Apple Watch: Out of Sync?

John C. Abell, Senior Editor at LinkedIn, recently published a blog post in which he suggested that society has nothing to fear from intelligent robots, a veiled reference to recent statements from Elon Musk, Bill Gates, and Stephen Hawking about the future potential of artificial intelligence. Rather than robots or AI, Abell wrote: “Batteries will be the death of us.”

flip phoneWhile this brings a gentle chuckle, there’s plenty of truth in it.

Abell described how the first generation of cell phones (“feature phones”) sported replaceable batteries that lasted for days and could be swapped out at a moment’s notice. In other words, battery life wasn’t a concern. These devices, which had a core function of delivering voice calls to their owners, did so with efficiency and long periods between charges.

Core Functionality

This core functionality, however, was replaced when smartphones supplanted feature phones and scrolling through Facebook, watching YouTube videos, and—most significantly—perpetual texting became all the rage. The purpose of the silicon wonders in our pockets shifted dramatically. Yes, at their essence, they remained communications devices. But the functionality of a “phone” changed completely. And with it, battery life became a major concern, almost overnight.

Likewise, the functionality of watches is about to morph dramatically. Wrist-adorning devices that once delivered simply the time and date (and maybe a stopwatch or countdown feature, but still mostly only time-related features) are growing into small computers with elaborate sensors that offer continual connectivity to our other devices, like smartphones and tablets.

Practicality is paramount. I’m currently engaged in a book project involving the electric car market, and Abell made the perfect analogy between modern mobile devices and electric cars: Range anxiety. Back when we had mere feature phones with great battery life, fear of the device running out of juice rarely reared its ugly head. Ample power for our phones—or the lack of said electricity—was a non-issue.

apple watch clock faceIn this respect, the forthcoming Apple Watch may be two steps forward and one step back.

Pre-release reviews are beginning to indicate that only conservative use of the Apple Watch will deliver a full day on a single charge. Granted, despite the name, the Apple Watch is much more than a mere watch. Ironically, those who want to use it as a simple, but elegant and connected timepiece will be SOL. It will deliver very few hours of straight-up clock face display, depriving wearers the ability to simply glance at their wrist and see a ticking second hand.

According to 9to5 Mac, “We’re told that the Watch should be able to display its clock face for approximately three hours, including watch ticking animations, if nothing else is done with the device.” This reminds me of the primitive, yet disruptive, Texas Instruments watches that my father and grandfather began wearing and loved in the mid-1970s, almost exactly forty years ago.

The History

These first-gen digital timepieces featured bright red LED displays that required the wearer to press a button to briefly display the time—unlike their more advanced progeny, which featured continuous LCD readouts requiring no manual intervention to simply view the hour (that’s when Japanese Casio stole the crown from American Texas Instruments).

I recall my 6th grade math teacher, Mr. Musgrave, wearing one of the slightly inconvenient, but very popular, Texas Instruments LED models. My memory of this is distinct, simply because it was readily apparent whenever he took his right hand and pressed the display button on his left wrist to tell him how much time was left in the class period.

TI red digital watchI can imagine proud new Apple Watch owners nervous to show it off, afraid it will die before the end of the business day. The Apple Watch may be like a Nissan LEAF battery electric car restricted to traveling only 80 miles on a charge. Oh-so-nice and delightfully leading edge during that 80 miles, but then you have to plug it in and wait for your next playdate.

Great Gadget; Good Timepiece?

Don’t get me wrong; I’m an Apple fan and in love with (the idea of) the Apple Watch. But already we know that those acclimated to obtaining the time by simply looking down at their wrist will be in for a surprise—and recharging their watch every three hours if they do so.

As cited by Abell, 9to5 Mac also reported that the highly-anticipated Apple Watch will deliver “roughly 19 hours of mixed usage each day, but that the company may not hit that number in the first generation version.” “Mixed use” means that the watch display is mostly off and that it’s sucking only a small trickle of juice from the battery so it can receive notifications from the wearer’s iPhone or iPad.

It’s becoming clear that the Apple Watch, at least in its first iteration, will work well only within particular use case parameters, sometimes limiting its practicality. No continually displayed time. No hours of full-bore app use. No playing Angry Birds: Watch Edition on the trip to Grandma’s house on Sunday.

apple watchIt’s beginning to sound as if this miraculous little device, which in so many respects will be uber-cool, will also be hobbled by today’s relatively primitive battery tech. It’s sad that such a great gadget will be limited by a battery that hasn’t quite evolved to meet the needs of wearables that are extremely small, yet sport bright, high-resolution displays, relatively powerful processors, and juice-draining wireless connectivity.

Slowly Getting There

The energy density of batteries, for both cars and small mobile devices, is increasing rapidly. While I’m convinced that this first-gen Apple Watch will change the industry and perform miraculous feats of silicon syncing, it simply won’t suit all use cases or please all customers.

Remember the Oscar-winning 1967 film The Graduate with Dustin Hoffman? Remember the infamous post-college poolside investment advice from the family friend during the graduation party at the beginning of the movie?

“I just wanna say one word to you. Just one word.”

“Batteries.”

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Curt Robbins


Curt Robbins is author of the following books from Amazon Kindle:home theater book cover for blog footers

You can follow him on Twitter at @CurtRobbins, read his AV-related blog posts at rAVe Publications, and view his photos on Flickr.

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Zealth Audio: Employing Homeless Veterans

If you’re like me, little things sometimes frustrate you. Maybe the kids left the cap off the soda again and it went flat. Or your spouse put a small scratch in the bumper of your sports car. Possibly the cat left you a present in a remote corner of a spare bedroom….

