Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Chevy VOLT: Prius Killer!

Last Monday, GM's Tony Posawatz, vehicle line director for the Volt, and Dave Barthmuss, GM's communications director, invited a dozen Plug In America members to Dodger Stadium for what turned out to be an exciting test drive of the Chevy Volt. Coming hard on the heels of our Nissan trip, it's clear the leading car makers bringing back plug-in cars are serious about soliciting input from the people who have the most experience driving EVs. That's a good sign.

We started off with a thorough explanation of the car including the charge port and 120Volt cord set with the standard three pronged plug. Given that the battery pack holds 16 kWh, but only 8 kWh will be usable (this is to protect the longevity of the pack), Level one charging on a 120V should suffice for most folks. According to Dave Barthmus, Level two charging (240V) will be available, but it's not been decided whether this will come standard, or be an option.

As for the price, Barthmus said that GM will announce this crucial piece of information about a month prior to the release of the Volt this fall. I hinted to them that they needed to be at least as low as $35K-$37K to be competitive, and lower would be better.

My first impression of the car was how nice it looked. When I first saw the body at Chris Paine's house during our Plug In America fundraiser 18 months ago, it was surrounded by a crowd of people and nose to nose to a Tesla Roadster. Here, however, I was able to get a good look, and I liked what I saw. Not too conservative and not too wild, not too big and not too small, a car most people would feel comfortable driving.

In our group were three Tesla owners and two MINI E lessees while most of the rest of us drove RAV4 EVs, so as a group, we had a lot of experience behind the wheel of electric cars. I gladly jumped in with Stefano Paris and Colby Trudeau for the first round of test drives on the rally course set up in the giant parking lot. Stefano asked me to hold his video camera while he drove, a task made difficult by the sharp turns on the course.

The acceleration of the Volt is quite good. Cornering felt tight and predictable to me, although the Tesla and MINI E drivers thought it was a bit heavy, but considering what they are used to, that's to be expected. We did have four adults in the car, so that should be considered. All in all, I was thoroughly impressed with the driving characteristics of the Volt. I've got lots of experience behind the wheel of a Prius and can guarantee the Volt will run rings around the Toyota.

Stefano really pushed the car, and then Colby, all of about 20 years old, got behind the wheel and he pushed even harder. By contrast, I practically poked around the course. After our turn, Tesla drivers, Linda Nicholes and Nagin Zainab Cox, showed the boys how to drive fast. We were all impressed with their daring. I know Linda took a course in racing to prepare for the Tesla. I have no idea how Nagin got so good. Maybe it's just nerves of steel

So, the Volt is quick and corners well. How is it for hauling stuff? Bruce Tucker, a RAV driver, was curious because he needs to haul around a full sized bass violin in a case, something with which the RAV has no trouble.

Everyone gathered around to watch as he opened the rear hatch and slid the instrument in, easily closing the door with room to spare. He then got in the passenger side with the neck of the bass between him and the driver, plenty of room!

I'm excited we have such good choices for plug-in cars coming so soon. Whether you get a Leaf or a Volt, you'll be happy. Both are great cars. I don't see a lot of competition between the two since most people I talk to want either a pure electric, or they want the extended range. The people who should be worried are those who sell the Prius or Civic hybrid. As long as those cars remain plug-less, the Leaf and the Volt will eat them for lunch.

Friday, April 9, 2010

Nissan turning over a new Leaf

After running for several years in stealth mode, Nissan reached out to Plug In America two years ago revealing their plans to build an EV for the average consumer, something that would serve the daily driving needs of the vast majority of the world's drivers.

Fast forward to March 29th when, in a breakfast meeting, Nissan disclosed the price of the Leaf, $32,780 - news that crystallized the reality of affordable EVs for the masses.

Topping it off, this past week Nissan invited eight members of Plug In America's board to visit their Tennessee headquarters, meet with the key members of the Leaf program and finish with a tour of their giant Smyrna, TN plant.

Our first night there, we had dinner with key members of the team, including Brian Carolin, Senior VP, Sales and Marketing, Scott Becker, Senior VP, Administration and Finance, Eric Noziere, VP, Corporate Planning , Katherine Zachary, Manager, Corporate Communications, Scott Stevens, VP, Corporate Communications, Jeannine Ginivan, Manager, Mid-Atlantic Region Corporate Communications, Mark Perry, Director of Product Planning and Advanced Technology and our local SoCal contact, Tim Gallagher, Corporate Communications Western Region - all outstanding people - and to a person, passionate about their Leaf program.

The most senior member of the Nissan team was Chairman & Executive VP of the Americas, Carlos Tavares. Marc Geller and I had the fortune to sit next to Mr. Tavares at dinner, giving us the opportunity to share everything we knew about electric cars with top brass of the world's fourth largest car maker. We gladly took advantage of this remarkable opportunity.

Tavares, a native of Portugal, proved worthy of his title as he absorbed everything we threw at him. After spending years trying to convince car makers to build EVs, it was refreshing to find that a company as prestigious as Nissan shares our vision. Much of what we discussed, Tavares knew already, but we gave him information based on our long-time use of EVs that should help shape their plans. I asked Mr. Tavares what EV models would follow the Leaf and he said they are making good progress on a small delivery truck similar to the Ford Transit Connect as well as an Infiniti model. Both are great choices since fleet operators will find the small truck useful in reducing operating costs and the market for a luxury EV is quite large.

I asked Tavares if he'd driven a Tesla Roadster and found that he had not. I told him to let me know the next time he was going to be in LA and I'd make sure to get him some time behind the wheel of one. Turns out, Tavares races in the open-wheeled class, so he's no stranger to speed.

