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As passenger cars featuring outdated ICE tech inevitably begin to vanish, what will replace them?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

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Tesla Motors Acquires RadioShack Brand

In a shock to both Wall St. and fans of its popular electric cars, Tesla Motors has acquired the RadioShack brand. Tesla CEO Elon Musk called the move a “nod to nostalgia” and said he liked the fact that the acquisition cost him only $20 million.

“I think a lot of people cried when RadioShack went under,” said the charismatic CEO who inspired the Marvel Comics character Tony Stark. “As a kid, I was at RadioShack all the time, purchasing parts for engineering projects,” said Musk. “I’m embarrassed to say that I was always a sucker for their battery pitch, buying double As left and right. I couldn’t help but think: Surely we can do better. I knew I had to build a better battery.”

elon-musk-215

Musk criticized the charge capacity of the old batteries of his childhood as being weak. “Even after alkalines emerged, they were still junk and ended up in a landfill after only about 30 minutes of powering my cool RC helicopter,” he told reporters at Wednesday’s press conference at Tesla headquarters in Fremont, California.

Musk says he plans to leverage RadioShack’s reputation for selling anything and everything that runs on batteries. “I’m also going to add a buttload of drones to the catalog,” he said. “I think the stores will be perfect for selling our electric scooter, which will be released in 2027. Ooops.”

Some analysts are praising the move on the part of Tesla, citing how the company’s new Gigafactory outside of Reno will be able to provide better, cheaper batteries for American consumers. “Just think, you’re a household name and every damn thing you sell in the store requires a battery. He’s a friggin’ genius,” said Baird analyst Ben Call, adding, “I’m inviting Musk to my son’s birthday party, even though I know he probably won’t come.”

Tesla stock shot up 47 percent in early morning trading.

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Curt Robbins


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

You can follow him on Twitter at @CurtRobbins, 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.

 

 

Consumer Tech is the New Religion

I’m certainly not the first to declare it, but consumer technology is the new religion of the 21st century. With all due respect to your spiritual faith (or lack thereof), middle class consumers are quickly becoming technology zealots. Daily, we worship at the altar of social media and mobile devices.

Our prayers for the blessings of bigger displays, expanded storage, and thinner designs are picked up by wi-fi and Bluetooth as they’re synced with Heaven—up in the iCloud. We speak in tongues, hoping that our new car’s GPS system features voice recognition. If we lose our way, our guardian angels, Siri and Cortana, reveal the path to enlightenment.

church of apple

We ask for forgiveness for having neglected our children by spending too much time on Facebook or posting a nasty comment on Tumblr. We pray that we’ll be blessed with better lighting for our next Instagram photo of an especially good tuna sandwich, or maybe a stranger’s puppy.

Our churches are Apple’s iTunes, Google’s Play, and Amazon’s Prime media streaming and download services, including their holy app stores. To discourage dissenters from leaving the flock, our Bibles are often unreadable at a different church. Netflix and Pandora are two major exceptions, translating their scripture into every language under the sun.

There seem to be more religious wars within modern consumer tech than there are within religion itself. Richard Dawkins and Rick Warren have nothing on Larry Page and Tim Cook. What began as the “PC vs. Mac” platform war in the 1980s, punctuated by Betamax versus VHS, has evolved into Xbox versus Playstation, Android versus iOS, and Tesla Motors versus Toyota. Samsung, Sony, Google, Microsoft, and Apple take shots at each other on a regular basis. It’s Hatfield against McCoy—only this time they’re armed with touchscreen tablets and password-protected internet routers.

Sometimes these religious wars are monotheistic, like Apple’s closed ecosystem that offers both hardware and software from a single vendor. Other companies ask us to worship many gods, like the availability of Microsoft’s Windows and Google’s Android from a number of hardware manufacturers. Often, the battles are less proprietary and more philosophical, such as hydrogen-powered cars versus battery electric vehicles (kind of like Greek Mythology).

girls-on-their-phone

Some in the academic community agree. In 2010, ABC News reported that Heidi Campbell, a communications professor at Texas A&M University, co-wrote a paper “exploring the religious myths and metaphors surrounding Apple.” “[The company] could offer a religious-like experience. It could basically perform the same role in people’s lives that being part of a religious community could,” she wrote.

The vitriol and defensiveness in many factions of these religious schisms can become shockingly brazen and abusive, as if someone took the Lord’s name in vain—or peed in your Cheerios. The utterance of “Apple sucks” or “electric cars are stupid” is bad enough; the response is typically worse. Members of the choir routinely compete for “Most likely to have not graduated middle school.”

But we’ve considered only the religions themselves, not the priests at the pulpit. PC versus Mac, was, of course, Bill Gates versus Steve Jobs. Electric cars versus the established Luddites of Detroit is obviously Elon Musk versus…well, the established Luddites of Detroit (this one is a true David and Goliath metaphor). In terms of building their congregations, it could even be argued that Rupert Murdoch and Mark Zuckerberg are running competing megachurches.

