AeroVironment and KnowWhatYouDrive educate EV car shoppers

AVEV101Education and accessible, clear information is needed out there to get past the stumbling block that holds consumers back from owning an electric vehicle. If you take a look at a new educational website for electric vehicle (EV) shoppers, you’ll find answers to frequently asked questions:

  • What’s the difference between EVs, plug-in hybrids, and hybrids?
  • Why lithium ion batteries?
  • What do you get out of it? Why make the investment?
  • What’s the latest on charging technologies?
  • How long does it take to charge and how far do you travel?

AeroVironment is working with Saginaw, Mich.-based KnowWhatYouDrive on an educational initiative to help consumers take the plunge and purchase an EV and a home charging port. The free online course at walks through all of the questions that typically come up for car shoppers – or those with some interest in owning an EV. Details are presented on the types of available charging stations, charging time, and how the installation process works. You can test your electric vehicle IQ and instantly earn $25, $50, or $100 coupon codes for an electric vehicle charging station and installation.

“Education is one of the key factors that will help speed EV adoption,” said Wahid Nawabi, senior vice president and general manager of AeroVironment’s Efficient Energy Systems business segment. Doug Taylor, founder of KnowWhatYouDrive, says that it can be a daunting task with all of the EVs on the market now through Ford, Nissan, Fiat, and other OEMs. KnowWhatYouDrive works with charging station supplier Eaton on its website, and offers a discount program for EV charging stations.

AeroVironment has been committed to making the EV ownership and charging experience more accessible to consumers. It launched a dealer program last year offering a turnkey residential charging package. Consumers can purchase the EV and the charger in combination at the time of sale and build it into the financing. The home installation process is built into the transaction so that it can take place in a faster, more seamless way than it typically happens.

PERC’s Roy Willis on propane’s major milestone with UPS

UPS propane fleet vehicleUPS, along with Frito-Lay, have become testing grounds for alternative fuel vehicles in delivery fleets. You may have noticed that UPS was given a lot of attention last week for adding 1,000 propane-powered delivery trucks to its US fleet – joining up with electric, hybrid, CNG, LNG, biomethane, and nearly 900 propane-powered trucks in its Canadian fleet, in the corporation’s sustainability initiative. UPS will also initially install 50 propane fueling stations at UPS locations mainly in rural areas in Louisiana and Oklahoma with other states pending. That $70 million vehicle and fueling investment will allow UPS to displace about 3.5 million gallons of conventional gasoline and diesel per year. Propane Education & Research Council (PERC), a non-profit propane technology incubator, is playing a key role in integrating propane autogas and refueling with the UPS fleet. UPS and PERC were able to secure certifications with the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the California Air Resources Board, in alliance with equipment manufacturers. UPS did a test run this past winter in Gainesville, Ga., with 20 propane-powered delivery trucks, and expanded its order with Freightliner Custom Chassis Corp.

“The opportunity to road test new propane vehicles and fueling equipment with one of the most sophisticated fleets in the country is a major milestone for the propane industry,” said Roy Willis, president and CEO of PERC. The UPS deployment of propane vehicles and refueling infrastructure is a smart move and good investment, Willis says – making greater use of clean, efficient energy resource with growing domestic supplies. Willis says that other fleets, such as beverage companies and bakeries, are starting to show a lot more interest in propane – as what UPS does is carefully observed. Fleet managers need to see a business case made that propane-powered vehicles are worth the investment. They know UPS takes logistics very seriously and tests out the technologies and fuels long before adding them to their fleet – such as the test fleet in Georgia.

PERC has been collaborating for several years with Freightliner, CleanFuel USA, and Powertrain Integration to build safe, clean, and efficient propane vehicles. UPS will be using CleanFuel USA’s Liquid Propane Injection (LPI) system in the planned purchase of the propane delivery trucks. CleanFuel USA will also provide several of the fueling stations out of 50 planned across the US. The UPS delivery truck is built on the Freightliner Custom Chassis MT-45 walk-in van with the LPI system, and a 6.0-liter engine by Powertrain Integration.

The school bus market has been adding a lot of propane-powered buses, Willis said. Bluebird sold about 3,600 of these propane school buses last year, and Thomas Built will be introducing a new model soon. PERC is also working on dual-fuel research projects combining diesel and propane. Direct injection of propane is also being tested by PERC with the Southwest Research Institute. Direct injection can bring better horsepower and torque, plus fuel economy improvements. While most propane vehicles have been deployed in medium-duty fleet vehicles, direct injection could be a bridge to bringing propane to more light duty passenger cars like taxis and police cars. It could be an OEM product with warranty coverage at its dealerships and may be announced by the end of the year, Willis said.

The technology is pretty well proven, according to Willis, with propane-powered vehicles widely used in fleets for several years. The fueling infrastructure is growing – such as school bus fleets adding them to maintenance yards and propane retailers bringing them to their local markets at public stations, which have been supported by state grants and incentives. The UPS announcement is probably a tipping point for more fleets to adopt propane in vehicle and fueling technologies.

