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Plug-Ins: Industry Developments and Media
Aug 21, 2009 (From the CalCars-News archive)
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This posting originally appeared at CalCars-News, our newsletter of breaking CalCars and plug-in hybrid news. View the original posting here.
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Below we include news about GM, Toyota and Ford, plus a major story in the New Yorker magazine, and an invitation to unsuccessful applicants for recent US Energy Department grants to share some information about the process from their perspective.

MISIMPRESSION FROM READING HEADLINES ON GM: If you've read the alarming news along the lines of "Citing lack of consumer interest, focus group reactions, GM pulls the plug on Buick plug-in hybrid," you'd assume it's a setback for plug-in cars....WRONG! The PHEV was migrating to Buick as GM divested its Saturn division, so it was planning to rebrand the Vue, changing grills and trim, for its standard, hybrid and PHEV versions. What happened? Attendees at a GM future vehicles showcase mocked the result as the "Vuick" because it lacked luxury features. Vice Chairman Tom Stephens at GM's Fastlane blog http://fastlane.gmblogs.com/­archives/­2009/­08/­reports_from_the_front.html explained that "The Buick crossover we showed received consistent feedback from large parts of all the audiences that it didn't fit the premium characteristics that customers have come to expect from Buick. So the vehicle was cancelled, and along with it, its future PHEV version." Stephens cited the decision as proof of GM's new responsiveness and ability to act quickly "to take swift action to prevent a potential underperformer from reaching the marketplace." Confirming that the PHEV version's cancellation was a side-effect, he emphasized, "And we decided that the important plug-in hybrid technology would be applied to another vehicle, at no delay, that we'll discuss in the very near future."

230 MPG CHEVY VOLT, 367 MPG LEAF: First, some background: in 2004, when CalCars.org first converted a Prius, we succeeded in getting out the message that the auto industry could build cars that use much less fossil fuels. Everyone got a kick out of the large 100+MPG stickers on our cars. (Concerned not to overstate, on flyers, we regularly added an asterisk, "plus a penny a mile of electricity." In photos of our driving results http://www.calcars.org/­photos and in testimony about our calculations at venues including the California Air Resources Board http://www.calcars.org/­calcars-news/­531.html, we explained that factoring back in electricity led to 80+ MPG equivalent.)

The slogan took off, showing up in speeches by elected officials, media headlines, and on after-market conversion companies' signs, including Raser's recent Hummer PHEV. 100+MPG was the starting point for the Automotive X Prize. Organizations like Set America Free and journalists like Fareed Zakaria pointed out that an E-85 PHEV could get 500 MPG of gasoline plus ethanol plus electricity. We succeeded in creating a "meme" -- a catch-phrase/idea/cultural unit that spreads broadly from person to person much as a gene spreads biologically) (We had similar successes with our use of the short "dongle" extension cord, and with "cleaner/cheaper/domestic" to describe electricity's advantages over gasoline.)

Recently, after a national "teaser" ad campaign, GM announced the Chevy Volt would get 230 MPG of gasoline on the Environmental Protection Agency's "Recommended Practice For Measuring The Exhaust Emissions And Fuel Economy Of Hybrid-Electric Vehicles." The EPA didn't confirm GM's claims; then Nissan jumped in and said its EV Leaf would get 367 MPG, and Bill Ford called for a more user-friendly and meaningful number from the EPA. In general, we think the discussion is almost entirely positive -- continuing to reinforce the message that with PHEVs and EVs we could vastly exceed the recently agreed upon vehicle efficiency standards of 39MPG for passenger vehicles and 30 MPG for light trucks by 2016. We were quoted by Reuters as saying, "The sticker problem has not been solved yet." http://www.reuters.com/­article/­domesticNews/­idUSTRE57F1OX20090816. The best scenarios would be new stickers that give drivers indications of cents per mile for a standard drive cycle based on national average costs for gasoline and electricity, as well as greenhouse gas emissions per mile driven based on the national grid's CO2 characteristics

