Big Picture: So much for a quiet holiday, Class action settlement on inflated MPG

New Years Eve at Time SquareI was hoping to have more downtime during the holiday break with news – all quiet on the western front. Well, there was quite a lot worthy of attention. I will boil it down and keep it simple. You can also read the usual media year-end offerings in the next two articles – Top 10 stories from 2013 and predictions for the new year. As for this past week……

  • Hyundai and Kia are settling a huge number of complaints about posting incorrect, inflated mileage ratings on some of their cars such as the Hyundai Elantra and Kia Soul. Hyundai originally offered to reimburse owners for the higher fuel costs plus a 15% “we’re sorry” bonus. Through settlement of a class-action lawsuit, owners can accept a one-time lump sum payout. That dollar figure still has to be worked out.
  • Daimler isn’t pulling away from its ownership stake in Tesla Motors even though its share values over the new three years are harder to predict. Tesla stock prices plummeted after battery fires in its Model S. The electric carmaker is supply motors and batteries to Daimler for its Smart Fortwo electric vehicle and the new Mercedes-Benz B-Class (this goes on sale next year). Daimler holds a 4.3% stake in Tesla and wants to expand its role with the company.
  • Speaking of Tesla, the state of California’s treasurer is giving the company a $34.7 million tax break in a bid to help the company ramp up production. Tesla won’t have to pay sales and use tax on new manufacturing equipment up to $415 million.
  • Natural gas vehicles had a growth spurt in sales in late 2013 driven by lower fuel costs and the environmental benefits over diesel, according to a Navigant Research study. That trend is expected to continue with a compound annual growth rate of 12.6% for natural gas trucks and 6.4% for natural gas buses between 2013 and 2022. New engines and vehicles are being introduced including a 12-liter engine form Cummins Westport next year. That will be targeted at the day cab market.
  • The 2014 Lincoln MKX will be lighter and more eco-friendly using tree-harvested natural fibers in place of traditional glass-based fibers. The tree-based, renewable alternative to fiberglass for use in auto parts comes from a collaboration between Lincoln, Weyerhaeuser, and Johnson Controls. Using cellulose reinforced polypropylene instead of fiberglass materials makes those materials about 6% lighter and decreases reliance on less-environmentally friendly fiberglass parts.
  • Saab is a year out of bankruptcy and is depending on an electric version of its Saab 9-3. Saab’s new owner, National Electric Vehicle Sweden, is targeting its home market of China, where the government is promoting clean automotive technology with up $16 billion in vehicle subsidies, R&D, and infrastructure spending.
  • Michigan Governor Rick Snyder signed legislation allowing driverless cars to be tested on the state’s roadways. Michigan just joined Nevada, California, and Florida as the only states allowing such on-road testing.
  • Ever hear of Zenn Motor Co.? The Canada-based neighborhood EV company now has an agreement to buy a majority stake in energy-storage company and distribution partner EEStor. This is reminiscent of Coda Automotive leaving the EV business and moving into the rapidly expanding power storage market.

Top 10 alternative fuel vehicle/clean transportation occurrences of 2013

Tesla Model S1. Tesla-Mania (and why I called it that):
The list could go on and on about Tesla Motors during 2013 – state battles with auto dealership associations; battery fires and the NHTSA recall; stock price roller coaster; CEO Elon Musk’s Hyperloop concept; and Supercharger fast charging stations come to mind. It’s rare to go more than a week without reading a Tesla article in the industry’s bible, Automotive News – along with several other major news sources. Automotive News is centered around its auto dealer readership, who generally would like to see Tesla go away. The news has got to be big and attention worthy to get as much ink/gigabyte as it has in Automotive News in the past year. That’s where my “Tesla-Mania” headline buzzword came from. There’s been a bit of media frenzy. Another fascinating element while following Tesla is that the company does not utilize the traditional media strategy – a large media/PR department or outsourcing it to one of the majors. They do it themselves and keep it low budget – but are using everything that needs to be done these days – Twitter postings and emails from Musk; strong press releases; attractive showrooms, and well-promoted events like ride and drives or Supercharger rollouts. Making a very impressive car like the Model S (have you ever driven it?) really helps with the storytelling, as well.

2. Volvo and Mack Trucks bringing DME to America:
Ever hear of dimethyl ether (DME), a non-toxic, clean-burning alternative fuel? It comes from a variety of domestic, sustainable sources such as biogas from food and animal waste, wastewater treatment facilities, and landfills. Back in June, Volvo Trucks introduced this option with fuel supplier Oberon Fuels in Sacramento, Calif., for rollout in 2015. Mack Trucks announced soon after that it’s following corporate parent Volvo and will be rolling out big trucks with a 13-liter MP8 engine that can be powered by DME in that same year. DME has been on the market for years as an aerosol propellant in cosmetics and other household products. Its potential is huge – it has the performance qualities and energy efficiency of diesel but can lower CO2 emissions by 95% compared to diesel. It produces no soot, and the fuel is stored in lighter, simpler fuel tanks and lower psi systems than what’s needed for LNG and CNG systems. Volvo Trucks is still committed to CNG and LNG offerings as well – its lineup already includes CNG-powered Volvo VNM and VNL model daycabs. The company is also producing its own proprietary LNG engine in VNL daycabs and sleepers next year.

