Batteries Can Be Beautiful

tesla-blue2

In the past two years we’ve written a lot about the Tesla Roadster: its performance, a full review, and some of the competition. Other tantalizing stories have been written about Tesla’s founder Elon Musk, his competitor Henrik Fisker, and the car’s capabilities in numerous road tests.

Now the company is working on a 5-passenger sedan (the Model S at $57K), an all-electric subcompact (the Bluestar, $30K), and is trying to get in line for some of the $25 billion advanced technology loans set aside by Congress. Yup, the same money Pelosi & Co. agreed to tap for the bailout bill that went down. Says Tesla, they are not about to use it to prop up their business, which is doing fine. Founder Musk recently gave them another $40 million.

The big story in all this is the car’s Energy Storage System (ESS), its lithium-ion battery pack. Tesla’s white paper on the ESS emphasizes, naturally, the innovations and safety qualities. The company has also been developing green safe-disposal procedures so as to recycle most all the components at the end of their life cycle.

The Roadster will get you to 60 mph in about 4 seconds with 100% torque instantly. Its range is 220 miles on a full charge (which takes only 3.5 hours on the dedicated charger). And the battery is said to last 5 years or 100,000 miles. That is great performance by any measure.

There is tremendous effort going into research to improve the lithium-ion battery and develop new, more efficient lightweight ESSs, both for all-electric and hybrid vehicles. My Google search for “battery technology” turned up some 4,540,000 citations, reflecting the activity in this $56 billion market.

Hybrids now use nickel-hydride batteries, relatively long-lived but expensive to replace, though costs are coming down and, as Tesla has shown, lithium-ion is a better technology.

And lithium-ion is not going to be with us forever either. Its biggest weakness may be a tendency to overheat and become unstable (remember the recall of all those laptop batteries that caught fire?), and Tesla has packed its cells (some 6800 of them in the Roadster) in steel cases.

So now some, like John Petersen, are looking down the road to the prospect of rebuilding U.S. capabilities in engineering to produce breakthrough batteries and make them here. Most all production of high-tech (non-lead-acid) auto batteries now comes from Asia. I read today that China just launched a new, cheap plug-in hybrid car.

If the U.S. finally gets smart it could develop a real industry for the future, providing energy storage solutions for everything from zippy sports cars to the power grid.

Can we do it —make a new battery industry here? Should it be tied in to the restructuring of the Big Three? —jgoods

Lessons in preparing for winter…

Probably a victim of over-filled tires!

Probably a victim of over-filled tires!

You know who’s an idiot? Me. Here’s why:

Whether I’m commenting on the craziness of auto politics or making fun of the Subaru B9 Tribeca, I write something car-related every single day.

Yet it wasn’t until the temperature dropped to 1 and there’s a thick layer of ice on the roads that it occurred to me that I’d better make sure my family’s vehicles are prepared to survive the winter.

So if I’m late in “winterizing” my car, it’s a safe bet lots of others are too. Here’s what I finally did to make sure my family, and my cars, stay safe this winter while navigating the treacherous stretches of Pacific Northwest highways, backroads and poorly plowed residential streets:

1. Check the tire pressure (some people might consider putting on snow tires, though my all-seasons are still fairly new)

Add too much pressure and the amount of rubber on the road is decreased, which, as I learned last year, is a great way to get intimate with curbs. Too little pressure and you’ll compromise fuel economy and the tire’s integrity.

2. Check the oil

If your last oil change was in the summer, the oil’s viscosity may be too thick for adequate winter protection. It’s a good idea to look at the owner’s manual and see what oil is recommended for winter driving.

3. Test the AWD system

I tested this the fun way, on the unpopulated twisties near my house. I don’t condone that or recommend it. But it confirmed that yes, my AWD was kicking in at the appropriate times.

4. Check the antifreeze

We have a predicted low tonight of well below zero. If my antifreeze was only good to 15, I’d be in quite the pickle tomorrow. The antifreeze tester that I picked up at the corner auto parts store confirmed that I’m in good shape.