Then you learn about someone like Kevin Nelson and it puts everything in perspective. Nelson (about whom I’ve written previously), is the founder and owner of Zealth Audio, a small speaker company based in San Diego. He’s an eternal optimist who puts his money where his mouth is—literally—and does business a little differently.

zealth audioNelson is very open about the rough times he’s experienced in his life. After returning from his military service in the U.S. Navy, he spent years in homelessness in San Diego. Despite the hardship of living in shelters and on the street, it was during this time that his dream of designing and selling his own high-fidelity speakers took shape.

Fast forward to 2015. Nelson is now happily occupied designing new and affordable speaker models and with the effort of growing his fledgling company.

If that was the end of the story, it would be inspirational enough. But Nelson believes in giving back. Plus, he knows, first hand, the plight of homeless vets who have given so much for their country, only to face hardship and challenges after returning home. Hardship and challenges that, too often, lead to substance abuse, poor health, and even an early grave.

Thus, he hatched a plan. Nelson’s company, which hand-builds each set of speakers in a wide variety of beautiful wood finishes to the specifications of his customers, employs homeless veterans. For each set of speakers ordered, Zealth Audio temporarily hires one or two homeless vets at his small shop in Southern California.

During an interview, Nelson was frank with me about his inspiration for hiring vets to build his unique speakers. “I got the idea while on the streets, watching my fellow veterans just fall apart. Sometimes I would find them dead; it happened three times to me. So I made up my mind, right then, that I would not quit ’til I could do my part and help some veterans,” he said.

“I know how it is, so I can talk with them very easily. I can help them with resources they don’t know about. San Diego is a beautiful place, but it’s money hungry, so it really doesn’t have good places for the homeless. That stuff you see on TV about shelters is staged…they are a living hell,” he told me.

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When asked about how he selects homeless vets to help him, Nelson responded, “The veterans I help have to be in a program with the VA [U.S. Department of Veteran’s Affairs] or in a shelter trying to get life back on track. I help those that are getting something done. I know several still on the river, where I stayed when I was homeless. I will bring them in as long as they are sober—ya still gotta be tough.”

Nelson said he is frustrated by how both veterans and the homeless are treated in the United States. He’s critical of what he perceives to be the hypocrisy of many who claim to help the homeless or support veterans. “Don’t tell me how much you support them. Show me,” he said from his shop.

Nelson’s company wasn’t around when I was shopping for the speakers that populate my two home theaters. If it were, I would have seriously considered purchasing from Zealth simply to avoid padding the bonus of a CEO who probably wouldn’t have been employing military veterans down on their luck to build me audiophile-quality speakers.

The next time you’re feeling sorry for yourself, remember Kevin Nelson and Zealth Audio. Remember the homeless vets who are being given another lease on life by one of their own who, by the miracle of his own determination and hard work, has managed to escape a life on the street.

That man is now giving back, not only by selling killer speakers that satisfy audiophiles like me, but—more important—by helping others to rehabilitate themselves.

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Curt Robbins

[Kevin Nelson can be reached at zealthinfo@aol.com.]


Curt Robbins is author of the following books from Amazon Kindle:

You can follow him on Twitter at @CurtARobbins, read his AV-related blog posts at rAVe Publications, and view his photos on Flickr.

Tidal: Lossless Music Streaming

I recently learned about a relatively new streaming music service out of Oslo, Norway called Tidal, which became available in the United Kingdom and the United States last October. Since my discovery, Tidal has garnished quite a bit of media attention. Last winter, rap mogul Jay Z and a bunch of his wealthy music pals (like Madonna) purchased Tidal.

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Why do I care about a new on-demand music service when there’s so many great ones already on the market? Spotify, Google Play Music, Rdio, Rhapsody, and Beats Music (the “Big Five”) all offer very compelling services priced at only $10 a month. In terms of cost, music discovery/radio service Pandora is even more attractive and available in both subscription and free, ad-supported versions. Songza, another music discovery service (owned by Google), is ad-free and available at no cost.

So why get excited about a new music streaming service?

iPod Era: Convenience vs. Fidelity

The iPod era forced music consumers to trade quality for convenience. It was great to have thousands of songs instantly available from our iPods and smartphones, but sucked because those songs were of low quality (typically 128 Kbps). For the luxury of a “listen anywhere” media format that allowed one to plug their mobile device into their car or listen when at the gym or the office, audio fidelity went down the toilet. Audiophiles lamented the state of hi-fidelity; some declared it dead.

For those who are curious about the technical details, most music streaming services—and all of the Big Five, in addition to Pandora and Songza—highly compress their audio stream to allow it to flow smoothly from their servers, through the internet, to your listening device.

These highly compressed, or “lossy” formats (which literally lose data during the compression/decompression cycle) are typically MP3 or AAC, which offer various levels of audio quality, even the best of which is fairly hobbled—at least when compared to compact discs. While some listeners don’t notice the difference, it’s significant on good equipment. Those with nice hi-fi systems and premium speakers certainly can tell the difference. Many audiophiles have shunned highly compressed, lossy services like Pandora and Songza in favor of CDs or vinyl.

tidal 3

Tidal’s primary differentiator is that it streams in “lossless” CD quality. This means that no data is lost during the compression of the music on Tidal’s end and the decompression of it on your end.

The Big Five stream at a fairly respectable 320 Kbps. Tidal, however, streams at 1,411 Kbps (in the ALAC and FLAC formats). This is nearly 4.5 times more data per second to satisfy one’s craving for music fidelity.