3. Natural gas as a vital domestic power source:
Natural gas had a very good year in the US – fueling more electricity power stations than before, moving coal farther down the supply chain. There’s been modest growth in CNG and LNG vehicle sales – some of it through vehicle conversions and more OEM offerings like the Ford F-150 CNG option introduced this year. Fueling stations have seen a good deal of growth this year as Clean Energy and a few other infrastructure builders announce more openings, and fleets add in more onsite refueling stations. The vehicle conversion cost is a factor, but the payoff is happening within two-to-three years; fleets acquiring NGVs make an effective business case with upper management that fuel cost savings, emissions reductions, and supporting a domestic industry is a win-win-win.

4. Warfare over the Renewable Fuel Standard and E15:
When the Renewable Fuel Standard was adopted in Washington in 2005 (and expanded in 2007), it made a whole lot of sense. The Bush administration was concerned about our reliance on foreign oil as we waged war in the Middle East, and legislators on both sides of the aisles could agree. Corn-based ethanol was the mainstay and was supported as a clean, domestic fuel that could pave the way toward advanced biofuels like cellulosic and algae. The “Detroit 3” automakers began rolling out flex-fuel vehicles capable of running on E85. That movement faded in the midst of the “food versus fuel” debate which started up in 2008, and was followed by attacks on the prospect of E15 becoming standard at US gas stations. Some of that fight came from “big oil” companies and some from automakers concerned about the long-term reliability of engines that might not handle E15 very well. The EPA’s decision to scale back its ethanol blending mandate in late 2013 was harsh for the biofuel community to hear.

5. Hydrogen fuel cell vehicles aren’t going away:
The running joke in the car biz about hydrogen fuel cell vehicles is that they’re a great idea but they’re still a long ways away. And we’ve been hearing that for years. Well, this year witnessed a few impressive developments. Early this year, Ford and Daimler added Nissan to its fuel-cell alliance to share costs and brainpower on the development of a common fuel-cell stack and other systems by 2017. General Motors and Honda announced a partnership to make a common hydrogen powertrain by 2020. In other news, Hyundai, Mercedes-Benz, Nissan, and Toyota joined up with the US Dept. of Energy’s H2USA project. The formation of the public-private partnership is centered on building a hydrogen fueling infrastructure. As for auto conventions, this year’s LA Auto Show gave fuel cell vehicles a lot of attention. Hyundai showed off a fuel cell version of its Tucson sport-utility vehicle. Honda unveiled its FCEV, its next-generation fuel cell vehicle. During that same time Toyota showed its FCV (fuel cell vehicle) concept at the Tokyo Motor Show. Toyota said that it’s a “practical concept” of the fuel cell vehicle it plans to launch in 2015;

And then there’s 6-10:

6.    Ford and Hyundai-Kia MPG claims: Hyundai and Kia have taken a different approach than Ford on its hybrids, as was covered in the Big Picture article this week.

7.    Plug-in EV sales: Take a look at the impressive chart showcased by Electric Drive Transportation Association. It was a big year for battery electric and plug-in hybrid sales.

8.    Fisker and other auto greentech failures – Fisker, Envia, A123, Coda, and ECOtality –these plug-in EV, battery, and charging station makers looked so promising a few years ago, but 2013 was a year of bankruptcies and bad news.

9.    Propane autogas moves forward – The fueling station unveilings and vehicle offerings have been very good in 2013. School buses converting over to propane were a part of that trend.

10. Renewable natural gas –There’s been a lot more going on in the background than Clean Energy’s Redeem announcement. If you want to be very impressed with how much is also being done on this front, check out the webinar, “Securing California’s Clean Energy Future with Renewable Natural Gas.”

I Betcha: My take on clean transportation trends to watch in 2014

Cadillac ELR and smart gridLuxury extended range cars: Extended range, plug-in hybrids will see their next luxury models hit the market next year. The Fisker Karma was the first one, but those sporty luxury cars have been out of production for quite a while now. The two models to watch in 2014 will be the Cadillac ELR and the BMW i8. The 2015 Cadillac ELR will start showing up in January at dealer lots and will start at $75,955. The 2014 BMW i8 will go for $135,625, including a $925 destination charge, when it shows up in the US during the spring season. They’ll be competing with the Tesla Model S, BMW i3, and later in the year, Tesla Model X crossover, all of which are battery electric vehicles. The extended range models are pricy even after federal tax credits and state incentives but offer the benefit Fisker has been selling – reduced range anxiety. Their production volumes will be limited, but GM and BMW have a lot of experience in successfully making and marketing luxury models.

