Thursday, March 31, 2011

Fleets Might Save the Day for Green Machines

It's still too early to know if consumer retail car buyers are taking plug-in electric vehicles from early adopters to mass market numbers. Coverage shows that gas prices will have to rise even higher, and public information will have to spread widely before consumers buy a lot of them. If the neighbor/cousin/co-worker has good things to say about the Leaf, Volt, or other plug-in car, then people will be won over. Questions need to be answered:  How much do you really save in lifecycle from purchase to remarketing? How safe and reliable are they? How does home charging work and what does it cost? How do you compare per mile expense of battery power versus gasoline? Are the environmental and oil reducing benefits worth me buying into it?

Fleet customers are very important. That should go without saying, but this time, the rules of the game are changing a bit. Fleets typically have ordered "jelly bean" cars that have been on the market for a while and the automakers need to unload them somewhere. Now, certain fleets have become early adopters for plug-in electric vehicles, as they are with hybrids, natural gas-, propane-, and ethanol-powered vehicles, and perhaps will be with hydrogen fuel cell vehicles.

President Obama just added weight to my fleet buyer argument. He just announced that the federal fleet will only be buying advanced technology vehicles (including hybrids and plug-ins) by 2015. We're talking about a 600,000 vehicle fleet -- very big. Obama has been getting criticized lately for dropping the ball on climate change and carbon emissions. I would say cheers to him for his strong support for green machines. 

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

A Big Day for Green Car News in my Email Inbox

Today was one of those days when media coverage was packed with significant stories about green machines, alternative and renewable energy, and other positive trends. (The Detroit Bureau continues to play a very important role in tracking these stories, and cheers to Environmental Leader.) So here are a few media highlights from my email inbox today:

The California assembly joined the senate yesterday in approving a mandate for 33% of the state's electricity to come from renewable sources by 2020, up from 20%.

President Obama says the federal government will buy only hybrids, plug ins, and other advanced technology vehicles for its fleet of 600,000 units by 2015. Cutting oil imports and using more domestic oil and gas is part of the new bi-partisan plan.

Pike Research predicts that the volume of plug-in hybrid electric vehicle sales in US will reach 204,110 by 2015. In the U.S. and Canada, plug-in hybrids will represent 71% of all electric vehicle sales in 2015.

Last year, clean energy investment across the globe grew by 30%, to $243 billion last year, with China continuing to solidify its position as the world’s clean energy leader by investing a record $54.4 billion in 2010.

Eco-friendly auto shops are popping up nationwide, offering green tune-ups for the masses with gas-guzzling vehicles.

Tesla Motors has sued the popular BBC program, “Top Gear,” claiming it maliciously lied about the company’s 2-seat Roadster. The episode said a Tesla Roadster experienced several breakdowns while being tested.

Speaking at the Center for Automotive Research’s conference, Canadian auto analyst Dennis DesRosiers said that vehicles with new powertrain technologies, particularly hybrids have been somewhat successful. He said this could be the decade of the hybrid as the technology finds its way into more cars.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Algae Biofuels -- Success or Failure?

According to Greenwire, algae biofuels are washing away, and photosynthesis is a better use of investment dollars. The publication says that while several startups launched into algae fuels over the past half decade, it's not growing... "Often ignorant of algae's biology, these companies stumbled into major physical and engineering hurdles that can derail most of their lofty goals, industry and government experts say."

The opposite is being claimed by market research firm Emerging Markets Online CEO Will Thurmond, who sees algae biofuels and a host of other advanced fuels, growing in global markets. Thurmond has done a lot of studies and speaking on the subject

So which one is true, which one more accurate? I recently heard that a well known author and advocate for biofuels just received $1 billion in investor funds for development of algae biofuels. As far as advanced biofuels go, it still seems to be the most valid and likely successful method as we move away from corn and sugar cane ethanol.

Monday, March 28, 2011

BP Covering Up Oil Spill, Nuclear Power Safety, Affordable 40s, OUCH Volvo

BP Covering Up Oil Spill: BP is not admitting how much oil got spilled last year in the Gulf following the Deepwater Horizon disaster. The company refuses to admit a figure on the amount of oil leaded or CO2 emitted in the spill, which has been named the largest oil spill in US history. BP said that it left these numbers out because of "a lack of definitive figures." Not even a good guestimate? 

Nuclear Power Safety: Nuclear experts will flesh out details of the crisis unfolding in Japan and its implications for nuclear safety in the United States for key Senate and House energy committees this week. Nuclear Regulatory Commission Executive Director of Operations Bill Borchardt will start the process speaking to the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee about the status of the crippled Fukushima Daiichi nuclear reactors on Japan's northeastern coast. The trick will be for nuclear experts to calm nerves and assert that the US nuclear energy structure is much safer.

