PLUG OK license plate
Mainstream Media Jaw-Droppers: Kiplinger and Car & Driver; WSJ vs. BizWeek on Volt
Jul 6, 2008 (From the CalCars-News archive)
This posting originally appeared at CalCars-News, our newsletter of breaking CalCars and plug-in hybrid news. View the original posting here.
Want more? Become a subscriber to CalCars-News:

For your Independence Weekend enjoyment to hold your interest while we work on an overall "carmakers" update covering recent developments among automakers:

  • Musings from Csaba Csere Car & Driver's Editor-In-Chief (who back in October 2005­calcars-news/­183.html was one of the first to pay attention to PHEVs as the "next big thing,")
  • An "insider" from the Kiplinger's Letter (prognosticating for 85 years);
  • A whiny, uninformed criticism of GM from Holman Jenkins, Editorial Board Member of the Wall Street Journal
  • A rebuttal of an earlier, shorter editorial by Jenkins, from Business Week's "AutoBeat" columnist David Kiley.

Fearless Prediction: Plug-In Hybrids Will be the Hot Rods of the 21st Century - The Steering Column
BY CSABA CSERE May 2008­features/­columns/­c_d_staff/­csaba_csere_the_steering_column/­

Plug-in hybrids are the latest rage among cutting-edge planet savers. By combining a big battery with an electric motor and a small internal-combustion engine (75 or so horsepower) hooked to a generator, a plug-in hybrid delivers the pollution-free exhaust of a pure electric car for about 40 miles, which encompasses most trips for most people. Yet unlike a pure electric car, a plug-in can drive from New York to Los Angeles once its engine fires up to spin the onboard generator and recharge the battery. In this mode, the plug-in achieves a hybridlike 40-to-50 mpg while neatly eliminating the range limitations of purely battery-powered cars.

The lithium-ion batteries needed to achieve this performance--at a reasonable price--still do not exist, but numerous firms are on the case, hoping to nab major contracts to supply the world's automakers with batteries by the millions. When such inexpensive batteries become available, plug-ins will quickly proliferate, as they can be charged at standard household electrical outlets.

That's more than can be said for fuel-cell vehicles, which are still decades away, owing to the high costs of the fuel cells and the immense difficulties of producing pollution-free hydrogen and distributing it across the country. In fact, a reasonable person might conclude that once plug-in hybrids become common and their batteries become inexpensive purely battery-powered vehicles will leapfrog the fuel-cell machines and leave them stillborn.

The key to making the plug-in hybrid work is the big battery that stores enough juice for the vehicle to solely run on electric power for a considerable distance. In the case of the Chevy Volt concept, this battery has a capacity of 16 kilowatt-hours. For the technically challenged, a kilowatt means 1000 watts, so this battery can produce 16,000 watts for one hour, one watt for 16,000 hours, or anything in between. In reality, these ratings will be cut in half because using only half the battery capacity will greatly extend the number of times the battery can be charged and discharged.

When I see a battery that large, my first thought is to convert its electrical energy into horsepower. Eight kWh equal 10.7 horsepower-hours, or 644 horsepower-minutes. In other words, the battery has enough juice to produce 644 horsepower for one minute. Even if we cut that back by 10 percent to account for motor and electric inefficiencies, we're talking about serious power here.

There are a number of steps required to turn this substantial reservoir of electrical energy into speed. The first is to install a switch that lets the driver tell the power control electronics not to run the car on its fully charged battery but rather to fire up the internal-combustion engine immediately and run as a conventional hybrid while keeping the battery fully charged and ready to deliver a maximum dose of electrical power for high-performance driving. The switch will simply let the driver select whether the car is operating in power mode or efficiency mode, and it will need to be accompanied by appropriate software changes in the computer that controls the system's power flow. The skill to accomplish this will surely be developed among the hordes of computer hackers in America.

The next step is to install a serious electric motor into the plug-in hybrid vehicle. The Volt is powered by a 160-hp electric motor with 236 pound-feet of torque. Replacing this motor with one that is two or three times as powerful would energize the car's performance considerably. Or remembering that the Volt is front-wheel drive, adding a second motor to power the rear wheels could also provide the additional muscle. The specialized, three-phase AC motor/generators used in hybrids are not sitting on the shelves at your local RadioShack, so a certain amount of scrounging and improvisation will be required to find and fit them. But much as hot rodders of half a century ago took superchargers designed for GM's 71-series diesel engines and adapted them to various Detroit V-8s, the truly motivated will find the motors needed for these plug-in hot rods.