Pricing:  MSRP pricing for electric vehicles dropped in the first half of 2013 to the extent that the “price war” label could be applied for the first time. I would expect to see more of that happen including the cost of buying a Level 2 charger and having it installed in your garage. Multi-unit Level 2 chargers installed in parking garages, condos, and workplaces, are becoming a little bit more cost competitive, too. Converting business vehicles over to natural gas or propane may take a while to see a significant price drop – it’s still small in transaction numbers. Perhaps seeing more pickup trucks from the Big 3 with those alternative fuel options will push the cost down in a more competitive marketplace.

Connectivity: Seamless and simple connectivity between the smartphone and dashboard is expected by car owners today and has huge potential for improving the driving experience – such as not getting lost and making the trip more fuel efficient. It also has a lot to do with finding the right charging stations and alternative fuel spots – ones that actually work and will accept your payment method.

Responding to a crisis as an opportunity: Check out this blog post by Roger Lanctot, associate director, automotive practice, at Strategy Analytics. He makes the point that Tesla’s software update after its Model S battery fires tells a story about the issues automakers are facing on responding to customer perceptions and working with their dealer networks. Tesla was able to announce a software update to raise the speed at which the car automatically lowers itself by an inch for better aerodynamics. Other automakers, including Chrysler and Toyota, can provide their customers with software updates via smartphones for app updates and installation. This has happened despite dealer resistance. Lanctot, who led a speaker panel in November at Connected Car Expo, makes the point that GM (and OnStar) and other OEMs could do well to learn something from Tesla’s solution for software updates and the marketing points the automaker can score (and, I would say, customer retention). I would also say that turning problems into opportunities is there for every clean transportation technology – finding enough alternative fueling and charging stations, lithium battery durability, range anxiety concerns, dependability of the engine while using the alternative fuel, bringing a new fuel or powertrain into the fleet, and justifying the investment.

Lightweighting: For automakers in the US and Europe to meet ambitious government mandates on fuel efficiency and carbon emissions, ligthweighting the vehicles is being tried out – bringing in more magnesium alloys (BMW), aluminum (Ford in the next F-150 pickup), and using more plastics (every OEM) being clear examples. The biggest concern has been safety – metal might be heavier than its alternative, but it’s more likely to retain its structure during a collision or once the vehicle is weighted down with a lot of cargo. Government safety standards are more stringent these days, but there needs to be more confidence in the testing procedures.

Infrastructure: It’s the classic quandary in clean transportation. Will people really buy enough of these green vehicles to turn a profit? Is there enough alternative fueling and charging infrastructure to alleviate their range anxiety? The numbers are getting better (as readers of the monthly Green Auto Market Extended Edition can confirm – where stats on charging and fueling stations are reported each month). One of the ways this is seeing improvement is through local market alliances, many times organized by Clean Cities coordinators. Infrastructure suppliers play a key role, too. In this Green Auto Market interview, Schneider Electric’s Mike Calise talked about an alliance bringing together stakeholders such as employers, a carshare service, Schneider Electric, and Toyota to set up train stations with EV charging, carsharing, and bike stands. The concerns of community stakeholders have to be addressed and integrated within the infrastructure planning to get the necessary buy-in.

A few other points to make. Don’t write off biofuels in the wake of the EPA’s Renewable Fuel Standard decision. Or with concern over the economic viability of the fuel, or whether environmental concerns offset their advantages. Check out Biofuels Digest – you may be astonished at how big advanced biofuels are becoming as an industry and what investors think about it. A lot of it has been going on outside of transportation, but that’s starting to change. Carsharing and van pooling are starting to take off in the US – Zipcar, City CarShare, Enterprise CarShare, Hertz 24/7, and Car2go (a Daimler subsidiary) are expanding in several markets, and I’m starting to see a lot more van pooling services out on the roads. Fleet managers are extremely important stakeholders and decision makers to follow. Pay attention to what Claude Masters, NAFA’s president, is up to including organizing workshops with CALSTART. Fleet management companies (such as ARI, PHH Arval, GE Capital Fleet Services, Wheels, Enterprise Fleet Services, and Donlen) are offering fleets more services in sustainability, clean transportation, and alternative fuel vehicles.

Big Picture: Update on the latest Tesla fire, Prius is best deal out there says Consumer Reports

Tesla Model SThe fourth fire involving a Tesla Model S that happened during the fall – on November 15 in Irvine, Calif. – wasn’t another battery fire. “Our inspection of the car and the battery made clear that neither were the source” of the fire, Tesla said in a statement that cited the report by the Orange County Fire Authority. The OFCA is done with its investigation and is leaving it up to Tesla and insurance companies to figure out what caused it.

Outgoing GM CEO Dan Akerson had some critical things to say at a media conference last week about what Tesla’s going through with its battery fires; he compared it to be battery fire in the test lab incident with the Volt that happened in late 2011 and basically boasted about all the proactive responses that GM carried out instead of standing off to the sidelines.

Ohio dealers have sued to block Tesla from selling cars in the state. Tesla had been looking good recently when a proposed amendment to an unrelated bill was dropped. Dealers were hoping to block Tesla from selling in the state. The new lawsuits wants the state to revoke Tesla’s license to sell cars, stating that the automaker hasn’t met all its necessary legal requirements.