Affordable 40s: The trick these days is buying a fuel efficient car to offset gas price spikes. Car shoppers have a lot of options now looking for 40 MPGers from just above $15,000 to slightly less than $20,000 for a 2011 Ford, Chevy, Hyundai, or Smart. This doesn't even include hybrids or plug-ins. The Hyundai Elantra will probably be the highest volume selling member of the 40-mpg club.

OUCH Volvo: Volvo's anticipated electric crossover, the C30 Electric, has been impressive to hear about. In the historic Volvo tradition, it's done well in crash testing and should prove to be safe and reliable. The problem is a lease price, $2,100 a month -- OUCH!!! That is expected to plunge when the next Volvo battery car debuts.

Friday, March 25, 2011

5 Points on Fuel Cell Vehicles, EVs Free from Coal and Nuclear

Did you know that hydrogen fuel cell vehicles are actually very fast charging electric vehicles? Not plug-in vehicles, but fuel-cell powered.

There are five pieces of the puzzle about hydrogen fuel cell vehicle technologies that are good to understand: a tank that stores hydrogen; a fuel-cell stack that converts hydrogen and oxygen into heat and water, creating electricity; lithium-ion batteries that store the electricity; a power unit that controls the flow of electricity to the electric motors that propel the vehicle; and unlike a battery-powered vehicle that can take six, seven, eight or more hours to recharge, a hydrogen refill takes about 3.5 minutes.

Another interesting fact about electric vehicles: a new study by a nonprofit called the California Center for Sustainable Energy recently found that 40% of consumers who own the all-electric Nissan Leaf also have solar panels on their homes. That is a really something, especially considering the fact that some observers are very nervous about electric vehicles being charged by kilowatts coming from coal- or nuclear-powered electricity plants.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Greenwashing Can Mean a Black Eye

A British survey found the UK public is highly skeptical of companies "greenwashing" -- promoting their green programs to reduce carbon emissions to sound good, but not necessarily taking action significantly or consistently. Just 7% of consumers take companies at their word on their actions to reduce climate impacts, according to a damning new report.

Businesses are risking a costly backlash due to customers’ perception of greenwashing, the UK's Carbon Trust said. Just over half of respondents said they are concerned that companies make one-time improvements to win publicity, before returning to business as usual.

The British survey is similar to what's been investigated in the US market, and which has been going on consistently in the past 10 years, especially the past 3-4 years. It's all in the realm of trends going on now -- corporate responsibility, ethics, accountability to the public and the environment, stricter government guidelines, etc. 

For automakers, suppliers, and dealers, there are strides being taken forward by certain companies encompassing the manufacturing process and end products -- what goes into the car, and its fuel efficiency and emissions. From there, what about the assembly plants and corporate offices  -- energy usage, recycling, conservation, etc. Some companies are putting a lot into this process -- Ford, Honda, GM, Toyota, and Tesla would probably be in the top five. It's still fairly new to the car business and scrutiny is being done in the process.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Europe's Nuclear Power Supporters for EVs Have Mess to Clean Up

It turns out that coal-fired power plants being the primary source of power for electricity generators plants isn't the only environmental concerns for plug-in electric cars. As a story in Automotive News mentions, the disaster in Japan's nuclear power grid has been sending shock waves around the world, especially in Europe. Nuclear power is a primary source for electric plants in Europe -- for example, electric plants in France are dominated by nuclear power. Nuclear power was a big part of the success formula for powering electric cars in Europe'a future.

Plans to have a million EVs on European roads by 2020 heavily relied on nuclear-generated electricity. Nuclear power is necessary for making EVs carbon neutral, proponents have said in Europe, and coal or natural gas as sources for power plants can't provide that neutrality, they say.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Blended Gasoline a No No for Many Car and Machine Buffs

Some people are quite upset that ethanol makes up 10% of the gasoline at 70% of US gas stations. And the fact that the number will be going up to 15% eventually under EPA rules. These critics include motorcycle and vintage/classic car drivers, along with owners of boats, snowmobiles and garden tractors, who don't get the same kind of performance out of E10 as they do out of pure gasoline. Here's what the New York Times has to say about it:

"Restorers of vintage cars point to problems caused by the decay of older rubber components like seals, gaskets and flexible fuel lines, which can deteriorate when exposed to ethanol-blend fuels. Some replacement parts are available in modern materials that resist alcohol damage, but not all are."