Big motors will also need upsized power control electronics to deliver a suitably elevated supply of volts and amps. In many ways, it's like a souped-up V-8 needing a larger-capacity fuel-injection system with a bigger fuel pump and fatter fuel line. The electrical components needed to do this should be available, although custom fabrication will be required to achieve the desired results.

Let's imagine a suitably modified plug-in hybrid with a 16-kWh battery. With half of that energy--to preserve the battery life--available to power the car, coupled to an upsized 400-hp electric motor, you can enjoy full power for 96 seconds. That's enough to run 0 to 60 in the four-second range and continue on to 170 or 180 mph, depending on the car and whether its gearing supports such a high speed (another area for potential modification).

With a little bit of regenerative braking thrown in, that would get you a full hot lap around most road-racing tracks in the country. After exhausting the battery with such an extended high-power run, it would take roughly 10 minutes of driving--at a mild speed--for the onboard generator to fully recharge the battery again.

You can't really do any of these things to a parallel hybrid like the Prius because the electrical and IC powerplants are too fully integrated to easily modify them. But because a plug-in is a series hybrid, with the electric motor only driving the wheels and the IC engine only running the generator, there's much greater potential to tweak the individual components. The beauty of such a plug-in is that even after making performance modifications you can still flip the switch and drive the vehicle in the battery-intensive mode and get those flashy 100-plus-mpg figures on short commutes.

Plug-in Hybrid Cars Zooming Ahead
Automakers are speeding ultra-high-mileage plug-in cars to market to beat looming federal emissions mandates.
By Jim Ostroff, Associate Editor, The Kiplinger Letter
June 26, 2008­businessresource/­forecast/­archive/­

Get ready to see the USA in your plug-in Chevrolet -- or your Saturn, Ford, Toyota or Mercedes. High gasoline prices have automakers fast-tracking development of fuel sipping vehicles that will allow most motorists to charge up at night from home, then commute to work and run errands without heeding the gas gauge. Even long trips won't drain wallets, with plug-ins averaging 80 to 100 miles per gallon (mpg), cutting fuel costs about 40%, including the cost of recharging.

General Motors and Toyota will get their souped-up hybrids into showrooms first, within two years, followed by Ford. Virtually every major automaker plus niche manufacturers such as Fisker Automotive and Visionary Vehicles have a plug-in entry in the works.

Within a decade, plug-in cars will account for around 20% of all new U.S. vehicle sales, largely replacing their lower mileage gasoline-electric hybrid forebears. By 2025, that share will be about 30%.

Automakers have little choice but to go electric. They're already being forced to boost fleets' average fuel efficiency to 35 mpg by 2020, a 40% jump. The auto companies also don't want to be caught flat-footed by enactment of carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions restrictions by Congress. Lawmakers are inching toward them and may enact such restrictions as soon as next year. Although carbon caps will be phased in over several years, Detroit carmakers and their foreign cousins fret that their vehicles will have to exceed 35 mpg fuel efficiency in order to slash CO2 tailpipe emissions.

Automakers are under the gun from states, too. California's zero-emissions vehicle program mandates nearly 60,000 plug-in cars be sold in the state between 2012 and 2014. Connecticut, Massachusetts, Maine, Maryland, New Jersey, New Mexico, Oregon, Rhode Island and Vermont have adopted similar requirements, and other states will follow.

Technical breakthroughs will help automakers get plug-ins on the road faster than anticipated even a year ago. "After years of work and false starts, the lithium ion battery is about to move beyond the development stage into commercialization. That will enable vehicles to be recharged at home during the night, or elsewhere during the daytime," says David Cole, chairman of the Center for Automotive Research, an auto industry consulting firm. Early models will be able to travel up to about 40 miles on the battery charge alone. That's not much of a drawback -- more than 80% of motorists drive less than that in a day, Cole says.

Infrastructure is revving up, too, with companies such as Coulomb Technologies set to install curbside and garage recharging posts. Motorists will be able to buy volts with a pre-paid card, says Paul Scott, a cofounder of Plug In America, a lobbying group.