5. Check the battery

I might be gambling on this one, as batteries have a nasty habit of dying during snowstorms in front of Target at 10 pm. But, my battery shows a good charge even though it hasn’t been changed since 2002. I’ll risk it. You shouldn’t.

6. Replace wipers and add fluid

And make darn sure that the wipers are attached properly. I won’t tell you about the time I had to drive with my head out the driver’s side window because my wiper launched itself into oblivion.

7. Clean out your cupholders

You need to make sure you have a clean, sturdy place to put down your extra hot triple venti mocha. 

Is there anything about winterizing your car that I missed?

-tgriffith 

Hypermilers: Smart People or Manic Morons?

I have a friend who drives his Audi S5 like Wayne Gerdes drives his Honda Insight. This I found particularly strange since LG used to make a practice of driving mountain roads like a madman. Then what the hell did he want an S5 for, you may wonder. LG has owned a lot of high-performance cars over the years but now gets his kicks from watching the fuel consumption display (FCD). So, apparently, do a lot of people.

Wayne Gerdes, if you’re not aware, is probably the world champ hypermiler, and he uses techniques like going 50 mph with his right tire on the white line, drafting trucks with the engine off, coasting wherever possible, no A/C, no windows open, no braking, etc. And of course he constantly monitors his progress on the FCD.

Now we’re going to get something even better than the FCD, as Ford and Honda will be offering (in the spring) techy green gauges to give instant feedback on your driving style as well as the usual mpg information. Honda’s EcoAssist display, to be available on the Insight, can even adjust transmission and engine speeds for max efficiency. Ford’s SmartGauge, for the Fusion Hybrid, tracks coolant temperature, driving efficiency and has a vine with leaves that wilt if you drive too fast or furiously.

The case for hypermiling is pretty obvious, even with declining gas prices. You can get at least a 35% increase in fuel economy by simply practicing these techniques: recording your gas mileage, braking less, turning off the engine at long red lights, keeping your distance to counter traffic jams, and accelerating slowly, using cruise control. The idea is to keep aware of traffic and anticipate conditions. See more suggestions here.

Well, what’s wrong with this picture? If everyone drove like this, we could be off foreign oil, traffic deaths would plummet, the planet would be saved. But we don’t drive like this, as the author of the Wayne Gerdes piece found:

Two nights earlier, on a clammy 80-degree Chicago evening, I wait for Wayne at the curb at O’Hare International Airport. I first see his technique as the car he’s driving, a 2006 Honda Civic Hybrid, pulls over to pick me up. Drifts over, actually, like a jellyfish. Around Wayne is madness in motion: Drivers in four lanes are accelerating hard, weaving erratically, or grinding to a halt. To Wayne, these are the driving habits of the ignorant and the wasteful—which is to say, nearly all of us. Wayne’s car glides to a stop as if it has run out of gas. Wayne has stopped without braking.

Many, including yours truly, feel that such driving creates nothing but hazard for the rest of us, not to mention the driver. Here’s a description of how Wayne exits the freeway:

“Buckle up tight, because this is the death turn,” says Wayne. Death turn? We’re moving at 50 mph. Wayne turns off the engine. He’s bearing down on the exit, and as he turns the wheel sharply to the right, the tires squeal—which is what happens when you take a 25 mph turn going 50. Cathy, Terry’s wife, who is sitting next to me in the backseat, grabs my leg. I grab the door handle. As we come out of the 270-degree turn, Cathy says, “I hope you have upholstery cleaner.”

I guess there’s a middle way in all this, and not all hypermilers, including my friend LG, are as manic about the practice as Wayne. But I doubt that high-tech gauges are going to civilize anybody.

Hypermiling on the public roads is madness. Do you agree?

–jgoods

Dealerships going out of business: a good thing?

There are reports today that 2,000 U.S. new-vehicle dealerships will close in 2008 and 2009, according to the National Automobile Dealers Association

That’s one in every 10 dealers, assuming though that no automakers file for bankruptcy next year, which would guarantee thousands of additional shutdowns.

Part of the closures are the result of General Motors, Ford and Chrysler trying to shrink their U.S. retail networks in dealer-saturated cities. But the credit crisis is bringing other dealers down randomly as plunging new-vehicle sales and tight credit for dealers and consumers are adding casualties to the list.