But the big question is: Can you hear the difference? If you have only a moderately nice sound system, the answer is a resounding yes. If you have a high-end system, you’ll be blown away.

During my time using Tidal, I can honestly say I’ve never heard a higher quality or more reliable music streaming service. I still love Pandora and Songza, and had a great experience with Google Play Music back when I subscribed. But if you care about the fidelity of the music, Tidal is the best online stream that’s ever reached my ears. Period.

[For those who are curious, since “moderately nice sound system” and “high-end system” are fairly ambiguous labels, I have been listening on a Pioneer Elite VSC-53 receiver outputting to a set of B&W 703 tower speakers, which is fed internet bandwidth by a Netgear Powerline 500 + powerline adapter getting signal from a Netgear Nighthawk R7000 wi-fi router and an AT&T 18 Mbps internet connection.]

Mark Henninger, senior writer at AVS Forum, commented in a Facebook group for audiophiles on a budget, “You have a fan of Tidal right here. The quality and the selection are fantastic.” Henninger makes a good point; a good music streaming service, regardless of its fidelity, is nothing without a satisfying catalog of songs.

The Upside

In addition to its main selling point, lossless high-fidelity music streaming, Tidal also offers offline listening. Unlike some other services, songs saved to your local device for offline listening aren’t “dumbed down” in terms of fidelity. They retain their CD-level quality. This is especially nice for things like a subway commute, flight, or anywhere you don’t have an internet connection—or don’t want to eat into your mobile phone data plan.

Tidal’s ad-free format is also nice, but certainly expected at the service’s $20 a month cost. After all, even lower-fidelity, $10/month services like Spotify, Rdio, and Google Play Music are void of ads and commercials.

One way of getting Tidal’s high-quality music into your hi-fi or home theater system, if you’re streaming from an Apple device like a Mac computer, iPad, or iPhone, is AirPlay. I’ve been using AirPlay to stream from my iPad to my audio/video receivers, both of which have AirPlay built-in. I haven’t experienced a single dropout or buffering issue. Of course, I also have ample broadband at nearly 20 Mbps; Tidal recommends a minimum of 2 Mbps.

Tidal is also available on more than 40 platforms, including all major mobile operating systems, like Android and iOS, and all mainstream browsers, like Firefox and Chrome. There’s also a slick and seemingly bug-free iPad app.

Tidal even offers a radio feature, including an Artist Radio function, meaning you can use it for music discovery, just like Pandora or Songza. There’s also playlists, repeat, and shuffle, fairly standard features found on nearly all on-demand competitors. In addition, a favoriting feature called My Music lets users tag songs and albums they like for easy retrieval in the future.

Unfortunately, there’s no Chromecast support. However, my contact at the company tells me that one is in development. In the meantime, I’m loving the iPad app, which is very keenly and minimally styled. I think it looks better than the iPad apps for any of the other music streaming services I’ve used.

Now with Led Zeppelin

Tidal recently added the entire Led Zeppelin catalog to its already impressive song collection. It is the only high-fidelity streaming music service to feature the venerable ’60s and ’70s heavy metal superband, and one of only two streaming services overall (Spotify is the only 320 Kbps service to feature them).

I’m currently listening to the group’s pinnacle double-album Physical Graffiti. It sounds every bit as good as my compact disc version of the album. Now I can just swipe and tap on my iPad, activate AirPlay to my AV receiver, and I’m in business. No more digging for my CD. I don’t even have to get out of my easy chair.

The Downside

The primary disadvantage of Tidal is cost: This high-quality music streaming service is available only for twenty bucks a month. This is precisely twice the cost of the Big Five. Only Pandora, which offers a weaker 192 Kbps (the mobile app is only 128 Kbps), is available for $36 a year (or $4 per month). Songza, which streams at a fairly anemic 64 Kbps (or 1/22 of Tidal’s fidelity), is free.

tidal 1

For those who prefer free, ad-supported services (like how Pandora offers both a gratis version featuring commercials and also a paid side that’s ad-free), Tidal will be a disappointment. There’s no free version. Personally, I think this is fine. Tidal is clearly positioning itself as a premium music service, both in terms of quality and price. You simply can’t get a Porsche 911 for the price of a Toyota Yaris.

Check It Out

Tidal features a catalog of 25 million songs. This is enough, according to the company, to listen for 140 straight years. It is a slightly larger catalog than many music streaming services, but not as large as some, like Rhapsody, which features 32 million songs.

In the end, Tidal is a welcome addition to the small, but growing, collection of lossless music streaming services. Hopefully the higher price won’t scare away students and those on a budget. It would be nice to see this service set a precedent and usher in a new era of lossless music streaming.

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Curt Robbins


[To understand more about streaming music, check out Streaming Music: The Types.]

[In response to my favorable comments regarding Tidal, I’ve received accusations on Facebook of being a troll. I currently hold no stock in or employment with Tidal, nor am I affiliated with or related to any of its shareholders or employees. I’m a technical writer, author, and consumer advocate who is officially reviewing the service.]


Curt Robbins is author of the following books from Amazon Kindle:

You can follow him on Twitter at @CurtARobbins, read his AV-related blog posts at rAVe Publications, and view his photos on Flickr.

Elon Musk: Hydrogen Cars Are “Extremely Silly”

On January 13, when addressing reporters during a Q&A session at the Automotive News World Congress (part of the North American International Auto Show) in Detroit, Elon Musk was asked by Gabe Nelson, from Automotive News, about his previous statements regarding hydrogen fuel cell technology for use in personal vehicles—and whether he regretted previous statements in which he claimed that the tech is foolish and inefficient.