It was a great dinner on a balmy night in small town central Tennessee, and as we arrived back at the hotel and shared the conversations we'd had, it was very clear to us that Nissan's intent is to dominate the market in electric vehicles.

The next morning, we gathered in the Infiniti Theater room of their headquarters where Marc presented a brief overview of Plug In America's history, our current work in promoting plug-in cars, and what we intend to do in the future to help prepare the market for the coming EVs. After Marc's presentation, we fielded questions from the room in a lively Q&A.

At the end of the questions, in recognition of Plug In America's diligent effort to bring plug-in vehicles back into the market, Scott Becker presented us with a grant for $25,000. We are most grateful to Nissan for these funds as they will allow us to further our work educating the public about these important cars.

The rest of the day was spent in a series of meetings with Nissan's marketing and advertising, zero-emission mobility and dealer network teams. They were forthcoming with a lot of detail on the car and how it would roll out. They even showed a sample design of where the various chargers would be located at the dealer, including one that may be for the public, a nice touch. I was impressed that they would share so much information, some of which will remain embargoed to protect their competitive edge.

If you want to get one of the first Leaf EVs, you need to sign up on the Leaf site to let them know you're interested. Those who sign up will receive an email on April 20th with a link that will take you to a page where you deposit $99 to hold your place in line. Some time in August, you will be contacted to begin working with the Nissan dealer of your choice. (*Important... Nissan strongly recommends that the price be held at the MSRP of $32,780, but the dealers are independent companies that can charge more if they so choose. If a dealer decides to ask for more, you may take your business to another dealer. Doing so will ensure few dealers will add to the price.) Delivery of the first cars will begin in December and grow throughout 2011 as production allows.

The initial delivery locations are mostly on the West Coast, AZ and a few other sites. Nissan will bring other dealers into the program based on demand, so start calling your local Nissan dealers and let them know you're interested. But definitely sigh up online, too!

Our trip ended on Thursday with a tour of the Smyrna, TN Nissan plant, which coincidentally opened on my 31st birthday in 1983. According to the plant's super bright operations manager, Susan Brennan, VP Manufacturing, the building covers 5.4 million square feet and is the largest auto manufacturing plant in the U.S. At capacity, the workers and robots can turn out a new truck, SUV or car every 27 seconds, over 500,000 per year!

I think most of us have seen footage of robots welding car bodies together, but seeing it in person was amazing! The entire operation was like a giant machine that worked like a fine watch. Very impressive.

This fall, the first Leafs will roll off Nissan's assembly line in Japan. Susan Brennan will lead a team of engineers from Smyrna to Japan to learn as much as they can about building the Leaf before returning and developing the line that will, by 2012, be manufacturing up to 150,000 Leafs per year in Tennessee.

American made cars propelled by 100% American made electrons.

Next month, Nissan breaks ground on their battery manufacturing plant immediately adjacent to the car factory, eliminating expensive shipping costs for the heavy packs. They are so close, they'll be able to deliver them by forklift.

All of the Nissan employees we met were friendly. From the top executives to the men and women building the cars, they all seemed to know they were about to make history. Twenty years from now, I believe it will be difficult to buy a car that isn't capable of plugging in. Looking back at 2010, it will all seem so obvious in hindsight - non-polluting transportation that runs on domestic renewable electricity made from sunlight and wind.

Monday, April 5, 2010

Fairness in the EPA, aka The American Way

As reported in Autobloggreen, the EPA has announced it will allow the first 200,000 units of a given manufacturer's EVs sold as zero emission for the purpose of corporate average fuel economy (CAFE). After that milestone is reached, the EPA will start assigning pollution credits based on the pollution from generating the electricity that powers the car. Regardless of how many units sold, after 2016, all EVs will be assessed some level of pollution. The reason this is important is because the carmakers have to hit a CAFE standard of 34 mpg by 2016. If they count the pollution from the generation of the electricity, then more of their gas cars will have to be smaller. A good thing for society, but not necessarily what the dealers want.

This idea has merit, but only if implemented fairly.

How do you compute the amount of pollution generated from coal and natural gas? Do you take the national average for a kilowatt hour of energy? I've read it's just over one pound of CO2 per kWh. Or do you allow for regional variation? California is among the best in terms of per capita efficiency and a low CO2 grid, and we'll be the first state to mass adopt EVs. Oregon and Washington have an even cleaner grid and will match CA in per capita EV ownership. Seems only fair to allow for our cleaner grid in the calculations.

Not knowing how the EPA will come down on this question, I'd like to make an observation and suggestion.

According to the Brussels based Global Wind Energy Council, 37.5 gigawatts of wind energy were installed last year, bringing the total world capacity to 157.9 gW. The U. S. share of that was about 10 gW last year. This is enough to generate approximately 30 billion kWh each year. The average EV will use about 4,000 kWh per year.

That new wind alone is enough to power over 7 million EVs!

The wind and solar industries are going to be installing more gigawatts of capacity each year for the foreseeable future, so I don't see how the auto industry will ever build enough plug-in cars to catch up to the new renewable energy capacity.

And add to this 6.4 gW of solar energy from PV (worldwide). That's another 2.5 million EVs. And it's even more valuable energy since it's generated during peak demand.

Therefore, we can make the argument that the renewable energy being installed each year will far outpace new demand from plug-in cars, probably for decades to come.

Lastly, and this is very important, if the EPA deigns it necessary to count the upstream pollution from generating the electricity, then by all rights it should count the upstream pollution from extracting, shipping, refining, and transporting the oil that competes with electricity. To cap it off, be sure to include the electricity used to pump it into the tank at the gas station. All of this energy use creates vast waste and massive pollution and absolutely should be accounted for.

It's called a level playing field, and it's the American way!