The ethanol/biodiesel industry is doing well supplying gas stations with ethanol for gasoline blends. There's also pressure from the federal government to increase the volume of renewable fuel distributed in the country. It's the source of conflict for various interest groups, and the pressure will be increasing.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Confessions of a Green Car Chauffeur in Hollywood

The next time you go through LAX and see guys in the baggage claim holding greeting signs and wearing black suits, white shirts, and ties… take a second look… one of them might be me. While the employer will remain anonymous for now, I figured it was time to mention how I’ve been spending my weekends for the past few months. (If you invite me to a party on a Friday, Saturday, or Sunday, don’t take it personally if I can’t make it. Now, if you’re invitation is much better than lost income, I will take your offer into consideration. Another option you have for spending time with me is hiring me as your chauffeur for your social gathering on the weekend. I’ll see that you get a discount and will only request a very reasonable tip.)

Another surprise I’m going to announce right now: Chauffeuring can work pretty well in a Toyota Prius. I have yet to hear one person complain about getting into a Prius instead of a Town Car. The backseat is roomier than the original Priuses (now called Prii – see below) that you can still see driving by. And it’s a bigger car overall. I’ve been assigned a 2008 Prius with nearly 100,000 miles on it. I did get to test drive a 2010 Prius at an event last year. The 2010’s dashboard technology fills more space and is more graphically impressive, but it’s basically the same car in size and standard features.

Lately there’s been a lot of coverage of the upcoming Prius family – plans include the seven passenger Prius V and compact Prius C Concept – but don't say Prius, say Prii. Toyota got public feedback on how to pluralize the famous brand name now that there's going to be more versions of them on the road. Results were announced at the Chicago Auto Show, and voting was kicked off January 10th at the Detroit Auto Show. It went so well that added the new word to its Prius listing. So it is now official.

When you talk to Prius drivers (me being one of them), they do have good things to say. There are a few criticisms too, including: 

  • The rear window could be better. Most of it is covered by a tinted layer to reduce glare, but it also makes rear view vision less clear. 
  • The car is low to the ground and balanced, but it is slightly clunky and noisy going over speed bumps and the like. 
  • The instrument panel is readable, but some of the data gets old. Is the Prius really getting 99.9 miles per gallon right now, and does that really mean anything? 
  • It's nice but not luxurious – the feel of a commuter car. 

I would add a few good points to this review: 

  • It's safe, reliable, and dependable. 
  • The interior is roomier and spacier than the first generation version, and a good one to pack luggage and drive somebody home from the airport. 
  • The only problem I've seen on a 2008 model with about 100,000 odometer miles is the air conditioning touch screen control panel went wacky recently and had to be replaced. 
  • The base price is about $23,000 these days. When people complain about hybrids costing $5K to $10K more than non-hybrid counterparts, it's hard to criticize the Prius for its price point. 
  • The mileage is very good – usually around 50 mpg combined. That needle doesn't go over to Empty for quite a while, and you're probably only filling up about 10 gallons. As gas prices spike up consistently, my love affair with the Prius deepens. 

As for chauffeuring, I don’t see this being my long-term career. I need the money now, and it’s good to be driving a green car and gaining real world experience about it. I also have driven a CNG-powered Town Car. Remember the story about the angry neighbor stopping by and telling me about his CNG Ford Contours that he couldn’t get repaired? I haven’t seen him since then. Perhaps he and his wife and dog did leave the country in rage over Ford and the EPA.

You do have to gas up the CNG version more often than a regular Town Car (it goes about 75% of the distance of a gasoline version before the tank runs out), and the Clean Energy natural gas stations can be few and far between. And there’s a bad thing that can happen – you run out of natural gas, and you have to be towed and sometimes have a service technician check out the valve before filling up the tank. Either way, you get towed before you can fill up again. You can’t walk to a gas station and fill up a plastic gas tank at the pump to take back to your car, when you’re working with natural gas. The CNG vehicle does have great emissions ratings and an HOV car pool sticker. Natural gas is a better buy than gasoline – especially as gas prices hike – and you do get used to driving it and gassing up regularly as part of your schedule. You can also get a more efficient, longer range natural gas vehicle, many of them LNG and some CNG, depending on the quality of the aftermarket supplier. The match between engine/drivetrain and natural gas as its power source can work well for certain makes and models like the Honda Civic GX and a few of the Ford and GM natural gas conversion light trucks.

There was also the opportunity I had to drive a Lexus RX450h hybrid. I drove a celebrity to an awards show back in October (yes, LA has awards shows that basically go from September until the Oscars in late February). When I drove him and his assistant onto the lot with a “Talent” sign on the dashboard, we were directed to a roped-off spot where media asked questions and flashed cameras. I felt like I was in a movie. Regardless of that, the RX450h was a treat to drive – very smooth, and plenty of power as needed. It’s a very comfortable and luxurious ride with great stuff to see on the dashboard control panel, almost too good as to be distracting. Getting better mileage than non-hybrid luxury SUVs is also a good thing.

