Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Flunking EPA Ratings and more...

While scanning through today's green machine headlines, a few things popped out:

KISSing could be necessary: The EPA and DOT are looking for public feedback to totally revamp car window stickers you'll see when buying and looking for fuel economy ratings starting with model year 2012 cars. It's a grade card with A being best in class and D means gas guzzler. Beyond fuel economy, greenhouse gas emissions would be included in the grading, which comes from the Obama administration's mandate last year for cars coming to market soon, and which is being worked out by the regulatory agencies. However, determining GHG gets complicated and it's most probable that only tailpipe emissions will be included in the window sticker ratings. And the agencies are having to come up with a rating system that takes in fuel/energy consumption based on gallons per 100 miles, and/or kilowatt-hours per 100 miles, and another scale that converts electrical energy use to equivalent gasoline use. Whoah, sounds way complicated. I'm wondering if car buyers will get confused and annoyed with this and the window stickers will need to be changed again. Could be about KISS - Keep it simple, stupid.

First All Electric Bus: Proterra Inc. is bringing the first deployment of an all-electric model for everyday service to a major public transit agency. Foothill Transit, which serves eastern Los Angeles County, has purchased three Proterra EcoRide BE-35 electric buses, as well as two fast-charging stations, and signed on for an option to buy nine more of the model if all goes well in an initial trial period. Hybrid buses have been used in the region, and now all-electric will be tried out.

Toyota Corp Sustainability: Toyota has unveiled its Fifth Environmental Action Plan, covering the years 2011-'15, which targets greater sales of hybrid and electric vehicles, reduced emissions, and increased recycling of resources. The multipronged plan outlines improving average fuel efficiency by 25% in all regions compared with the 2005 numbers. The plan also targets a 29% global reduction in emissions by 2012 compared with 2001 numbers. The company says it will sell 1 million hybrids per year, and will introduce its first production plug-in hybrid EV in 2010 (Prius?), and a short-distance commuter EV in 2012. Keep your eyes peeled on Toyota. They'll come out of the recall crisis. The company has avoided plug-ins and pure electrics and is starting down that path, along with bringing a hydrogen fuel cell car to market in about 5 years. Toyota was able to bring green cars to the mainstream with the Prius, so we'll see what's next.

Green Science Fair: According to Green Car Congress, "Researchers at the University of Michigan have developed and demonstrated the feasibility of a two-step hydrolysis-solvolysis process to produce biodiesel directly from wet algal biomass. Their process eliminates the need for biomass drying, organic solvent extraction, and catalysts, and provides a mechanism for nutrient recycling." Complicated and science nerdlike, yes I know. Green Car Congress is an important pub to access regularly and has been around a long time. For me, it's important to track in that these university and research institute projects produce results that many times become absorbed by whoever has an agenda - government agencies, advocacy/industry groups, fuel suppliers, OEMs, environmental activists/lobbyists. And there's quite a lot happening with biofuels and biomass projects - time, money, and talent. There's much to learn.

Monday, August 30, 2010

What's Up with ARCO's Straight Up Gas Institute?

You may have noticed an odd ad campaign recently started by ARCO called Straight Up Gas Institute, which is being prominently shown on billboards. You can also watch videos where Greek mathematician "ARCOmedes" in his robe and fake beard says, "I ARCO, therefore I save."

The point of these ads is to emphasize that you save money going to ARCO stations and get other basic amenities. ARCO just wants to get straight about it - get to the point, right? You get three benefits, according to ARCO - saving 5 to 10 cents per gallon compared to competitors, quality fuel meeting EPA and ASTM standards, and the convenience of its PayQuick payment system. ARCO probably isn't investing big bucks in this marketing game, but there must be a reason for it occurring. And it's not a common occurrence to see oil companies doing much in the way of marketing campaigns these days.

Here's my thinking on the subject on why this is happening:
1. Gasoline prices are slowly climbing back up. You'd want to stand out in the market as a cheaper place to gas up, and not just by going to discount stations.
2. Oil companies are getting a negative vibe these days because of the Gulf oil spill and in the past few years with the popularity of cutting down our addiction to foreign oil.
3. The green part of the equation, hence the reference to EPA.
4. Convenience - there are tons of ARCO stations out there and they say they're convenient to use. As car owners look at options on the market, including alt fuel vehicles, there's always concern about what it will take to keep that car moving in a manner that doesn't add too much to your busy life.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Funding for Green Car Buyers

It's interesting to see a press release from First Tech Credit Union about how the organization partnered with EPA's SmartWay program to offer members a small APR reduction (.25%) when financing a green car. The statement says there are more than 1,500 emission- and fuel-friendly cars on the program list for car buyers to consider.