Early buyers may suffer sticker shock, though, with prices of $40,000 or so for a plug-in, including $10,000 for the lithium ion battery. Within a few years, as volume picks up and the cost to make lithium ion cells declines, the price of the battery will slip 25%, and in less than a decade, battery cost should drop below $1000.

Because plug-in vehicles involve a whole lot more than replacing a fuel tank and gasoline-powered engine with a battery and an electric engine, widespread adoption of electric cars should spawn an economic boomlet. In addition to the lithium ion batteries, plug-in vehicles will need whole new systems -- including computer components and software -- to control braking, turning, acceleration and so on, replacing the mechanically linked drive trains, transmissions, steering and braking systems of today's gasoline-powered vehicles. The battery market alone is expected to hit $30 billion by 2020. Best positioned to take advantage: Early electric controls, transmission and advanced timing system leaders BorgWarner, Continental, Johnson Controls and TRW. But start-ups

What Is GM Thinking?
Wall Street Journal, July 2, 2008 Page 11
By Holman Jenkins­public/­article_print/­SB121495482307421193.html

"Violent change" in consumer tastes is not a new challenge for the car business. The phrase is Lee Iacocca's, from his autobiography, referring to public demand for small cars after the 1979 oil shock.

Less violently, a sudden shift in taste for smaller, more fuel-efficient cars amid the recession of 1958 helped doom the Edsel.

The 1950s also happen to be the last time GM's share price sank as low as $11 per share. Two morals must be drawn.

One is that GM's ability to avoid bankruptcy has again become doubtful in the minds of investors. The 1950s comparison indeed overstates the company's well-being today. In inflation-adjusted terms, today's share price is closer to $1.50 in mid-1950s dollars.

Secondly, any forecast calling for a "permanent" shift in auto tastes based on a quantum as volatile as the price of gasoline is nuts.

GM's leaders are not nuts, and yet to pour hundreds of millions into a race to launch an electric car, the Chevy Volt, guaranteed to lose money on every unit sold, begins to seem a peculiar strategy for a company in dire liquidity straits.

With each hectic advance in the development process, the expected sticker price to consumers has gone up. Reportedly, off-the-shelf electrical fixtures, such as headlights and taillights, won't suffice because they draw too much power. At last leakage, GM is saying now the Volt may need a sticker price of $45,000.

At best, the Volt will be an affluent family's third car. It will have to be plugged in for six hours a day - i.e., it will be a car for a suburbanite with a sizeable garage wired for power. It won't be a car for a city dweller who parks on the street or in a public lot. It will travel 40 miles on a six-hour charge. After that, a small gas motor will kick in to recharge the battery while you drive. Some reports claim the Volt will get 50 mpg in this mode, but that's hallucinatory: If using a gasoline engine to power an electric motor were so efficient, the streets would be full of such vehicles. (Our guess: The car will be lucky to get 15 mpg under gasoline power.)

Notice that, even today, some people continue to buy SUVs capable of hauling eight passengers, the dog and groceries, though they spend most of their time in the car driving alone. Customers value flexibility in their vehicles. For a car with the Volt's narrow usability to sell would require an unlikely revolution in consumer behavior, especially if gasoline prices aren't going to $10 a gallon.

And for those who think the Volt's justification is greenhouse emissions, notice that electric cars play Three Card Monte with energy inputs: It all depends on where the electricity is coming from. (Ditto, by the way, GM's long-range faith in hydrogen fuel cells - it all depends on where you get the hydrogen from.) On the other hand, if you replaced the world's coal plants with nuclear plants, it would have a huge impact on greenhouse emissions regardless of what cars people are driving. If curbing CO2 is your goal (however quixotic), power plants, not cars, should be your focus.

Never mind. GM executives are not nuts. They justify the costs and risks of the Volt as a way of changing GM's image in the minds of consumers and politicians. To commit a pun, the Volt is GM's vehicle for making a bailout of GM politically acceptable.

The company has already started signaling it expects Washington to provide a whopping $7,000 tax credit to Volt purchasers. In Europe and the U.S., under whatever fuel economy and emissions regulations prevail, GM also expects special favoritism for the Volt. The goal is to re-enact the flex-fuel hoax, in which GM receives extra credit for making cars that can burn 85% ethanol, even if they never see a drop of such fuel.

