Obama, McCain and Gore (Oh My!) All Cheer for Hybrids
It’s time again for politicians to make a show of skipping down the yellow brick road toward a greener energy future. Wouldn’t it be something if the next president was more than a cowardly lion as it regards hybrids?

Hybrids on the Way
New hybrid introductions have been nearly non-existent this year. But based on recent announcements, it’s just the calm before hybrids from Honda, Hyundai, Nissan, and Chrysler storm onto the scene.

Fickle Hybrid Shoppers
What goes up, must come down. It either looks like (slightly) lower gas prices have eroded interest in hybrids, or the loyal base of hybrid shoppers is stronger than ever—depending on which surveys you read.

Chevy Volt Fanboy #1
Meet Lyle Dennis, the mild-mannered suburban neurologist who has become the world’s biggest fan of the Chevrolet Volt plug-in hybrid. “I consider myself biased, and that’s OK. I want the Volt to succeed!”

Small Engine, Big Mileage, Same Power? Just Say “GDI”
There’s a new technology that’s about to spread like kudzu: smaller engines with gasoline direct injection, or “GDI.”

Cars That Run on Green Beans and Soy Milk
David Kiley of BusinessWeek, and Peter De Lorenzo, who writes his weekly industry-insider column on, discussed V8 engines, soy power, and moving faster than your brain can handle.

Cobasys CEO Defends His Battery Company recently interviewed Tom Neslage, president and CEO of Cobasys, about recent stumbles at the leading domestic hybrid battery company. He said, “We have not been cash-starved as alleged. We are delivering batteries on a daily basis to our customers.”

In 2018: Expect Personal Mobility Appliances
In 10 years, the American love affair with the car will become platonic. Sure, you might still adore your car, but with the lusty “need for speed” will be tied up in gigahertz instead of get-up-and-go.


Greetings, Hybrid Car Enthusiasts,
Despite a flat market for new cars, the conditions for explosive growth in the hybrid market are aligning: major government programs to spur technology innovation; more new models heading to showrooms, and loads of customer anticipation for cars that run on alternative fuel, from electricity to, eh, soy milk. We chronicle these developments in our “back to school” issue. Enjoy.


Obama, McCain and Gore (Oh My!) All Cheer for Hybrids

High gas prices, energy, the environment, and the fate of domestic manufacturing. These critical issues remain front and center for the presidential campaigns, as we enter the final stretch to November. We’ve been keeping track of what McCain and Obama have had to say throughout the summer.

In a speech at Fresno State (Calif.) University in June, Republican presidential candidate John McCain outlined a series of new proposals to lift the ban on offshore drilling and open up domestic markets to imports and sugar-based ethanol. McCain called for a goal of “50 percent new flex-fuel vehicles for America.”

But it was his support for zero-emissions cars that got the motor going for hybrid fans. “For every automaker who can sell a zero-emissions car, we will commit a $5,000 tax credit for each and every customer who buys that car. For other vehicles, whatever type they may be, the lower the carbon emissions, the higher the tax credit.” McCain also recognized that you can’t put the cart before the horse—or in this case, the battery before the plug-in car. So he offered a $300 million bounty for any innovator who could develop “a battery package that has the size, capacity, cost and power to leapfrog the commercially available plug-in hybrids or electric cars.”

In July, former Vice President Al Gore called for the United States to shift its entire electricity sector to carbon-free power within 10 years—and use that power to fuel a new fleet of electric vehicles. (Psst. Did somebody forget to tell Al that he’s not running this time?) Showing no aversion to grand statements, Gore said that “the future of human civilization is at stake” if we do not quickly shift our energy use away from oil.

In early August, Barack Obama called for an “end to the age of oil in our time.” Obama’s speech included the most dramatic auto technology proposal of the 2008 campaign cycle. Obama said he hopes to see 1 million plug-in hybrid and electric vehicles on the road by 2015. Details from an eight-page energy fact-sheet the campaign circulated to the media include $4 billion in tax credits for American automakers to retool plants for the production of plug-in hybrid cars capable of 150 miles to the gallon; a $7,000 tax credit for consumers who buy early model plug-in vehicles; and a promise that half of all cars purchased by the federal government will be plug-in hybrids or all-electric by 2012.

Neither McCain nor Obama called for higher gas taxes—the one step that economists (and even auto executives) think would be the fastest step toward oil independence and reduced carbon emissions.

Read more:
Obama Calls for 1 Million Hybrids
McCain’s Energy Policy
Mileage Requirements and Cutting Use


Hybrids on the Way

The new Honda subcompact hybrid will hit dealer showrooms in April. That’s the official word from Honda about the yet-to-be named hybrid designed to go hood-to-hood with the Prius. Many details about the vehicle are not yet known, but Honda has said that the car will be smaller and more efficient than the Honda Civic Hybrid, and will be aimed at affordability—meaning a sales price below $20,000.