I bet we'll see a lot of announcements from dealerships and financial institutions offering incentives to buy some kind of alternative fuel vehicle or one with excellent fuel economy. And beyond that, auto service/maintenance and aftermarket suppliers will also go green, as a new market emerges.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Green Car Glossary

IHS Global Insight is putting out "The Non-Engineer's Guide to Electric Vehicles" through its SupplierBusiness company. The promo material says: "It provides a layman's guide to the most opaque terms and concepts when looking at the development of Electric Vehicles. This knowledge will provide a base for those looking at business as well as looking at why the term 'Electric Vehicle' is so maligned and ways of combating this skepticism amongst the general public."

I would agree. As I'm staying current on green machines, there's terminology to clarify and follow, such as renewable energy, zero emission vehicles, nitrogen oxide emissions, greenwashing, smart grid, and various categories of biofuels. What do these mean? Good question; let me get back to you on that. I'm putting together a terminology directory for anyone interested in getting their own clarifications. Here are two examples:

Battery electric vehicles: Battery-powered vehicles are propelled solely by an electric motor, and powered by electricity stored in onboard batteries. Their driving range is limited by the capacity for energy storage on the vehicle and this could typically be anywhere from 30 to 120 miles, depending on the available battery storage space and the type of battery being used. Other concerns connected to EVs are high battery costs, lengthy charging, and environmental effects of increased electrical power generation. These automobiles are sometimes called pure electric vehicles, electric cars/vehicles, or battery electric vehicles (BEVs).The Nissan Leaf is the commonly referred to example of upcoming BEVs.

Fuel cell vehicles: Fuel cell vehicles combine hydrogen with oxygen to produce electricity along with water, which is given off as vapor. The energy is stored in batteries or fuel stacks and is used to drive the vehicle. A fuel cell vehicle can also be considered an electric vehicle in which an onboard fuel cell uses hydrogen to generate electricity through a chemical reaction. They’re sometimes referred to as hydrogen electric vehicles. As for positives, the range is comparable to internal combustion engines, uses no petroleum fuel, emits only water vapor, and has rapid refueling time. Negatives include lack of hydrogen refueling infrastructure, and the fuel cell system is complex and expensive, although that appears to be entering a new phase with recent announcements by Toyota and Hyundai-Kia.

If there are terms that confuse you or are important to know about, let me know and I will add them to my green car glossary.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

EV Buyers, Hemp Car, Diesel Hybrids

Some thoughts for the day after skimming through green car news coverage:

Car Buyers: Wanna test drive an electric car? Join the crowd - 40% of consumers taking a survey say they do, and 42% will be following news reports on EVs. Awareness of the various types of alternative vehicles remains low - 32% report they are familiar, or very familiar, with hybrid vehicles, and only about a quarter are familiar with electric-powered vehicles. Marketing EVs requires a certain portion devoted to education in a style that will be consumed and retained. Dealers will be part of the learning curve; sales reps will need to sound accurate and informed about range anxiety, home charging setup, lifecycle costs, incentives, funding, and remarketing. That's a lot to learn and communicate.

Legal Hemp: Ford Motor Co. is taking pride in commitment to sustainability through its supply chain mandates and manufacturing cars with recyclable materials. But what about hemp? Hemp comes from cannabis, as does marijuana. Ford hasn't mentioned buying into hemp, but a Canadian company is committed to it. A car called the Kestrel will make its marketing debut during the September EV 2010 VÉ Conference and Trade Show in Vancouver. The Kestrel is an electric 4 passenger compact vehicle, designed and engineered by Motive. The body of the car is made from impact resistant bio composite material from hemp mats. Perhaps it's more doable to work with hemp in Canada?

Diesel Hybrid: As mentioned in Green Machine Digest, diesel is doing well at fueling stations these days as truckers get back on the road to do business, and the possibility that clean diesel cars are growing in popularity. But what if you had a hybrid electric vehicle with a diesel engine? That could be very efficient in fuel economy and reliable performance. Peugeot is trying this out with what it calls the world’s first production diesel-electric hybrid crossover utility vehicle. The 3008 HYbrid 4 sports a 163-horsepower 2.0-liter diesel engine and a 27 kilowatt peak (37 hp) electric motor, which could be getting 61.8 mpg, according to Autopia.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Diesel More Popular than Gasoline

According to American Petroleum Institute (and reported in Autoblog Green), gasoline deliveries in the US dropped slightly in July - 9.3 million barrels a day, down 0.03% from a year ago. At the same time, petroleum was up 3.8% from a year ago, much of it driven by demand for low sulfur distillates, commonly used to make diesel fuel. It appears to be coming from the trucking industry coming back after a slight rebound in the economy.

