PLUG OK license plate
Economist/Newsweek/Time on Plug-In Cars; Accenture on Biofuels vs. PHEVs
Sep 9, 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:

In the past few days we've seen some very positive articles in leading mainstream publications. The Economist surveys the scene and sees plug-in cars emerging as the dominant trend. Newsweek has a long story about the role industrial sectors and government in that country's major focus on green cars. Though the story begins with hydrogen fuel cell cars from Honda, it quickly moves on to the plug-in cars that will arrive years or decades sooner. And TIME profiles the options for conversions of hybrids to PHEVs.

Finally, we post a report on a new study by Accenture saying that "the biofuels market will need to become as global and efficient as possible within the next 10 years, before competing technologies such as plug-in hybrid vehicles or non-agriculture alternatives like algae or biotechnology become mainstream."

THE ECONOMIST: The road ahead: The world's carmakers have mapped out their route to a greener future Sep 4th 2008­business/­displaystory.cfm?story_id=12070722 (excerpts)

THERE is nothing like high oil prices, panic-selling of big cars and the prospect of swingeing new penalties on carbon-spewing vehicles to concentrate the minds of the world's carmakers. In less than two years something remarkable has happened. Technologies once regarded by horsepower-obsessed marketing departments as politically correct public-relations fluff, never likely to see the light of day, are entering the mainstream just as fast as the car firms can get them there.

Only 18 months ago it was common to hear Toyota's pioneering Prius hybrid joked about as a funny-looking niche vehicle with which Hollywood stars could painlessly flaunt their green credentials. Although General Motors (GM) had exhibited a plug-in hybrid concept car, called the Chevrolet Volt, early in 2007, hardly anyone took seriously the claim that it might reach production in 2010. And just ten months ago carmakers in America were lining up to lobby Congress against proposed legislation that would oblige them to achieve a fleet-average fuel consumption of 35 miles per gallon (mpg) by 2020. It simply could not be done, they wailed.

In Europe a similar campaign, with the German carmakers to the fore, was being waged against a plan by the European Commission to impose financial penalties by 2012 on companies if their fleets emitted, on average, over 130 grams of carbon dioxide per kilometre (g/km). It was, they said, technically impossible to comply with the new rules, which they saw as a wicked plot to emasculate a proud and successful industry.

The grumbling about tighter emissions laws will continue, but spurred on by rocketing prices at the pump and changing customer preferences, the manufacturers have quietly got on with the job of transforming the fuel and CO2 efficiencies of their vehicles. Moreover, the blue-sky thinking of the recent past which, encouraged by large government subsidies and conveniently elastic time horizons, appeared to favour the hydrogen fuel-cell, has been dumped for the practical and achievable. Although carmakers differ over the details of the coming revolution in efficiency, there is now a consensus across the industry about its thrust, and about both the role of the underlying technologies and when they will be on sale.

And they're off

The first stage, happening now, is an effort to wring efficiency from the internal-combustion engine. "It is important to recognise that there is not a single solution, and that the internal-combustion engine will continue to dominate for at least 20 years," says Jürgen Leohold, head of group research at Volkswagen (VW).

The second stage of the journey will begin about two years from now. Despite his conviction that the internal-combustion engine will remain, VW's Mr Leohold concedes that the car industry needs to start moving away from mineral energy and towards electric-powered vehicles. After deriding Toyota's Prius for its complexity, expense and slightly dubious environmental benefits (on highways it is less efficient than powerful modern diesels), almost every carmaker is now planning hybrid powertrains of one kind or another within a few years. These are no longer seen as a niche market, but as central to the carmakers' survival. GM's Volt has gone from being an interesting sideshow to the model that could do more than any other to secure the ailing car giant's future.

Nearly all the coming hybrids are "plug-ins". That means their batteries can be recharged from an ordinary power socket. They will use industrial-strength versions of the lithium-ion batteries that power mobile phones and laptop computers, giving them greater staying power and performance than the older nickel-metal-hydride battery in today's Prius. Under pressure from car firms, the battery-makers have rapidly increased the energy density, robustness and stability of their products. The next generation of hybrids will be closer to all-electric vehicles than today's Prius: its petrol engine cuts in at speeds above about 10mph (16kph).