I do have a lot of respect for chauffeurs. They have to get up damn early and wait in the dark for someone to come out of the house with their baggage. They get used to showing up early and waiting for someone who’s late, sometimes having to call in to dispatch and let them know. And always be 15 minutes early to the spot, never get lost, meet client requests at all times, and be at a high level of customer service. The tips can be good, and you do get to meet some, well, interesting people:

Five Categories of Hollywood Backseaters 

– Celebrities, usually actors who are referred to as “talent” by the entertainment industry, and where it’s possible you’ll access an event with that word on a dashboard sign to let the studio know you’ve got one in the back seat. One thing I’ve listened to while driving Hollywood celebrities is conversations they’re having where they tell a spouse, friend, or agent about the unsatisfying and frustrating meetings they’ve just had, where people aren’t being upfront about offering the work and what it will pay. Sometimes this involves bad words, such as, “They are totally f%8#cking me over!” Another interesting listen involved a guy who used to be in a famous pop group and had his own TV variety show a few years ago. His complaint was about his Twitter account – where somebody selling a lot of vitamins and supplements tried to sound like they were his buddy posting helpful suggestions about what and where to buy good stuff for their health. He had to out them in a few of his tweets before it stopped. Another crumb of interesting celebrity gossip: some of them take fake names to protect themselves from the paparazzi and annoying fans. One client uses a character name from an Ayn Rand novel. 

Friendly, Fun & Creative – You can have some really cool conversations with Hollywoodites. Sometimes they’re screen writers, production crew, marketing/communications people, or have absolutely nothing to do with entertainment biz, live in LA, and want to be chauffeured. They do ask good questions and have their own opinions about green cars. They actually speak to you as if you’re a real human being, not just a machine driving a machine. 

Distant & Detached – Usually nicely dressed, business like, packed with the latest smart technology that they live off oc. You can drive these people more than once, and they don’t remember you from before. This fact applies not just to Hollywoodites. I hear that chauffeurs know this cross country, cross industry. Business people living off their phone, sending emails, or spacing out in thought. 

Total Jerks – These people, usually men but sometimes women, seem to get a charge out of being total jerks and love that they’re known for spewing out rants and attacks as part of their image. Fortunately they’re rare. They might go to a club, or get picked up from a business meeting, and have plenty to say about their enemies in this world and how they’ve got them all figured out, and will one up them. Their assistants tell them they understand what they’re saying and agree completely, though I don’t think of any of us in the car believe it. 

Tightly Wound – These people are nonstop balls of nervous energy, usually obsessively compulsively attached to communicating with people and controlling as much in this universe as possible. One passenger called her friend and left a long voice mail, then texted her, then called her roommate and asked that she be told about the call and not being able to get through. She ended her trip giving me stark and sullen driving directions, seemingly not liking that I didn’t know her neighborhood like the back of my hand. Another passenger incessantly called a lot of people she knew, mostly leaving them long messages, unable to sit in that backseat with the quiet.

As a chauffeur, you have to pretend you’re invisible at these moments, blending into the dashboard. It’s nice to be treated like an equal human being, but that doesn’t happen all the time. So you focus on being of service, getting them there safely and on time, making sure they have all they need, carry their luggage, etc.

Most importantly, if they don’t tip you, let it go. They may think it’s covered in the corporate account, or be distracted, or don’t believe in tipping, or think they’ve already paid enough, or were not impressed with the service level, or annoyed with you for not being perfect about the driving route. I’ve been given verbal tips on earning cash tips from other drivers, and that’s cool. In the end, I work on letting it go. Tips are great but I strive to deliver a high level of service and get them there safely and on time. The tip is their choice.

Oddly enough, I do get a charge out of leaving for a trip on time. It might be 4:30 in the morning, and I’ve got my suit on, I’ve got the gas card and Nextel radio, and the car is clean and gassed up with a bottle of water and snack in a spotless back seat. I know where I’m going and have left on time. I radio the dispatcher and say, “I’m in route,” and the dispatcher says, “10-4.” Then I breathe deeply and feel I am right where I’m supposed to be in that very moment.

There’s also some very interesting conversations I get to have with other chauffeurs while waiting for clients to make it through the terminal. Like me, some of them have other career tracks they’re on and this work is extra. I do get to spend some time around veteran drivers who work a lot of hours and don’t care for it that much, but this what they do. And then there is that rare breed who love what they do, and have a lot of gifts to share on how to keep that car looking great, how to get out of traffic jams, and essentially read the client’s mind, meeting their needs ahead of time. These chauffeurs get great trips and are requested later by high-level Hollywood execs.