It's possible the rising diesel demand has something to do with the increasing popularity of clean diesel vehicles. German automakers are bringing more of these to the U.S. market, with good examples being recent Green Car of the Year award winners Volkswagen Jetta TDI and Audi A3 TDI. New technology innovations like turbocharged direct injection (TDI) are facilitating greater power and performance with increased fuel economy. It will be interesting to see if Americans change their opinions about diesel engines from spewing smoke and smog with irritating noise, to being clean and efficient.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Losing Your House? There Could Be a Solution

The auto industry has been quite devastated by the Great Depression Jr., which has been thrashing away at jobs for nearly three years now. The recession may be bottoming out, but it's still an incredibly stressful economic period to live through for some people. I would know - I lost a job last year, not from an automaker, parts suppliers, or dealer, but from a publication covering transportation. Like many laid off people, making house payments gets quite tricky, especially if you, let's say theoretically, had refi'd your house once again and this time for the divorce settlement. One bright spot for me has been hearing good news about Obama's Making Home Affordable HUD program. The major banks are becoming more flexible lately as more and more people miss payments and/or just walk away from their house. So banks are talking to counselors in the program and negotiating revised loans. Homeowners can get free service, which is much better than dropping big bucks to a mortgage refi company that somehow doesn't manage to get things done. So start by clicking here and then clicking on the Find a Counselor tab. Good fortune to you.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Can We Believe What Oil Companies Tell Us?

This morning I read about American Petroleum Institutes' lobbying and ad campaign starting soon. The oil industry will be staging rallies and running ads tying the sector to job creation and opposing tax changes and tougher drilling regulations. API represents everybody in the oil business: producers, refiners, suppliers, pipeline operators and marine transporters, and service and supply companies. As the Gulf oil spill clean-up continues, the climate change bill stalls in Congress, and the global auto industry takes on EVs and alternative fuels, I have some questions for API:

1. Is offshore oil drilling working out? Haven't there been many oil spill disasters right off America's shores in recent years, way beyond the Exxon Valdez debacle 21 years ago?

2. What's motivating major oil companies like Shell, Chevron, and BP to invest heavily in non-petroleum energy such as hydrogen and biofuels? Do they just want to look good and let OPEC continue to control them (which is what T. Boone Pickens would say)? Do they see that peak oil is coming up and it will get very expensive to produce the level of oil needed to keep prices in some kind of reasonable range? Are you concerned that gas and diesel prices will be going over $4 or $5 a gallon and people will throw up their hands and buy other fuels?

3. How does energy independence affect you? Does it concern you that China is investing heavily into EVs and alternatives to release bondage from foreign oil?

4. Will oil companies redesign their image and become energy companies instead of oil companies? Do they sense America is doing therapeutic recovery to get over its addiction to oil?

Looking forward to finding out.

Friday, August 13, 2010

3 Things You Should Know About Social Media from AD Publisher Chuck Parker

Watch Chuck Parker, industry veteran and publisher of Automotive Digest, give a video presentation to dealerships on new video platforms and social media – the primary methods effective communications can be brought to busy people. This is extremely relevant for ADW Green readers and all parts of the auto industry – to anyone in the business world, for that matter. He talks about what Automotive Digest has been seeing happening lately with social media – especially Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn. The point being that dealer managers are all part of their own tribes – people they know, influence, touch, and bring into sales and marketing every day. Groups of people who influence each other and bring things together. Chuck says that social media is like exercising and going to the gym – you’ve got to do it every day for it to work. Someone needs to block out time every day – what’s going on with the dealership for customers, new services, community events, etc.

Chuck wanted to make three main points on making social media work: Make your people aware they’re part of their own tribes. Consider designating or hiring a social media champion to make as much presence in social media platforms as possible so that your dealership becomes part of the algorithms of search engines. Look at training packages being offered to dealers on making social media work. He invites people to email or call him with any questions, which is what social media is all about.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Fleets Take Early Orders and Test Drives

OEMs are doing a lot of research now on what it will take for consumers to buy green machines as several enter the market later this year. The production volume and marketing is limited at first for the Nissan Leaf and Chevy Volt, yet the numbers will be increasing soon. And the pipeline soon will be full of vehicle options from several OEMs, and before long that will include hydrogen fuel cell vehicles. Along with retail markets, fleets play an important role in OEM strategy, as they always have. Certainly, overselling to fleets can be a financial crisis for OEMs and their financial arms, but they're important early adopters of products carrying much weight these days.