Below is a transcript of this interview segment, from a video published by BloombergBusinessweek of Musk’s Q&A session.

[If you’re a Tesla Model S owner based in Norway, please reach out to me by commenting below. I would like to interview you for my forthcoming book and a couple of blog posts. Thanks.]

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Curt Robbins


Gabe Nelson: “You’ve been very vocal about the need for other companies to produce EVs to reduce emissions and deal with climate change. If that’s the case, then why so critical of hydrogen fuel cells, which are another pathway to zero emission vehicles? Do you regret having been so critical? Do you stand by those comments?”

Elon Musk: “I don’t want to turn this into a debate on hydrogen fuel cells, because I just think that they’re extremely silly [audience laughs]. There’s multiple rebuttals of it online. It’s just very difficult to make hydrogen and store it and use it in a car. Hydrogen is an energy storage mechanism, it’s not a source of energy. So you have to get that hydrogen from somewhere.

Musk in DetroitIf you get that hydrogen from water, you’re splitting H2O. Electrolysis is extremely inefficient as an energy process. If you took a solar panel and used the energy from that solar panel to just charge a battery pack directly—compared to try to split water, take the hydrogen, dump the oxygen, compress the hydrogen to an extremely high pressure—or liquefy it—and then put it in a car and run a fuel cell…it is about half the efficiency. It’s terrible.

Why would you do that? It makes no sense. Hydrogen has very low density. It’s a pernicious molecule that likes to get all over the place. If you get hydrogen leaks from invisible gas, you can’t even tell that it’s leaking. But then it’s extremely flammable, when it does, and has an invisible flame.

If you’re going to pick an energy storage mechanism, hydrogen is an incredibly dumb one to pick. You should just pick methane. That’s much, much easier. Or propane.

The best case hydrogen fuel cell doesn’t run against the current case batteries. So, then, obviously, it doesn’t make sense. That will become apparent in the next few years. There’s no reason for us to have this debate. I’ve said my piece on this. It will be super-obvious as time goes by.”


Curt Robbins is author of the following books from Amazon Kindle:

You can follow him on Twitter at @CurtRobbins, read his AV-related blog posts at rAVe Publications, and view his photos on Flickr.

Chevy Bolt Concept EV: Meh?

On January 12, General Motors CEO Mary Barra introduced the Chevy Bolt concept car at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit.

Media outlets far and wide hailed the poorly named Bolt electric vehicle (EV) as a strong future competitor to Tesla’s forthcoming Model 3. Unlike Chevy’s existing token electric car, the hybrid Volt (which features a small three-cylinder internal combustion engine), the Bolt (with a “B”) is an all-electric, pure EV.

What They’re Saying

CNET’s Wayne Cunningham wrote, “Chevrolet looks to beat Tesla to the punch, unveiling its Bolt concept, a hatchback using lightweight body materials and a pure electric drivetrain.” One cocky blogger, Anton Wahlman at Seeking Alpha, went so far as to headline his post “GM’s 200-Mile Electric Car for $30,000: RIP Tesla.”

chevy bolt 1Given GM’s poor track record for quality—plus its 2009 bankruptcy and taxpayer bailout—“RIP Tesla” smells a bit like clickbait. How quickly we forget that GM last year announced “six recalls covering 8.4 million vehicles globally” and reported “seven crashes, eight injuries, and three fatalities linked to the recalled vehicles,” [emphasis mine] according to a June 2014 article from Edmunds.com.

The most significant attributes of Chevy’s new electric Bolt are its predicted price and driving range. At just shy of $40,000 and with a between-charges driving distance of 200 miles, GM is squarely aiming the Bolt at the masses (i.e. Nissan’s LEAF and Tesla’s future Model 3). It is also addressing the most prevalent consumer fear about EVs: Range anxiety.

Hold the Press

However, GM is fudging the numbers a bit, and lazy journalists are going for it hook, line, and sinker. The Los Angeles Times and Car and Driver were two of the only publications to point out that Chevy’s target price of $30,000 is after a federal tax incentive (the current $7,500 federal tax credit might not even exist in 2017). It can be assumed that the Bolt will feature a price more like $38,000.

chevy bolt 2

This isn’t trivial, because the tax credit applies only if you owe taxes and simply discounts what you owe; if you owe nothing, you realize no financial gain (it’s not a rebate). [You can learn more here.]

Following statements from Tesla CEO Elon Musk, this would make the Bolt more expensive than the future Tesla Model 3, which Musk said will be $35,000 before tax incentives (making it only $27,500 if the incentives still exist in 2017). Let’s not forget that it was the Chevy Volt’s (with a “V”) original $41,000 price tag that, in the words of SFGate.com’s Tom Krisher, “…hamstrung sales, even with a $7,500 federal tax credit.” It’s fair to say that $38,000 would position the Bolt as more expensive than the Nissan LEAF and Model 3, which will likely be the most direct competitors.

Like popular electric cars currently on the market, the Bolt will feature a lithium-ion battery and plug into any common 120 or 240-volt wall outlet to charge. However, it will also sport advanced features not found on current affordable EV models, like carbon fiber and aluminum throughout, a 10-inch touchscreen, and even the ability to self-park—if these features make it into the production vehicle.

General Motors is committing not only to the Bolt, but also to the science of electric cars overall. In the past months, Detroit’s number two global automaker announced an investment of $65 million in lithium-ion battery research and production (which, while impressive, pales in comparison to Tesla’s $5 billion “Gigafactory” investment).

