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.

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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.

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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.

Time for Tesla

The autumn announcement of new car models, in addition to my typical obsession with consumer technology, has recently produced a constant mental Venn diagram—with new cars in the left circle and consumer tech in the right. And in the middle, overlapping section of the diagram? Tesla Motors.

In a recent blog post, I kvetched about the lack of technical innovation in the auto industry. In reflection, I was referring only to the technical enhancements to personal transportation, such as Bluetooth, backup cameras, adaptive cruise control, and head-up displays. But what about the core drivetrain? When you consider the pace of improvement and innovation in industries like consumer electronics, entertainment, and computers, it’s amazing that all of our cars (even if you drive a Chevy Volt or a Toyota Prius) are simply leveraging an improved version of a 155-year-old technology: Internal combustion.

Let’s At Least Agree on This

Regardless of whether you’re Republican or Democrat or your stance on climate change, no one can argue that auto exhaust is good for the planet. If given the choice, I’d vote to exclude it from my community. And so would Elon Musk, the co-founder and CEO of electric car manufacturer Tesla Motors. In fact, Musk’s vision is for one of his other successful companies, residential solar power provider SolarCity, to provide clean, sustainable energy for our homes and for Tesla to offer a viable, affordable solution to consuming that clean energy for transportation.

tesla model s replacement for blog

Musk has faced roadblock after roadblock for his small offering of high-tech, sporty, and fully electric vehicles. Recently, car dealers and lawmakers across the country challenged him based on the fact that Tesla sells direct to consumers—not through dealerships. Old laws from a bygone era designed, ironically, to prevent monopolies are currently being leveraged to prohibit Tesla from selling its cars in all areas of the United States. Lazy car dealerships acclimated to purchasing local monopolies for their particular brand are apparently so intimidated by Tesla and its attractive electric tech that they have been taking legal action and calling on their country club cronies to help protect them from open market economies. Unfortunately, it seems that most car dealership owners are more talented at screaming “Discounts, discounts, discounts!” on the local FM radio station than taking on a fair fight. Apparently their wallets are bigger than their balls.

Combined with fuel costs hovering between $3.00 and $4.00 per gallon—and each of those gallons delivering an average of only 25 miles per gallon (according to 2013 data from the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute)—the old way is feeling about as advanced as the paper and pencil that might have resided in the pocket of Henry Ford at the 1908 introduction of the Model T. When you compare these items with a modern smartphone, like an internet-connected iPhone 6 or the Samsung Galaxy S5, you get an idea of how far technology as a whole has evolved in American society. Holy crap. Henry Ford couldn’t have even imagined Angry Birds or Orange is the New Black.

Genesis

If the Model T was the foundation of the fossil fuel-propelled auto industry, then it is surely one of Tesla’s models or the Nissan Leaf that is the genesis of a new age of significantly more advanced and earth-friendly vehicles. Because of Musk’s own passion for cars—specifically those of the high-performance variety—we’ve learned that electric cars don’t have to be boring. As practical and decidedly high-tech as the Toyota Prius is, “sexy,” “sleek,” and “fast” are terms that typically don’t enter one’s mind when thinking of this vehicle from our friends in Japan. Let’s face it: If you have any lust for sportiness or curb appeal whatsoever, the Prius has always felt like a sacrifice, as if a middle-aged dot com hippy is, by driving down the road in one, symbolically stating, “I’m doing my part for the environment.”

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Musk has personally bootstrapped Tesla during the course of its relatively short existence, investing more than $75 million of his personal wealth. He spent his last $40 million (from the sale of his brainchild PayPal to eBay) to save the company from bankruptcy in 2007. Tesla now seems to be out of the woods in terms of its financial solvency. Investments from industry titans like Mercedes and Google’s founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin, in addition to a successful 2010 IPO, have helped keep Tesla alive and growing (the company reported profits for the first time in early 2013).

Putting us at 2014. Tesla is three years away from selling a $35,000 everyman’s version of its vaunted $80,000 Model S that will be called the Model 3. The Model S is the follow-on to Tesla’s first vehicle, the exotically sporty and expensive Roadster (hyped at its introduction by celeb customers like George Clooney, Leonardo DiCaprio, and Arnold Schwarzenegger). Tesla has also broken ground on a battery plant outside Reno, dubbed the Gigafactory, a partnership between the company and Panasonic that will help make the Model 3 affordable for consumers and profitable for Tesla.

Musk has pointed out how market forces alone—especially given the heavy-handed lobbying and deep old-school pockets of the petroleum industry and car dealers—haven’t been enough to decrease the price of car batteries fast enough, enabling affordable electric vehicles. The Gigafactory, using leading-edge manufacturing processes, is purported by Musk to be the reason his company will be able to offer a fully electric car that competes on price with gas guzzlers from Detroit, Tokyo, and Seoul.

A Bit Toned Down

Musk is one of those once-in-a-generation entrepreneurs who truly stops you in your tracks when you consider everything he’s accomplished—and when you comprehend what he might do in the next decade or two (he’s only 43, after all). Unlike some of the more ego-driven and bombastic executives in Silicon Valley—like Oracle’s Larry Ellison, Microsoft’s (former) Steve Ballmer, and T-Mobile’s John Legere—Musk is a relatively humble founder and CEO. Not to be confused with his confidence, which is blowing-smoke-up-your-butt powerful.

However, given his accomplishments during the past few years, and his likely successes in the coming decades, it turns out he hasn’t been blowing smoke at all. Although The New York Times and Britain’s Top Gear TV show might have lost faith in his efforts, or even rigged some of their testing of his vehicles (claims made by Musk), the prospect of a Model 3 electric car for the masses before the end of the decade is all but certain.

So let’s cheer underdog Tesla Motors and its tenacious CEO Elon Musk for having the courage to challenge established players—be they car dealers or the big guys from Detroit. Porsche performance in a zero-emission car with leading edge technology, less expensive fuel than from fossils, and the quality and comfort of premium brands is an option that American consumers deserve. And clearly want.

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Curt Robbins

[See also the related blog posts Tesla Bigot: IADA’s Bruce Anderson, Tesla Test Drives: Responding to Bob, and Auto Industry: Slow on Tech Innovation.]


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.