Big Picture: EPA releases finalized Tier 3 standards on emissions; Tesla Motors has another revolutionary goal: a Gigafactory

EPA gasoline sulfurThe US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) yesterday finalized what it calls “Tier 3 standards” requiring gasoline sulfur levels to be reduced by two thirds from 30 parts per million (ppm) to 10 ppm. EPA says that its new emission standards for cars and gasoline will significantly reduce harmful pollution and prevent thousands of premature deaths and illnesses, while also enabling efficiency improvements in the cars and trucks. Smog emissions, including nitrogen oxides and volatile organic compounds, are expected to drop 80% compared to today’s vehicles and particulate matter (soot) will drop by 70%. These standards will begin being implemented in model year 2017. The Tier 3 standards are being supported by automakers, labor, consumers, and public health advocates. Once fully in place, the standards will help avoid up to 2,000 premature deaths per year and 50,000 cases of respiratory ailments in children, according to the EPA.

And in other clean transportation news……

  • Tesla Motors has yet another potential breakthrough concept in the works –its “Gigafactory” concept could bring more affordable electric vehicles to market through a large scale lithium battery factory. It would mean investing up to $5 billion with partners in a battery plant that can supply 500,000 electric vehicles a year by 2020, after opening up in 2017.  Panasonic may be considering joining in; Panasonic is currently Tesla’s largest supplier of lithium ion batteries. “In cooperation with strategic battery manufacturing partners, we’re planning to build a large scale factory that will allow us to achieve economies of scale and minimize costs through innovative manufacturing, reduction of logistics waste, optimization of co-located processes and reduced overhead,” Telsa posted last week on its blog. By the end of the first year of production, the per kilowatt cost of the battery pack could be reduced by more than 30%. Tesla is looking for plant locations in Nevada, Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas and said that site selection will be happening soon. When you view the charts Tesla compiled, the first one shows that its new battery factory will be producing more batteries by 2020 than all the other lithium battery makers combined are making today – that’s quite a claim.
  • Nissan did better in Leaf sales – at 1,425 cars sold it was a record for the month of February, more than double the amount from a year earlier. That makes for 12 straight months of year-over-year sales increases. Its top two markets last month were San Francisco and Atlanta; the rest of the top five was Los Angeles, Seattle, and Portland. The Chevrolet Volt’s sales have been seeing a decline – at 1,210 it was higher than January’s 918, but down a third from February 2013’s total of 1,626. Tesla continues to not report monthly sales, but the estimate was 1,000 to 1,200 units of the Model S sold.
  • Honda appears ready to pull its Insight hybrid off the market – one of the very first hybrids to come to market when it was introduced in 1999, before the Toyota Prius. The original two-seater hybrid got even better mileage than the Prius or the Honda Civic hybrid. It was redesigned in 2009 with a backseat, but it failed to grow in sales numbers even though it sold for less than $20,000.
  • President Obama is bringing to medium- and heavy-duty trucks and buses what was previously brought to passenger cars – a second level of fuel efficiency standards. The first round covered model years 2014 through 2018; the new standards will be in place in about tow years and will extend the rules into the next decade.
  • Even though ECOtality is out of business, its Blink electric vehicle charging stations are still around. IKEA added four stations at one of its Chicago-area stores as part of its partnership with Car Charging Group, Inc. IKEA started installing stations in 2011 in Arizona, California, Oregon, and Washington and wants to place them at 55 US locations.
  • Daimler will be launching a new battery electric vehicle in partnership with China’s BYD. It will go through the Denza brand and be shown as a concept hatchback car at the next Beijing Motor Show. It will be called the “NEV” – or New Energy Vehicle, which means it’s being built for China. One of the popular car trends in that market will be met – rear seating will have the feel of a lounge area, perfect for riding in when you have a chauffeur in the front seat doing all the driving.

Why the Cadillac ELR TV commercial is a very bad idea

Cadillac ELR commercial 2Rex Parker, professor of transportation design, at Istituto Europeo di Design (IED) in Sao Paulo, Brazil, called me last week and expressed distress and frustration with Cadillac’s “Poolside” ELR TV commercial prominently featured in the Winter Olympics (and in the photo to the left). Parker, a former designer with major automakers, had a lot to say about it being misunderstood overseas, fueling more tension and misunderstanding during a time when US TV commercials go global and viral through Youtube and social media. His comments speak to what I see as being the most significant trend shaping the near-term future of the auto industry – globalization. As I’ve covered and commented upon many times in Green Auto Market, automakers and suppliers are now truly multi-national conglomerates serving markets in North America, Europe, Asia, and Latin America. Chinese OEMs and suppliers are the most obvious example, as Fisker Automotive, Volvo, General Motors, BYD, Tesla Motors, and others would tell you. It’s not a good time to be bragging about the US being No. 1 in everything, nor is it accurate; and it rubs against ideals that a lot of people still have about this country – a land of equality in all things regardless of where you live.