They don’t want to drive a Prius, though. They want to get a client in an SUV or Town Car, where the trips can be longer and the cash flow more plentiful. Sometimes they get “as directed” trips where the client tells you where to go and when to drop them off. I had one of these passengers on a Friday night. I waited about three hours for her to get out of a night club, and it went pretty late into the evening. I fell asleep probably four times until my phone woke me up and she said she was ready to go. The following Friday morning, I looked at my online checking account and saw how much I’d made that weekend. She was forgiven, and I held no grudge.

These long waits do give me more time with my heartthrob, the Prius. I spend a lot of hours in that driver’s seat, or walking around the car, stopping and waiting for a passenger, checking out the curves and lines. I’m used to the subtle sputtering noises and stammers the Prius makes as its motor kicks in, and the regenerative braking does its job. The Prius has its own personality that you get used to after a while, and start to get fond of. I’ve known a few people who are just plain addicted to the Prius and have owned two or three of them. They are true believers and will shop for different versions of the Prii models that are soon to come out.

The first couple of times I drove it, the car was a little awkward for me – having to step on the brake and hit the start button without a key. When stopping the engine, hitting the park button before hitting the power button again. Soon it became automatic, and I came to appreciate the back-up camera, fending off danger to small children and tiny animals.

Okay, that’s enough about the Prius and chauffeur gig. I do wonder if the next woman I get involved with will get tired of my attachment to the Prius, perhaps jealous, and will get wild ideas about doing the Prius in. Hmmm… could be a movie script I pitch to a client.

--Jon LeSage

Friday, March 18, 2011

Panic Attack Over Nuclear Disaster in America

For those paranoid about nuclear plant radiation ruining their lives, join the club...

Greenwire posted this: "It's long been a vexing issue in the scientific community, spurred in large part by public panic over nuclear power, waste and radiation: Why the terror? Compared to notorious killers like driving, smoking or drinking, nuclear risks -- though objectively carrying little danger in their modern deployments -- stir the deepest fears in Americans, a terror that is surfacing again as engineers strive to contain the crisis at Japan's crippled Fukushima Daiichi power station."

My thoughts on the subject:

1. Some of this comes from baby boomers who were given "duck and cover" instructions by teachers years ago, when H-bomb tests were taking place and paranoia about Russian atomic bomb attacks was being felt. There were also a bunch of popular horror movies about the byproducts of this new technology -- giant ants and roaches destroying towns, families fleeing to live up in the mountains, etc.

2. Problems at the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant stirred up fear and protest in the late 1970s -- see the Jane Fonda movie, "The China Syndrome," to get a good look at it. There were also a lot of No Nukes concerts led by Jackson Browne that were stirring up activists. 

3. The Russian debacle at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in 1986, where the government attempted to control the situation and the fact that a lot of people died immediately or from cancer soon after.

4. Nuclear power makes up 20% of our energy sources for electric power plants in America. It might be cleaner than coal, but it's still producing a lot of our energy, sometimes close to where we live.

5. Other countries (like France) use a lot of nuclear power for electricity -- this is widespread throughout the world.

6. As electric vehicles and renewable energy have become important issues in US and international politics, the source of power is a hot issue. Look for a lot of debate and commentary.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Nuclear Power in Your Plug-in Electric Vehicle

As more comes out on the Japanese disaster impacting its nuclear power plants, the actual safety and reliability of nuclear energy in this country is being explored and debated. The Dept. of Energy says that 103 nuclear units supply about 20% of the electricity produced in the US – second only to coal as a fuel source. Proponents of plug-in electric vehicles advocate renewable energy as the growing source of electric power plant energy, replacing dirty coal and potentially dangerous nuclear; natural gas would be much more acceptable to them, along with solar, wind, and other renewables. Some would say nuclear power is a renewable, and is much safer in the US. You can expect to hear a lot more about it.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Who Resurrected the Electric Car?

It’s been four years since “Who Killed the Electric Car?” was launched, and now its sequel is finally coming out. The premiere of “Revenge of the Electric Car” will take place as part of the opening weekend of the 2011 Tribeca Film Festival in New York City, and the festival opens April 20 and runs through May 1. The movie explores what happened in the years following the launch and death of GM’s EV1 and a few other electric cars. Today, the race is on for domination in the brand new car segment. The movie follows four lead characters and their efforts to win the race: Tesla’s Elon Musk, Renault Nissan’s Carlos Ghosn, GM’s Bob Lutz, and an independent car converter.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Cars Crave Clean, According to Exxon Mobil

While gassing up at an Exxon Mobil station near my house, I've noticed they've been promoting a new website with the slogans "Engines Adore Clean," and "Cars Crave Clean." When you go the site, you're offered a tour to take, a journey through your car. It tells you, "Exxon and Mobil have engineered gasoline on the molecular level to help clean up intake valves so it can perform at its best." When you click for the next screen, you're taken through an epic, beautiful view of gasoline flowing downstream with a very spiffy music soundtrack backing it up.