The carmakers disagree about which kind of hybrid technology is best. The familiar approach is the "parallel" hybrid in which an electric motor and an internal-combustion engine combine to improve fuel-efficiency and boost power. This is the system in Toyota's Synergy Drive, found in the Prius, and the "bi-mode" jointly developed by GM, Daimler and BMW to reduce the fuel consumption of their biggest vehicles. The electric motor is used at low speeds, and to give extra acceleration at higher speeds. VW has a variation, called Twin Drive, that reverses this idea, using the electric motors as the main propulsion, with a diesel engine to provide a boost when needed.

An alternative is the "series" hybrid, in which the internal-combustion engine does not drive the wheels directly, but runs at a constant, optimal speed, acting as a generator or "range extender" when the batteries have almost run out. This system, which GM calls E-Flex, will be in the Volt and, from 2011, in other GM cars. It should enable drivers to go 50 miles a day using electric power alone. As long as the car is recharged overnight, the average commuter should rarely have to use its internal-combustion engine. Bob Lutz, GM's product supremo, reckons that within a decade E-Flex vehicles will be coming off the production lines at the rate of 1m a year. He says the battery pack, being developed for GM by CPI, a joint venture between LG and Continental, is "new core knowledge for the auto industry".

Almost nobody disputes that hybrids are a bridging technology, however, and that eventually most cars will be powered by batteries alone. Given today's progress, by 2020 batteries should have a range of more than 200 miles--enough for the bulk of journeys. In short most carmakers think mainstream all-electric vehicles are still more than a decade away.

Bucking this consensus is the Renault-Nissan alliance. Encouraged by the fruits of its partnership with NEC, an electronics giant, Renault-Nissan wants to have all-electric cars ready for mass production by 2010. Renault will supply an all-electric Mégane to Better Place, a start-up that is building a network of 500,000 battery-charging points in Israel, and has similar plans in Denmark and Portugal. Nissan has promised to launch an electric car in America in 2010. It will have the performance of a V6 petrol engine, a range of 100 miles and should be capable of an 80% recharge in one hour, the company says.

Carlos Ghosn, who runs both Renault and Nissan, sees the chance to steal a march on slower rivals. Although he sidesteps the question of how the power for millions of electric vehicles would be generated, Mr Ghosn recently declared that "we must have zero-emission vehicles--nothing else will prevent the world from exploding." The car industry now knows where it is going. The race is on to be the first to get there.

NEWSWEEK: Get Your Green Motor Running: Japan's automakers are zooming ahead in the eco-car race. Their lead may turbocharge their country. By Christian Caryl and Akiko Kashiwagi, Sep 6, 2008­id/­157508 (excerpts)

The Clarity is also just one of a number of next-generation green automobiles that are beginning to come off assembly lines in Japan. These vehicles, whether powered by fuel cells, long-lasting batteries or renewable biofuels, have been around for years, but almost always as one-off utopian designs or experimental models that were designed mainly to attract good green press. Now Japanese automakers are going to the next level, entering the green-car mass market, in many cases years before their competitors. Nissan plans to introduce an electric vehicle to the United States and Japan by 2010, with a global rollout in 2012. Toyota is road-testing a plug-in hybrid in Japan, the United States and Europe and plans to launch it in 2009 (there's a buzz, unconfirmed by the company, that this hybrid car could use solar power as well). Honda, a distant second to Toyota in the hybrid market, is preparing for the launch of a new car highly anticipated for its innovative green technologies, including its state-of-the-art battery. Mazda will offer the world's first hydrogen-gasoline hybrid in Japan by next March. All of these companies are benefiting from close cooperation with electronics manufacturers, component makers and suppliers that are helping to push Japan to the forefront of green-car technologies. "Globally, Japanese companies are definitely at the top right now, and I expect them to remain No. 1 in the future," says Mike Omotoso, an auto analyst for California-based J.D. Power and Associates. "It's definitely having a positive impact on the Japanese economy."

