Big Picture: Will Elon Musk gain business from Hyperloop?

Hyperloop AlphaHyperloop:  Telsa CEO Elon Musk stirred up a lot of curiosity over the past year for the unveiling of his Hyperloop high-speed rail concept yesterday. It boils down to flying through a steel pipeline; take a look at this 57-page report. It’s a concept that won’t necessarily be carried out by any of Musk’s companies such as SpaceX, but it is intriguing. Musk says he is releasing the designs as an open source project in hopes of optimizing the design and bringing down costs.

The high-speed transit solution could go from Los Angeles to San Francisco in 30 minutes and would cost $6 billion – compared to the $68 billion budgeted for the state’s high-speed rail project. It would travel along the state’s I-5 and I-580 highways and reach top speeds of 760 miles per hour. The capsules, or pods, could carry up to 28 people and each person could bring two bags. The trip would cost them about $20 one way. Musk recommends that it be built as a low friction suspension system traveling with a cushion of air from the pod using the same air bearings principle used in an air hockey table, instead of wheels. His team thinks that a battery used to accelerate the pod would be drawn not from the battery pack (that battery would circulate air in the pod); instead an external linear electric motor with a round induction motor, similar to the one used in the Tesla Model S, would deliver that power. Perhaps Tesla would provide an electric motor? There is probably some potential business opportunity for Musk and his companies — similar to Google funding and delivering driverless Toyota Priuses to states testing out autonomous cars. There’s got to be some technology applications that Google and Tesla can provide.

Neapolitan Express is leading a campaign to bring natural gas vehicles to food delivery vehicles in fleets across the country: Everything is powered on natural gas, instead of propane for food heating and gasoline or diesel for the truck’s engine and the motor powering air conditioning and other features. The food truck produces 70% less carbon emissions and reduces fuel costs by 60% over gasoline and diesel-fueled versions. Company owner Max Crespo unveiled the Neapolitan Express in February alongside New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Clean Energy Fuels Corp. founder T. Boone Pickens. In partnership with Clean Energy Fuels, Crespo is now rolling out the concept across the country, according to ClimateWire (subscription required).

Cellulosic ethanol reaches commercial production: The US Environmental Protection Agency is adjusting the Renewable Fuels Standard (RFS) in order to reflect market realities. The rule previously called for 14 million gallons of cellulosic ethanol, but the final rule reduced the number to six million gallons of cellulosic ethanol this year. While coverage has stated that the EPA backed down, the cellulosic ethanol is actually becoming a tangible biofuel industry with commercial production starting up. KiOR started commercial production in March using wood chips to produce cellulosic fuels, and Ineos just announced that their Indian River BioEnergy plant in Florida has begun operations to make biofuels from plant waste. Both of these are now operating at full commercial scale.

Attention Fleet Managers — Sell green vehicles as part of GHG emissions reduction strategy:  Major aerospace company Northrup Grumman just released impressive numbers on reaching its greenhouse gas emissions reduction targets – the only problem is that it had nothing to do with transportation. The company reduced GHG nearly 27% in three years – two years ahead of plan. How was this accomplished? An environmental sustainability program that covers facilities, engineering, and manufacturing efficiency projects, a green information technology strategy, real estate optimization, renewable energy, and ecosystem conservation. Not a word was said about its fleet vehicles. Fleet managers have been thinking about installing electric vehicle charging stations on campus and looking at green vehicles like its fleet management counterparts, but so far that hasn’t happened.

Big Picture: Mazda’s SkyActiv campaign, F-150 in CNG and propane, Chevy Volt feeds the price war

Mazda Laird Hamilton adHave you seen Mazda’s TV commercial with monster waves being surfed by legend and tow-in surfing pioneer Laird Hamilton? Mazda makes the bodacious claim that its Mazda3 with SkyActiv technology is on the same level. The ad pitches the 40 highway mpg EPA estimate, that it was named a top safety pick by Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, and that it starts at $16,700. “This is the Mazda way, and this is the Mazda3. What do you drive?”