Some automotive writers say this is bad news.

Seriously though, have you bought or shopped for a new car recently? It can be pure torture as dealers attempt every possible deception in an effort to wring every cent out of unsuspecting car buyers.

I love new cars, and I’m infatuated with the auto industry. I’m addicted to reading and writing reviews, test driving and even buying new vehicles. The only thing I despise about new cars is the process of being forced to do business with often-shady new-car dealers.

I have run across some decent, no-pressure auto dealers in my day, but in my experience they are the exception. They should be the rule.

Maybe the threat of closure will inspire change. Maybe in an effort to bring more people into their dealerships, the business of selling cars will evolve into a pleasant, easy and satisfying experience built on respect rather than deception.

Wouldn’t you love to drive out of a dealership in your new car without thinking you may have just been financially screwed?

 -tgriffith

Don’t fear collapse

Talking about the loss of Ford, GM or Chrysler scares a lot of people.

It seems like those companies have always been a part of the American economy, so their possible collapse is likened to the crumbling of a major American support pillar. In fact, the entire manufacturing industry in America is on the decline. FOX News recently reported that in Trenton, NJ in the 1950s, 1 in 2 people “made something” as a career. Today that number is less than 1 in 10.

Manufacturing in America will never go away completely. America will always innovate and will always succeed.

A quick example lies in a little American company called Carbon Motors, who sees an opportunity to build a better police car.

Traditionally, police cars are modified sedans built by Ford or GM. Carbon Motors is building a car from scratch with one use in mind: law enforcement.

Called the E7, the car has flashing emergency lights embedded in the frame for visibility and aerodynamic purposes. The front seats are designed with extra space to accommodate an officer’s utility belt. The rear passenger area is sealed off from the cockpit. The back seats are molded plastic for easy cleaning and to prevent prisoners from hiding anything.

And how Knight Rider is this: front-mounted cameras automatically scan license plates of nearby vehicles and alert police when they find a car flagged as stolen or involved in some other crime. Plus the car can detect nuclear and biological threats, all while delivering combined fuel economy ratings of 28-30 mpg. 

See? Innovative. I’m not saying that Carbon Motors is the American car company of the future, but they prove the point that there’s always a better way to do things. Ways that may not be as old as GM’s, but are certainly more forward-thinking and better suited for a changing America. 

If one of the Big 3 collapses, don’t fear the consequences. Be excited for whatever or whoever comes to fill their gap.

Are you afraid of losing Ford, GM or Chrysler?

-tgriffith

The Bailout Collapse: Getting Partisan

The Senate, house of political intrigue, punts on the auto bailout bill and here we are, now looking to the White House to solve the industry’s cash flow problems. Imagine what Jon Stewart and Jay Leno will have to say on this tonight. In fact, leave us your comments on that! As we’ve said before in this blog, there has to be an element (or appearance) of fairness in these matters. Yet we should have learned a long time ago that politics has to do with advantage, not fairness. The Democrats put themselves at a big disadvantage by offering up a bill with so many flaws and so little to enforce a restructuring. Republicans seized the moment by piling on to the UAW which, whatever its past sins, had been the only stakeholder to come to the table.

In a news co nference, UAW Chief Ron Gettelfinger “felt the union was being asked to make immediate sacrifices that other ‘stakeholders’—bondholders, executives, retirees, and others—were not. . . . The GOP caucus was insisting that the restructuring had to be done on the back of workers and retirees rather than having all stakeholders come to the table.”

Said Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.), “It sounds like UAW blew up the deal.” Sen. John Ensign (R-Nev.) agreed. Really?

Given the fact that labor cost, as we reported, is only about 10% of vehicle cost, that does seem a mite unfair. Josh Marshall in TPM today thought so too and offered three Republican motives:

“Finally, this issue now goes well beyond the fate of the American automakers. Senate Republicans are following this course for three key reasons—first is payback against a major industrial union; second is payback against states like Michigan and Ohio who have been moving away from the GOP; third is the desire to advantage Japanese auto manufacturers who disproportionately do business in their southern states.”

