Big Picture: Tesla Motors dealing with battery fire, September sales figures

Tesla Model S fireHave you seen the YouTube video that went viral a few days ago – where passengers driving down a street in Kent, Wash., view a Tesla Model S on fire? The car struck metal debris on Oct .1 in the town near Seattle – said to be a “curved section” that fell off a semi-trailer. First responders said that the fire occurred in the electric vehicle’s lithium-ion battery. “The geometry of the object caused a powerful lever action as it went under the car, punching upward and impaling the Model S with a peak force on the order of 25 tons,” Tesla CEO Elon Musk wrote in a statement. “Had a conventional gasoline car encountered the same object on the highway, the result could have been far worse.” The driver was safe and only had good things to say about the car. Tesla’s booming stock price dropped 10% over two days but looks like it could be coming back. It will most likely turn out to be similar to what Chevrolet went through with the NHTSA report on the Volt lithium battery catching fire in a test; or to Nissan going through the wringer last year over the Leaf’s battery life receding in extreme heat conditions in Arizona. The Volt and Leaf are doing just fine, and the Model S will probably come through in sales and reputation if handled the right way by Tesla Motors.

In other Tesla news, the automaker is moving forward to direct sales in Virginia. The Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles and the Virginia Automobile Dealers Association reached an agreement late last week to allow the automaker to apply for a single dealership license. Tesla withdrew a lawsuit and now needs to get approval from the Virginia Motor Vehicle Dealer Board, the state regulatory agency that oversees dealers in the state, before it can begin selling vehicles in Virginia. Tesla Motors has taken another step toward expanding its fast charger options for Model S drivers. For $1,000, you’ll soon be able to get a CHAdeMO fast-charger adapter. While the 50 kilowatt CHAdeMO stations aren’t nearly as fast of the 120 kW Tesla Superchargers, there are a lot more of them out there on the roads – primarily in the Pacific Northwest region.

Correction: California funding of 100 hydrogen fueling stations
As reported by a Green Auto Market reader close to the story…. The coverage of California’s governor approving bills last week incorrectly reported funding for 100 hydrogen fueling stations in the state. It wasn’t $20 million in one lump sum – it needs to be described as “either $20 million per year or a potential total of $220 million during the life of the extended program (until 2023).” My reporting assumed that hydrogen stations would cost $200,000 each but it’s actually costing a bit more than that amount. So, if you catch incorrect reporting, please let me know. If you completely disagree with what I wrote, please let me know. It could inspire and fuel another commentary from me.

September sales figures didn’t break records, but the metal was still moving
Electric Drive Transportation Association just released electric vehicle sales numbers for September 2013. About 8,127 plug-in vehicles were sold last month – 4,477 plug-in hybrids and 3,650 battery electric vehicles. The numbers weren’t as high as August’s record sales, but they do show a 40% jump over September 2012. Cumulative 2013 sales for plug-ins were 117% higher than they were by this time in 2012. There were 33,576 hybrids sold last month, which correlates with the overall downward sales trend in new vehicle sales in the US market. Long term, it looked better – total sales for hybrids in 2013 were 21% higher than they were in the first nine months of 2012.

New book follows the money trail shaping renewable energy
“Do you get the feeling that the energy industry and the Congress that it owns are deliberately lying to you? If so, you are 100% correct,” according to an announcement that Editor Craig Shields just had his third book published, Renewable Energy: Following the Money. The book features another set of interviews; the effects that economics and financial power have on the course of the energy industry are explored by high-ranking officers in the US military, lobbyists, scientists, economists, environmentalists, journalists, and heads of NGOs. I applaud Shields’ hard work and wide ranging perspectives on renewable energy and clean transportation. I admire how much he’s kept his word on staying in the trenches on where all of this is going as a business – whether that be through attending key conferences or interviewing experts of all genres for his books and blog. This new book digs into what I would describe as what “Deep Throat” ex-FBI official W. Mark Felt kept telling reporter Bob Woodward about the Watergate scandal: “Follow the money trail.”