The main issue Parker has with the Cadillac ad is that many people around the world won’t get the satirical, humorous angle – and will likely see it as an extreme symbol of stereotypical American arrogance and wealthy lifestyle perks. As you can see here, Parker doesn’t hold back on expressing his opinions on auto industry trends. Here are a few points he made on the phone last week……

  • Americans traveling abroad will usually tell you this type of TV commercial is a very bad idea. Parker was in France when this commercial hit the airwaves, and it inflamed French viewers. This type of message hurts Americans traveling abroad.
  • Parker, who is half Brazilian and half American, was in Brazil last summer when a street riot in his US hometown of Huntington Beach, Calif., got a lot of media attention (which I can attest to, being stuck on Pacific Coast Highway while attempting to drive through Huntington Beach during this unexpected debacle). Brazilians were informed about it while it was going on – which is ironic given that it was a modest riot without casualties. But the internet gave them instantaneous information – and what happens in the US is taken very seriously in Brazil and around the world.
  • The Cadillac commercial conveys “American arrogance and sets us back generations,” Parker said. The days of 1950’s US Secretary of State John Foster Dulles explaining US foreign policy are long gone, he said.
  • I would also add, having been raised by a World War II vet with plenty of lively tales that I heard while growing up, that the days of post-WWII gratitude to the US are long gone. US traditions for individual rights, personal freedom and expression, holding elections, having open markets for developing industries, technology breakthroughs, and enjoying multi-media entertainment, will continue to influence what people around the world perceive and value; but toying with images and messages of what others resent, and sometimes hate, about the US, is not a good way to sell cars or improve international relations.
  • You can certainly make the case that the US government is dominated by an autocracy of interest groups who’ve stuffed pockets with lots of campaign contributions; and that the US has serious social issues to deal with – such as the brutal impact crystal methamphetamine is having in a lot of communities. You can also talk to people who’ve lived in or visited other countries around the world that are quite unstable and struggling – they’ll explain why they live in the US and probably won’t be leaving. Those are better images to convey in a TV commercial, as you can typically see watching TV lately. If you were watching the Winter Olympics, you probably saw Chevrolet’s new campaign called “The New Us.” It shows a diverse range of families under the theme, “What it means to be a family hasn’t changed; what a family looks like, has. This is the new us.”
  • Sell the car:  The best performing and most memorable car commercials show off the car – it might be driving up a hillside at peak performance, or featuring a young couple or family traveling together and feeling good. General Motors’ Cadillac division has done a great job for about 20 years now in selling the product in its ad campaigns; the ELR has what people are impressed about with GM’s Voltec drivetrain, and with what Cadillac designers have placed into platforms and dashboard panels. The Cadillac ELR “Poolside” commercial only shows the car being charged and its dashboard control panel for a few seconds. The commercial’s agenda looks like something else besides marketing the product.

Taking a deeper look at alternative fuel vehicle sales figures

Take a look at this chart, which WardsAuto published in late February showing something quite rare: detailed sales numbers on every type of alternative fuel vehicle sold in the US over the past five years in the light-duty passenger vehicle market. WardsAuto is getting these numbers from its own internal database of sales figures. I’m not sure what the “Unspecified Gas/Diesel” category means, and WardsAuto has not yet responded to my inquiry about it. However, looking at each of the vehicle categories offers a comprehensive view of market trends…….

  • Hybrids continue to make up the largest share of US new vehicle sales for alt-fuel vehicles, but “clean diesel” isn’t far behind – 3.2% of total market share for hybrids in 2013 versus 2.85% for diesel. Some would argue that diesel shouldn’t be analyzed at all as an alternative fuel – it still comes entirely from oil; regardless, it is getting considered as an alternative by a few analysts as more Americans are starting to own them for passenger cars for the first time ever in place of gasoline engine vehicles. Strong performance and fuel efficiency are helping German automakers sell them in this market, and US automakers are starting to get into that space.
  • Electric and plug-in hybrid vehicles made up .64% of new vehicle sales last year – only two thirds of a percent. However, the growth rate since starting plug-in sales in late 2010 is outstripping where hybrid sales, mainly from Toyota and Honda, were performing in their first years in the early 2000s. There are more EVs coming to market this year and beyond, which should help grow their sales numbers – along with pricing coming down and more charging stations being installed around the country.
  • Hydrogen fuel cell vehicle sales are still very small; the Hyundai Tucson Fuel Cell vehicle is going to be on the market by early summer and has a production volume target of 1,000 units through 2015. There will be other models coming on the market through Toyota and Honda next year.
  • Hybrid sales are nearing 500,000 units per year, jumping up significantly in 2012. Forecasters, including JD Power and Associates, see hybrids growing in sales percentages in the next 10 years. There’s a lot more hybrid vehicle options at dealerships now than about five years ago, and that will continue to grow.
  • Compressed natural gas (CNG) vehicle numbers are very small with very little available on the retail market – the Honda Civic Natural Gas being about it. The Ford F-150 half-ton that can run on natural gas and propane came on the market last summer, and Chrysler and GM have heavier pickups more suited to commercial usage than passenger. Parent company Fiat Chrysler Automobiles has interest in more CNG-powered vehicles coming to the US, as natural gas has played an important role in Italian transportation since the 1950s.