Like the Model S

Being a concept, there’s plenty that’s not known about the Bolt—and that will change significantly between now and when the concept goes into production in late 2016 (as a 2017 model). GM claims the ground-breaking vehicle will support DC fast charging, but hasn’t made any claims about charge time. Chevy also hinted that the vehicle will offer adaptive suspension, allowing the car to adjust its ride for different road conditions and, in theory, extend its driving range (an optional feature found on significantly more costly competitors, like the Tesla Model S).

chevy bolt 3Like the Bolt, the Model 3 is also slated to offer a driving range of 200+ miles. However, given that Tesla is investing billions into its own high-tech battery factory outside Reno (the Gigafactory), it wouldn’t be surprising if the Silicon Valley darling is able to beat GM in this particular department (Chevy is sourcing its batteries from South Korea’s LG Chem).

General Motors is trying to crack the EV mold by offering an affordable model that will provide a decent driving range and advanced technical features. As reported by the Los Angeles Times, Karl Brauer, a senior analyst at Kelley Blue Book, said, “The affordable-yet-functional electric car has yet to materialize, remaining an automotive unicorn.”

Questionable Styling

While larger than it appears in most press photos, the styling of the Bolt four-door hatchback is decidedly practical, yet modern. My first response was that it appears to be a Toyota Yaris on steroids. Road & Track said that the concept’s styling “is definitely evocative of the [BMW] i3—which is to say, a refrigerator on wheels…”

chevy bolt 4While I’m somewhat disappointed by the Bolt concept’s design—which reminds me of a large-scale econobox or slimmed down crossover SUV—it’s not ugly. In fact, the more photos I see of it, the more it’s growing on me. The Bolt’s blunt nose, which makes Chrysler’s old “cab forward” design almost Jimmy Durante-esque in appearance, screams to the world, “I have no internal combustion engine under my hood!”

It’s fair to say that the current seating for four may expand to five and that the concept’s panoramic glass roof will disappear. Auto manufacturers love to goose up concept vehicles with large wheels and glass tops in an effort to make them appear roomier than they actually are. In fact, the chief reason concept cars typically sport only two rear seats is so they won’t appear cramped when filled with auto journalists during photo shoots.

Competitive in 2017?

If the Bolt was available today, it would be extremely competitive. Nissan’s LEAF (the most popular electric car ever) and the Fiat 500e both offer a driving range of 75-85 miles per charge, less than half what Chevy is boasting the Bolt will deliver. However, rumors of an updated LEAF predict a driving range that will be more than double the current model (this is how fast EV tech is evolving).

Given the competitive spirit of Nissan CEO Carlos Ghosn (pronounced “ghone,” like phone) and the fact that Chevy’s announcement is nearly two years in advance of the Bolt’s availability, it wouldn’t be shocking if Nissan actually bested the Bolt’s driving range. And, in fact, it will. Ghosn told reporters on January 13, at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit, that Nissan will update the LEAF to an equal 200 mile range a full year before GM’s bolt even comes to market. In fact, Ghosn told reporters in Detroit that the LEAF “may have even more range.”

chevy bolt 5Ghosn, known for his confident persona and management style, added, “We are the leaders and we frankly intend to continue to be the leaders. Generations of EVs coming are going to get better, less costly, lighter, [and] more autonomous.” According to Inside EVs, “Nissan’s answer to the recently unveiled Chevrolet Bolt is under development right now and is up to a year ahead of the Bolt’s expected production launch. Furthermore, Nissan’s answer will almost certainly be cheaper and seat five.” The popular electric vehicle blogging site estimated that the LEAF could arrive with a price of only $30,000, undercutting the Bolt’s true price by at least $8,000.

If the Tesla Model 3 can also exceed the driving range of the Bolt (Tesla Motors CEO Elon Musk isn’t exactly known for lazily resting on his laurels), that’s two major competitors—one of which may undercut the Bolt’s price by nearly $10,000—that will embarrass Chevy in terms of the two major talking points of its big reveal in Detroit: Driving range and price.

I’m conflicted when it comes to the Bolt. Part of me loves it. Each new fully electric vehicle on the road means one fewer gas-guzzler and that much less CO2 being pumped into the air. But another part of me (the consumer advocate tech writer) realizes that this is, after all, General Motors.

Given the General’s inferior track record during the past few years, how many of the Bolt concept’s slick features, like self-parking, adaptive suspension, and carbon fiber body panels, will actually see the light of day in a production version? And, if they do, how likely is Chevy to be able to reach a sub-$40K price to compete with Nissan and Tesla?

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Curt Robbins

[For a different perspective on the Bolt, check out my colleague Nicolas Zart’s rundown over at CarNewsCafe.com or Aaron Turpen’s review at FutureCars.com.]


P.S.: In all fairness, some auto journalists love the Bolt’s styling. Wrote Nikki Gordon-Bloomfield at Transport Evolved, “The Chevy Bolt looks great too—a little like the illegitimate love-child between a BMW i3, a Chevy Spark, and perhaps a Renault Scenic MPV.”

Also, The Detroit News has reported, the day after GM’s official announcement, that company executives said they could change the Bolt name prior to the release of the new EV. According to the paper, “GM North American President Alan Batey said the company needs to communicate the name. ‘Bolt is the brother of the Volt—a bolt of lightning. It’s all to do with electricity,’ he said in an interview. ‘We’re going to have a lot of time to communicate this and bring it to life. It’s a concept, so we’re just playing with the name right now and our job is not to confuse people.'”


Curt Robbins is author of the following books from Amazon Kindle:

You can follow him on Twitter at @CurtRobbins, read his AV-related blog posts at rAVe Publications, and view his photos on Flickr.

