For Today: GM and Ford move the electrification revolution a few steps further

A well-known automotive market analyst last year told me that he expects sales of battery electric and plug-in hybrid vehicles to make up 10% to 15% of U.S. new vehicle sales about a decade from now. That will mean that plug-in vehicle sales will have a real impact on manufacturing, marketing, infrastructure, and aftermarket products and services. The days of early adopters have come to an end, and the next phase is beginning – as made evident yesterday by announcements from General Motors and Ford Motor Co.

GM plans to launch 20 new electric vehicles by 2023. Two new all-electric cars will come out in the next 18 months. Whether that’s coming from upcoming fossil fuel bans in several countries, the popularity of Tesla, China’s new energy vehicle market, launching the Chevy Bolt, the emergence of other long-range all-electric vehicles, and a long list of EVs in manufacturer product pipelines, the future is here now.

“General Motors believes in an all-electric future,” said Mark Reuss, GM Product Development, Purchasing and Supply Chain EVP. “Although that future won’t happen overnight, GM is committed to driving increased usage and acceptance of electric vehicles through no-compromise solutions that meet our customers’ needs.”

The automaker is also developing hydrogen fuel cell technology as part of its zero emission vehicle drive. One of these is the Silent Utility Rover Universal Superstructure (SURUS), a four-wheel drive concept vehicle that runs on fuel cells. These provide power to electric motors, making it an ideal ZEV platform for delivery trucks, ambulances, and other applications. Yet EVs will be gaining most of the automaker’s focus and support.

Ford is on track to deliver 13 electrified vehicles over the next five years. Seven have been announced, including a 300-mile range crossover EV that will come out in 2020.

Sherif Marakby, Ford’s head of electrification and autonomous vehicles, said that the automaker will increase the number of all-electric vehicles it will offer, but did not provide details.

Ford is establishing an internal team its calling “Team Edison” to study and develop battery electric cars.

“We see an inflection point in the major markets toward battery electric vehicles,” Marakby said. “We feel it’s important to have a cross-functional team all the way from defining the strategy plans and implementation to advanced marketing.”

Here’s my take on a few trends and developments to watch for:

  • Battery electric vehicles will likely win out over plug-in hybrids in the next decade. While the Chevy Volt and Toyota Prius Prime will continue to do well, automakers tend to use plug-in hybrid variations of existing models as a way to transition car owners over to plug-in vehicles. EV range will be getting better, and all-electric vehicles are easier to maintain and keep in operation than internal combustion engine vehicles and plug-in hybrids. They use a lot less parts and components and are easier to maintain. Tires and brakes have to be replaced but there isn’t much else to changeover, given that the electric drive train is well made for EVs that are strong in sales.
  • Tesla is playing a leading role in public perception and experience with the technology. The Tesla Model 3 is expected to play a leading role in mass adoption, but the upcoming Model Y electric crossover will be built at mass scale, too. There will be other models coming out including the semi truck aimed at buyers of heavy-duty commercial vehicles. Tesla’s stock performance continues to stay strong and validates that institutional and individual backers believe in the business model. (As a side note, GM and Ford stock prices did well after announcing strong September sales and serious electrification campaigns.)
  • German automakers may be just as important as Tesla in moving the product development and sales trend forward. Volkswagen, Daimler, and BMW made big announcements a year ago in the wake of the “Dieselgate” scandal, and with growing pressure from German regulators and from a few other countries. Tesla was taking the lead in the luxury EV side, but an impressive list of pre-orders on the Model 3 opened up the playing field. The product pipeline is covering the bases from Tesla-competitive automakers – electric sedans, SUVs and crossovers, and luxury vehicles.
  • Car buyers want to see realistic, real-world numbers on per-charge driving range, charging time, fast charging, option and trim levels, resale value forecasts, top speeds, horsepower, and torque. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency range ratings are gaining more confidence than the New European Driving Cycle (NEDC), with the NEDC using a very different cycle analysis and much longer range.
  • Hydrogen fuel cell vehicles won’t reach mass adoption, with EVs winning out. They won’t be going away, with automakers such as Toyota, GM, Honda, Hyundai, Daimler, and BMW committed to the technology. They’ll probably stay at a low level in passenger vehicle sales with a few of the automakers going over to military and commercial vehicle applications. But the barriers will be hard to cross – having enough fueling stations, the cost of the technology and sticker prices coming way down, and finding broad support and trust in the technology. The typical pump price for fueling with hydrogen isn’t known yet, and concerns are being expressed on how expensive it will be to collect and extract hydrogen from natural gas and other sources; and to deliver it by truck and pipelines to gas stations. The ZEV aspect makes hydrogen fuel cell vehicles very attractive, but where is the hydrogen coming from? And EVs are getting cheaper and better all the time, along with the charging infrastructure.
  • Countries adopting fossil-fuel bans will likely have to back off those holistic mandates. It’s much more likely to take several more years (another half century?) before ZEV adoption becomes accepted at that level. It will be tied into radical transformation in how we drive and get around town. An integration of autonomous vehicles, mobility services, and electrification will be behind it, but that is going to take decades to meet thorough testing and safety standards, insurance and liability issues, and to gain enough confidence and trust to reach mass scale. I expect that governments will go back to mandating a certain percentage of new vehicle sales meet their mandates; incentive programs will probably have to be deployed in China and other markets.
  • There’s also the issue of fleet and commercial vehicles used in transport, delivery, and moving employees and customers from Point A to Point B. Fleets are likely to integrate the fuels and technologies – with trucks and buses powered by renewable natural gas and renewable diesel, electrification, and propane and natural gas; and hybrid, plug-in hybrid, and all-electric passenger vehicles used by law enforcement agencies, administrative vehicles, and other functions. Fleet operators make decisions based on economic and environmental factors, along with functionality and ease of use, as do consumers.

