HBO Now: Completing Netflix

Netflix has garnished most of the media attention and praise in its pioneering—and very successful—effort to migrate consumer entertainment from coaxial cables to fiber optic internet connections.

While the company is certainly worthy of celebration and, with more than 60 million global subscribers, is making investors happy, HBO is quietly changing the way consumers purchase and pay for their TV programming.

HBO Sans Cable

HBO Now, a new product from the company, is a $15 per month subscription that gives customers access to HBO’s programming in a fully on-demand, Netflix-like interface. Want to watch the second episode of the third season of Game of Thrones? It’s a few clicks away.

game of thrones

Not content to allow Netflix to monopolize the market for online video streaming of high-quality content, HBO has done nothing more than open its catalog to those who may love its content—but aren’t willing to sign on for cable or satellite TV just to get it.

This service from HBO is superior to others in two respects: First, like all HBO programming, it’s void of commercials. While Netflix is also ad-free, Hulu Plus features plenty of ads. Second, HBO Now offers a significantly better selection of top movies than most of its rivals, including Hulu Plus and Netflix.

While Hulu Plus offers films, it’s a very small selection. Few subscribers are paying Hulu for their movies; it’s all about the network TV. One of the major criticisms of Netflix is the quality of the films it features. While the service increasingly pushes subscribers to binge watch their favorite TV series, its movie catalog (which is continually changing) has always lagged behind those available from one’s local video store or what’s on HBO.

Unlike Hulu Plus, which makes available new episodes of television shows on a staggered schedule following their original broadcast, HBO releases new episodes on HBO Now simultaneously to their original airing.

deadwood hbo for blog

HBO Now is specifically designed for cord cutters. Until now, HBO has been unavailable to this group of more than 25 million Americans who have opted to cancel their cable or satellite TV service for streaming options. Now those streaming options include the ability to watch top-rated shows like True Detective, Game of Thrones, and HBO’s back catalog, including Sex and the City, The Wire, and The Sopranos.

Will HBO Now make you happy? That’s certainly subjective. Just as many cord cutters today subscribe to both Netflix and Hulu Plus, many will opt to add HBO Now to the lineup. Those who are not interested in network television series might skip Hulu.

HBO Now is just one more reason for cord cutters to celebrate. Whether you like HBO’s shows and are planning to sign up or you say no thanks and keep your $15 per month, it’s good to have options. Cord cutters now have one more reason to be glad they cancelled their cable or satellite subscription.

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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.

The Future of Electric Car Sales

In early February, Neil Winton, a British automotive journalist who contributes to the Detroit News and Forbes, wrote an article headlined “Electric Car Sales Jump in Europe, but Likely to Stall Soon.”

No Consumer Demand?

The Forbes article was based mostly on data derived from Europe’s Automotive Industry Data (AID) newsletter and quotes from Peter Schmidt, its editor. Said Schmidt, as quoted by Winton, “Effectively, you have no detectable genuine underlying consumer demand from private individuals” for electric cars.

nissan leaf for linkedinSchmidt went on to describe how the next few years will be “a scary time for electric car makers, chiefly because, as the price of oil continues to hover around levels inconceivable a year ago, and with fuel prices falling month to month, those people who had thought about buying an electric car may give up when they look at motoring expenses.”

Gloomy Future?

Despite significant growth in electric vehicle (EV) sales in the United States, United Kingdom, and Europe, Schmidt believes EVs face a gloomy future. “The market appears to be going nowhere, absolutely nowhere. The numbers for 2014 look healthy, but they are not,” he reported. Schmidt went on to describe how new EV models experience only “initial fast growth.”

The real quote that caught my attention: “Effectively, you have no detectable genuine underlying consumer demand from private individuals” (emphasis mine). When Schmidt says “numbers for 2014 look healthy,” let’s examine these figures and the trend over the past few years (this is fresh on my mind, since I’m currently completing a book about alternative cars).

From Understanding Battery Electric Cars, a section in Chapter 1, What is an Alternative Car?:

“Sales of electric cars have grown rapidly during the past few years. In the United States, in 2011, only 17,500 EVs were sold. In 2012, the number leaped to 53,000 (a whopping 300 percent increase). Then, in 2013, sales nearly doubled to 96,000 units. 2014 was the first year in which EV sales in the States exceeded 100,000 (according to TransportEvolved.com). Of these, nearly a third, or 30,200, were Nissan LEAFs (an increase from 22,600 units sold in 2013).

If this increase of more than 570 percent in only three years in the U.S. is any indication of the future of EVs, they may be very successful indeed.

In the United Kingdom (a country of only 65 million residents, compared to the 315 million people in the U.S.), sales of electric vehicles reached 10,000 by May 2014. In March 2014, 1,200 electric cars were sold in the country, up from only 270 in the same month of 2013 (according to The Guardian).”