Then you go to a screen with three choices for the tour -- Fuel Injector, Intake Valves, and Combustion Chamber. You find out how its gasoline provides benefits to vital engine parts. So if you click through Fuel Injector, you learn how about, in a few milleseconds, dirty air can enter the picture and create a mess that Exxon Mobil's fuel can clean up for you.

My thoughts on the marketing campaign:

1. Prominent use of the word "clean," which is now the word to use to improve image for environmental impact, oil spills, advanced technology, space age progress, etc.

2. It taps into our love of cars and engines -- "Cars Crave Clean".... "Engines Adore Clean" As if your car is like having a dog or cat -- you're crazy about them and want to take good care of them.

3. Oil companies are taking on marketing promotions that are pretty new for them in this age of social media and online marketing. Like many companies out there. I would say their motivation is driven by the Gulf oil spill, the spiking cost of gasoline, and resentment toward oil companies for various reasons.

Monday, March 14, 2011

The Japan Syndrome Shakes Up Nuclear Power Fears

The death toll has been growing in post-earthquake-and-Tsunami Japan. Right along with the devastating natural disaster, fear over nuclear power plants have stirred panic. More than a half-million people in Japan have been displaced by growing radiation fears and the massive swath of destruction. Japanese officials ordered people near the Fukushima nuclear power plant complex to stay indoors after a hydrogen blast Monday in the containment building of one of its six reactors, similar to one that occurred Saturday in a separate reactor, according to LA Times. Cabinet secretary Yukio Edano, speaking in a live TV broadcast, said it was believed that the reactor remained intact and "we think that the possibility of a massive radiation emission is low." But the apparently intensifying nuclear crisis sent a wave of fear and anxiety through the quake-battered country, as powerful aftershocks from Friday's temblor continued to rattle cities and towns. 

There is a connection between hydrogen and nuclear power. When you attend the hydrogen conference, the Idaho National Laboratory plays a part in the industry alliance and there is connection between the technologies. Nuclear power is much safer than it used to be -- but it really wasn't long ago that the movie "The China Syndrome" (starring Jane Fonda, Jack Lemmon, and Michael Douglas) and No Nukes concerts with Jackson Browne and other activists brought a lot of attention to the dangers of nuclear power. The Chernobyl disaster in Russia in 1986 also heightened the fear over the safety and sanity of nuclear power. A good chunk of electricity in the US is created through nuclear-powered plants, and this is common around the world. It is a cleaner technology than fossil fuels, but the safety factors are always there. Think Hindenburg disaster for hydrogen and Chernobyl for nuclear -- and now the crisis in Japan -- and you're reminded of the panic these technologies can cause. 

Friday, March 11, 2011

Ford Converts More of its Michigan Plant to Solar Power

Automakers are building sustainability into their manufacturing process, especially GM and Ford. Following last year's power sourcing from solar panels, Ford Motor Co. has done more at its Michigan assembly plant, one of the state's largest solar power generation systems. The system is the result of collaboration between Ford, DTE Energy, Xtreme Power, the city of Wayne, and the state of Michigan -- and has been covered by Environmental Leader. DTE Energy installed the 500-kilowatt solar photovoltaic panel system at Michigan Assembly.

The public/private partnerships must work effectively for these projects to go anywhere. Perhaps there will be a thriving renewable energy industry with cash flow streaming from venture capitalists and stockholders. For now, it takes government agencies and funding, NPOs, and corporations to make it work. The Michigan Assembly project is funded by a $3 million investment from DTE Energy’s SolarCurrents program, a $2 million grant from the Michigan Public Service Commission in support of the state’s smart-grid initiative, and approximately $800,000 worth of in-kind contributions from Ford.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Electric Cars Inspiring Espionage and Bad Behavior

Chinese carmaker BYD is getting in trouble for possibly stealing patent right information for its product plans. A report published on Internet whistle-blowing site WikiLeaks show, the battery firm turned electric vehicle manufacturer backed by multi billionaire Warren Buffet could be guilty of these transgressions and more. According to Reuters, which was given access to the leaked documents through a third party, the US government was sent diplomatic cables detailing BYD’s lack of respect for International patent law. 

