylinder head. In a kaleidoscopic journey through the innards of the retired king of hybrid fuel economy—no less than 31 large color photographs—we learn about the similarities and differences between the Insight, other hybrids, and conventional vehicles.
Also: Check out J. Lemon’s cartoon "The End of the Road," which connects the dots between fuel efficiency, the fate of American autoworkers, the final days of the Honda Insight. Plenty to look and laugh at—and to comment on:
MOORE’S LAW & HYBRIDS
Do you think a quantum improvement in battery technology is going to save the day, making hybrids and plug-in hybrids the silver bullet solution to our transportation woes? Before you get too excited, see what John DeCicco of Environmental Defense has to say in the latest installment of our Q&A series, "Stopping for Directions."
Our question: In recent years, the performance and capabilities of computer chips has increased exponentially. This growth is commonly referred to as Moore’s Law. Computer controls and batteries lie at the heart of hybrid cars. Can Moore’s Law, applied to hybrids, mean exponential gains in fuel efficiency?
John’s Reply: If only that were so! But until someone actually invents Star Trek-style matter transporters to transmit bodies and baggage in the form of bits and bytes—in other words, "beam us up" as data streams—Moore’s Law won’t be able to supersede the laws of motion.
Computer chips process information, which for practical purposes is massless. That’s why computer technologists can keep cramming more circuits onto chips, slashing the space and time scales for moving information and doubling processor power every two years.
Moving matter, however, is a different story. Bodies and baggage (and batteries) have real mass and take up real space. Even a very streamlined car with a perfectly efficient powertrain will require a certain minimum amount of energy to move it a given distance. Adding in all the creature comforts, performance desires and safety features we expect in our vehicles, and then factoring in the laws of physics, one soon bumps into serious practical limits for fuel efficiency. Although some advanced prime movers, such as fuel cells, do not have the same thermodynamic limits of combustion engines, they still face limitations in electrochemical energy conversion efficiency. Speaking of electrochemistry, batteries certainly have not seen Moore’s Law-like progress. Battery technology is progressing, but incrementally and often frustratingly slowly, whether the application is laptops, cell phones or cars.
Hybrid drive can indeed help any propulsion system maximize its efficiency by smoothing energy use over the variable loads of a driving cycle, avoiding fuel burn during times of minimal energy need, and recovering energy otherwise lost to braking. But hybrid technology does no more than enable engineers to achieve efficiencies that come closer to the basic limits rooted in the form and function of the vehicle. It offers no Moore’s Law magic that would let fuel efficiency grow by leaps and bounds.
That’s not to say that steady—linear, shall we say, rather than exponential—gains in fuel efficiency can’t be made. Many technology refinements offer higher fuel economy and the advent of hybrids extends that potential even further. It is not, however, a game-changer in any fundamental sense of the term. The same desires for larger, faster, more luxurious and powerful vehicles that consume other forms of automotive engineering progress can also devour much of the efficiency benefit from hybridization. In short, even technology as wonderful as hybrid drive can’t "beam us up" beyond our ability—or inability—to make fuel economy itself a priority in automotive choice and design.
You don’t agree with John? Fine. Here’s your chance to comment on Moore’s Law & Hybrids:
I hope you enjoyed our final issue for 2006. Hold on to your hats for 2007. Who knows what will happen in the world of hybrids, cars and environment legislation, oil prices, etc.? Rest assured that we’ll be here to keep an eye on the changes, and report back to you in this newsletter and on HybridCars.com. Before we sign off, a reminder to our auto industry friends: learn more about AutoFutureTech 2007 by visiting:
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