CARB streamlines propane and NGV upfits, but Peter Ward calls for it to go further
The Cal­i­for­nia Air Resources Board (CARB) has stream­lined the process for propane auto­gas and nat­ural gas vehi­cle upfits through approv­ing changes to its rules. This brings the process closer to require­ments of the US Envi­ron­men­tal Pro­tec­tion Agency. Peter Ward of Alter­na­tive Fuels Advo­cates would like to see the process go fur­ther, where adjust­ments to the require­ments could be made with­out hav­ing to go to the Board each time. It’s the first substantial revision to the CARB rules in 18 years. Ward would like to see continued cooperation and mutual interest continued between CARB and the industry. “Keep the regulations nimble,” he said.

Highlights from Plug-In 2013 in San Diego

  • Debate continued by panelists on how public charging should be funded. Some say it should be essentially free to the public – paid for by retailers wanting to offer consumers incentives for showing up and staying a while. Some charger makers and others argue that most of the charging is happening at home and the EV drivers should just have to swipe their credit card to charge somewhere else. However, one-time processing fees could be a problem for acceptance of these systems by consumers. Then there’s the problem of too many people charging during peak hours when utilities are limited in how much energy should be flowing to charging stations. It’s likely there are not enough EVs out there yet for it to be a problem, but the worry continues.
  • Via Motors has a contract to build and deliver $20 million worth of plug-in hybrid pickups and vans to over 50 participating fleets. The fleets will also be sending real-time data to the US Department of Energy to study for improvements in fuel economy and emissions.
  • ABB launched the Terra 53 for North America. This 50 kW DC fast charging station meets both SAE Combo and CHAdeMO standards for battery electric vehicles, all in one station.
  • A coalition of US and German automakers unveiled a public combo charger at the Fashion Valley Mall in San Diego—in an eVgo Freedom Station. It uses the CCS plug and combines a J-1772 Level 2, 240-volt charge point with direct current (DC) fast charging.
  • Eaton released its Dual AC Level 2 charging stations for simultaneous charging of two EVS. The stations can charge electric vehicle batteries up to three times faster than traditional charging systems to offer a cost-effective solution.

And in other news during a busy week…..

  • Clean Energy Fuels released  its “Redeem” renewable natural gas fuel. The company says it is the first one to commercially distribute a renewable natural gas vehicle fuel made from waste streams such as landfills, large dairies and sewage plants directly to fleets around the country and at 35 public Clean Energy stations throughout California. Clean Energy says it’s 90% cleaner than diesel and comes from biogenic methane, or biogas – methane generated by decomposition of organic waste. The target is to produce and distribute 15 million gallons of Redeem in its first year.
  • General Electric Co, Whirlpool Corp, Eaton Corp and others are developing more affordable natural gas vehicle home refueling systems. For about a tenth of the price of current models, plus installation, they aim to sell the new units to the millions of homes across America that are already hooked up to natural gas pipelines. Energy providers in Georgia, California and Utah are working on distributing new refueling units in the next two years. Honda has also expressed interest in the new technology.
  • UK-based hydrogen fueling company ITM Power has a 4.45 million (pounds) project that will integrate its hydrogen energy storage and vehicle refueling system on the Island of Wight. It’s called EcoIsland Hydrogen Vehicle Refueller, which is supported by the UK’s innovation agency, the Technology Strategy Board.
  • General Motors is expanding its collaboration with the U.S. Army’s Tank Automotive Research, Development and Engineering Center (TARDEC) to develop hydrogen fuel-cell technology. It ties in with GM’s new fuel-cell development facility in Pontiac, Mich., which is about 20 miles from TARDEC’s new fuel-cell research lab in Warren, Mich. The two entities will focus on testing the durability and performance of fuel-cell materials. In related news, Daimler and GM will be investing in two other fuel cell projects aimed at advancing the vehicle technologies and building out the fueling infrastructure. Daimler is putting about $500 million into a network of hydrogen stations in Germany over the next 10 years.
  • The Toyota RAV4 electric version took the top ranking away from last year’s winner, the 2013 Lexus GS 450h in the Automobile Club of Southern California’s 2013 Green Car Guide. Results come from the organization’s Automotive Research Center, which has been a leading vehicular emissions test lab since the late 1960s. Testers look at how hybrid, alternative fuel, electric, fuel efficient, and extremely low emitting gasoline-powered vehicles on the market are performing following a number of patterns vehicles are typically experiencing.
  • Kia will release the 2015 Soul EV, the first electric car from a Korean automaker to be sold in the US beyond concept cars displayed at auto shows.
  • The US Environmental Protection Agency wants to make right with consumers to avoid future fuel economy rating meltdowns like the ones we’ve seen lately. EPA will be giving more information about its audits and data submitted by automakers. Results from 20 recent fuel-economy audits will be released soon to the public to start the changeover.