Bad news on the international electric car front intensifies. The plot thickens in France as Renault continues to unravel the potential espionage mystery that led to the company firing three of its executives in January.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Addicted to the Prius

The number of Toyota hybrids sold over the past decade or so has officially passed the three-million mark, hitting 3.03 million back on February 28th, says Autoblog Green. Most of these are the Prius, and that pioneer green car has been joined by the Camry hybrid and a few Lexus models. What's most interesting is the speed at which Toyota is selling hybrids now: The first million took nine years, 10 months; the second million, two years and three months; the third million? 18 months.

When you talk to Prius drivers, they do have good things to say, me being one of them. There are a few criticisms too, including:
  • The rear window could be better. Most of it is covered by a tinted layer to reduce glare, but it also makes rear view vision less than clear.
  • The car is low to the ground and balanced, but it is a bit clunky and noisy going over speed bumps and the like.
  • The instrument panel is readable, but some of the data gets old. Is the Prius really getting 99.9 miles per gallon right now, and what does that really mean?
  • It's nice but not luxurious -- basic commuter car.
I would add a few good points to this:
  • It's safe, reliable, and dependable.
  • The interior is roomier and spacier than the first generation version, and a good one to pack luggage and drive somebody home from the airport.
  • The only problem I've seen on a 2006 model with about 100,000 odometer miles is the air conditioning touch screen control panel went wacky and had to be replaced.
  • The mileage is very good -- usually around 50 mpg combined, but that needle doesn't go down to zero for quite a while and you're only filling up about 10 gallons. As gas prices spike up consistently, the love affair with the Prius deepens.
  • The base price is about $23,000 these days. When people complain about hybrids costing $5K to $10K more than non-hybrid counterparts, it's hard to criticize the Prius for its price point.
And the verdict is? Call me a Prius addict.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Fuel Saving Tips as Annoying and Necessary as Dentist Appointments

Taking on those healthy habits for saving fuel and lowering your gas bills is kind of like what they recommend to you during dentist office visits. You need to do a few things regularly or you'll regret it later. As gas prices go up nearly each and every day, the stress level increases when pump prices are viewed. So, here are a few from

Drive Smoother: Aggressive driving has an impact on how much fuel you consume. When driving, pushing the gas pedal hard or slamming the brakes will lower your average fuel economy. Aggressive driving can lower your gas mileage by 33 percent on the highway and five percent around town.

Slow Down: Most vehicles get the most amount of fuel efficiency when driving between 45 and 55 miles per hour. The Department of Energy (DOE) figures that for every five miles you drive going in excess of 60 mph, you could lose somewhere between seven to 23 percent of fuel efficiency.

Reduce Idling: Turn off your engine if you're waiting for more than 20 seconds. Idling wastes more gas than turning off your engine and restarting it. 
Use Premium Fuel Only When Needed: Regular unleaded fuel won't hurt most vehicles even if premium unleaded fuel is required. 
Shop for Gas: Web sites like and certain GPS devices can help you search for the lowest gas price and save you the hassle of burning more fuel while looking for cheaper gas.

Purchase a Fuel-Efficient Car: Buying a new car that is more fuel efficient, such as a hybrid or diesel vehicle, makes good financial sense as gas prices continue to rise.

Monday, March 7, 2011

My Resentment for, and Addiction to, Automotive News

Automotive News is a unique info source for car biz coverage. I resent that my paid subscription is running out and I have to decide whether to come up with more or lose my access. In the meantime, here are four stories from the weekly issue that really stood out:

Fisker Automotive Inc. plans to use its recently acquired, former GM, plant in Delaware in part to build vehicles for other automakers. Fisker plans to use only one-third of an installed 300,000 units of capacity at the plant in Wilmington, Del., for its vehicles, which will be built there in late 2012.

The Chevrolet Volt turned in a lackluster performance for efficiency in its first series of cold-weather road tests, according to Consumer Reports. Fun to drive, ride is good, but doesn’t make financial sense, according to the magazine’s auto test center director. The Volt fell short of its maximum range potential under battery power. People seeking value and fuel efficiency are better off with hybrids like the Prius and Ford Fusion.

Toyota aims to slash the cost of hydrogen fuel cell technology before it starts selling its fuel cell sedan in 2015. The company plans to tackle costs several ways, including using less platinum in the fuel stack, fewer components, and simplifying the design.

Rolls-Royce, of all companies, has built an electric vehicle. The Phantom EE, unveiled at the Geneva auto show, is a concept. And the company is quick to say that it's nowhere near production. It will have the largest battery pack ever fitted to a passenger car, the company said.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Automotive Digest a Cool Car Town to Visit

In case you were ever wondering how Green Machine Digest and ADW Green got started, it's good to know a little bit about the parent organization, Automotive Digest. It was started up by Publisher Chuck Parker in 1998. At the time, he saw the future of media, that it was all going online, and decided to start up a new brand covering the auto industry. His concept was that people are getting inundated with information content from several sources, and the internet promised to change the rules of the game. The idea was to give readers a content hub to scan through every day with tight news summaries, executive interviews, statistical charts, resources and links, and eventually videos and social media. Sort of "one stop shopping" for all things automotive, of interest to leaders in the field.