I recently contributed an article to CarNewsCafe entitled “Electric Cars: Low Gas Prices Aren’t Significant.” As you can guess, in it I argued that the current—and most likely temporary—low gas prices won’t significantly affect the upward trend in EV sales. Tesla Model SI referenced a January 2015 article by my colleague Nikki Gordon-Bloomfield at Transport Evolved, which quoted used car portal Carlypso. “By the end of the first quarter this year, [Carlypso] predicts that electric car sales in the U.S. will total around one percent of all new car sales, up from 0.86 percent in December last year,” wrote Gordon-Bloomfield.

Not Just Cheap Fuel

I went on to write of how it is not simply cheap fuel prices that attract prospective EV buyers. Very low, and predictable, maintenance costs are another major reason car buyers are considering electric transportation. Tune ups, oil changes, engine repair, and transmission work are all things of the past in the world of electric vehicles.

In her article, Gordon-Bloomfield emphasized the high-tech convenience features offered by most EVs as being, surprisingly, one of the most popular reasons for owning one. Of course, in a society that’s perpetually connected to social media and commonly toting app-driven mobile devices like smartphones and tablets, this should come as no surprise. (I have often argued that consumer interest in EVs is based in saving money and gaining high-tech, high-status personal transport, not saving the environment or decreasing one’s carbon footprint.)

“Features like remote climate control, remote unlocking, and never having to scrape ice off the windshield are a great bonus of plug-in cars, with pretty much every plug-in owner we’ve spoken to (new and old alike) citing them as their favourite features of owning a plug-in,” wrote Gordon-Bloomfield.

In addition, “low” gas prices really aren’t that low. Current gas prices seem cheap only because they are about 60% of what they were mere months ago. Likewise, $2 per gallon gasoline in the States is expensive compared to charging a battery with electricity, even in areas where electricity is relatively pricey.

tesla supercharger

Consider what $2.16 will get you. Although in many areas of the U.S. it currently won’t even get you a gallon of gas, let’s say it will. It will also fully charge the battery of a Fiat 500e or Nissan LEAF electric car, which will transport you about 80 miles.

The average fuel economy of new cars sold, according to the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute, is only 25 MPG. In fact, the most popular vehicles sold, trucks and SUVs, typically get only 15-20 MPG. But assuming the 25 MPG U.S. average, that $2.16 will transport you 25 miles in a gasoline-powered car, or 70-80 miles in an affordable EV like the LEAF or 500e. Or, according to Car and Driver, 17 miles of city/suburban driving in the uber-popular 2015 Ford F-150 truck—but that’s only after this year’s model shed 700 lbs. of weight by integrating aluminum into the body and bed.

Pricey Electricity < Cheapest Gas

But I want to be fair. Just like gasoline prices fluctuate and vary across the nation and between countries, so do electricity rates. That $2.16 is for the state of Washington, which features the cheapest electricity rates in the country (nine cents per kWh). In New York, home of the highest rates (19 cents per kWh), that same Fiat 500e would cost $4.56 to fully charge. Assuming that would purchase two gallons of gas and propel our hypothetical average fuel economy car 50 miles, it still pales in comparison to the 70 or 80 miles delivered by an affordable EV. If we were talking corporate spreadsheets, CPAs and MBAs would be screaming—and demanding adoption of EVs.

Within the past year, residents of major U.S. cities like San Francisco and Los Angeles were paying upward of $4.30 per gallon for gasoline. Again, the petrol vehicle would get only 25 miles from that investment, while an electric car, if charging with the most expensive electricity in the nation, could travel nearly 80 miles (three times further). The sheer unpredictability of gas prices—and resulting inability to accurately manage a family budget—is reason enough for many to dump fossil fuels for electrons.

If you live in the United Kingdom or Europe, this argument is even more powerful. On February 2, gasoline was selling for $7.50 per U.S. gallon in Norway. Now you know why 15% of all new car sales in this Scandinavian country are electric.


No Crystal Ball

Back to AID’s Peter Schmidt and Forbes’ Neil Winton. Winton is claiming, based on quotes from Schmidt, that EV sales will begin to lag and that big companies, like Nissan and Tesla, which have each invested billions in electric car and battery research, will suffer. Of course, Schmidt also said that current gas prices “could hover around current levels for [the] next five years or so.” Nobody has a crystal ball, but that’s one hell of an assumption—especially given the volatility of gas prices during the past five years.

2013-fiat-500e_100410277_lWhat I really question here is Schmidt’s assertion that there’s “no detectable genuine underlying consumer demand” for EVs. According to Gordon-Bloomfield, convenience features are among the primary reasons current EV owners love their vehicles. Fuel is considerably cheaper for EVs, even with temporarily low gas prices. And maintenance expenses are a fraction of what it costs to keep a petrol-powered piston pumper on the road.