For Today: Test drive new Nissan Leaf at NDEW, Longer range EVs and FCVs from Hyundai

Drive the new Nissan Leaf:  Nissan will be showing the next-generation Leaf all-electric car during National Drive Electric Week, following right after the global reveal on September 5. In eight cities, you can sign up for the “Drive and Discover Experience” for a test drive. Nissan is the official sponsor of the event for the third straight year. “The timing couldn’t be better. Bringing LEAF to some of the most enthusiastic EV advocates just days after its global debut is the perfect way to kick things off for this technology-packed car,” said Brian Maragno, director, Nissan EV Marketing and Sales Strategy.

Electric vans for postal delivery:  The StreetScooter WORK XL has started being manufactured for postal carriers in Germany at a plant in Aachen. It comes through a partnership between Deutsch Post DHL and Ford using the Ford Transit chassis to build electric delivery vans. About 150 pre-production WORK XL models will be build this year, and more than 2,500 of these production vehicles by the end of 2018. It will be equipped with battery pack options going from 30-90 kWh, offering 80-220 kilometers (50-124 miles) of range. It has 20 cubic maters of storage space, capable of hauling over 200 packages. Deutsch Post DHL is also building the StreetScooter WORK and WORK L vans.

Hyundai launches longer range EVs and FCV:  Hyundai will be launching long-range electric vehicles and a hydrogen fuel cell vehicle that can travel farther. The South Korean company has also upped its green car strategy under the Hyundai and Kia brands, which has gone up to 31 eco-friendly vehicles coming out by 2020, up from the previous goal of 28. The company announced today that one of its new EVs will go 500 kilometers (311 miles) per charge when it comes out after 2021. A small electric SUV will have a driving range of 390 km (about 242 miles) will come out during the first half of next year. The company also announced that it will be launching a hydrogen fuel cell vehicle that can travel more than 580 kilometers (360 miles) after being fueled. The second-generation fuel cell SUV will be coming out early next year. Hyundai said it be going 40% farther than its first-generation fuel cell vehicle, the Tucson ix FCEV. So far, the green car campaign has been led by the Ioniq hybrid, all-electric, and upcoming plug-in hybrid version.

This Week’s Top 10: VW starts up cash for clunkers program, GM and Honda building fuel cell stacks

by Jon LeSage, editor and publisher, Green Auto Market

Here’s my take on the 10 most significant and interesting occurrences during the past week…….