Here’s more of the latest news in clean transportation….

The Toyota Prius Liftback topped Consumer Reports’ annual value list for the second straight year. The attractive base price ($24,025), mileage (44 mpg but can be higher depending on how you drive), and resale value gave it the thumbs up. The Honda Fit subcompact, starting at $15,425, scored in second place for the compact/subcompact class.

The CALSTART clean transportation consortium has announced changes to its board of directors. Paul Rivera of consulting firm Ricardo has been appointed to the board of directors. Rivera serves as global director of hybrid and electrical systems for Ricardo. Ricardo recently expanded its business practice in California and is well-positioned to help grow the industry, fulfilling CALSTART’s mission. Puon Penn, senior VP and head of the National Clean Tech & Emerging Tech Markets at Wells Fargo, has become vice chair of CALSTART’s board. Penn is stepping in for the former vice chair, Jane Warner of American Lung Association in California, who passed away in September. Mike Britt, Director of Maintenance and Engineering for UPS, is now secretary of the board.

Hyundai pitching its fuel cell car

“Today, right here, the hydrogen fuel cell vehicle is making the shift from a research project to a real consumer choice,” says Hyundai Motor America president and CEO John Krafcik. See how the automaker is promoting its new Tucson Fuel Cell model in this new video, which it calls “The Next Generation Electric Vehicle.”

SAE adopting natural gas vehicle standards

At the Society of Automotive Engineers 2013 Commercial Vehicle Engineering Congress, held in October in Rosemont, Ill., industry participants in a Blue Ribbon Panel on natural gas were unanimous that standards will help the industry to quicker embrace the natural gas based technologies. In response to the heavy-duty trucking industry need, SAE International Truck and Bus Council launched an effort to establish relevant SAE standards.  “The use of natural gas as a transportation fuel is extremely important,” said Ron Eickelman, President, Agility Fuel Systems. “All indicators point to increase in the number of vehicles fueled by natural gas. To achieve universal levels of safety, reliability, and performance, there is no question that codes and improved standards are needed now!”

Hydrogen stocks have been up quite a lot this year – an average of 131% for the market. Hydrogen fuel cell and hydrogen system company stocks have performed well. Plug Power, which makes hydrogen fuel cell systems for off-road vehicles is up 122% this year. Ballard Power Systems, a maker of hydrogen fuel cell systems for a number of industries, is up 133% this year. Quantum Fuel Systems Technologies Worldwide, a maker of fuel systems and drivetrain components for NGVs, EVs, and hydrogen FCVs, has gone up 146% and 261% from its low in April. Small investors have been the main buyers of hydrogen stock. Institutional owners have keep their stake fairly small.

Navigant Research forecasts that Japan and the US will be the largest markets for hybrids, with sales reaching just over one million and 1.1 million in 2022, respectively.  The US will remain the largest market for plug-in electric vehicles with more than 467,000 sales in 2022.  A significant majority of the EV sales will be plug-in hybrid electric vehicles.

Green vehicle technologies recognized in award nominations

green car technologyWhile alternative fuel and fuel efficient vehicles have been honored with plenty of awards lately, the technologies that drive them are now being recognized. Green Car Journal released its nominees for the 2014 Green Car Technology Award, which will be handed out January 22 at the Washington DC Auto Show. WardsAuto released its 2014 Ten Best Engines with one being electric and three clean diesel. Here’s some of the interesting findings:

  • For the Green Car Technology Award, there’s a three-motor, all-wheel-drive hybrid –the Acura Sport Hybrid and the turbocharged direct-injection engine in the Audi 3-liter TDI diesel engine.
  • The BMW i3 electric car is acknowledged for its carbon-fiber body.
  • The Cadillac ELR extended range/plug-in hybrid will start being delivered to dealers next month. Its regenerative braking and declaration charging system have been acknowledged in the award nomination.
  • The tiny 1-liter EcoBoost turbocharged engine for the 2014 Ford Fiesta is on the list.
  • The Honda Accord’s plug-in charging system is getting attention with its 115 MPGe.
  • The new Hyundai Tucson’s fuel cell system is on the list.
  • The Ram pickup’s new diesel engine, Porsche’s plug-in hybrid system, and Mazda’s i-ELOOP Brake Energy Regeneration System are also in the competition.
  • WardsAuto did recognize one electrified drive – that of the Fiat 500e. Those testing the cars were impressed with its 147 lb-ft of torque with its power boost, and how it outperformed the official 85 mile range given by the EPA.
  • Clean diesels were honored – the Chevrolet Cruze Diesel’s 2.0L inline four, the Ram 1500 EcoDiesel’s new 3.0L V6 engine, and BMW’s 3.0L inline six cylinder placed in the BMW 535d and X5 SUV made the list.
  • Another interesting engine to make the list is Ford’s 1.0L EcoBoost three-cylinder found in the Fiesta – and which also made the Green Car Journal nomination list. The idea behind it was to deliver the power of a 1.6L engine from the efficient 1.0L engine.