Why the Toyota Mirai May Flop

[For more information regarding the Toyota Mirai, see Clean Car Comparison: Model S vs. Mirai.]

Since Toyota’s announcement of the September release of its hydrogen-powered Mirai sedan, there’s been a lot of press and social media chatter regarding this ground-breaking new vehicle. Hydrogen proponents and environmentalists far and wide are hailing this innovative car for its clean exhaust and edgy design. Toyota even calls it a “turning point.”

The Religious Debate

However, there’s a long and ongoing debate within the circles of automobile enthusiasts and clean energy advocates regarding hydrogen fuel cell cars. On one side of the issue are fans of all-electric vehicles, like the Nissan LEAF and Tesla Model S, who think hydrogen is a half-baked and inefficient tech that may never be truly economical, clean, or competitive.

Brian Cooley, when hosting an episode of CNET on Cars, said the Mirai is being released “At a time when most people think hydrogen fuel cell is either yesterday’s failed experiment or distant tomorrow’s technological witch.”

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Conversely, hard-core hydrogen proponents believe that electric cars (EVs) are mostly hype that are based on trendy sex appeal, technophilia, and the impulses of ignorant tree huggers. EV opponents also cite the replacement expense and relatively short lifespan of batteries, which don’t last as long as internal combustion engines, but are much less expensive to operate and maintain.

The Mirai, which in Japanese means “future,” is a bold and controversial step for the world’s number one automaker. I’m generally a fan of Toyota’s vehicles. I got car envy when the company’s Prius first hit the streets, and have admired the quirky and ubiquitous hybrid as a powerful statement of how battery technology can improve—and eventually replace—internal combustion engines.

High Costs, Limited Availability

But there are several problems with the current Mirai. Most notable is acquisition cost: It will start at $58,000. This pricing is more befitting one of Toyota’s other brands, Lexus. In fact, for roughly the same cash ($61,300), one could get their hands on the significantly more luxurious Lexus GS 450h, a hybrid vehicle sporting 34 MPG, 338 HP, and acceleration from zero to sixty in only 5.6 seconds. The Mirai delivers only 153 HP and does the 0-60 jaunt in a sluggish nine seconds.

In fact, for those who care more about performance than saving the environment, the Corvette Stingray is available for only $54,000, $4,000 less than the Mirai. More expensive than a Corvette? Really, Toyota?

Regardless of relative values, few middle class consumers will be able to afford or justify a four-seat sedan costing $60K.

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Also, only 200 units of this limited-production vehicle will be made available in California in the fourth quarter of 2015. Toyota reported that it anticipates only 3,000 Mirais will be on American roads by the end of 2017. In a country where 16.5 million vehicles are sold each year, the Mirai is arguably a media stunt on the part of Toyota. In fact, some experts argue that Toyota is simply trying to satisfy government fuel economy regulations so it can continue to sell its gas guzzling trucks and SUVs.

Another problem with the Mirai will be fuel prices, which—at the very few fueling stations available—will be nearly identical to that of gasoline. Temporarily, however, fuel will be…free. That’s right. But guess why. According to Motor Trend, “[Fuel will] be free because presently, there’s no certified way to meter hydrogen’s dispensing.” And you thought Toyota was just being generous.

“What happens when the shoe drops after three years and Mirai drivers start paying for their fuel? At the moment, hydrogen is costing between $9 and $10 per kilogram; assuming it isn’t subsidized, the Mirai could end up costing about twice per mile what the Prius v currently does,” reported Motor Trend.

Wow. Twice as expensive to fuel than a Prius v (which gets 44 MPG). Is this really progress?

Lack of Fueling Stations

There’s also the problem of the lack of hydrogen fueling stations in the U.S. According to AutoBlog.com, in early 2014, Toyota’s Lexus division “had to retract a pro-hydrogen ad…when it was discovered that the ad made incorrect claims about [hydrogen], including that there were ’20 states with an established infrastructure for hydrogen [refueling].'”

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There are actually only three states with hydrogen fueling stations in the United States. And two of the three feature only a single station. The folks at Toyota and Lexus apparently can’t be bothered with the facts; they’re too busy revolutionizing the world with impractical, ridiculously expensive cars.

In the words of a colleague from Los Angeles who’s a senior advisor for electric mobility and battery storage, “The thing that dawned on me when I first saw the Mirai was: This is the end of Toyota.” According to a friend in Portland, Oregon who owns two Nissan LEAFs and an electric bus, the Mirai “…may become the Betamax of electric cars.”


The Dialog

I recently commented on a post from a Facebook friend’s timeline regarding the forthcoming Mirai. The following exchange features Thomas Earl Moore, a project scientist at NASA Goddard and Tesla Model S owner.

Thomas Earl Moore: There are only about 30 hydrogen filling stations in existence right now, all in southern Calif. versus 300 Supercharger stations [for Tesla vehicles] all over the world, thousands and thousands of public charging stations, and millions of potential home chargers.

At present, you can only take a round trip to half your range in a hydrogen car, and will have to return to one of those stations because you are never going to get hydrogen delivered to your home, because of what you also pointed out. The stations cost $2-3M a pop to build, so the hydrogen sellers are looking for public funding of them.

Curt Robbins: Hi Thomas. Are there really 30 hydrogen refueling stations? I checked the California Fuel Cell Partnership website. 60 were listed, but—upon further inspection—most were under construction or planned. Only nine were actually available for use.

TM: Curt, I was guessing based on recent reading. I thought the claim was somewhat higher than that, but it’s interesting that it’s still mostly wishful thinking!