Enterprise Rent A Car is buying Nissan Leafs at MSRP minus federal tax credit, but not at the usual fleet incentive discount rate. A few months ago, Hertz said it will be placing Leafs in select locations in the US and Europe. It's rare to see rental fleets take on such a risk - they usually buy generic, plain cars that they acquire at volume discounts. They're not especially attractive to renters, who usually look for a cheap deal and convenient service.

About 100 Chevy Volts are being test driven around the country right now, and some of these are going to managers of large fleets. This research will help GM lay out its production and marketing plans for this important new product, one likely to provide the platform for future models. In recent years, major and specialty OEMs, including Smith Electric Vehicles, Nissan, GM, Ford, Honda, and Toyota, have been selling hybrids, natural gas and propane vehicles, and test models of electric vehicles to taxi companies, governments, electric utilities, and commercial trucking companies.

The feedback received by fleets in invaluable - data is generated on maintenance and repair, warranties, resale market value, safety, driver appeal, fuel efficiency, emissions, and onboard diagnostics and communications technologies. Just as Race for the Green, American Le Mans Series, and Automotive X Prize are important testing grounds for green machines, fleets provide even more useful data for fixing problems and generating buzz about new cars entering the market.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Ups and Downs of Being in Media in the Age of Blogs, Social Networks, etc.

While thinking about Green Machine Digest and what to post today, I remembered being invited, along with editorial colleagues, to speak at a panel during this year's Alternative Fuels & Vehicles conference in Las Vegas. Reading through my outline, I came across some points that are helpful to review and that I'd like to emphasize...

• Seem to be most effective new media channel now for publications – AutoBlog Green, Green Car Advisor, Earth2Tech, Gas 2.0, Green Car Congress, and Autopia are must reads.
• Social network/media sites like Facebook, Twitter, and Youtube are expanding in leaps and bounds, but using them effectively isn't obvious yet for media. It is getting better for OEMs, dealers, environmental groups, and industry associations, but it's still not quite clear.
• Blogs offer breaking news but more importantly, they're fun to read and colorful – opinionated, sometimes funny, sometimes irritating.
• But they're based on explaining something that occurred and what it means to the writer – speaking in their own voice, and readers can respond in their own voices.

Tedious and Confusing:
• When you're following green cars and alt fuel vehicles, you've got to have basic understand of science, technology, regulations, and engineering.
• That gets overwhelming, tedious, and confusing – so readers rely on automotive writers to tell them what it means in a lively readable way.
• Political blogs figured this out years ago and can influence elections.

Being a gatekeeper:
• Social media and blogs do mean there's a risk to take.
• There's still accountability for editors to maintain.
• It's difficult sometimes being a gatekeeper in social media, especially as an editor who's supposed to take responsibility for content and its ramifications.
• In alternative fuel vehicles, there's a wide array of competing groups telling their versions of the story – OEMs, regulators, technology suppliers, trade groups, fuel makers, environmentalists, researchers, and academics. Editors have to give them space to be heard, but must sift through and sort carefully.

Putting all of this together, I was reminded of something that happened a couple of years ago while working for another publication. A transportation magazine obituary was posted on its blog paying tribute to a well known woman in the industry who'd just died of cancer. A couple of people wrote brutal attacks on her, and one of them had an ugly agenda that became known later. We pulled off those attacks and didn't allow access to posting comments without editor approval for a period of time.

New media - blogs, social networks, forums, podcasts, e-newsletters, and video streaming - is a roller coaster ride. It's costing media people jobs, and those in related professions, but it's opening doors to opportunities we can't quite clearly see yet. And it opens up the space, for anyone who chooses, to contribute what's on their minds. As I said, bad stuff can happen, but that's life. It's worth the risk.

