Big Picture: NHTSA drops Tesla battery fire investigation, Honda and UC Davis showing how EV batteries can store solar power

Tesla Model S fireThe National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has ended its four-month investigation into three battery pack fires in the Tesla Model S that occurred last fall. That decision followed Tesla Motors adding a titanium underbody shield to protect the luxury electric car from road debris that can cause battery fires. Tesla CEO Elon Musk announced in an article on that all Model S vehicles built after March 6 will have the new shield. Owners of the Model S built before that date can have the titanium shield added by Tesla. NHTSA said that the shield, along with the software upgrade a few months ago that lifted the car’s ride height, have alleviated the agency’s safety concerns with the Model S. Last fall, Tesla’s software upgrade added the ability to raise ground clearance at highway speeds; at that time, Tesla also took steps to prevent overheating of its charging systems, including giving customers upgraded wall adapters and providing charging-software upgrades.

And in other clean transportation news……..

  • Honda has worked together with University of California, Davis to build the Honda Smart Home in the city of Davis to demonstrate how an electric vehicle’s battery pack can store solar power. The 1,944-square foot home offers the very latest in energy efficient technologies – LED lighting, radiant heating and cooling, a geothermal recovery system, a large solar panel system, and a grey-water filtering and recovery system. The home contains a 10-kilowatt-hour lithium-ion battery pack; it’s a smaller version of the one that powers the electric Honda Fit. As more homes are generating electricity from solar panels, electric vehicle batteries are expected to become storage units when the sun goes down. “It’s a new world in terms of vehicles operating not as isolated artifacts but as being part of a larger energy system, and I think the greatest opportunity for automakers is figuring out how their vehicles become part of that system,” said Daniel Sperling, director of the Institute of Transportation Studies at UC Davis, which provided the building site and the heating and lighting technology for the Honda Smart Home.
  • New Jersey Assemblyman Tim Eustace has introduced a bill that would permit consumers to buy electric vehicles directly from Tesla Motors. If passed, it would bypass the recent ban by the New Jersey Motor Vehicle Commission (MVC), which is composed of Governor Chris Christie’s cabinet members and appointees, on allowing Tesla cars to be sold outside of a franchised retail dealer network. Next door, in the state of New York, Tesla struck a deal on Friday with Gov. Andrew Cuomo and others that will allow it to keep five existing company-owned stores, as long as it doesn’t open more of them in the state. According to the agreement between Tesla, Cuomo, legislative leaders, and auto dealers, additional Tesla retail locations would need to be established under a “strengthened dealer franchise law.” In return, elected officials agreed to drop language in a bill in the state legislature that would have forced Tesla to close its existing direct-sale operations.
  • The Tesla “corporate-owned stores vs. franchised dealer stores” debate could be a talking point in the 2016 presidential election. Senator Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), a rising GOP star who’s expected to run for president, says that Tesla has the right to directly sell its electric cars. That will likely put him at odds with another expected Republication candidate, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie. Gov. Christie will probably dispute Rubio’s claim and defend his decision against Tesla’s stores in New Jersey. The politics may also have something to do with what state will get the $5 billion lithium battery “Gigafactory” project. AutoNation CEO Mike Jackson thinks it’s quite ironic that Texas and Arizona – the states with the toughest pro-dealer franchise laws, are now considering lightening up on laws allowing Tesla to have retail stores in those states. Previous attempts to gain exemptions in those states had failed; now state politicians are courting Tesla. These states, along with Nevada and New Mexico, are finalists for the Gigafactory project.
  • General Motors CEO Mary Barra told lawmakers in Washington yesterday that she’s “deeply sorry” for the error on an ignition switch defect, and will be fully transparent once the company discover what went wrong. It’s part of a large recall that only involves one alternative fuel vehicle – the 2014 Cadillac ELR extended range coupe. The recall will correct a problem with the diagnostic function of the software that controls the electronic stability control (ESC) in about 656 ELRs built between September 26, 2013, and February 14, 2014.
  • Toyota’s Asset-Backed Green Bond, a $1.75 billion fund announced last week, is part of a much larger global financial trend in green bonds. Unilever, the world’s second-largest consumer goods company, last week issued a $415 million bond for reducing waste, water use, and greenhouse-gas emissions. Bonds used to finance bonds that are friendly to the environment are gaining popularity worldwide, according to Christopher Flensborg of SEB, a Swedish bank; Flensborg is considered to be the inventor of green bonds. Unilever’s issuance was part of $6 billion in green bonds in the first quarter of 2014, which is much higher than in the first quarter of 2013; that year ended with a total of $11 billion in green bonds. World Bank president Jim Kim thinks it will rise above $50 billion next year. Toyota Financial Services’ (TFS) $1.75 billion was upsized from $1.25 as institutional investors have expressed interest in this clean transportation investment opportunity. TFS will use the proceeds from Green Bond toward the purchase of retail finance contracts and lease contracts for Toyota and Lexus vehicles that meet high green standards.
  • Clean Cities will be offering about $4.5 million more in available funding in three areas of interest: an alternative fuel vehicle demonstration and enhanced driver experience; alternative fuel training for first responders, public safety officials, and critical service providers; and incorporating alternative fuels into emergency response and preparedness operations. On March 24, the Vehicle Technologies Office, Clean Cities’ parent office, issued a Notice of Intent for a potential upcoming Funding Opportunity Announcement, available on (second item in the table) and the EERE Exchange site.  Clean Cities also announced last week that it’s rolling out nine new projects with the National Parks Service. The projects will bring alternative fuel and fuel-efficient vehicles to the road, cut vehicle idling, and improve vehicle efficiency. Almost all of the projects involve installing charging equipment for plug-in electric vehicles and many will also add EVs  to the National Parks Service’s fleet.
  • Tesla’s “Gigafactory” lithium battery factory concept is raising a lot enthusiasm with investors and fans of cleantech; however, Tesla Motors’ primary supplier of lithium ion cells for its Model S is still thinking about it. Panasonic Corp. hasn’t committed to investing in the ambitious US battery plant that’s been proposed by Tesla CEO Elon Musk. Joining Tesla’s Gigafactory battery project would raise investment risks, according to Panasonic President Kazuhiro Tsuga. Whoever partners with Tesla on the Gigafactory will be sourcing raw materials within North America, according to Tesla – and that counts for graphite, cobalt, and other materials. “It will enable us to establish a supply chain that is local and focused on minimizing environmental impact while significantly reducing battery cost,” said Liz Jarvis-Shean, a spokeswoman for Tesla.