In October 2009, AD started up Automotive Digest Weekly Green during a time when groundbreaking news and developments were coming out Detroit, Washington, California, and across the globe on a daily basis. It's siblings include Dealer Digest Daily, Dealer Management Weekly, and Fleet Management Weekly. ADW Green is trying things on a bit differently, with this blog and its Twitter page. Covering green machines is a good place to do it -- a brand new industry with technology innovations and product launches that would have been unbelievable not long ago. And it's in the Automotive Digest family, a good place to be for resources, team talent and support, and a respected brand name to fly under.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Plug-in Hybrids Better than Gasoline Versions

So plug-in hybrid vehicles, aka extended range, are very appealing to a lot of people. There aren't too many on the market, the Chevy Volt being the symbol, and many are in the works. Here's why people are looking forward to it:

1. Much of the time you're on battery power, freeing you up from OPEC-controlled, smog spitting, ridiculously expensive, gasoline.

2. When the battery runs out, the gas engine kicks in, reducing your range anxiety and giving you a lot more miles to cover before charging up your battery again.

So what if there were a way to move beyond battery and gasoline in a PHEV? Wouldn't that be the coolest thing? Here's a few thoughts on that subject...

1. The Algeus is being driven around by "Fuel" director/star Josh Tickell, a big believer in biofuels and freedom from oil. It's a Toyota Prius converted aftermarket into a plug-in hybrid version, and its gas engine has been taken over by algae biofuel. Very cool! The problem is there's only one of them out there now, and algae biofuel has some big stumbling blocks to surmount before making it to your nearest gas station.

2. Peugeot finally took the wraps off the look-awaited 3008 Hybrid4, the first diesel-electric vehicle in the world. This model will be available in a limited edition of 300 units, which will be ready to hit the market in the fall. According to the Detroit News, the 3008 Hybrid4 is equipped with a 163 horsepower 2.0-liter HDi diesel engine driving the front wheels. Not a plug-in hybrid vehicle - a regular hybrid running on diesel instead of gasoline, but a step in the right direction.

Ok, this is very cool but only 300 of them are coming out. And how many come to the US from Europe? Probably zero to a couple, as it's most likely launched in France. The good news here is that diesel is much cleaner these days because of government restrictions on what's sold (ultra-low sulfur), and diesel engine technology is way more efficient and cleaner than it used to be. So a diesel hybrid will probably be better than a gas engine hybrid - more miles per gallon and a bit cleaner. The downside is that diesel is a bit more expensive than gasoline, but if it's more fuel efficient, that could balance it out.

And what about any other fuel combinations? Natural gas or propane and plug-in hybrid? Flexible fuel version of a plug-in hybrid marrying ethanol and battery power? And what about this hydrogen hybrid I've heard about? 

All of this new vehicle technology is exciting, even though it can stir up fears stemming from 1950s sci-fi/horror flicks where scientists screw up and accidentally produce humongous ants, turtles, rats, etc., that eat us alive. It's good that there are strict safety requirements on vehicle these days (thank you, Ralph Nader), and that Society of Automotive Engineers and Underwriters Laboratories are extremely cautious and addicted to testing before they endorse new technology and vehicles.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

6 Good Green Car Stories, 3 of them from Geneva

1. Mass-market automakers like Toyota, Fiat, and Ford say green technologies on display at the Geneva Motor Show will help them weather the impact of skyrocketing fuel prices.

2. Google has invested in a startup called Transphorm, whose power-conversion efficiency technology could some day help create more efficient electric cars.

3. Electric motorcycle king Zero Motorcycles now has the Zero XU, the fifth in its product line.With instant torque from zero rpm, no shifting, a low weight, a low seat height and a removable power pack, the bike could be ideal for those who live in the city.

4. Volvo Cars is presenting the world's first diesel plug-in hybrid, the new V60 Plug-in Hybrid, at the Geneva Motor Show.

5. There will be a European debut of a Honda EV concept and plug-in hybrid at the Geneva Motor Show.

6. A new air-conditioning refrigerant can now be used by automakers in new cars and light trucks to help meet federal standards for greenhouse gas emissions. The chemical, HFO-1234yf, has a global-warming potential that is 99.7 percent less than the current chemical, HFC-134a, used in most car air conditioners, the EPA said.