In large part, Japan's lead in green-car technology is an outgrowth of its old austerity. Japan was obsessed with energy efficiency long before global warming made it a worldwide obsession. For decades Japanese companies have struggled to cope with their oil-poor country's sky-high energy costs by placing a premium on energy-saving technologies, and it has paid off. Even old Japanese industries are cutting-edge in cutting energy costs. Japan continued to make batteries long after U.S. rivals quit, and now makes the most efficient batteries in the world. Japanese steelmakers have ceded ground to cheaper emerging-market rivals but are still unsurpassed in the fine niche art of making superlight steel for car bodies. The hidden strength of Japanese smokestack industries helped create its green cars, and now the success of those cars is pushing more and more Japanese industries--electronic-motor and control-unit producers, all sorts of material companies--to innovate faster.

It's impossible to tally the direct economic effect of the green-car race at this point, but it's huge and likely to grow. The Prius is already the most popular green car in the world, and Toyota plans to raise domestic output of the Prius by 60 percent to 450,000 a year by 2009. By 2015, Goldman Sachs expects the hybrid-vehicle market (including plug-in hybrids) to grow to 2.5 million, up from half a million in 2007, with Toyota and Honda in the lead. Analysts say plug-in hybrids, which run on a battery alone for a short range, are the vehicles that will gradually ease drivers out of the gasoline age and into the electric era. Goldman analyst Kota Yuzawa says hybrid vehicles could account for 5 to 10 percent of operating profits for Honda and Toyota in 2010. And the potential markets look likely to grow as oil prices hit new highs and environmental regulations get tighter.

The focus on green cars reveals the kind of industrial vision that Japan is often criticized for having lost decades ago. Toyota launched the G21 Project, which ultimately produced the Prius, back in the 1990s, when oil prices were low and America's love of SUVs was still growing. The idea was to create a model car for the 21st century, and counter Toyota's reputation for "boring" vehicles. Toyota simply saw the long view before others, assuming that the petroleum-based economy was becoming unviable for a variety of environmental and economic reasons, according to Noriyuki Matsushima, analyst at Nikko Citigroup in Tokyo.

Toyota has since dramatically cut the costs of producing the Prius by achieving economies of scale. Toyota has already reached the break-even point on sales of its hybrids; by contrast, its foreign competitors, like GM, still have years of bleeding red ink ahead of them. Toyota says the parts in its next line of hybrids, due for release next year, will cost about half the current bunch, allowing it to drop prices and raise profits. While the company is estimated to have lost about $10,000 on each car produced when the line was launched back in 1997, "the new Prius is going to be hugely profitable," says Nikko's Matsushima, bringing in thousands of dollars per car. And Toyota aims to cut hybrid production costs over the next decade. With so much more manufacturing experience than its rivals, Toyota will be "the price leader" for the next generation of hybrid vehicles, says Matsushima.

To be sure, virtually every car company in the world is ramping up intriguing green-car projects. Even slow-moving GM plans to debut the plug-in hybrid Volt in 2010, but it is racing from behind against Japanese rivals that work in often exclusive national supply networks, as they have for decades.

Japanese companies have been plugging away at the green-car challenge for years, in a slow and steady way that plays to the strengths of their manufacturing tradition. While U.S. automakers have spent as much on R&D as top Japanese makers do, the former have been pursing totally different priorities--still sticking money into bulky SUVs while the Japanese were already well down the hybrid road. That money is filtering into other areas of Japanese industry, reinforcing technological progress. "We are now seeing the result of numerous companies' ferocious effort to innovate technologies" to meet carmakers' demands, says Masahiro Ohta, analyst at Fuji Chimera Research Institute.

Since the batteries that power cars could also someday be used to heat homes, a lead in the area has vast implications for the broader Japanese economy. Nobuaki Yoshioka is a senior executive at Automotive Energy Supply Corp. (AESC), a joint venture between Nissan and NEC. His company has been pushing the envelope of battery technology by developing lithium-ion batteries with manganese components--something NEC has been working on since 1990. "I think [the potential of this technology] is enormous," says Yoshioka. "We know that oil is going to be depleted, and that's going to make it indispensable to somehow store energy that is generated. Today we're focused on cars. But it's clear that the number of possible applications as storage of energy is huge."

For example, superefficient batteries might store electricity generated at times of low demand for use during peak hours. Batteries could be used to change the infrastructure of the energy industry not just in Japan but also throughout Asia. Fumikazu Kitagawa, an auto-sector consultant at Nomura Research Institute, believes that combining the new generation of batteries with solar-power generators will completely revolutionize household energy systems. "This sort of system will be available at reasonable cost, and fairly soon," says Kitagawa.