Mexico’s decision to open oil and gas fields to foreign investors could be historic

PemexThere’s been a huge shift in energy policy that will impact oil and gas in North America – the Mexican government just passed a sweeping energy reform bill that will very likely allow foreign investors into the market. New legislation ends state-sponsored energy companies’ 75-year monopoly, allowing private oil firms, including major US conglomerates, to enter into “production-sharing” agreements with Mexico. International producers will have access to production-sharing contracts or licenses where they would get to own the oil they pump out of Mexico’s reserves. The North American Free Trade Agreement, which went into effect in 1994, has facilitated major economic developments like automakers opening up production plants in Mexico and trucking companies moving cargo across the borders. Mexico’s energy reform bill could be in the same league.

There are huge unexplored crude oil reserves in Mexico, and it’s no longer entirely controlled by Pemex, that state-owned oil producer. Pemex has been known for being full of corruption and failing to tap into the vast supply which it says sits at about 13.87 billion barrels of proven oil reserves. There’s probably a lot more, as this is just the proven supply.

Hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, will likely be used to tap into a huge supply of oil and natural gas, and can transform Mexico as well, according to Energy & Capital’s Christian DeHaemer. Fracking is playing a large part of oil and natural gas being plentifully accessed in the US and is likely to play a big part in Mexico’s energy market. That means natural gas prices are likely to stay down for an even longer period of time than was initially expected for North America – and could support growth in natural gas vehicles and infrastructure.

Implementation of the policy and its regulatory decisions will take a while to be finalized in Mexico. There is a political fight going on and the leftist party, PRD, may be call for a popular referendum. The public is less supportive of opening up Pemex, so the process could be dragged out and Mexico’s oil reserves could fail to open up to foreign investment. Energy analysts will be carefully watching Mexico to see where all of it ends up.

If the oil and gas reserves open up to foreign investors, it’s expected that petroleum prices will soften along with natural gas. Crude oil will likely drop in price and that would likely mean that gasoline and diesel prices in the US could continue to stay close to where they are now. The national average has hovered at a little under $3.25 per gallon and diesel a bit under $3.85 per gallon. Skyrocketing fuel prices during 2008 helped push support for electric vehicles and other alternative fuel vehicles – so the potential for oil prices softening will likely deflate some of that argument.

Big Picture: GM’s new CEO Mary Barra gets classic Bob Lutz comments

Mary Barra GMChanging of the guard is starting to happen in Motor City. Right after General Motors paid off the federal government for its post-bankruptcy bailout loan, CEO Dan Akerson announced he’s leaving his job and that GM is getting its first female CEO, Mary Barra. She’s previously served as senior vice president of global product development and has championed GM’s leadership role in electrified and fuel efficient vehicles. Ford Motor Co. is also flooded with gossip about its shining star CEO Allan Mulally leaving and going back to Washington to captain the Microsoft ship. As for Barra, ex-Chevy Volt guru and former GM vice chairman Bob Lutz had his usual bit of banter to share. On a Detroit radio talk show last week, Lutz praised Barra for leading GM’s product development and had something very Lutz-like to say: “I don’t know if you know what she looks like, but she is medium height with an attractive, athletic build, nice face — she’s not a little old lady with glasses; she is very athletic looking, very active and it’s easy to imagine her behind the wheel of a car.” So, she may not be a car guy, but she’s alright with Bob Lutz.

And in other clean transportation news…..

  • Fisker Automotive Holdings Inc. is continuing at a fast pace through bankruptcy proceedings.  Its lawyers convinced US Bankruptcy Judge Kevin Gross in Wilmington that the process should roll forward. The hearing started last week as the judge gave creditors more time to sell their assets and not just sell it all off to Hong Kong tycoon Richard Li. Attorneys on both sides disagreed and asked that a hearing be scheduled for January 3, which Gross did approve. At that time, the judge will decide if the reorganization plan should be allowed to go forward, along with the structure for selling the company’s assets.
  • Green Car Reports lambasted dealers for many times mishandling plug-in electric vehicle sales experiences. Here’s the rub: “Remember two things about dealers. First, they make very little money selling new cars, perhaps $100 to $200 on average. Their profit comes from selling used cars, and providing parts and service for existing cars. Second, every salesperson’s mission is to close the deal, today, at maximum profit with minimum time invested. Selling a plug-in car takes three to five times as long for a dealer as does selling a gasoline car. It requires explanation, education, training, all of the fuss and bother associated with installing a charging station in the garage if the buyer wants one, and so on.”
  • Ever hear much about methanol as being an advanced alternative fuel of the future with plenty of benefits? Nobel laureate Dr. George Olah and Surya Prakash, director of the Loker Hydrocarbon Research Institute at USC, are singing the praises of methanol. They’ve won a million dollar prize from the Israeli government to conduct research. They say that methanol can be produced by combining hydrogen and carbon dioxide and it can be used to power vehicles. One of the outputs can be the diesel substitute dimethyl ether, which Volvo Trucks has been testing out.
  • Check out this flyer from Sacramento Clean Cities promoting Propel Fuel’s 10th fuel station in that region. And you get free fuel — $10 worth of ethanol and biodiesel from December 18 to 20.
  • Sapphire Energy and Phillips 66 have an agreement to produce algae crude oil to commercial scale production and turn it into fuel. Their goal is to complete fuel certifications to move forward Sapphire Energy’s renewable crude oil, called Green Crude, for wide-scale oil refining. Perhaps algae biofuel will actually make it to the market – there’s been quite a few enthusiastic fans out there waiting for it to reach commercial scale.
  • Ford is joining the race for driverless cars to make it to dealer lots. “Our goal is to test the limits of full automation and determine the appropriate levels for near- and mid-term deployment,” said Raj Nair, a vice president at Ford, about the automaker’s Fusion Hybrid research vehicle. While Ford says that most of the automation it’s testing won’t be deployed until after 2025, it intends to phase in pieces of it little-by-little before then. 