  1. VW settlement: Volkswagen will be managing a program similar to the federal government’s cash-for-clunkers program that started in 2009. The German automaker will be buying back or fixing as many as 562,000 diesel vehicles in the U.S. into 2019 as part of its diesel emissions cheating settlement. While the federal government gave out about $3 billion subsidizing gas-guzzling vehicles for fuel efficient vehicles, VW may spend about $10 billion on new-vehicle purchases to replace diesels with excessive emissions. VW has hired about 1,300 contractors to process its diesel program-related paperwork and staff call centers, shortening the average hold time to less than five minutes, said Hinrich Woebcken, who became VW of America’s CEO last April. More than 1,000 cars have been fixed and returned to the used-car market, he said.
  2. GM and Honda fuel cell plant:  Hydrogen fuel cell vehicle alliances are continuing to move forward, with General Motors and Honda announcing a plan to invest $85 million to build hydrogen fuel cell stacks at a factory in Michigan. The joint venture, Fuel Cell System Manufacturing, will begin producing the fuel cell systems around 2020 at GM’s Brownstown Township, Mich., plant south of Detroit. GM has been using that plant to produce battery packs for its hybrid and electric vehicles. The companies say that at least 100 new jobs will be created to make the hydrogen fuel cell stacks. In 2013, GM and Honda created a long-term, definitive master agreement to co-develop next-generation fuel cell system and hydrogen storage technologies. Sharing patented information has been part of the relationship with the companies collectively filing more than 1,200 fuel cell patents between 2002 and 2012. Earlier this month, Toyota, BMW, Daimler, Honda, and Hyundai, announced that they’re joining up with several other companies to invest a combined $10.7 billion in hydrogen-related products within five years. Thirteen automakers, and energy and industrial companies, are forming a hydrogen council to support hydrogen fueling and FCEVs; and to provide another channel beyond battery power to hit the zero emission vehicle mark.
  3. Model S No. 1:  The Tesla Model S was the world’s top selling plug-in electrified vehicle for the second year in a row. Tesla hasn’t confirmed the number but it’s estimated to be at 50,931 units sold last year. The Nissan Leaf still has the highest sales volume with 61,507 units sold in 2014. In 2016, the Leaf came in at 49,226 and second place for the second consecutive year. Chinese automaker BYD, which was the top global selling maker of PEVs last year, had three of the top 10 selling electric cars. The crossover SUV BYD Tang plug-in hybrid came in at No. 3; the Qin plug-in hybrid finished at No. 8; and the e6 sedan, China’s top selling all-electric car, came in at No. 9.
  4. Daimler and Uber partnering on self-driving vehicles:  Daimler AG has made an agreement with Uber Technologies to include the German automaker’s self-driving vehicles in Uber’s ride-hailing network in the “coming years.” Details haven’t been released on the agreement, but it does indicate Uber’s willingness to work with other partners beyond its Volvo alliance. The agreement doesn’t include plans to team up on jointly developing technology for autonomous vehicles, according to a Daimler spokesman. In other news, Uber CEO Travis Kalanick has been under attack on the internet for allowing Uber drivers to access JFK Airport in New York as taxi drivers refused to do business there; boycotting the airport was part of a protest by the taxi industry against the Trump administration’s recent decision to close the nation’s borders to refugees and people from predominantly Muslim countries. Uber issued a statement in support of Uber drivers who are citizens of Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, or Yemen and live in the US but have left the country, and won’t able to return for 90 days. “This means they won’t be able to earn money and support their families during this period,” he said. The statement also announced creation of a $3 million legal defense fund to help drivers with immigration and translation services. Lyft has also been pulled into the scandal and has agreed to donate $1 million over the next four years to the ACLU to defend the U.S. constitution.
  5. Accessing EVgo network:  Nissan and BMW are working with EVgo to increase public access to DC Fast charging stations across the U.S. That will come through access to an additional 174 locations in 33 states now available to all electric vehicle owners in those markets, and over 50 more planned to be installed in 2017, supported by the partnership. EVgo’s fast charging network now totals 668 dual-port DC Fast charging stations installed and available to all EV drivers across the U.S., with access to new chargers continually being added.