If Schmidt is right and there’s truly no “underlying consumer demand” for electric cars, I’d blame it on one thing, and one thing only: Ignorance. If iPhone-toting, Netflix-binging, budget-strapped consumers aren’t enticed by high-tech convenience, considerably lower fuel prices, and immense savings on maintenance, it means they simply aren’t aware of the benefits.

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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.

Hope for Hydrogen: Imagine Fuel Cell Cars

Welcome to the first installment in Hope for Hydrogen. In this series of articles and podcasts, veteran automotive journalist Nicolas Zart and I ask you to imagine a world void of battery electric vehicles (BEVs). In this contrived intellectual exercise, pretend that the inevitable replacement for conventional gas-powered automobiles will be the venerable hydrogen fuel cell car.

I’ve written before about the religious war between battery electric cars and hydrogen fuel cell vehicles. We’re at the cusp of the end of the 100+ year reign of gasoline-powered personal transportation. It has been driven, literally, by internal combustion engine (ICE) technology. No, these vibration-riddled, maintenance-prone, noisy, polluting vehicles won’t go away overnight; the shift will be gradual.

However, the switch has begun. In the next few years, the speed of the transition will only increase. Prices will precipitate. Hydrogen fuel cell vehicles will improve, offering greater driving range, lower cost, and certainly more convenience.


Replacing Two Billion Cars

Consider that there’s more than two billion ICE cars in the world today, and 100 million new gas guzzlers are sold each year globally (with nearly 17 million of these in the United States). Only then do we begin to understand that it will take a while to overcome not only social stigma about new transport tech, but simply replacing the installed base.

It is estimated that it would take 20 years to accomplish this, based solely on existing production and consumption numbers. And this is if we could magically snap our fingers and immediately eliminate sales of all ICE cars today. Obviously, we must take a long-term view of the situation.

hyundai tucson fuel cell hydrogen station for linkedin

As passenger cars featuring outdated ICE tech inevitably begin to vanish, what will replace them?

This is an issue of no small contention within the ranks of experts and laypeople alike. We’re a culture of duality. You’re either a good guy or a bad guy, and your white or black hat gives you away. Republicans versus Democrats, Christians versus atheists, and progressives versus conservatives split our creative and intellectual aspirations into competing cultural camps.

Typically, the respective fans of battery electric and fuel cell vehicles find it difficult or impossible to reconcile or respect one another. For many, there’s no room in the Venn diagram for an overlap. In fact, there’s no Venn diagram whatsoever (but, fortunately, no gasoline either). There are only two distinct and widely separated circles. While both feature zero emissions, neither is void of a carbon footprint somewhere in the “well-to-wheels” energy lifecycle.

Hope for Hydrogen Series

Enter this series, Hope for Hydrogen. Today our intellectual game will be to pretend that there are no battery electric vehicles in the world. We’re going to assume that “Supercharger,” “LEAF,” “lithium-ion,” and “Soul EV” are terms that never entered the lexicon. We’ll psych ourselves into believing that our vernaculars are free of phrases like “range anxiety,” “charge time,” and “CHAdeMO socket.”

Instead, assume the new kid on the block is hydrogen. Pretend, for just a few hundred words of text, that hydrogen fuel cell vehicles are the clean car model that will be embraced by one and all (which could turn out to be the case; none of us has a crystal ball). This is, of course, what reputable corporate titans like Toyota, Honda, and Hyundai are telling us. Organizations such as the California Hydrogen Fuel Cell Partnership and the South Carolina Hydrogen & Fuel Cell Alliance, among others, are touting the advantages of hydrogen over gasoline and aggressively advocating its use for personal transportation.

2016_Toyota_Fuel_Cell_Vehicle_for_linkedin

Family heir and Toyota Motors president Akio Toyoda has said that his company will migrate away from petrol-powered piston pumpers within a decade. “I do believe that [the] fuel cell vehicle is the ultimate environmentally friendly car,” he told Businessweek last December. Even the Prime Minister of Japan, Shinzo Abe, is promoting hydrogen fuel cell cars. He took delivery of Toyota’s first Mirai in a public ceremony in Tokyo in mid-January.

Thus, as a mental exercise, let’s embrace the mindset of hydrogen and explore its merits.


Excitement For a Better Car

I don’t know about you, but I’m not a big fan of ICE cars (with the exception of a few classics, like the Porsche 911, those gorgeous C2 Corvettes from the 1960s, and that Audi TT I owned a few years ago). The expense of gasoline and maintenance alone is enough to make me jump ship from internal combustion and the noise and pollution that it brings. One might as well just hitch a horse to a buggy and try to find a blacksmith. This is the 21st century, and old-school 19th and 20th century tech just won’t cut it. At least not where our wallets and the environment are concerned.