“Steve Jobs, one of the most powerful people of our day, has offered a secular ‘gospel’ to our culture,” wrote evangelical Christian author Sean McDowell when Jobs stepped down as Apple’s CEO for health reasons in 2011. Even Christianity Today in January of 2011, in an article entitled “The Gospel of Steve Jobs,” wrote, “The Apple CEO was able to articulate a perfectly secular form of hope.”

“The Apple CEO was able to articulate a perfectly secular form of hope.”

The adoration bestowed upon the top executives of modern technology companies is like that of Southern Baptist parishioners during the rapture. We worship at the feet of charismatic pontiffs like Elon Musk, Sheryl Sandberg, and Richard Branson. They’re our silicon saviors, and the only thing that shakes our faith in them is a dead battery or too many casserole recipes in our newsfeed.

android-fanboy

When it comes to mobile gadgets and streaming media, some of us even worship two gods—like a household with one Catholic and one Jewish parent that recognizes both Christmas and Hanukkah. These odd and overly open-minded people may sport both an iPhone from Apple and a Nexus 7 tablet from Google. Maybe they have a Galaxy S5 smartphone and an iPad. Hasn’t anyone told them that this is, basically, against the rules?

In the end, the best digital dogma is the one that suits your lifestyle, budget, and personal beliefs. Or the one with the coolest logo. But it’s your money going into the offering plate; worship with the company or platform of your choice.

And what about the sinners? You know, the gluttonous people at the airport who hog two outlets to recharge their devices, or the rude fanboys who leave flippantly disparaging comments on your carefully articulated posts? Well, there’s a special place in hell for them. A place where there’s a complete lack of extended warranties and app updates, where the only stores are Circuit City and RadioShack, and where they’re given only a PalmPilot PDA and a CalicoVision game console.

For eternity.

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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 auto-related articles on CarNewsCafe, check out his Apple-themed articles on Apple Daily Report, and read his AV-related blog posts at rAVe Publications. You can also view his photos on Flickr.

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.

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.

The Reality of Hydrogen Cars

I recently posted to LinkedIn some quotes by Tesla Motors and SpaceX CEO Elon Musk regarding the practicality of the current state of hydrogen fuel cells as applied to personal transportation.

The post was inspired by the research I’ve been conducting for my next book, Understanding Alternative Cars. The book will feature a chapter regarding hydrogen-powered vehicles in an effort to eliminate confusion for consumers–while also accomplishing some myth-busting.

My LinkedIn post:

elon musk for twitter 2In January 2014, in an interview with British magazine Autocar, Musk said the following regarding hydrogen fuel cells as applied to personal transportation:

“They’re mind-bogglingly stupid. You can’t even have a sensible debate.”

“Consider the whole fuel cell system against a Model S. It’s far worse in volume and mass terms, and far, far, worse in cost. And I haven’t even talked about hydrogen being so hard to handle.”

“Success is simply not possible.”

“Manufacturers do it [FCEVs] because they’re under pressure to show they’re doing something ‘constructive’ about sustainability. They feel it’s better to be working on a solution a generation away rather than something just around the corner.”

“Hydrogen is always labeled the fuel of the future—and always will be.”

There’s currently quite a bit of contention regarding the topic of hydrogen power for cars. Given Toyota’s recent announcement that it will migrate from fossil fuels to more modern technologies, like hydrogen and electricity, and BMW’s recent statement that it will no longer employ gas-powered internal combustion engines by the year 2025, this is a big deal. The economic and environmental repercussions of the migration from fossil fuels to alternative, modern technologies will be felt by everyone.

A commenter to my LinkedIn post, Joe Wojdacz, who identifies himself as a “disruptive innovationist” within the motion picture and film industry in Los Angeles, posted the following:

“I’m sorry but, what a dumb thing to say by someone claiming the mantle of the incomparable Nikola Tesla! How about looking more than a generation behind at the man himself who found the Cosmos to be a battery. No need for Li or Hydrogen. WTF people?!”

In response, I emailed Mr. Wojdacz the following:

“Joe: I love the ‘idea’ of hydrogen, but every time I research the numbers and efficiency ratio, it makes no sense. The most reputable recent source I consulted stated an efficiency ratio of 1.3 to one. Meaning that 1.3 units of energy are invested to deliver one unit of energy (in this argument, to propel a vehicle).

American consumers love convenience. There’s a fast food drive-thru on every corner and all pizza shops provide home delivery for a reason. Convenience is king, few would argue. Ok, given that, how are we to assume that an expensive network of hydrogen fueling stations is more convenient for drivers than simply plugging in at home or work?

Centralized fueling stations are a thing of the past in an all-EV world. They die, along with the 155-year-old propulsion tech they supported, internal combustion engines.

A factor that will actually generate a surplus of energy on the grid will be rooftop consumer solar power. This will be especially true for those who can afford a storage battery and, thus, engage in the time shifting of energy (charging one’s car after dark/post-work commute, the same way that consumers currently time shift TV entertainment using DVRs).

Even if we assume that the majority of the future hydrogen fuel station infrastructure is derived from stations that currently dispense gasoline, it doesn’t change the fact that consumers will choose the $4 at-home, in-the-garage, overnight refueling over the $50 hydrogen fuel cell, only-at-the-dispensing station, approach.