Other materials makers are also scampering to develop new products for high-tech cars. Toray, a pioneer of high-tech materials like the carbon fiber it puts into aircraft wings and into the fuselage of the Boeing Dreamliner, too, is just one of them. The company recently set up a new automotive research-and-development center for advanced materials in Nagoya, just down the road from Toyota and suppliers. Toray holds 34 percent of the world carbon-fiber market, and aims to develop a carbon fiber cheap enough for use in car bodies. It hopes to more than double its sales to the auto sector to $3.5 billion by 2015. Teijin, another high-tech-materials maker, aims to "cut the weight of a car by half" by using a variety of new materials like polycarbonate resin, and a bubble-shaped prototype is on display in its Tokyo showroom. Meanwhile, a superlight sports car produced by Ken Okuyama Design is set for sale this fall in Japan. Using carbon fiber and aluminum generously, the model weighs only 750 kilograms.

Even the popular hybrids are still a niche product. But as far as Japanese carmakers are concerned, gasoline is no longer where the action is. Hillebrand believes that green technologies are changing the industry in an unprecedented way. If Ford invented modern car manufacturing when it built the first assembly line for the Model T, says Hillebrand, then the emerging green technology represents "the second invention of the auto industry. And it's the Japanese who are leading the charge."

TIME MAGAZINE (story may be online only) Giving Your Hybrid an Extra Charge Sep. 02, 2008 By Anita Hamilton­time/­business/­article/­0,8599,1838193,00.html

Chris Cox of Derry, N.H., got tired of waiting for the electric car of the future. In August, he took matters into his own hands and had his 2008 Toyota Prius converted into a plug-in hybrid, which doubled its gas mileage -- Cox now gets up to 100 miles per gallon for 30 to 40 miles at a stretch. Although the Prius is already a hybrid gas-electric model, the additional battery that Cox had installed enables him to travel more than 20 miles on all-electric power (compared to just two miles without it) before the gas engine kicks in.

Until now, such after-market auto modifications were the exclusive purview of fearless do-it-yourselfers (check out their work at EV Album or CalCars). But now many car dealers and repair shops will do the job for you -- and consumers are lining up. Typically customers order the kits directly from one of a handful of makers, who in turn ship the components to an installer near you. At least for now, an after-market conversion is the only option if you really want to rev up your fuel economy -- short of ditching your car altogether and plunking down $109,000 for the all-electric Tesla Roadster or settling for Zap's barely street-legal three-wheeler. "I wanted something real today," says Cox, 50, who works as a database administrator.

Don't expect a bargain, though: Conversion kits range anywhere from $5,000 for lead-acid batteries to more than $30,000 for lithium-ion technology. The more expensive kits buy you a longer all-electric range, don't need replacing as often, and take up less space. The catch is that the additional battery has to be recharged by plugging your car into an electric outlet for several hours every time the battery gets drained, which can be inconvenient. Cox paid $9,999 for a 207-lb. Hymotion lithium-ion battery module, which fits into the spare tire well behind the back seat of his Prius and takes about six hours to charge. Aside from the black rubber-capped electrical outlet installed on the rear left bumper, Cox's Silver Prius looks exactly as it did before the conversion. "I don't think I'll make the money back," admits Cox, who estimates that it will take 10 years to recoup the cost in saved gas. "I bought it so I could put the word out there and say, 'Hey, this is possible,'" he says.

Until now, the steep price of conversions and most car owners' lack of technical know-how have kept consumers at bay. And while the cost is still prohibitive for most folks, some of the safety concerns and technical hurdles have been alleviated. Hymotion's conversion kit comes with a three-year warranty and has been crash tested. Those worried about voiding their original warranty should know that it is illegal for a carmaker to do so solely because an after-market product has been installed. If that product causes any malfunction or damage to the factory-installed parts, however, the warranty won't cover the damage.

Hymotion, owned by A123 Systems and based in Watertown, Mass., has at least one advantage over its competitors: The company is one of two finalists being considered by General Motors to produce the lithium-ion battery for the Chevy Volt, which is widely expected to be the first commercially available plug-in hybrid in the U.S. when it goes on sale in 2010. (GM says the Volt will be able to travel up to 40 miles in all-electric mode before switching over to its gas or ethanol-powered engine.) But there are at least half a dozen other companies that sell conversion kits for the Prius, Ford Escape and other hybrid models.