Millennials and GenY: How to market green transportation and employ them without getting too annoyed

Millennials and GenY on their phonesMost everyone reading business news these days and going to conferences are hearing a lot of information on young people, who are typically referred to as Millennials or GenY. The number of young people in this demographic is huge – kids of Baby Boomers are much larger in numbers than the previous generation, which has been called GenX. It’s good to get educated and updated on some of the study findings, as these people are being educated and employed, working up the ranks, and are making very significant transportation decisions. So here are a few trends and perspectives to think about…..

  • Age range: They’ve been born somewhere between 1980 to the mid-1990s – so they’re about 18 to 33 years old.
  • No longer in love with cars:  While their parents got their drivers licenses soon after turning 16, that’s getting extended much longer these days – some of them up to age 20. Their interesting in buying a car or inheriting an aged family car is much less than it was 25 years ago. There’s a lot of concern among automakers and dealers that this huge market segment is buying fewer cars than Baby Boomers and Generation X – and that there’s quite a lot of them.
  • They are very interested in green transportation – hybrids and electric vehicles; car sharing and public transportation makes sense to them. They are more likely to embrace autonomous, driverless vehicles than their parents seem to be. They’re very utilitarian about transportation and don’t look forward to driving spacious cars and crossovers, luxury vehicles, or pickups like many other consumers in the US market. We’re starting to see a lot of recognition of these deeper trends from BMW testing out EV and urban transportation options, and Ford being active on intelligent highway consortiums. Automakers are starting to change their identities from vehicle manufacturers to transportation providers, and seem to recognize that it’s critical to go this route to engage brand loyalty from Millennials.
  • Extremely pragmatic and independent – with “Whatever!” being their teenager mantra: You may notice young people don’t carry some of the social order unspoken rules that their parents did. If they’re dating someone from another racial/ethnic group or have friends who are gay, lesbian, or bisexual, it’s not an issue for them. They don’t seem to understand their parents being uneasy about it. Dad might say, “Well, one of my friends in college was gay,” to offer support, and his son will tell him that he’s being discriminatory.
  • Don’t have the same work ethic and habits of someone over 40: Mom and dad might be willing to work really long hours and get pay raises, but their kids usually march to the beat of a different drummer. They tend to be focused more on basic living expenses and pragmatic necessities. Many times, they were given a lot of stuff already by their parents and it doesn’t impress them all that much anymore. They might get absorbed in a new project at the office for a few weeks, but won’t necessarily consistently deliver on what was asked of them by their employers. That can be a source of frustration for young employees and older supervisors who see a generational split.
  • Very special education: They received lots of awards at school from an early age for just about anything, including showing up in the classroom. Their parents demanded excellent education for them and moved them to the best high schools to get the highest test scores, earn college credits, and take music lessons. The sad part is that many of these kids have bachelor’s and master’s degrees and are struggling to get jobs.
  • Distraction is a problem: They grew up gaming and surfing the web – and do spend a lot of time staring into their phones. They’re capable of doing four things at once, but focusing on one task for very long can be tough for them – not to mention for their supervisors. There’s a lot of emphasis lately on distracted driving by young people being a crisis, according to safety specialists. However, that might be a bit extreme since there are less of them driving than in the past and cars are safer these days. The problem with people texting and talking on their smartphone while driving extends to all generations; state laws are getting tough to try and deal with it.
  • Get creative about connecting with them. As Scott Pechstein, VP of Sales for Autobytel recently told Automotive Digest, it’s taking a lot of work for dealers to reach young consumers. Facebook, social media, and reputation of the dealership is important to them. Social media and speaking to them via text in the style and method Millennials want to be spoken to are necessary to reach the market segment.
  • Younger people see cars quite differently: New car-sharing services, travel applications and other technological tools are contributing to a broader shift away from driving among Americans, especially younger ones interested in digital multitasking on the go, according to a study released by the US PIRG Education Fund. “Personal auto ownership used to be the clear ticket to mobility,” said Joanna Guy, of the Maryland PIRG Foundation. “For baby boomers, driving your car represented freedom and spontaneity. But today — especially for younger people — owning a car increasingly represents big expenses and parking hassles.”
  • Younger car shoppers (especially first-time buyers) are very interested in seven-inch touchscreens on the new compact Chevrolet Spark. Pairing is available to the iPhone or Android and other mobile devices for contact lists, stored music, reading and composing text messages, videos and slideshows, and other perks on Chevy’s MyLink infotainment system.
  • There are persuasive articles out there saying Millennials are more similar to previous generations than you’d think. While their style, communications, interests, and love affair with cars seems to be different than their elders, they are coming through with typical behaviors seen for many years in the workplace and retail environment. Much of that comes through their background – education, family, peer group, opinions, life experiences, etc.