Confessions of a secret “Billy Jack” fan – and other unspoken eco-heroes for baby boomers

Billy Jack“I’m gonna take this right foot, and I’m gonna whop you on that side of your face… and you wanna know something? There’s not a damn thing you’re gonna be able to do about it.”
Billy Jack to Mr. Posner in the 1971 film, “Billy Jack.”

Okay, how many of you remember that scene from the movie? And have watched “Billy Jack” more than one time? Come on, fess up…..

As a 50 year old, tail-end member of the baby boomer generation, I have to admit having seen it a few times. I did feel a twinge of sadness yesterday hearing about “Billy Jack” actor-writer-director Tom Laughlin’s death at age 82. I had seen the predecessor Billy Jack picture – the1967 biker movie, “The Born Losers,” a few years ago, but couldn’t sit through the tedious sequels, “The Trial of Billy Jack” or “Billy Jack Goes to Washington.”

While it may seem like an odd perspective (and memorial), I do think that Billy Jack and a few other characters from that era had an influence on young people’s perspectives on socio-political issues including environmental concerns. For those of you motivated to buy a green car, do a bit of recycling, visit a national park, and avoid eco-irresponsible actions, you may have shared with me a few symbolic memories from those days. I’ve thought about it enough to pull together a Top Five list of unrecognized influential eco-heroes from years ago……

Iron Eyes CodyIron Eyes Cody: Do you remember the TV commercial about 40 years ago where what looked like an Indian chief from a hundred years earlier would paddle a canoe down a river and see all the pollution – garbage, landfill, smog, and dirty water – with a tear streaming down his face? It came from a public service announcement launched on Earth Day in 1971, one year after that national holiday started up. It featured actor Iron Eyes Cody and was produced by the Keep America Beautiful non-profit organization. The campaign promoted a theme: “People Start PollutionPeople can stop it.”

Silent RunningFreeman Lowell in “Silent Running”: Bruce Dern played Lowell in the 1972 sci-fi thriller set in the future. He’s a botanist and ecologist who’s completely dedicated to saving the very last of the plant life from planet earth that’s stored on a fleet of space freighters – hoping it can return to earth for reforestation of the planet. He loses what’s left of his sanity when he sees other cargo freighters get blown up by crewmates while following orders from commanding officers. He kills one of his crewmates who shows up to plant a bomb and destroy the last remaining greenhouse dome that Lowell is desperate to save.  One of the memorable scenes from the movie shows Dern wearing a card-dealer visor and distributing cards to play poker with his two drone buddies, who he names Huey and Dewey.

Smokey BearSmokey Bear: Everybody’s seen the Smokey Bear ads, which started in 1944 and have continued to this day. It lays out a tall order – “Only you can prevent forest fires.” That message started up in 2001 after a series of wildfires around the country. The ranger bear character is owned by the federal government and the Ad Council. While John Muir and Teddy Roosevelt have been honored for establishing our national parks and stopping the US from being turned into a giant suburban neighborhood and shopping mall/parking lot, Smokey Bear has had a lot more influence lately.


Soylent GreenSol Roth in “Soylent Green”: For those who’ve seen the 1973 film “Soylent Green” starring Charlton Heston, you probably remember the scenes where he talks about the past with his old roommate, Solomon “Sol” Roth. Played by classic 1930s gangster movie star Edward G. Robinson, Roth sermonizes about the past when there used to be blue sky and beautiful beaches and forests. Set in 2022 (nine years from now – yipes!), they live in a big city, probably New York, and the planet is overpopulated and dying off; the air is so thick with smog that people wear surgical masks as they stand in line waiting for their government-rationed food. Soylent Corporation controls all of it and manufactures the food products. It’s in such short supply that crowds riot over it. Heston, playing corrupt-but-justice-seeking cop Thorn, finds out through Roth that Soylent Green is made out of people. The most memorable part of the film is where Roth has given up on living and has gone to a center for euthanasia. Roth finds him there and watches the last moments of Roth’s life as film footage is shown streaming giant images of the earth’s long-lost beauty.