  6. Green Car Award winners named:  Three winners of Green Car Journal’s Green Car Awards were announced at a Washington Auto Show press conference. Named 2017 Connected Green Car of the Year is the Mercedes-Benz C350e, with the 2017 Green SUV of the Year awarded to the BMW X5 xDrive40e, and the 2017 Luxury Green Car of the Year going to Acura’s new NSX. The Mercedes-Benz C350e delivers all the luxury and driving enjoyment expected of the automaker’s popular C Class with the additional benefit of efficient plug-in hybrid power. BMW’s X5 xDrive40e iPerformance features appointments appreciated by BMW drivers combined with efficient plug-in hybrid power. The Acura NSX is powered by a 500 horsepower Sport Hybrid SH-AWD powertrain integrating a 3.5-liter mid-ship V-6 and three electric motors. It can go 0 to 60 mph in 2.9 seconds while still delivering over 30 percent better city fuel efficiency than the model’s previous generation.
  7. Ford in Super Bowl ad:  Ford Motor Co. will be running a 90-second commercial highlighting its mobility solutions on Super Bowl Sunday, tying into the opening of its FordHub center in New York showcasing these technologies and services. The Super Bowl ad highlights Ford’s advancements in ride sharing, electric vehicles, bike sharing, and self-driving cars. FordHub is a 2,900-sqare-foot hands-on experiential center located at the Westfield World Trade Center in New York City. Visitors will be able to try out exhibits and learn more about Ford’s vision as an evolving mobility company offering transportation solutions instead of just making vehicles.
  8. Dealers and EVs:  Audi of America President Scott Keogh spoke last week at the J.D. Power Automotive Summit on how Audi and other dealers can break through in selling and servicing plug-in vehicles. Dealers have been known to divert car shoppers away from EVs and over to higher profit margin traditional vehicles. Home-charging station installation and other services needed by EVs could be excellent service opportunities for dealers, he said. The German brand will be launching three new battery electric vehicles in the U.S. by 2020; it will be part of parent company Volkswagen’s campaign to launch 30 BEVs by 2025 in the wake of its diesel emissions scandal. Keogh said that Audi will need its dealers supporting the effort for the electrification campaign to succeed.
  9. SMART Center Gains $45 in funding:  Ohio Governor John Kasich last week announced that the State of Ohio and the Ohio State University are funding the $45 million Phase 1 expansion of the Transportation Research Center’s (TRC) all-new 540-acre SMART (Smart Mobility Advanced Research and Test) Center – a state-of-the-art hub for automated and autonomous testing, to be built within the 4,500 acres of the nation’s largest independent automotive proving grounds. TRC has been testing different types of vehicles – cars, trucks, buses, ATVs, military vehicles, specialty vehicles – and components on its 4,500-acre facility in East Liberty, Ohio for more than 40 years, including testing automated and autonomous vehicles over the last two decades. Phase 1 of the expansion will include a flexible platform and infrastructure; the industry’s largest high-speed intersection; the industry’s longest and most flexible test platform (a space the width of more than 50 highway lanes and the length of 10 football fields end-to-end); an urban network of intersections, roundabouts, traffic signals; and a rural network including wooded roads, neighborhood network and a SMART Center support building.
  10. Car2Go adds to its fleet:  Car2go will be adding thousands of 2017 model year Mercedes-Benz CLA and GLA four-door, five passenger vehicles to its fleet. The carsharing company anticipates that Mercedes-Benz vehicles will comprise the majority of its North American fleet by the end of 2017. The compay says this comes right after car2go’s recent upgrades to its member experience with the rollout of thousands of new, improved, car2go smart fortwo vehicles to its U.S. and Canadian network. “At Mercedes-Benz we see the four key pillars for future mobility as connectivity, autonomous driving, carsharing, and electrification,” said Dieter Zetsche, CEO of owner company Daimler AG. “Today we take another step toward that future by adding the new Mercedes-Benz CLA and GLA to Car2go’s North American fleet.”