CEO Rick Wagoner last week laid out the case to Barack Obama personally for turning GM into a ward of the state, by way of direct and indirect subsidies to support a transition to "alternative" fuel vehicles. GM has done yeoman's work getting its structural costs (i.e., labor) in line, but shareholders should note that a big part of the company's turnaround gamble consists also of eliciting favor once again from Washington after a period in which the domestic auto makers were nothing but whipping boys on Capitol Hill.

This year, Ford designers are working to make the iconic Mustang look smaller, though it won't be any smaller. Ford recognizes, apparently, that there's a taste component to consumer demand for small, unprepossessing cars as well as an economic motive. GM is making the same bet, on a much bigger scale. It's betting the Volt will trigger a change in Washington's taste for bailing out a domestic car maker.

WSJ Attack on Chevy Volt----Shocking
Posted by: David Kiley on April 23­autos/­autobeat/­archives/­2008/­04/­wsj_attack_on_c.html

Holman W. Jenkins, Jr. writes a pretty tedious editorial in The Wall Street Journal today, suggesting that General Motors is wrong-headed for developing the plug-in Chevy Volt.

Holman W. Jenkins Jr. does make one reasonable point. The Department of Transportation's announcement that automakers will have to boost fuel efficiency in their cars and trucks by 4.5% a year until 2015, is subject to change by a future Congress and White House if automakers can't get there, market conditions and oil prices changes, etc. There are a host of things that can happen between now and then to move the goal posts.

But here is where Holman W. Jenkins, Jr. loses me. "America's biggest near-dead car company called in reporters this month to boast - boast! - about its willingness to lose money on its forthcoming electric car. That includes betting the farm on whether batteries can be developed with the necessary power-to-weight ratio and life expectancy to give the car its needed usability. "Whatever it takes to do, we will do" to deliver the plug-in Volt by a 2010 deadline, project leader Frank Weber told journalists."

The scientists I have interviewed over the past few years tell me that not only is the technology within reach, but that it makes too much sense not to pursue with gusto. Do costs have to be brought down? Yes. But never has an application of technology come along that so perfectly matched the peculiarities of the U.S. driver. The plug-in is designed to run between 40 and 50 miles on an electrical charge. If you have to go a longer distance, an engine that kicks on to recharge the battery will get you there. It takes the nervousness of running out of juice out of the mix.

Honda doesn't see the market for plug-ins. Okay. But Honda have us the awkward looking Insight to answer the Prius, as well as the Ridgeline pickup and the Element. Honda's read of the consumer desire side of the busines can be off.

GM sees the Volt and its plug-in siblings as a new lens through which the U.S. and world will view the company--if it gets the products right and delivers. But fault the company for over-spending on breakthrough technology? Why? GM has gotten management decisions wrong plenty of times (linking with Italian automaker Fiat before its financial renaissance comes to mind) They have also gotten product decisions wrong plenty of times (see: Pontiac Aztek, Chevy Outlander and Saturn LS to name a few.).

A financial and management commitment to bring a game-changing technology to showrooms is hardly something to criticize. As Toyota has proved, the presence of the Prius in showrooms and in the papers makes even its thirstiest gas suckers like the Sequoia and Tundra appear greener than GM's vehicles even when they aren't.

More from Holman W. Jenkins, Jr. "For some number of dollars, GM can afford to bribe consumers to drive Volts off the lot…"

GM is betting that there will be early adopters, as well as government incentives to help consumers buy the new technology…just as there were for the Prius. GM opted out of hybrids in the 1990s because it rightly saw that gas-electric hybrids were an inelegant engineering solution for higher fuel economy. It made a bet that hydrogen-powered cars would come along faster than reality tells us now is the case.

Yes, it's a bit of a roll of the dice for GM. And it's unlike the way the "near death" automaker Jenkins describes has behaved in the past. From my vantage point, it looks like GM is taking in the political reality that we will never have European-style gas taxes to drive demand for smaller vehicles, so it is trying to one-up Toyota on the technology front. If GM falls on its face in the execution, we can all write that story. But to pillory the company for trying? What for?

Copyright © 2003-08 California Cars Initiative, an activity of the International Humanities Center | Site Map