Hyundai officially announced plans to produce a hybrid version of the Sonata sedan in 2010. It will be the automaker’s first gas-electric production hybrid in the United States. The company previously made noises about entering the hybrid market with subcompact hybrids, but those plans were shelved before getting very far along. The Sonata Hybrid, which will make its world debut at the 2008 Los Angeles International Auto Show in November, could achieve combined fuel economy better than 30 mpg.

Nissan appears determined to make up for lost time on hybrids. After months of announcements about electric vehicle programs, the company showed off its new hybrid and all-electric wares in August to journalists in Japan. Where the first-generation Nissan Altima Hybrid employed technology licensed from Toyota, the new Nissan hybrid—also not yet named—will use technology developed by Nissan, and will feature lithium ion batteries. The car is expected in 2010. Can Nissan deliver? Maybe so, considering that the company has more experience with lithium ion batteries than any other automaker: Nissan used lithium batteries as far back as 1996 in its wildly named Prairie Joy EV.

These latest announcements for hybrid sedans indicate that the hybrid SUV might be an oxymoron after all. But what about the hybrid minivan? The Windsor Star—not coincidentally the hometown paper of the site of one of Chrysler’s minivan plants—reported that the company will put a full-hybrid system in the Grand Caravan. The technology could lift city fuel economy into the mid-20 mpg range, and highway mileage into the 30s. A Chrysler spokesperson provided us a non-denial denial about the hybrid minivan: “All our vehicles are under consideration” for new propulsion technologies.


Fickle Hybrid Shoppers

When gas prices skyrocketed this year, American car buyers quickly and overwhelmingly made fuel efficiency their top priority. That led to a massive shift toward smaller vehicles. Priuses and Civic Hybrids flew off dealer lots.

Now that gas prices are sliding back down, one national survey found that car buyers are already rethinking their new obsession with high-mileage little cars. research found that in July truck owners dramatically reduced the extent to which they cross-shopped in the other major vehicle segments—cars, crossovers and hybrids—compared with June. SUV owners also were fickle, but to a lesser extent.

Consideration of hybrids on was down 34 percent for the week ending August 3, compared with its peak in June. At the same time, in July, consumers’ consideration of formerly shunned segments, such as large crossovers, minivans and sports cars, began bouncing back.

Yet other industry observers—and the auto industry itself—are less convinced that consumers are really that fickle.

Lonnie Miller, director of industry analysis for R.L. Polk & Co., told that his research indicated that the long-term prospects for hybrids are solid. He sees the shift noted by Edmunds as likely affecting potential hybrid buyers who are part of the broader market that have only recently started to consider hybrids. The core hybrid market—consumers interested in fuel efficiency for environmental or financial reasons—will continue to grow, as it has since hybrids first became available, he said.

Read more:


The Chevy Volt’s #1 Fanboy

Visualize the most enthusiastic supporter of the much-touted Chevrolet Volt—someone who rallies thousands on its behalf, who blogs daily, whose influence and prestige garners invites to speak with top GM brass—and what would that person look like? Probably not Lyle Dennis, a mild-mannered neurologist from suburban New Jersey.

In the kind of unlikely story that only the Internet could spawn, Dennis was inspired to create after reading a web story about the launch of the Volt concept vehicle on Jan. 7, 2007, at the Detroit auto show. Three days later, he registered the domain GM-Volt, and put up his first post on Jan. 12. Interest built slowly at first, but now the site logs 1 million page views per month, Dennis said.

In person, Dennis is the epitome of mild-mannered. Appearing in public next to the always-colorful Bob Lutz, he came across as an appealing mixture of fan and acolyte for the Volt. The event was “Volt Nation,” held this April at the New York Auto Show, where Volt fans from around the world were invited to query the development team and Lutz. Promoted on the GM-Volt site—with quiet but substantial support from GM—the event brought hundreds of fans from across the country to ask surprisingly detailed question of the bemused but informative team. It was, says Dennis, a high point of his entire effort.

Dennis is not troubled by charges that he’s biased; “I consider myself biased, and that’s OK. I want the Volt to succeed!” There’s a risk to such uncritical support, of course. Some bloggers—and their commenters—painted the Volt as an example of GM “greenwashing,” no more than an effort to hoodwink the public. If GM fails to deliver on its promise of Volt production by November 2010, or the car doesn’t run well or fails to deliver the promised mileage, then Dennis and other supporters will look like deluded pawns in yet another GM failure.

Dennis is undaunted by this criticism. He eagerly awaits the unveiling of the production Volt at the LA Auto Show this November, and further details leading up to the launch in November 2010. And knowing GM, neurologist Lyle Dennis just may be there when the first Volt rolls off the line.

Read more:


Small Engine, Big Mileage, Same Power? Just Say “GDI”

Despite what many green consumers might like to think, we won’t all be driving electric cars—or even hybrids—next year. Hybrids may be a much larger portion of the market by 2015, but large numbers of cars between now and 2020 will still be fueled by plain old gasoline.

Within a couple of years, however, they will be much, much more efficient with that gas. And one way they’ll do it is with a new technology that’s about to spread like kudzu: smaller engines with gasoline direct injection, or “GDI.”