Will fuel cell vehicles be able to thrive and surpass plug-in vehicle sales?

toyota-mirai-at-hydrogen-stationThe question of which clean technology will prevail in the car of the future continues to permeate the auto industry. Plug-in electrified vehicle sales led the way in recent months, breaking the 1% mark of total sales in the U.S. for the first time in November; and seeing ambitious PEV product launch announcements from Volkswagen, Daimler, BMW, and Toyota in the fall. That was triggered by Tesla receiving more than 400,000 down payments soon after showing its Model 3 reveal during the spring; and post-VW “dieselgate” scandal government crackdowns increased in Europe, the U.S., and South Korea.

Hydrogen fuel cell vehicles are starting to see new vehicle launches and more stations being built, but it still has a very slight presence in the global market. But long-term, global auto executives think fuel cell vehicles will win out over PEVs in volume sales. One of the issues involved is that California’s zero emission vehicles mandate counts battery electric vehicles and fuel cell vehicles, but is phasing out plug-in hybrids; and nine other states are also following California’s ZEV guidelines.

A new study from KPMG took a deep look at this issue, and several other technology innovations and pressures shaping the next phase of the industry’s future. Here are a few key findings:

  • KPMG’s Global Automotive Executive Survey 2017 interviewed almost 1,000 senior executives from auto industry companies, including automakers, suppliers, dealers, financial services providers, rental companies, mobility services providers, and companies from the information and communication technology (ICT) sector. Additionally, more than 2,400 consumers from around the world were surveyed to share their perspectives and have them compared against the opinions of leading auto executives.
  • As for top issues auto executives see shaping the industry in the near future:

No. 1:  battery electric vehicles (BEVs) with regulatory pressure pushing awareness for             electrification
No. 2: connectivity and digitalization
No. 3: fuel cell electric vehicles
No. 4: hybrid electric vehicles
No. 8: mobility as a service/carsharing
No. 9: autonomous and self-driving cars

  • Battery electric mobility shot up from No. 9 in 2015 to No. 1 in 2017.
  • KPMG consulting analysts see the success of BEVs depending on infrastructure and application. “Success of BEVs depends on infrastructure and application. Coordinated actions for infrastructure set-up, and a clear distinction of reasonable application areas (e.g. urban, long-distance) needs to be established,” said Moritz Pawelke, global executive for automotive at KPMG.
  • The report sees a few market trends clashing together, lost in translation, between evolutionary, revolutionary, and disruptive key trends that all need to be managed at the same times. Industry executive are “torn in between” as traditional combustion engines have become even more technologically relevant, but socially unacceptable. It’s also a new phase in the industry history where connectivity, mobility services, and automated vehicles are approaching faster than expected.
  • Executives are tipping toward fuel cell vehicles may be that they have a strong attachment to the existing infrastructure and traditional vehicle applications. That comes from fast fueling and liquid gas pumps at fueling stations, and an existing fueling infrastructure carrying hydrogen in pipelines and tanker trucks.
  • Setting up a user-friendly charging infrastructure is the problem leading 62% of the surveyed auto industry executives to believe that BEVs will fail.
  • In contrast, 78% of executives believe fuel cell electric vehicles will be the “golden bullet of electric mobility.”
  • “The faith in FCEVs can be explained by the hope that FCEVs will solve the recharging and infrastructure issue BEVs face today. The refueling process can be done quickly at a traditional gas station, making recharging times of 25-45 minutes for BEVs seem unreasonable. However, this technology is far from market maturity and will bring new unsolved challenges like the cooling of hydrogen or the safe storage in a car,” the study said.

I would also list a few other major challenges fuel cell electric vehicles face competing against PEVs and petroleum-powered vehicles:

  1. Less experience with the technology by consumers and fleet operators. There’s concern over safety, reliability, cost, and refueling infrastructure outside of California.
  2. Sales volume has been soft and will take years to grow. For example, HybridCars’ Dashboard reports that there were 1,034 Toyota Mirais, the top-selling fuel cell vehicle by far, in the U.S. during 2016. That compares with 29,156 Tesla Model S units and 24,739 of Chevy Volt units, the two top selling plug-in models in the U.S. last year.
  3. Europe is beating the U.S. in hydrogen stations, but the sales are still behind the limited numbers seen so far in the U.S. The European Alternative Fuels Observatory reported in December that there are over 75 hydrogen fueling stations in operation in Europe, more than double the U.S. with its current level being 33 as of early December, according to U.S. Department of Energy’s Alternative Fuels Data Center. EAFO also reported that there are about 500 passenger fuel cell electric vehicles on European roads, with only about 200 of these units sold during 2016.
  4. Fast chargers are breaking through in the U.S., and will see more activity in Europe and Asia. That’s being led by Tesla’s Supercharger network and the EVgo and ChargePoint networks in the U.S.; and German automakers in Europe.
  5. Hydrogen stations are being established as singular, hydrogen-only stations and not as part of existing retail gas stations. The KPMG study indicates that those surveyed and writing the report assume that hydrogen pumps will be added to gas stations, but that hasn’t been the case so far.
  6. Hydrogen stations cost about $1 to $2 million per station to build, and need to have their hydrogen supply trucked in or coming through a hydrogen pipeline. While the Shell hydrogen station in Torrance, Calif., sponsored by Honda and Toyota, has fuel coming in from a pipeline, the other stations usually have the fuel delivered by tanker trucks like the ones used at gas stations. Government backing is helping a lot of these hydrogen stations to be developed in California, Europe, and Japan, but long-term, the fueling question will need to be resolved. That would likely include the home hydrogen station concept being explored by Honda.