Friday, August 6, 2010

Automotive Engineers a Bit Worried About EVs

At Plug-in 2010, I got more of a sense of what the Society of Automotive Engineers and Underwriters Laboratories are thinking about, and concerned about, with electric vehicles. Many of the battery systems and drive trains are new or still being developed and there are practical manufacturing logistics and safety issues that have to be tested and standardized. Battery switching is one of the concerns mentioned by a UL panel speaker. Automotive engineers and UL are extremely important for the future of global automobiles. High ranking OEM executives are of course high on the list, too, but automotive engineers design and create the technology required for all of this to happen. You could also consider other decision makers such as Henrik Fisker, who represents the creative/marketing side of the game. Dealers are a very important part of the supply chain, too. But if you don't get past engineers and the intellectual structure they put in place, nothing will get done.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Electric Cars: Let’s See… What Shall I Buy?

Long awaited electric vehicles will be making their ways to dealer showrooms in November and December, as most everyone knows by now. But the new model launches will be going on for a long time – about two plus years. Check out “Electric Car Buying Guide” in GreenCarReports.com, which breaks out models with detailed information and covers the gamut from expensive down to economical. The reports cover time blocks starting at the end of this year; there's so many EVs coming out, they needed to be organized into sections. As previously mentioned, OEMs, dealers, and suppliers are waiting breathlessly for electric cars to go from idea concepts to consumer and fleet garages. That time is here – to the extent that Enterprise Rent A Car is talking about putting Nissan Leafs in their rental lots.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

EV Charging Station Infrastructure - Not a Big Deal?

According to Green Car Advisor, panelists just had a discussion called, "Full-scale Deployment: Making the Business Case." This is part of the much-watched Center for Automotive Research management briefings in Traverse City, Mich. Their conclusion: the EV charging infrastructure isn't really needed.

American Honda's Robert Bienenfeld said although establishing a large charging infrastructure might be a "badge of honor" for EV proponents who've long fought for a quicker pace, the vast majority of consumers are well-served by the driving range provided by the charging they can do at home. Very little charging is needed in the public sector, he said.

So if the infrastructure's in place, car buyers can easily install their home charging stations and find enough public access charging stations? I would think not. The electric grid infrastructure might be more than enough for years to come, even if a million or more plug-ins make it to the roads in the next five years. The problem is getting consumers set up with home charging stations, which they will have to pay for with Level 2 and 3 charging, and dealers and OEMs will need to find reliable, fast, effective installers. For public charging stations, this is being implemented at airports, work places, shopping malls, transit stations, and apartment/condo buildings, but the process is slow and expensive. Much to be done.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

ChargeView Dealing with Troublesome Home Charging Realities

When highly anticipated plug-in cars come out by the end of this year, one thing to keep in mind is how home charging stations are going to be set up for customers. This will vary depending on municipal building codes and electric utility policies. Installations will be done through outside vendors working with dealerships, and they'll need to be inspected by the city's building department and by the utility. All of this depends on where you live, and the rules and inspections governing installation - so we could be talking about 30 days after the car buyer brings home the Volt or Leaf before they get to have Level 2 charging set up in their garage. In other words, car buyers are going to get quite peeved when they find out about it.

ChargeView (www.chargeview.com) is a start-up technology supplier that we interviewed at Plug-In 2010 to find out about why the company started and the void that it will be filling. OEMs, dealers, and charging station makers should be happy to hear about such offerings being available - could reduce stress and headaches, and angry customers turning their backs on electric cars.

Monday, August 2, 2010

EV Excitement Wafts Through Plug-In 2010

If you walked around the exhibit hall at last week's Plug-In 2010, you would have noticed something a bit different than Plug-In 2009. ECOtality brand named its interactive EV chargers Blink and hired designers to create an iconic look and feel - black and grey, rounded edges, blending into the background. This was not a gas station pump, nor a maintenance garage tech tool. I noticed similar cool gadgetry at other display stations, like Better Place's charging station in either DeepSkyeBlue or DogdgerBlue color. Then there was overhearing conversations at lunch tables, or sitting in aisles waiting for speakers, or the hearing people approach the microphone on Tuesday night and question Bill Nye, the science guy, and "Who Killed the Electric Car" star Cheslea Sexton. Actually, they had gushing comments to make more than questions and were quite enthralled with the Nissan Leaf and Chevy Volt coming to dealer lots soon, plus a score of competitive models. This is no longer a science fair, nor merely a handful of low speed specialty EVs. There were EV activists present, enginerds needing to talk through the details, and entrepreneurs ready to make good money on this all-new product line. There's also the reality of selling EVs at dealerships and setting up the charging stations in people's houses. There are a lot of details to work out. I predict dealers and technology suppliers will have a great deal of stress to live through starting in November or December, but it will be worth it.