Monsanto beats BP as “Most Evil Corporation” and adds Climate Change to its list along with GMOs

Monsanto GMOAgribusiness giant Monsanto has become a very telling symbol of the world we live in today – developing scientific formulas and technologies with huge moral implications and baffling complexities; behind-the-scenes political and economic power; brand identity without human personality; and becoming the enemy that we seem to need. Thinking about Monsanto can push buttons that apply to alternative fuels and advanced technology vehicles – potentially creating more problems than the solutions they were intended to deliver. Here are some points to consider….

  1. This summer, results of a survey came out taken by NaturalNews that placed Monsanto far into first place as the “most evil company” at 51% of respondents. That was followed by the Federal Reserve at 20% (think Occupy Wall Street); British Petroleum at 9% (think Deepwater Horizon oil spill); Haliburton at 5% (think war in Iraq); and 3% chose McDonald’s (think “Super Size Me”). BP was definitely the villain for a long period of time after the gulf spill in April 2010, much like Exxon was after the 1989 Alaska oil spill.
  2. Genetically Modified Organisms (GMO) has been the ominous issue for a few years now with Monsanto. Many people saw the film “Food Inc.” that devoted a large portion of the movie to uncovering the role Monsanto has been playing in pushing GMO. Genetically modified seeds end up in a lot of the processed food we eat through high fructose corn syrup; and most of the produce in supermarkets is now genetically modified – though Monsanto doesn’t control all of it. GMO is said to have started years ago to deal with insect infestations destroying cornfields and other crops, and eventually became the norm with Monsanto pulling strings in many state and federal lawsuits and legislative actions. Monsanto and other agribusiness giants defeated GMO product labels in several states last November that were put on the ballot to inform the public about what’s in the food they’re eating. Some of these anti-GMO advocacy groups talk about studies being done on the harmful health implications of GMO, but nothing definitive and official has really come out on it yet.
  3. Monsanto looked like a real villain last spring when the US Agriculture Department had initially adopted the company’s requested loophole giving GMOs a lot of freedom and little regulation – called the Farmer Assurance Protection and also dubbed the “Monsanto Protection Act.” Many people were deeply disappointed with President Obama after hearing about it – thinking that an evil giant organization had corrupted a once admirable presidency. As of yesterday, that legislative rider is no longer effective due to the budgetary battle that’s still persisting in Washington with the employee furlough. There’s been a gap between the House and Senate version that will need to get sorted out, with the Senate wanting to delete the Monsanto provision.
  4. Monsanto just acquired the Climate Corporation for $930 million. The acquired company works with data analytics on weather patterns and predictions to help farmers adapt to climate change. Weather monitoring, data modeling, and weather simulations are provided on how predicted weather conditions will affect crops. Famers are given technology tools to better manage their risks. Farmers can dig into the data on their computers and mobile devices that can be whittled down to their individual fields. Monsanto has been expanding its offerings and is moving into data services for agribusiness. Climate Corporation had previously attracted some big names into its list of financial backers including Khosla and Google Ventures.
  5. There are some analysts who have deep concerns about the acquisition but are not getting any real attention in media coverage. They’ve expressed concerns over the solar radiation management (SRM, which controls sunlight before it reaches the earth) and geo-engineering (artificial modifications of the planet’s climate systems through SRM  and Carbon Dioxide Removal) that Climate Corporation uses. These are quite complex issue and it’s not clear to non-scientists what’s going on behind the scenes with the merger and if these mysterious technologies are actually positive or negative.