Here are a few more points to consider on the future of cars:

  • Automakers are still resisting spending enough on marketing PEVs to help get car buyers to take them more seriously. The Northeast States for Coordinated Air Use Management, a nonprofit group made up of air-quality regulators from eight states, just issued a report on this topic. Car companies are targeting them at a few select state like California and not going national like they are with gasoline-powered vehicles. Automakers are spending their finite ad budgets on vehicles known to sell well and generate profits, like pickups, SUVs, and luxury cars. PEVs haven’t become profitable for them yet.
  • Hybrids aren’t going away even if ZEV regulations are heading in that direction. Over the next 5 years, 53% of automotive executives in the KPMG study are planning to highly invest in plug-in hybrids and 52% in ICEs and full hybrids. Hybrids make up nearly 3% of new vehicle sales compared to plug-ins, and plug-in hybrids are doing very well including the Chevy Volt in the U.S. and the Mitsubishi Outlander PHEV in Europe.
  • Carsharing, ride-hailing, and ridesharing aren’t just a momentary fad. According to the KPMG study, by 2025, more than half of all car owners today will no longer want to own a car. That comes from 59% of auto execs and 35% of consumers surveyed. Auto execs think that disruption will led to more support for mobility as a service, and shared vehicles and trips. I would agree with other analysts who also believe vehicle electrification will play a big part in the shared economy. Young consumers tend to be more interested in electric vehicles and supportive of the technology, especially if it’s powered by renewable energy. They’re more likely to use Uber, Lyft, Zipcar, and other mobility services and have been losing interest in owning cars.
  • China is the leading auto market in the world, and sales of “new energy vehicles” are expected to grow. India will soon be the largest nation in the world, surpassing China’s population in the near future based on current birth rates. About two thirds of the auto executives interviewed think that the global share of new vehicle sales will reach 40% sold in China by 2030. Two-thirds of those interviewed think that India won’t come anywhere near China in new vehicle sales in 2030. PEV sales in India have been slight compared to China, Japan, South Korea, the U.S., and Europe.

Prius parent Toyota shifting from EVs to FCVs and advanced hybrids

Toyota and TeslaToyota Motor Corp. has been carefully watched by advocates of clean vehicles – its Prius became the symbol of innovation in the hybrid space even though several other competitive hybrid models were launched around that time. When Toyota made an agreement in 2010 with Tesla Motors to integrate its electric motor and batteries into the Toyota RAV4 EV, along with Toyota’s $50 million investment in Tesla and Tesla’s takeover of the shuttered NUMMI factory in Fremont, Calif., the working relationship looked very promising. It also helped strengthen Tesla’s promise to become a thriving automaker (which was also supported around that time by Daimler’s investment). The Toyota and Tesla relationship seemed to sour this month when Toyota announced that it will phase out an agreement from 2012 for Tesla to deliver 2,600 battery packs for Toyota’s electric RAV4 over three years.

Since then, a Toyota executive has said that the two companies will continue working together on battery technology even though the initial battery-supply agreement will be ending this year. Osamu Nagata, president and CEO of Toyota Motor Engineering & Manufacturing North America, acknowledged that Tesla has a clear business strategy for developing a better battery. Automakers and their suppliers do need to work together on developing better batteries, he said. Nagata also talked about the future of fuel-cell vehicles, which Toyota has indicated will become a top priority for the company in coming years.

Jim Lentz, CEO of Toyota’s North American region, said during a an interview after Fortune magazine’s Brainstorm Green conference that hybrids, plug-in hybrids, and fuel cell vehicles hold greater promise for Toyota. Battery-electric vehicles make sense in a select way as short range urban vehicles, he said. “But for long-range travel primary vehicles, we feel there are better alternatives, such as hybrids and plug-in hybrids, and tomorrow with fuel cells,” Lentz said.