Mazda has yet to offer any plug-in, hybrid, or alternative fuel vehicles – so its SkyActiv technology is its best bet for meeting federal fuel economy and emissions standards – and for upping its green credentials. Mazda says that the smartness of SkyActiv boils down to highly fuel efficient engines with great compression ratio; ideal transmissions; reduced vehicle weight; safety performance; and a clean diesel version. While Mazda’s sales were slow in the first third of 2013, Mazda credits SkyActiv for starting to pick up the numbers again for its all-new 2014 Mazda6 and versions of the Mazda3 and CX-5 utility vehicle. It’s too early to tell if SkyActiv is making much of a difference; those models were already doing well in their vehicle categories, but sales have picked up for the automaker and SkyActiv is the main focus of its marketing campaign.

Ford offering CNG and propane powered F-150s
Compressed natural gas (CNG) and liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) nearly have nothing to do with retail light duty passenger vehicles, with the exception of the Honda Civic Natural Gas Vehicle (which has only been sold in very small numbers to retail buyers so far). Now, when it comes to fleets, natural gas and propane autogas-powered trucks are a very big deal. Ford Motor Co. is adding to alternative fuel vehicle offerings with CNG and LPG options for the 2014 F-150 pickup truck. Ford will become the first automaker this fall to offer both a CNG and propane autogas version of a half-ton pickup. Ford expects to sell about 15,000 CNG-LPG vehicles this year. Chrysler and General Motors are offering bi-fuel trucks that can be powered by either CNG or gasoline. Fleets like the alternative fuel trucks for the cost per mile – about a third of gasoline and diesel and reduced emissions compared to conventional trucks. The challenge has been seeing enough product offerings on the market and a refueling infrastructure outside the fleet’s home base. Ford’s announcement is good news for advocates of the alternative fuel and technology.

On the subject of CNGs, Nissan is bringing a CNG pickup truck to the Thailand market. There are expectations that alternative fuel vehicles will be seeing an increase in Asian markets, especially through government-funded projects aimed at reducing air pollutions and vulnerability to fuel price volatility. The Nissan Navara CNG is the company’s first bi-fuel CNG-gasoline engine. It’s powered by an engine that generates 154 horsepower at 5,200 rpm. The new Navara CNG will reduce running costs by two thirds compared to a conventional gasoline engine, Nissan said.

Chevy Volt ramping up the price war
Chevrolet has cut the Volt’s price by $5,000 for the 2014 model year — down to $34,995. The 2013 model had already been cut by $4,000. Sales had been down slightly last month; while sales are up more than 9% for 2013, Volt sales are still behind the Nissan Leaf and Tesla Model S in the battle for the top spot in the plug-in market. So, the price war continues….

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Via Motors and PG&E roll out emergency power storage in plug-in hybrid trucks
Hurricane Sandy raised hackles for locals living in places like New Jersey last year. Power outages wreaked havoc for residents and employers in ways that tend to get forgotten about until the electricity disappears. Plug-in hybrid truck maker Via Motors has been working on a “power export” offering with Pacific Gas & Electric. The Via pickups can be hooked up to supply electricity for urgent situations, such as a home or medical facility that needs electricity to respond to an emergency. The two companies are working on a Via Motors VTRUX, a range-extended truck with a 300 kilowatt traction motor, 150 kW generator, and 4.3L, V6 engine. It’s able to power 120V and 240V power outlets, which can power tools and export electricity as needed.

Apple competing for share in the connected car space
Connected cars and telematics are a competitive battleground for third parties like Microsoft and Pandora Media, and now Apple is competing for space. By the end of this year, car shoppers will be seeing several vehicles with Apple’s iPhone functions that use Siri voice controls for navigation, texting, emails, and music. It takes a lot of testing and hard work to make these technologies work the right way in cars – and suppliers typically fail to deliver it, according to the Car Lab consulting firm. Automakers know many consumers already use their iPhones as a substitute for built-in navigation systems. The trick for automakers is figuring out a good way to pair the iPhone to their cars in a way that avoids driver distraction and increases user satisfaction. The Chevrolet Spark and Sonic small cars offer Siri, but it hasn’t done well so far in reviews. So Apple has a big challenge ahead, and it will get a lot of attention from connected car analysts.