Rather than mixing gasoline with air in an intake manifold before it’s sucked into the combustion chamber, a GDI engine’s fuel injectors squirt the gas directly into the cylinder. Modern electronics now allow very, very precise calculation and metering of each separate injection. And remember, if the engine is turning at 3,000 rpm, there are more than 10 such injections every second. Older engine electronics simply weren’t fast enough to look at all the data about everything happening in the engine.

But injection is just half the picture. GDI engines are smaller than regular ones, but they put out the same power because many (though not all) are also turbocharged. A turbo is a small pump, driven by exhaust gases, that packs more air into each cylinder. That allows more fuel to be used, producing greater power—but from a much smaller engine than a non-turbo with the same power.

The combination of direct injection and turbocharging are similar to techniques used to make modern passenger diesels smaller, smoother, more powerful, and cleaner than earlier versions. Now gasoline engines will travel the same path.

Read more:


Cars That Run on Green Beans and Soy Milk

David Kiley, senior correspondent in BusinessWeek’s Detroit bureau, and Peter De Lorenzo of, gave a no-holds-barred presentation at THINKtank 08, a meeting of auto industry marketers and publishers, hosted by Jumpstart Automotive Media in Las Vegas on July 22.

De Lorenzo got the crowd going by defending the rights of Americans to drive cars with V8 engines. “We can’t all drive around in balsa glider cars with smiley faces. It’s just not realistic,” he said. “Sometimes you have to go out and put your foot in something that moves a little faster than your brain can handle.”

Kiley replied, “No passenger car sold today requires a V8 engine. I’m not saying that people shouldn’t be able to buy them, but they ought to be taxed through the nose for them.” Kiley would like to see V8 cars become niche products, and believes in “socially engineering energy piggery” out of the United States.

De Lorenzo held firm to his position on automotive liberty. He said that if we get to the point in this country when our choice of vehicle is impinged, then we’ll have a big problem. “If you live in Sausalito, and you want to drive a car that runs on green beans and soy milk, hey it’s cool,” he said. “And if you live in Detroit, and you have a 427 Stingray that you have tucked away in your garage, and you just want to drive it once every couple of weeks, that should be cool too. We have right to make complete fools of ourselves in this country. Which is cool.”

Read more:


Cobasys CEO Defends His Battery Company

For the auto industry to make a transition from gas guzzlers to super-efficient cars, it will need a steady and stable supply of advanced automotive batteries. That should be great news for Cobasys, a company that took an early lead in the development and production of nickel metal hydride hybrid batteries. Unfortunately, recent news has been almost all bad for Cobasys. Media reports claim the company lacks adequate financing, that its products caused General Motors to recall 9,000 hybrids and crimped domestic production of hybrids, and that Daimler is suing Cobasys for failing to deliver on a $6 million development contract. spoke exclusively with Cobasys President and CEO Tom Neslage about the reports—which Neslage refers to as “foolishness.” Cobasys is a joint venture between Ovonic Battery Co. and oil giant Chevron.

Tom Neslage: The allegation that Cobasys is cash-starved, and that we can’t make payroll, and we can’t fulfill contracts, is absolutely not true. Cobasys has been continuously funded since our inception and has not been cash-starved as alleged. For example, it’s public knowledge that Chevron has put in over $350 million. I would like to spend a lot more money, but that’s a lot of money. Do you have any comments about the recall of 9,000 hybrid vehicles from General Motors?

Neslage: It’s basically completed. Was the problem a battery leak with Cobasys batteries?

Neslage: There was a malfunction in the application. That’s really all I can say. It was done for customer satisfaction reasons. We don’t want to put out a product that doesn’t perform for the next 10 years. There has been a string of bad news for Cobasys. But you’re saying that you’re not cash-starved. That any kind of recall was strictly for customer satisfaction. That you’re in full control of all your company. And that production continues unabated.

Neslage: We’re expanding capacity. What are the biggest obstacles to ramping up production?

Neslage: The equipment required in the factory is special purpose-built equipment. We had to invent it, design it, and create it. We can’t order our equipment out of a Sears catalog. I have to build it, debug it, and that just takes time. On some equipment, there’s lead-time of two to three years. Being first isn’t easy.

Read the complete interview:


In 2018, Expect Personal Mobility Appliances

Reuters is running a series of commentaries from auto industry observers about what cars and the industry will look like in 10 years. They asked me to look into my crystal ball. Here’s an excerpt from what Reuters published on July 31.

“The size, shape, and primary attributes of a 2018 model American car will bear little resemblance to today’s vehicles. The most visible signs of a car revolution already in the works can be seen today in the shift from large SUVs and trucks to small cars—and the growing popularity of gas-electric hybrids. But there’s something more transformative at play. By 2018, the American love affair with the car will become platonic.

“Sure, you might still adore your car, but with the lusty “need for speed” tied up in gigahertz instead of get-up-and-go. Your car, reborn as a personal mobility appliance, will be more about what it can do, and less about stimulating your senses.”

Read more:



That’s all for now. We’ll continue to keep our eyes open for the latest developments in the hybrid world. And will report back to you on and in our next newsletter.

Happy Driving,
Bradley Berman