Paul Simon as Billy JackBilly Jack: Yes, it was absurd. A half-Native American, half-white ex-Green Beret war vet, martial artist takes off his shoes and kicks a racist bully upside the head. Another pivotal scene was his spiritual initiation into an Indian tribe where he becomes enlightened and recognizes that all the earth is interconnected – you need to protect the planet, champion equality, and make sure diversity is respected – or life can only be a total bummer. He speaks up for the Freedom School and its young students against the kind of redneck townspeople who killed the stars of “Easy Rider” a couple of years earlier. As hokey as it was, it did make for a very entertaining movie – very similar to drive-in movies we would watch in those days with car chases and fight scenes and social commentary galore. It was enough to inspire “Saturday Night Live” to satirize it a few years later with pop star Paul Simon playing Billy Jack. And come on, we all remember the famous theme song, “One Tin Soldier.” Don’t feel embarrassed about watching the music video and that you might want to sing along……

Natural gas vehicles: Facts and figures

NGV fueling stationLearning about any of the clean transportation technologies involves a lengthy learning curve. It’s good for all of us to stay current and refresh the ABCs once in a while. Natural gas vehicles is a great topic to research and share educational content on, as it’s spreading out widely to vehicles and fueling stations across the US and several other markets around the world. So here are a few topical categories to cover (and please post comments if I missed anything or got it wrong)……

Fuel stations:

  • Number of compressed natural gas (CNG) stations in the US: 1,389
  • Number of liquefied natural gas (LNG) stations in the US: 150

CNG vs. LNG:

  • CNG is used in light and medium duty cars and trucks, while LNG is used mainly in heavy duty trucks.
  • LNG only needs 30% of the space that CNG uses for on-board vehicle storage for the same amount of energy. LNG requires on-board storage in thermal tanks capable of keeping the fuel at -260 degrees Fahrenheit. LNG vehicle conversions and their fueling stations are much more expensive than CNG.
  • CNG needs to be stored on-board in a cylinder tank at 3,000 to 3,600 pounds per square inch.

Vehicle powertrains: Very similar to gasoline and diesel powered engines as they basically do the same thing with ignition of the fuel to power the engine. Conversions need to be made for the fuel storage tank, fueling receptacle/nozzle, and in the engine.

Hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”): The question of whether shooting water into gas fields to extract natural gas is environmentally safe is being fought out in several state capitals, but it’s never really been affiliated with natural gas vehicles. The criticism has to do with how the natural gas is removed from the ground and harmful consequences it could cause – tainting aquifers, causing earthquakes, and using way too much water. UC Berkeley physics professor Richard Muller contends in a paper that environmentalists should embrace hydraulic fracturing as a means to mitigate climate change and ease air pollution.

Vehicle acquisitions: Clean Energy Fuels Corp. just reported that customers using its fueling stations ordered 70% more NGVs in the first nine months of 2013 compared to the same period in 2012. The company said Cummins Westport thinks it will make 2,400 natural gas engines this year and 10,000 next year. On the retail side, there’s the Honda Civic NGV and CNG-powered pickups from Chrysler, Ford, and GM – some of them bi-fuel and some pure natural gas. Honda is reporting its sales numbers – 2,080 units for this year had been sold through the end of November. One of the strongest appeals for NGVs, especially among fleets, is that even though the acquisition cost is higher for an NGV compared to a similar non-NGV, the fuel expense is about one third that of petroleum. While the acquisition cost is higher for the natural gas vehicle, the fuel savings delivers lifecycle operating cost savings usually within two-to-three years.

Renewable natural gas: Natural gas coming from renewable sources, or biomethane, is gaining traction, especially in California where it’s eligible for low carbon credits; and sometimes it qualifies for the US Environmental Protection Agency’s Renewable Identification Numbers and its credit system. Fair Oaks Farms, based in Fair Oaks, Ind., won a 2013 NGV Achievement Award last month. AMP Americas works with Fair Oaks Farms to fuel its 42 milk delivery tanker trucks with renewable natural gas (RNG). In 2012, they set up a biodigester that processes agricultural waste to produce RNG. There are several other waste (biomass) sources being analyzed to produce RNG/biomethane from organic matter. (RNG is also called biogas.)

Emissions:  NGVs are cleaner than vehicles powered by gasoline or diesel, though the figures vary. It tends to be considered to have about 25% less in greenhouse gas and carbon emissions than petroleum; and an even higher percentage in reductions of smog-creating tailpipe emissions that include hydrocarbons, nitrogen oxides, carbon monoxide, and particulate matter.

Thanks to NGV America, US Dept. of Energy, Transport Topics,, and Clean Cities for data and information.

Big Picture: GenYers love the driverless car, just don’t call them GenYers

Google driverless carsDuring a recent conversation with a very-high IQ 20 year old, I mentioned hearing an interview with an analyst on social trends tied to the GenY age group in America (about 18 to 30 years old). The analyst said they’re known for being concerned about social/economic justice, coming of age and scrambling for jobs during the Great Recession. They’re also concerned about environmental issues like climate change. I asked him for his opinion on the comments and whether he’s interested in driverless, autonomous vehicles, such as those being tested out by Google – and which I’ve sensed are much more appealing to young people than to 40-plus GenXers and Baby Boomers. Yes, he said, very interested, but he thinks the GenY concept is sort of a joke.