CR: Thomas, I was shocked by the low number too. I know that California’s Governor Jerry Brown, in 2013, signed a law that funds $20M a year to build 100 hydrogen fueling stations in Cali by 2024 (not exactly an aggressive construction schedule; only about nine stations per year).

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With all due respect, regarding Duncan Fowler above saying “locally is definitely the key word”: It’s really not. The only true math is “well-to-wheels,” considering the entire power generation food chain.

All electricity generated via coal is crap in terms of carbon footprint, so I agree with anyone who suggests that an EV that is charged from a coal power plant is of little environmental benefit (burning coal is the dirtiest form of power in the world). To Mr. Fowler’s point, a coal-powered EV delivers very little benefit to one’s local environment because the coal-burning power plant x-number of miles away pumps poisonous exhaust into the air, which then creates smog, acid rain, and other nasty side effects that directly impact your home, community, and neighboring crops (and eventually travel to other communities and combine with the exhaust from other dirty power plants).

In fact, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists, “Coal plants are the nation’s top source of carbon dioxide [CO2] emissions.” Even more than cars. If these plants are generating the electricity that fuels electric cars, we still have a major problem.

Sorry for the long post, but this topic is neither trivial nor simple.

Better ≠ Best

Brian Fowler: I give Toyota credit for taking a step in WHATEVER direction in an effort to decrease the need to burn fossil fuels, and whatever technology comes out on top, be it electric or fuel cell, or whatever, it is something the entire planet needs, the sooner the better.

TM: Right, Brian. They got the Prius right for its time and who knows, someone may figure out how to make hydrogen work better than it currently does. My suspicion is the Japanese are trying to avoid building more nuke plants….

CR: I agree, Brian, that the world simply needs to be rid of fossil fuels. Considering melting ice caps and other evidence of climate change, you’re certainly correct in wanting this sooner rather than later.

However, just because an approach (hydrogen, or Mirai’s implementation of it) is better doesn’t mean it’s our best option. Many hydrogen pundits suggest that forthcoming (currently in development) hydrogen production and storage technologies will revolutionize the industry and make it a clearly superior option for all types of vehicles. If so, I’m all for it.

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But I doubt Tesla Motors would bet the farm on a $5 billion battery factory in Reno (that won’t be complete until 2017) if this was the case. The company certainly has the resources to purchase emerging technology companies or license patents. I’m not claiming Tesla is perfect, but they are very focused, intelligent, and determined. I don’t the company would go the electric-only route if it was inferior to hydrogen.

Hard Numbers

Given current and foreseeable tech, don’t give Toyota too much credit. As part of my book research, I just got off the phone with Wally Rippel, who worked on GM’s EV1 and the Tesla Roadster. When the efficiency loss not only for the power grid, but also for storage in the EV battery and other mechanisms is considered, EVs have a 70% overall efficiency. When one compares 70% full energy lifecycle efficiency in an EV to the 20% energy lifecycle efficiency of a hydrogen vehicle (current tech and infrastructure, which the Mirai leverages), the reality comes to light.

Many argue that Toyota is simply playing the regulation game (with California’s CARB mandate and the U.S. Government’s CAFE standards) and producing the Mirai so it can continue to sell it’s entire vehicle fleet into the largest car market in the U.S.: California. I won’t argue the nuances of that issue because I’m a technology writer and consumer advocate, not a political scientist or marketing strategist.

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But on the technical side, if you do an objective well-to-wheels analysis of the situation (or, as Mr. Rippel suggested to me, a “wind-to-wheels” consideration), the only benefit of the Mirai is no local emissions and a somewhat cleaner—but not truly clean, like solar or wind—energy source in the form of hydrogen.

Since most hydrogen in the U.S. is produced from methane, a natural gas, ownership of the Mirai still consumes fossil fuels. In fact, in the total energy lifecycle, hydrogen from methane produces about 50% of the CO2 made from the burning of gasoline in an internal combustion engine (according to Tim Lipman, co-Director of UC Berkeley’s Transportation Sustainability Research Center).

In its current state, the Mirai—and all hydrogen fuel cell vehicles—still produce CO2 when the method by which their hydrogen fuel is produced is taken into account. Even though it’s only half of what is released by conventional cars, it’s still significant. Lesson: Don’t believe the hype.

I’ll save the rest for the book, lest this get even longer. But it again emphasizes that achieving truly sustainable energy for personal transportation is complicated and more than meets the eye. Fueling the Mirai will cost as much or more than gas-powered vehicles and the car will be priced at $60K when it debuts in September. I don’t see how this is a move in the right direction.

Only in Los Angeles

TM: With a bit more research I find there are a dozen or so stations in the U.S. [Moore then linked to a Wikipedia article regarding hydrogen fueling stations in the United States].

CR: Hi Thomas. According to the Department of Energy, there are 13 hydrogen refueling stations in the U.S., but with 11 in Southern California and only two outside the state: One in Wallingford, Connecticut and another in Columbia, South Carolina. And that’s it.

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Assuming these stations are accessible, we have 13 hydrogen fueling stations in a nation with 254 million passenger vehicles (according to a 2007 U.S. Department of Transportation study; one blogger’s unofficial estimate claims 305 million as of 2014). The state of California alone has nearly 10,000 gasoline stations.

Yet, the Mirai goes on sale in September. But how is this supposed to work? As you pointed out, Thomas, an EV can be plugged into any electrical outlet in the United States (tens of billions of them). The ubiquity of the charging locations for EVs is clear. Electric vehicles have a monumental advantage over hydrogen cars in this respect.