  6. Overseas markets are leery of GMO and tend to place restrictions on imports from US agribusiness. There was also a report back in May from watchdog group Food & Water Watch that accuses the US State Department of working with Monsanto and other GMO seed companies to push biotech crops overseas and expand the US market’s reach. The concern was that overseas farmers would be forced to buy genetically modified seeds and agrichemicals (as has happened in the US market). Last month, the US Department of Agriculture began evaluating whether or not to take action in the case of a Washington state farmer whose alfalfa crop was contaminated with a genetically modified trait that some export customers will not accept. Federal agriculture officials notified the USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service that they had confirmed a “low-level” presence of a genetically engineered trait in what the farmer thought was a non-GMO crop. The trait was developed by Monsanto Co. to make plants able to tolerate treatments of Monsanto’s high sales-volume Roundup weedkiller.
  7. Sustainability and cleantech publications Environmental Leader and GreenBiz offer mixed messages on Monsanto. There’s coverage of GMO disputes but it’s more business news than ethical warning. Monsanto’s fight with farmers, consumers groups and NGOs was mentioned as an example of corporations having their public image effectively assaulted. The writer says that the company was brought down by what these activists have been up to, but Monsanto appears to be alive and well. Its image has been assaulted but its stock price and business deals are booming. Another article listed Monsanto as one of the members of the Sustainability Consortium, which is an organization that creates sustainability standards for consumer products. So, its credentials in sustainability are a mixed bag, depending on what’s being written about.
  8. The implications of Monsanto’s power are massive – beyond nearly everyone’s ability to clearly process and perceive. These dilemmas persist in every field. Every one of the green transportation fuels and technologies faces a stack of problems – some of them ethical and many of them in proving their value that’s needed to earn financial backing and stakeholder support. The biofuels community tends to stay in united support for all the renewable fuels coming out, though corn ethanol is a very tough fuel to support. Electric vehicles find their share of cynics making the case that these vehicles are in no way improving the environment. Natural gas faces the fracking issue; hydrogen fuel cell vehicles are quite expensive and won’t have the long-awaited “hydrogen highway” of fueling stations for several years, if ever at all. They all face the clichés and concerns of a new technology creating more problems than the solution it was intended to create.
  9. Monsanto is the great unknown, the evil empire. It seems to be connected to the American tradition of looking for conspiracy theory. Monsanto has market value at about $55 billion on the stock market and has deep reserves – its ability to lobby and disseminate its marketing-communications message is quite strong. We don’t really know the full implications of GMO – and DNA engineering is pervasive in much of our food and medicine. There may be some benefits that we can’t yet see – and the same goes for its Climate Corporation acquisition and what it might offer for predicting and preparing for climate change. Still, there’s always the horrific vision of genetic modifications causing monster-like mutations or children having breathing and circulation problems that appear unexplainable and untreatable. GMO and Monsanto’s Climate Investment investment are packed with the unknown – we’ll have to wait and see how it turns out.