The Big Picture

  • Welcome to the weekly edition of Green Auto Market. Some of you were previously reading Green Automotive Digest, and others have been reading the monthly Green Auto Market for the past year and a half. This weekly blog newsletter is produced by Jon LeSage, editor and publisher, along with Automotive Information Network, Inc. (parent of Automotive Digest, Dealer Digest Daily, Fleet Management Weekly, and Used Car Market Reports). This newsletter will be published on Tuesday mornings; it will continue offering the same analysis, coverage, and style – now in a more timely weekly format.

As for this week…..

  • Chevrolet is marketing torque power in its Spark EV, which has been launched in California and Oregon. A new online video declares that the car’s 400 pounds-feet of torque are “more than a Ferrari 458 Italia.” The 30-second spot shows the minicar zooming through a gleaming white test facility at the speed of light – it goes 0 to 60 mph in 7.6 seconds, faster than the Fiat 500e, Ford Focus Electric and Nissan Leaf, GM says.
  • Mack Trucks is following parent company Volvo Trucks and will begin production of dimethyl ether-powered Pinnacle Axle Back models with the 13-liter MP8 engine in 2015. Volvo introduced its DME option with fuel supplier Oberon Fuels in Sacramento last month. DME engines emit no soot — diesel particulate filter. When produced from biomass or biogas, DME can provide up to a 95% percent carbon dioxide reduction compared with diesel.
  • More than 3,000 attendees made it to ACT Expo 2013 last month in Washington, DC, making it the largest and most significant US annual conference on alternative fuels and vehicles. It took place at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center in partnership with the U.S. Department of Energy as a platform to put key players together in green ground transportation. “We’d like to thank our sponsors, exhibitors, speakers and attendees for a terrific event in Washington,” said Erik Neandross, CEO at organizer Gladstein, Neandross and Association. ACT Expo 2014 will be held with NGV Global 2014, the world natural gas vehicles meeting. These will take place May 5-9, 2014 in Long Beach, Calif.
  • Hertz has not officially entered the car sharing business – unlike Avis, which bought Zipcar, the largest car sharing company, at the beginning of 2013. Yet Hertz is in the car sharing business through its 24/7 service, which offers rentals at any time of day or night for any length of time. Hertz has about 35,000 vehicles in the US equipped with technology enabling the car sharing service. By 2016, the car rental giant expects to have about 500,000 vehicles ready worldwide for this 24/7 (also called Hertz On Demand) service. That would be about 10 times the size of the current car sharing industry, Hertz said.
  • General Motors plans to double the amount of models that achieve 40 mpg highway or better by 2017. The Chevrolet Volt, Sonic, Cruze Eco Cruze Clean Turbo Diesel already meet that requirement, and the 2014 Cadillac ELR and Spark EV will do even better when released. GM’s long-term approach to sustainability enables us to increase efficiency and re-imagine personal mobility to best meet customer needs and lifestyles, the company said.
  • Ford is attempting to make things right for its 2013 model hybrid vehicles that have been coming up short on its fuel economy performance compared to the official ratings. The company is offering free software upgrades intended to improve fuel economy to owners of 2013 Ford C-Max and Fusion and Lincoln MKZ. Ford drew a lot of criticism following 2012 tests by Consumer Reports, which reported that the Fusion hybrid had 17% less and the C-Max had 21% less than Ford’s original promise of 47 miles per gallon. 
  • The 2014 BMW i3 has an MSRP of $41,350, before BMW’s $925 destination fee–for a starting price of $42,275  before the federal tax credit or local incentives.

How are plug-in electric vehicles comparing to ICEs for ownership cost?

workplace chargingAs automakers reduce prices on their plug-in electric vehicles, how does the cost of ownership compare to fuel-efficient internal combustion engine vehicles?