I understood what he said about our tendency to categorize groups so that we can perform better in sales and marketing, attempting to influence voter opinion, etc. The irony was that while there may be some truth to the problems inherent in categorizing social groups, his satirical comment was also oddly symbolic of GenYers – they don’t like to be told what to do and who they are, and have an eloquent, blunt manner of getting to the point. They’re clearly influenced by Baby Boomer predecessors, such as their parents, who spoke out about things they didn’t like in the 60s and 70s, wrote pop hits about it, and made some pretty good movies.

Accenture recently did a survey of more than 14,000 drivers in 12 countries. The survey found that GenY consumers are very much into technologies necessary for creating driverless cars. As for what they like – automatic braking systems that stop the car in an emergency and that prevent hitting an object; collision-warning systems; fully-automatic parking; and lane-keeping systems.

They’re much less interested in getting their drivers licenses and owning a car than their elders. They do acknowledge the “bread and butter” necessities of transportation. They’re more engaged with carsharing, public transportation, hybrids and EVs, biking, and walking – than are older people typically stuck in traffic. Driverless cars make a lot of sense. As the young man said to me recently, he would prefer doing something else during the mobility experience rather than driving – watching movies, gaming, texting, and just kicking back – all of that sounds better than being enslaved by the steering wheel. I think I know what he means.

And in other clean transportation news……

  • November sales weren’t much different than October’s for plug-ins. The Nissan Leaf came in at 2,003 deliveries in November – one more than the Chevrolet Volt sold in October and higher than the 1,920 Volts sold in November. Tesla doesn’t report Model S numbers, but it was selling about 1,500 per month during the previous quarter. Ford saw a tough month where sales of C-Max Hybrid and C-Max Energi plug-in hybrid dropped 59% and 25%, respectively, from a year ago.
  • Propane autogas and other alternative fueling stations just received more funding support from the state of Texas. The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) says that grant funding is being made available to eligible individuals, businesses and government entities to continue the development of a network of Texas alternative fuel stations. Nineteen Texas counties in ozone non-attainment areas are eligible, including the Dallas-Fort Worth area, the El Paso area and the Houston-Galveston-Brazoria area. There are more than 700 propane autogas fueling stations now in Texas, and this funding initiative will widen the infrastructure for public and private fleets using propane, said Jackie Mason, Education & Marketing Director for the Propane Council of Texas.
  • Dow Chemical withdrew from the electric vehicle charging business – selling its majority stake in battery maker Dow Kokam to an affiliate of Townsend Ventures; there are two other companies still in ownership status, but Dow has dropped out.
  • SpaceX launched its first commercial satellite into space last week from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. The Falcon 9 rocket placed a three-ton communications satellite owned by SES S.A. into high-earth orbit. Founder Elon Musk was thrilled watching it and tweeted about it.
  • Mitsubishi announced a big $6,130 price drop for its i-MiEV electric car. It brings the sticker price down to $22,995. There’s a $7,500 federal tax credit, and for those living in California, a $2,500 incentive. That would bring it down to $12,995.
  • General Motors is investing $24 million into turning landfill gas into electricity that will power two assembly plants. This will take place at the Fort Wayne, Ind., and Orion, Mich., assembly plants and will generate 14 megawatts of electricity a year. That will save GM a combined $10 million in energy savings between the two facilities. It joins up with renewable, clean energy initiatives at several of its global production facilities.
  • The state of Ohio is putting the Tesla vs. Franchised Dealers issue on hold for now. A state legislative committee decided not to vote yet on a licensing amendment that would prevent it from selling cars in the state. The Ohio Automobile Dealers Association wants to see the state adopt it and block Tesla from selling cars in the state outside the franchised dealer system.
  • Roush CleanTech has brought in five business development executives with dozens of years of experience in automotive and alternative fuels. That brings the staff to 80 employees, up from six in 2010. Steve Whaley, Joe Rudolph, Don Manfredi, Derek Whaley, and Philip Mailey bring a lot expertise and experience with automakers, fleets, and alternative fuels to Roush CleanTech trucks, vans and buses that run on propane autogas.
  • Westport and Clean Energy are working together to give fleets natural gas vehicle (NGV) options. Westport is offering free compressed natural gas (CNG) fuel through any Clean Energy station across the US to customers who order five or more Westport WiNG™ Power System operated vehicles between now and Dec. 31, 2013. Fleets considering natural gas vehicles have a chance to test out the technology, performance, and ease of refueling NGVs through this promotion.
  • ClipperCreek is now offering its LCS-25P electric vehicle charging station with factory-installed NEMA L6-30, 14-30P, 14-50P, and 6-50P wall plugs. The five kilowatt, level 2 units costs $549. The addition of these new 240 volt plug types means the LCS-25P “can now be plugged in virtually anywhere,” the company says.