MEDIA ON TOYOTA AND PLUG-INS: Journalists and analysts are saying Toyota may be lagging in the race. The NY Times, in a story headlined, "Toyota, Hybrid Innovator, Holds Back in Race to Go Electric," http://www.nytimes.com/­2009/­08/­20/­business/­energy-environment/­20electric.html reports that Toyota cites inadequate batteries and speculates that the company "would like to profit all it can from the current technology before shifting to a new one." The article cites multiple consumer, government and infrastructure conditions favorable to EVs "falling into place," and suggests that unless Toyota speeds up its plans, the arrival of disruptive technology could cause it to lose its market leadership position. It also reports, "Toyota's new president, Akio Toyoda, has become a big promoter of the company's fuel cells, which he calls the 'ultimate' technology. But fuel cell cars, which produce electricity from hydrogen, would take even longer than battery-electric vehicles to commercialize."

Hybridcars.com's Brad Berman has since then interviewed two Toyota executives, Doug Coleman, US-based Prius product manager and Jana Hartline, Toyota's environmental communication manager http://www.hybridcars.com/­news/­exclusive-toyota-explains-position-electric-cars-26031.html. Their more balanced though still negative view spurned continuing periodic misleading statements by Toyota about comparative environmental benefits, as well as provocative speculations that the total market for PHEVs could be as low as 3,500 http://www.bloomberg.com/­apps/­news?pid=20601110&sid=a.zO9jgEc7MU and http://wheels.blogs.nytimes.com/­2009/­06/­07/­toyota-plug-in-hybrids-will-have-limited-appeal.


FORD PROMOTES ITS LONG-TERM VEHICLE-TO-GRID PLANS: Working to stay in the race despite having plans now only for an EV commercial van in 2010, an all-electric compact in 2011, and a PHEV in 2012, Ford has announced a "smart" charging concept that other automakers say is similar to many of their vehicle-based approaches. The communication and control system, integrated with utilities' forthcoming "smart meters," will be demonstrated on 21 Escape PHEV prototypes http://online.wsj.com/­article/­SB10001424052970204044204574358802757138692.html . It's encouraging to hear Ford touting the long-term benefits of V2G (which most utilities say will be proceeded by V2B integrating plug-in vehicles with residential and commercial building energy systems). It's also worth remembering Southern California Edison Director of Electric Transportation Ed Kjaer's often-repeated admonition that the first priority remains to "get the wheels on the road." (SCE has been partnering with Ford on demonstration projects since 2007.)

NEW YORKER ON PLUG-INS: The August 24 issue (with the Brooklyn Bridge on cover) Letter from California: "Plugged In: Is the electric car the future?, by Tad Friend, gives the prestigious magazine's stamp of approval to plug-in cars. The entertaining piece's focus is on Tesla Motors and its CEO and largest investor, Elon Musk. Along the way it spends some time describing GM's Volt series PHEV as it tells the story of the two vehicles' treatment by David Letterman. It ends with a provocative comparison of possible sales rates for Tesla and GM 10 years from now that points up how long it will take for new vehicle production to scale up.

CONTINUING ANALYSIS OF US DEPARTMENT OF ENERGY RECOVERY GRANTS: After we reported on the announcement of the winners in the $2.4 billion program http://www.calcars.org/­calcars-news/­1068.html , which we described as "mixed results," funding many worthwhile projects but puzzlingly omitting others, we have heard from unsuccessful applicants who have since received from DOE 3- to 5-page summaries of Merit Review Committee reports on the strengths and weaknesses of their applications. In several cases, they describe incomplete or inconsistent evaluations. We have been asked by journalists to provide them with examples. If we do so, our goal will be not so much to critique DOE as to motivate an improved approach for any future solicitations. (Expected in the near future are awards in the $300 million Clean Cities Alternative Fuel and Advanced Technology Vehicles Pilot Program that could fund an additional 30 programs.) We encourage readers of CalCars-News who submitted applications to send us the 1-page non-confidential summary PDF of your project, your DOE evaluation, plus a brief analysis that covers objective, verifiable matters of fact on topics such as:

  • correlations and non-correlations between your application and strengths/weaknesses described;
  • indications reviewers didn't view material in your application or attachments;
  • indications of lack of familiarity or understanding for the subject matter;
  • internally self-contradictory statements in review.

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