This being the case, many are excited about the availability of hydrogen fuel cell vehicles (FCVs). Toyota will begin selling its flagship FCV, the Mirai, in September. Hyundai has already begun a limited leasing program for its first hydrogen-powered car, the Tucson Fuel Cell. That’s right, all of us now have the ability to lease or purchase a space-age hydrogen car that emits zero polluting emissions and features a familiar driving range of 265 to 300 miles (just shy of what most ICE cars achieve; improvements to these first generation versions will obviously extend this freshman effort).

Lack of Fueling Stations

Well, not so fast. These groovy vehicles aren’t really available to all of us. In fact, not most of us. Why? Because we don’t live close enough to a hydrogen fueling station. According to PC World, Toyota won’t even sell you a Mirai if you don’t live within a “reasonable” distance of a hydrogen fueling station. The same is true of the new Hyundai Tucson Fuel Cell.

And here’s the rub, especially if you pride yourself in being an early adopter and want to put your money where your mouth is in terms of progressive transport tech: There’s currently only 13 hydrogen fueling stations in the United States. Nine of these 13, or 70%, are clustered around Los Angeles. The other four? One each in downtown San Francisco and downtown Sacramento, plus Wallingford, CT and another in Columbia, SC. Unfortunately, that’s it.

hyundai-tucson-fuel-cell-rear-three-quarters

If you look up hydrogen fuel cell cars on Wikipedia, it will indicate that there are more stations, like some in Dearborn, MI, Phoenix, AZ, and at Ohio State University in Columbus, OH. However, these either no longer exist, are private (like for corporate and commercial fleets), or are prototypes. In other words, you can’t drive up in your Mirai or Tucson, swipe your debit card, and fill your hydrogen tanks. As such, residents of cities like Portland, St. Louis, Miami Beach, Ft. Worth, Boston, and Indianapolis couldn’t even purchase a fuel cell car if they wanted to.

Creatures of Habit

Humans are creatures of habit. Thus, many will enjoy that FCVs offer the familiar experience of visiting a fueling station and standing next to their car for three or four minutes as they inject pressurized hydrogen into two or three tanks that reside under the back seat. Unfortunately, hydrogen fuel costs more than gasoline. In fact, the cost is about identical to pre-dip gasoline prices (think the first two-thirds of 2014).

Although both Toyota and Hyundai will be incentivizing new customers to purchase their fuel cell vehicles by offering free fuel for the first three years of ownership (including lessees), owners of other models—and Mirai owners after 36 months—will be paying roughly $50 to fill their cars with hydrogen (deriving about 300 miles of travel from the expense).

shinzo abe taking delivery of Mirai 2

This is somewhat disappointing. Can’t we come up with a transport tech that would allow us not only more flexibility in filling stations, but also a lower fuel cost? No wonder people don’t like to give up their gas guzzlers or be early adopters. There may be savings in maintenance (no oil changes, tuneups, transmission work, or conventional exhaust repairs), but there clearly are not in terms of fuel costs. At least not currently.

Only the Beginning

However, let’s be fair. This is, after all, the genesis of a revolution in personal transportation. Passenger vehicles didn’t instantly overtake the horse and buggy at the turn of the last century. Henry Ford’s Model T, introduced in 1908, didn’t spontaneously replace competing forms of transportation. Unlike today, there wasn’t a gas station on every corner when the Model T was first introduced (there are now 121,000 in the United States, with nearly 10,000 in California alone).

To make hydrogen fuel cell cars practical, we need not only a solid network of hydrogen fueling stations, but also what pundits call “infrastructure.” By this, they mean not only the consumer-friendly stations at which people will swipe their card to fill their tank (and buy a soda or a pack of smokes), but also the production and distribution networks that produce (extract), pressurize, and transport hydrogen to these stations.

Lest this become a 4,000 word article, let’s consider only the fueling station side of the equation. You already know that there are paltry few hydrogen fueling stations in the United States. Basically, it’s currently practical to own an FCV only if you live in one of five areas in the U.S. (and, to be practical, mostly Los Angeles). It’s easily possible that you live 30-45 minutes from one of the stations in any of these regions. Personally, I have a gas station that’s two minutes from my front door. Anything less convenient or more challenging than their current situations will be perceived as a pain by most consumers.

But that’s just the here and now. What does the future look like? What is currently being done to alleviate the lack of hydrogen fueling infrastructure?

Find out in the next installment of Hope for Hydrogen….


Curt Robbins is author of the following books from Amazon Kindle:3d1

You can follow him on Twitter at @CurtARobbins, read his auto-related articles on CarNewsCafe, check out his Apple-themed articles on Apple Daily Report, and read his AV-related articles at rAVe Publications. You can also view his photos on Flickr.