I’ll again emphasize “same team,” that we’re all trying to rid ourselves of fossil fuels and adopt clean, sustainable energy for our homes and cars. But my brain cannot wrap around the present-day practicality of hydrogen fuel cell vehicles. If someone can convince me otherwise—via the Mirai or any hydrogen car—please, I want to be educated.

So far, no one has been able to do that.

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Curt Robbins


Curt Robbins is author of the following books from Amazon Kindle:

You can follow him on Twitter at @CurtARobbins, read his automotive-related blog posts on CarNewsCafe, his AV-related posts at rAVe Publications, and view his photos on Flickr.

It’s 2015: Stop Your Whining

Remember the old days, when you would struggle with Windows 95 or Windows 2000 to get it to properly load, say, a printer driver? Remember the love/hate relationship you had with Redmond’s Richest (Microsoft)? This schizophrenic emotional state was elicited by the relative convenience afforded by use of the Windows graphical user interface paired with the frustration of abundant software bugs and things like plug-n-play that certainly plugged, but often didn’t play.

windows 95 logoUse of Microsoft’s products and services, specifically its operating system and the applications found in MS Office, was a double-edged sword. On one side was convenience, speed, and user-friendly operation. On the other was buggy software, cumbersome tech support, and almost daily frustration—typically resulting in language befitting a drunken sailor.

Welcome to 2015. We’re officially 15 percent of the way into the 21st century. No longer do we marvel over smartphones and digital cameras. No longer do we say “Wow, that 42-inch flat panel sure is amazing.” No longer do we dream of a future of electric cars, smartwatches, thin touchscreen tablets, and free global video conferencing.

We’re home, Toto. All that cool stuff is here. And much of it is either free or very cheap.

After all, who could have imagined free video conferencing (using services like FaceTime and Skype)? When I was a kid, I recall my CPA wannabe grandmother always cutting short long-distance phone calls because of the expense and metered billing rate. We now conduct high-definition video conferences—of any length and with folks around the world—for free and on a regular basis.

But our technical schizophrenia remains. Spurred by relentless online ads and spotty wi-fi, our frustration seemingly won’t abate. Yet, we love the Google search engine and the magic of Twitter. But isn’t my laptop too hot? Why won’t it rip this CD? It did it last week. And why can’t I remember the password for my secret email account?

When thinking recently about our fickle use of technology, I realized something: Google has replaced Microsoft as our evil bipolar technological stepmother. The Silicon Valley giant, whose name has become synonymous with looking up stuff on the internet, is something that we think we can’t live without—but that we also curse on a regular basis. I’d hate for someone to steal or damage my Chromecast media streaming dongles. Yet, I want to throw them across the room when they drop the Pandora stream for the fifth time in two hours.

google_logoAlyce Lomax at The Motley Fool, way back in 2006, described Google as a “Jack of all trades, master of none.” In my blog post Apple vs. Google: Where Focus Meets Buckshot from September 2014, I pointed out how Google loves to experiment with a variety of products and services. From “smart” contact lenses to self-driving cars to huge balloons intended to bring internet access to undeveloped nations (and, with it, ads from the company’s search engine and other services), Google has its hand in a very wide range of products.

It’s almost as if the iconic Silicon Valley company doesn’t trust its ability to succeed in any one area. Maybe it’s so keenly aware of the fierce competition and incredible challenges of the technology that it gets involved in dozens of product areas with the hope that a few will actually pan out.

But everything is relative. Our love/hate relationship with Microsoft from yesteryear was based on the pervasive nature of the company’s operating system and software. Windows was everywhere. Very few people used Macs back then (hell, there wasn’t even a version of Microsoft Office for the Mac, so you can barely blame them). It was all MS Word and Excel and Windows XP. All of which sported some pretty serious bugs. We felt trapped.

Today it’s a bit different. I was recently frustrated when using Google’s URL shortening service for links within tweets. I found that, somehow, I had violated Google’s terms of service and it invalidated one of my URLs, giving my tweet, going out to hundreds of thousands of users, a dead link. Fine, I thought, and switched back to Bitly. Frustrated by the amount of paid links at the top of the results page for Google’s search engine, I switched to Duck Duck Go. Not happy with my sluggish, stuttering Nexus 7 tablet running Google’s Android mobile OS, I switched back to an iPad from Apple.

The difference today is that there’s options. Back in the day, those frustrated by Microsoft Word or PowerPoint had few alternatives, none of which were ubiquitous enough to make the switch feel practical or intelligent. But if you’re fed up with your Nexus tablet or your Android-powered smartphone gets wonky, there’s ready alternatives from companies like Apple, Microsoft, and Blackberry.

Unlike Microsoft’s stranglehold on us back in the 1990s, Google can no longer hold us captive.

So welcome to 2015 and the age of tech options. Don’t like the ad-laced Google search engine? Switch to Bing or Duck Duck Go. Don’t like the Goo.gl URL shortener? Use Bitly or TinyURL. Getting frustrated by your Android-powered smartphone or tablet? Give Apple or Nokia a try. Don’t like Google Maps? Try AOL’s MapQuest or Apple Maps. Don’t like Gmail? Try Outlook or Yahoo (or the messaging built into Facebook or LinkedIn). Not digging Google+? Try Facebook (ok, every human already did that…sorry).

But stop your whining and don’t feel trapped. Because there’s plenty of alternatives to the products and services you’re currently using.

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Curt Robbins


Curt Robbins is author of the following books from Amazon Kindle:

You can follow him on Twitter at @CurtARobbins, read his AV-related blog posts at rAVe Publications, and view his photos on Flickr.