  • Ford Motor Co. just joined the price war reducing the base price of its Focus EV from $39,200 to $35,200. With the federal tax incentive, the price goes down to $27,700 and some states are offering their own incentives (i.e., California is taking another $2,500 off the price).
  • Honda cut monthly payments of a 36-month lease on its Fit EV from $389 to $259.
  • Leasing made up about 93% of electric vehicle sales deliveries in Q4 2012, according to Experian Automotive.
  • Maintenance costs are lower on EVs compared to ICEs. You don’t take them in for oil changes and basic service as you do with a gasoline engine car.
  • As for the cost of the energy needed to keep the car moving, the US Dept. of Energy has started up a fueling indicator called eGallon. On average, fueling your car with gasoline costs about three times more than powering it with electricity. On a given day, the average US price of gasoline was $3.65 per gallon and the cost per mile equivalent for electricity was $1.14 for an electric eGallon.

Long term lifecycle costs for EVs are still unknown – unless you’ve been driving one for several years, such as the limited number sold in the second half of the 1990s. As for the new generation of lithium-ion battery models, they’ve only been on roads since late 2010. The cost of the battery pack replacement is a big issue for analysts. However, with 93% of them being leased for now, battery life is yet to be much of a real concern – but the worry is always there. The Nissan Leaf has gone through this struggle in the past year with Leaf drivers in hot areas like Arizona being angry and vocal about the performance of the Leaf’s battery pack.

Phil Gott, Senior Director at IHS, said, “If you are going to compare the operating costs of an electric vehicle and take into account the battery costs, you need to take into account all the costs of maintenance and engine replacement.”

How many consumers will be doing that math while buying a car? “Nobody and that’s the reality,” Gott said.

EV sales are still small compared to the overall market – only 0.63% of new vehicle sales in the US during June. They’re not going away, but there are a few barriers to be crossed for these numbers to grow. Car shoppers need a lot more education and experience to address key concerns – limited range per charge; sparse charging infrastructure; vehicle reliability and durability; and total cost of ownership compared to what they’re driving now.

Why AeroVironment is an EV Charger Company to Watch

Electric vehicle charging solutions provider AeroVironment just made an agreement with Ford Motor Co. to be thepreferred installation partner and authorized charging station supplier for its plug-ins – Ford Focus Electric and the C-Max Energi and Fusion Energi plug-in hybrids. Customers will get a 240-volt charger and schedule a turnkey professional installation after making a call to AeroVironment (with a web-based option soon to come). AeroVironment also brings its nationwide network of certified installers and a three-year onsite parts and labor warranty.

AeroVironment has become the leader in the field – having installed 11,000 charging stations (home, public, and workplace). Two of its competitors – ChargePoint and ECOtality – have deployed US Department of Energy-grant funded installations, but AeroVironment has surged forward through its partnership with the Nissan Leaf and other customers who are very familiar with the diverse company known for its technology expertise. AeroVironment plays a leading role in supplying the US Dept. of Defense and its military organizations with electric-powered unmanned aircraft systems (aka drones). In the early 1990s, AeroVironment worked with General Motors on an electric vehicle test program that became the EV1 electric car.

The Ford program is a little bit different than the dealer program AeroVironment announced at the National Automobile Dealers Association convention earlier this year. Those buying a battery electric vehicle or plug-in hybrid have the option of financing the charger in combination with the vehicle at the time of sale. Dealers can now offer a one-stop shop experience for EV drivers. Dealers can offer various “bumper-to-bumper” warranty options for the chargers that match the financing terms of the vehicle. Chargers bought through the dealer program are installed by a licensed electrician certified in EV charging installation in all 50 states.

Nissan is working with AeroVironment on this program, and the charging station maker may do something similar with BMW, Mitsubishi, and other OEMs. Ford’s alliance with AeroVironment is very similar to the one-stop financing program with Nissan. Ford is seeing gradual increases in EV sales, and is getting a lot of attention with its C-Max Energi and Fusion Energi plug-in hybrids. It wouldn’t be surprising to see other major OEMs announce similar supplier agreements with AeroVironment.