Like Cox, many Americans are desperate to get better gas mileage, feel frustrated with fuel prices and are impatient with the pace of auto-makers' change. "Toyota could produce this [plug-in hybrid] in a heartbeat, but they are just not there yet," says Charles Tonelli, owner of Westboro Toyota in Westboro, Mass., which performed Cox's Prius conversion and has a waiting list of 96 other customers who want the same service. (Click here to see what's involved in a conversion). In the meantime, non-profits like CalCars and Plug-In America are lobbying for tax credits and other incentives that may help speed adoption of the new technology. But if you can't wait until 2010 for a brand-new plug in, you can still get all charged up today.

BIOFUELS: following is one of many reports on an important new study by Accenture -- also see the company's press release at­article_display.cfm?article_id=4747 . We haven't found the actual study.

RED HERRING: The March of Biofuels: More Uphill than Down by Justin Moresco, 08 September 2008­blogs/­24843

Amid rising fuel costs and calls for fuel independence, dramatic growth of the biofuels industry seems inevitable to many. But a report released Monday by consulting firm Accenture identifies several hurdles that could slow, even reverse, the march of biofuels.

Biofuels champions want to see gasoline and diesel, produced from oil controlled by a small number of countries, replaced by renewable fuels produced from widely available corn or sugarcane and as-soon-as-possible from even more abundant non-food sources, like grasses or agricultural waste.

The respected research firm Clean Edge predicts the worldwide biofuels market will triple by 2017, reaching $81.1 billion from $25.4 billion last year. Mountains of money have poured into biofuels research and development at universities, large corporations and venture-backed startups.

But the Accenture report, titled "Biofuels' Time of Transition: Achieving high performance in a world of increasing fuel diversity," says the creation of a global biofuels industry will be "much more difficult to achieve" than is widely believed.

Distribution and infrastructure development are partly to blame, according to the report. In the U.S., for example, most gasoline is piped around the country from refineries to large storage facilities, called terminals. From there the fuel is trucked to local fueling stations. The system is highly efficient, which drives down costs.

But today in the U.S., as elsewhere save perhaps Brazil, biofuels have no such countrywide distribution system in place. Producers generally sell directly to fueling stations, which explains why ethanol has taken root in the Midwest, center of U.S. corn production, or send it by rail to terminals to be blended with gasoline. This is far less efficient than the more consolidated gasoline distribution network.

If biofuels are to be a serious replacement for gasoline, then challenges in the distribution chain, including storing, blending and accommodating different grades of fuels, will need to be overcome. It's still uncertain if biofuels can be sent through the same pipelines used for gasoline. New pipelines may need to be built. Even dispensers at fuel stations need to be retooled for biofuels.

What's clear is that the development of an efficient biofuels market requires enormous investment in the infrastructure needed to support large-scale operations and trading. That financial commitment is difficult to justify, according to the report, when the ultimate returns and size of the market are uncertain.

The growth of biofuels also has an enemy lurking in the distance. It's called plug-in hybrid vehicles. Plug-ins will run on electricity and be recharged through standard home or office electrical outlets. Unsurprisingly, they will pose a direct threat to the growth of biofuels when they start rolling off production lines in 2010, a widely used date that may or may not prove true.

Whether they come in 2010 or 2020, the cost per mile for plug-ins is expected to be dramatically lower than that for exclusively gasoline or biofuels-powered vehicles. For one thing, the "fuel" generation and distribution network--in this case for electricity--is already in place. That's why the Accenture report says that the biofuels market will need to become as global and efficient as possible within the next 10 years, before competing technologies become mainstream.

Still, biofuels will have their place in the global tapestry of transportation fuels. The Accenture report says they could make up 10 to 15 percent of the fuels mix in 10 to 20 years.

Biofuels will be especially attractive in developing markets, for example in Africa, where rising gasoline prices have brought real suffering and not just the cancellation of summer vacations. Developing countries could become fuel producers themselves, driving the local economy. And their weak electricity infrastructure will be an obstacle for the introduction of plug-in hybrids, not to mention the high upfront costs that go along with the early adoption of any new technology.

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