Hydrogen fuel cells have become cheaper on a cost-per-vehicle basis and are more efficient on a well-to-wheel basis; that’s a primary reason Toyota has turned away from a long-term effort to create a viable battery-electric vehicle. Toyota will soon be launching a fuel cell vehicle in California and is investing $7 million in the FirstElement Fuel campaign to bring hydrogen refueling stations to the state.

Toyota also has high hopes for hybrids and will be expanding its vehicle offerings in years to come. The automaker has developed a new semiconductor it says can boost fuel efficiency in hybrid cars such as the Prius by up to 10%. Test models have so far shown a 5% increase, and Toyota thinks it can commercialize the 10% more efficient semiconductor by 2020.

The new semiconductors will manage the flow of electricity through the power control unit that integrates a hybrid vehicle’s battery, motor, and generator. As competition in the hybrid space increases each model year, Toyota wants to strengthen its position marketing the Prius family and its list of other Toyota and Lexus hybrid models. Hybrids, plug-in hybrids, and hydrogen fuel cell vehicles will be an integral part of Toyota meeting government emissions standards and strengthening its image as a leader in advanced, clean vehicles.

Hydrogen fueling infrastructure sees forward motion

hydrogen stationHydrogen fuel cell vehicles have been the subject of skepticism for years – always waiting to break through but stuck in the planning phase due to excessive production costs for automakers and lack of fueling infrastructure for vehicle owners. In late 2013, automakers (especially Toyota, Honda, and Hyundai) committed to manufacturing and marketing new fuel cell vehicles within the next two years. Now, the fueling infrastructure is getting a boost, and it should benefit from having a prominent automotive executive playing a lead role.

FirstElement Fuel Inc. just won a $27.6 million grant from the California Energy Commission that will bring 19 more hydrogen fueling stations to the state. Joel Ewanick, a former Hyundai and General Motors chief marketing executive, serves as CEO at FirstElement Fuel, and says that once these stations are deployed, fuel cell vehicles will be able to drive anywhere in the state without running out of fuel.

These 19 locations will be assembled at existing filling stations; FirstElement Fuel is ordering the fueling equipment, which will take months to build and install, Ewanick said. They’re expected to be up and running by the fall of 2015 or sooner. The stations will need to have the fuel delivered at first, but can eventually produce hydrogen on site. Having more stations up and running soon will help Hyundai as it launches its 2015 Tucson Fuel Cell this spring; Honda will roll out its new fuel cell car this year and Toyota said it will introduce its fuel cell model in 2015. Toyota has felt strong enough about the fueling infrastructure to provide FirstElement Fuel with an investment of at least $7.2 million.

California announced last week that it is funding $46.6 million in grants for 28 hydrogen stations as part of its commitment to zero emission vehicles. Northeastern states are likely to follow suit with hydrogen fueling, Ewanick said. New York, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Maine, Rhode Island, Vermont, and New Jersey previously adopted California’s clean air standards.

Ewanick had served as global marketing chief at GM and was ousted in the summer of 2012 for the handling of a controversial sponsorship deal with English soccer club Manchester United. Ewanick played a key role in marketing the Chevrolet Volt (and accepted the Green Car of the Year Award for the Volt at the LA Auto Show in late 2010); he also served as interim chief of global sales and marketing for Fisker Automotive. Ewanick appears to be fascinated with clean, advanced vehicle technologies and their economic opportunities – as are many other people in the automotive and transportation sectors.

The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) has established research and development projects in the past two years with automakers, fuel station providers, and its research centers. Most recently, DOE launched H2FIRST, a collaboration with Sandia National Laboratories and National Renewable Energy Laboratory; the project will focus on accelerating the design and construction of hydrogen fueling stations. Currently, there are only 11 hydrogen stations in the US (10 in California and one in Columbia, SC). Forty seven are actively in development in California, according to the California Fuel Cell Partnership. Several European Union nations are deploying hydrogen stations (with Germany playing the leading role); Japan and South Korea have been committed to the vehicles and fueling stations longer than other nations, and now have several hydrogen fueling stations set up.