With all this leveraging for political position and jockeying for power, maybe the best course is bankruptcy after all. Jospeh Stiglitz, Nobel Prize-winner and one of our most insightful economists, has this to say in the Financial Times: “The debate about whether or not to bail out the Big Three carmakers has been mischaracterised. It has been described as a package to help the undeserving dinosaurs of Detroit. In fact, a plan to bail out the carmakers would benefit shareholders and bondholders as much as anybody else. These are not the people that need help right now. In fact they contributed to the problem.”

The problem was created, says Stiglitz, by the industry’s mismanagement and the financial markets “which failed in their oversight” and allowed the companys’ shortsighted, short-term focus on profits to continue.

“As the bail-outs continue, numbers that once looked huge are starting to seem almost normal. Hundreds of billons are being given to banks and insurance companies. AIG got $150bn. Compared with that $34bn, or even $125bn, for the automotive industry seems a modest request. Even so, we should not forget that a few months ago, President George W. Bush said there was not enough money for health insurance for poor children although it cost just a few billion dollars.”

If Stiglitz is right, then a prepackaged bankruptcy finally may be the best and only real option. I urge you to read the article.

Let us know how badly you think the government has fumbled this bailout question. Is Stiglitz right?

–jgoods

What’s safer: a 1966 Cadillac or a 2009 Civic?

The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety recently announced their 2009 Top Safety Picks, with 72 vehicles earning the honor. (Interestingly, Chrysler is the only major automaker without a single Top Safety Pick.)

That’s twice the number of winners in 2008 and three times as many as in 2007. The IIHS chalks up the huge increases to automakers making strides in how their vehicles perform in front, side and rear crashes. New cars also have improved seat and head restraint design and offer electronic stability control as a means to avoid accidents.

All this new safety technology appears to be paying off, as estimates from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration show the number of people killed in traffic accidents in the U.S. this year is expected to be the lowest on record (recordkeeping began in 1966).

The question is will those numbers continue to decrease as the size of new vehicles also decreases? It’s logical to assume that the bigger the car, the safer its occupants are. I was once at a Hummer dealership and the salesman told me that to date, no one had ever been killed inside a Hummer as a result of a car accident. While this is great news for a Hummer owner, it’s not so great for someone who gets into an accident with one! 

Considering how many different sizes of cars are on the roads, it’s logical to assume that the heavier ones provide more protection than the smaller ones, regardless of what technology is used. Even though a 1966 Cadillac DeVille has no airbags or emergency stability control, I’ll bet a lot of people would choose to be encased in its solid steel body in an accident, even over a 2009 fully loaded Civic with the newest safety gear.

As cars become laden with safety features and traffic deaths are at an all-time low, it’s apparent that something must be working right. My bet is that the newest accident-avoidance features, such as ESC, must be paying off by resulting in avoidance of accidents in the first place. 

We want to know: Have the latest safety features protected you in an accident or helped you avoid one?

-tgriffith

Bailing Out the Bailout: Don’t Hold Your Breath

Watching Congress in debate is like subjecting yourself to a parade of television commercials. You hear an unending stream of features and benefits—as well as a zillion reasons why you shouldn’t buy the other guy’s product.

Tuning in to C-Span last night (always an uplifting experience), I heard speaker after speaker lambasting the financial bailout bill Congress passed in September. Republicans in particular were hosed about the $350 billion that went to AIG and other banks and which has produced zilch as far as freeing up credit goes.

That’s the background in which the Senate will debate today the newly passed (by the House) auto bailout bill. At this point, passage looks doubtful. On C-Span I heard a lot of talk about throwing good money after bad. What I didn’t hear was how really dismal our economic picture is right now, and how dependent we are on the auto industry, still.

Compromise, as in politics, was tried in the auto bill. That doesn’t seem to have worked—or at least brought Republican Senators to heel to the President. In the Senate discussions, it would help to focus debate on the realities of the car industry instead of praise and blame for past actions, or promoting more features and benefits of the proposal at hand. Here are some things the World’s Greatest Deliberative Body might want to consider:

1. The auto industry’s greatest problem, as David Leonhardt pointed out, is not really labor cost (only about 10% of vehicle cost); it’s the fact that “many people don’t want to buy the cars Detroit makes.” The Big Three cannot survive in anything like their present form.