Honda green star at LA Auto Show; sneaking a ride in Via Motors plug-in hybrid

Honda Accord green car of year awardHonda enjoyed its presence at the LA Auto Show, gaining lots of media attention for its new hydrogen-powered concept car and for winning the Green Car of the Year award. The 2014 Honda Accord took the green award for its high fuel economy ratings and performance features. All three variations were honored – the gasoline, hybrid, and plug-in hybrid versions. The Accord beat out four other finalists – the Audi A6 TDI, the BMW 328d, the Mazda3, and Toyota Corolla. Last year, another mid-sized US-based automaker car took the Green Car of the Year award for a model with gasoline, hybrid, and plug-in hybrid variants – the Ford Fusion.

Fuel cell vehicles grabbed much media attention at the LA Auto Show. Hyundai showed off a fuel cell version of its Tucson sport-utility vehicle. Hyundai plans to sell 1,000 of these fuel cell vehicles next year in California for a monthly lease price of $499 with $2,999 down. Honda plans to roll out another fuel cell vehicle (in addition to its FCX Clarity) in the US in 2015. Honda unveiled its FCEV, its next-generation fuel cell vehicle.

During the same time that the LA Auto Show was launched, the Tokyo Motor Show was taking place. Toyota showed its FCV (fuel cell vehicle) concept sedan in Tokyo. Toyota said that it’s a “practical concept” of the fuel cell vehicle it plans to launch in 2015; the car will use hydrogen to generate electricity that can travel about 300 miles after a refueling. The concept car can hold four passengers and be refueled in minutes.

Those participating in the Green & Advanced Technology Ride & Drive at the LA Auto Show enjoyed driving the Chevrolet Spark EV, the Fiat 500e, and the Jeep Grand Cherokee with its new 3.0L EcoDiesel V6 clean diesel engine. The award winning 2014 Honda Accord Hybrid was also on hand for a drive around the LA convention center. It’s a bit pricier ($30K to $35K) than arch-competitor Toyota Prius, but it does have a bit more interior space and comfort, and its new dashboard has been designed for simplicity and style.

While Via Motors did not open up its E-REV ride and drive to the media, I was able to sneak a ride in its plug-in hybrid, extended range variation of the Chevrolet Express van; and took a peak at its plug-in version of the Chevrolet Silverado pickup. Both models – the VTRUX cargo van and VTRUX extended cab pickup – offer impressive plug-in ports with an AC inverter and power outlets for both 120 volt and 240 volt charges; the unit also offers a J1772 charging port.

During a press announcement, Via Motors company stakeholder Bob Lutz bragged about the VTRUX’ capabilities including being able to gain a few miles of extra range from solar panels now placed on the truck’s flatbed; and the ability to tap into the VTRUX’ battery pack for backup electricity during a power outage. Lutz was joined onstage by Via’s new CEO, John Weber, former president and CEO of Remy International, a key supplier to Via and to General Motors. Weber says that Via is meeting its fleet orders and will add consumer sales in 2014.

Connected Car Expo was held for the first time ever right before the LA Auto Show started up, and featured expert panelists on telematics, advanced technologies, and a growing alliance between automakers and technology giants. Autonomous cars were discussed by panelists that included Jeff Klei, North American president of major supplier Continental AG, and Ron Medford, Google’s director of safety for self-driving cars. Google has played a major role in testing out driverless cars, but doesn’t have a timetable for when it will release its own autonomous vehicles.

Out on the ground floor of the South Hall, you could see Hyundai’s “Survive the Zombie Apocalypse.” While it may have been placed there for the LA Auto Show, it was right next to the Connected Car Expo display booths and sort of stole the show. Connected Car Expo had some interesting exhibits, but the zombie display did grab most of my attention. It showed altered versions of two of its popular models, with these being renamed the Hyundai Santa Fe ZSM and Veloster Turbo ZSM (ZSM stands for Zombie Survival Machine).  These anti-zombie packages are sure to be more expensive than the MSRP starting price versions – but you do get all kinds of perks to fight off the undead – such as knife-blade wheels, dual chainsaws, a doom whistle, and a machine gun.

Hyundai’s display was started by Robert Kirmman, creator of “The Walking Dead” comic series (that inspired the hit TV series), designing a Zombie Survival Machine around a Veloster earlier this year. The Santa Fe ZSM design was built by Galpin Auto Sports and was unveiled at the New York Comic Con last month.