2. What is the real purpose of the bailout bill? It can’t solve the basic economic and management problems of the industry. If Congress needs to create a holding action until March, then it should take the three months to study and adopt the best reorganization plans because each of the Big Three is in a different financial situation and requires different treatment. In other words, adopt the bridge loan concept that the bill proposes. The larger question: how far is the U.S. prepared to support and/or subsidize its basic industries?

3. If the purpose of the bill is to provide economic stimulus and prevent job loss, it’s not a bad deal. Keeping people in their jobs is lots cheaper than providing unemployment or creating new jobs. So $14 billion may not be a bad price to pay for keeping some 2 million workers from being dumped on the streets. Plus giving the industry some breathing room.

Finally, as often happens, Congress is attempting to solve massive (and different) problems through a piece of hastily considered legislation. Get your priorities straight, folks. The main difficulty here is time: the possibility that GM will be out of cash by the end of the year.

As a footnote, a new Bloomberg/LA Times poll finds that “47% of Americans favored some sort of financial rescue for automakers, slightly more than the 42% who opposed a rescue.”

As of 6:00 p.m. Thursday, Republicans are proposing an alternative bill. Do you think Congress can still thrash out a solution? Or will it come to bankruptcy?

–jgoods

What is REVO EVOM?

 

Imagine you’re on an open freeway with nothing but clear pavement and blue sky in front you. You’re cruising comfortably at 5 or 10 over the speed limit when you see a car up ahead that looks like it’s passing a semi in the left lane. You put on your left blinker, check your blind spot, and change lanes so you can overtake the truck without messing up the cruise control settings.

You’re expecting the car in front of you to pass the truck, then move over into the right lane so you can continue on your merry way without changing your speed.

Only there’s a problem. The car in front of you ISN’T passing the semi. In fact, for some reason only explainable by insanity he’s decided to match the semi’s speed EXACTLY. You grunt as you wait until the last possible second before pushing ‘cancel’ on the cruise control. Your car’s RPMs drop in response, which wakes up your spouse, who thinks you’re exiting for the next gas station.

You’re stuck behind a 1997 Buick and a lumbering truck stacked full of cows, and you’re out of options for passing either of them.

I can’t think of another situation on America’s freeways that so instantly dials up the road rage meter. 

Enter REVO EVOM, a decal people are placing on their hoods or windshields that when read from the Buick’s rear-view mirror will give a very clear message: MOVE OVER. 

Take heed, fellow drivers, because some states are coming to the rescue by actually enforcing new laws and fining people for spending too much time in the left lane. In my home state, Washington, that fine is $124.

It’s about time those left-lane lugnuts get taught a lesson and give us our open road back! 

Are you more likely to be the one getting a ticket, or ordering a REVO EVOM sign?

-tgriffith

What are the best and worst cars produced by the Big 3?

Hey, it's reliable, comfortable and practical!

Hey, it's reliable, comfortable and practical!

 

There’s an interesting topic floating around in the blog-o-sphere regarding the best and worst cars Ford, GM and Chrysler have ever produced.

While hearing comments on Corvettes, Mustangs, Pintos and Chevettes might be mildly interesting, I think it would be WAY more interesting to hear what the best and worst cars are from the last 5 years.

I’m not just talking the ugliest or sexiest, but overall best and worst vehicles the Big 3 have produced since the 2003 model year.

Some of the best that come to my mind are the new Cadillac CTS, Chevy Malibu… heck I’ll even give props to the Caravan. Some that might be on my worst list might be the Ford Escort, Chrysler Sebring and the fifth generation Pontiac Grand Am.

I’ll wait to build an official list though until the brilliance of the CarGurus community shines through and shares their thoughts…It’ll be interesting to see what models are mentioned the most often!

What do you think are the best & worst cars introduced by the U.S.’s Big Three automakers since 2003?

-tgriffith