I would love to engage with an informed and reasonably balanced hydrogen fan/enthusiast/proponent regarding these points. I’m not against *any* clean, renewable tech, given the nastiness of the gasoline production life cycle (fracking, high cost, refineries, and exhaust from tail pipes). But when I do the math for fuel cell vehicles versus EVs, fuel cells always lose by a wide margin.

Unless there’s some magic (and magically inexpensive) leapfrog propulsion fuel on the immediate horizon–like Star Trek-inspired dilithium crystals or something–electricity makes so much more sense that it isn’t even funny.

Joe, thank for you opinion on all this. But is there something I’m missing here? Everything Musk says has made sense to me so far.”

Please consider this post an invitation to both pro- and anti-hydrogen enthusiasts alike to participate in a mature, professional, and educational debate regarding the merits and practicality of hydrogen and electricity as power sources for the next generation of personal vehicles.

I’m sure we’ll all learn something. Because, after all, we share the same planet and we all pay a significant portion of our incomes for personal transportation.

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Curt Robbins


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.

Innovation: Not a Purple Pencil

Companies today are obsessed with innovation. As they should be. Call it a “paradigm shift,” “disruption,” or simply a “new age.” It’s all the same. If publish or perish is the mantra of academics, then smart companies should be preaching “disrupt or die.”

Marketing efforts prevail, however. Middle class consumers are continually told that the companies from which they purchase goods and services are innovative. But innovation isn’t a #2 pencil on which a company slaps a coat of purple instead of yellow paint. Innovation is a mechanical pencil you can re-use forever, simply purchasing new lead (especially when we’re running out of trees).

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Innovation isn’t a slightly better something, it’s a new something. True innovation from companies is customer-centric. It isn’t the Chevy Volt, with a battery pack cozying up to an internal combustion engine. It’s a fully electric Tesla Model S or a Nissan Leaf, with zero engine noise, more storage space, and connectivity to your smartphone. Disruption isn’t Comcast or Time Warner Cable offering on-demand video streaming or more digital channels. It’s Netflix and Vudu turning the industry upside down and encouraging cord cutting. Improving things for consumers isn’t Hewlett-Packard or Dell cranking out laptops with faster chips and higher resolution screens. It’s Apple, Samsung, and Google producing leading-edge mobile devices and wearables—and making them interactive with our homes and vehicles.

Innovation comes from companies like Netflix, Tesla Motors, Apple, and USAA. It was USAA, the financial services company serving primarily military customers, that introduced taking a photo of a cheque to deposit it. Why was it the little guy, USAA, that developed this consumer-friendly and extremely practical “technology”? Where were Bank of America and Citibank, with their voluminous resources? Probably on the golf course or lobbying in D.C., not forming research labs to produce such consumer-friendly and competition-smashing tech.

In a recent blog post, I discussed the lack of innovation in the auto industry. The proof? Nearly all cars seem the same. Most people I know can ride to lunch with a friend and, after returning, not be able to tell you the brand of car in which they were transported. Yet we can identify an iPad from across the street. While standardization is important, especially for safety, this reflects laziness among the executive ranks of so many companies. For the auto industry specifically, it seems they’d rather play copy cat than focus on real innovation. Innovation isn’t marketing BS. It’s customers and owners telling their co-workers and neighbors “You gotta get one of these!” When was the last time someone told you that regarding their car, lawn mower, or laptop computer?

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The Fremont, California manufacturing facility now occupied by Tesla Motors was previously a GM/Toyota partnership. This is wonderfully symbolic of the changes we’re about to witness in the auto industry. If you think disruption is just Pandora and Snapchat, think again. Let competitors partner on bland products that motivate consumers to say meh and dread the experience of a visit to their local car dealership or Best Buy. Meanwhile, companies like Tesla Motors, Netflix, Apple, and Google will build the new world atop the boneyard of the old dinosaurs. It’s the phoenix from the ashes, and it’s happening right in front of us.

Don’t partner with your competitors—defeat them. Innovate, disrupt, and blow the other guys away. Yes, there are valid opportunities for “coopetition.” Industry consortiums and standards groups are sometimes essential to progress in the marketplace and the interoperability of products and services from different companies. But allowing the accountants to navigate the ship, relying on economies of scale and rationalized partnerships with your enemies is short-term, borderline desperate thinking.

In today’s world, true innovation is disruptive, sustainable, and genuinely enticing to consumers. The only reason most of us aren’t parking a Tesla Model S in our garage is because of the relatively high cost (a topic about which co-founder and CEO Elon Musk has been very honest). But what about 2017, when Tesla introduces it’s roughly $35,000 Model 3? What about when Nissan gets the Leaf to crank out more than 200 miles from a single charge? What? You don’t want a car that produces virtually no sound, features more storage, produces no harmful exhaust, is super-sporty and fast, and costs a fraction of what’s required for gas-powered vehicles to fuel and maintain? Please forgive my cavalier attitude, but I’d say you’re freaking nuts.

If the company for which you work desires to survive and thrive in the 21st century, it must embrace this spirit of ultra-competitive and reality-based innovation. If it doesn’t, the new guys are going to be purchasing your office building or manufacturing facility to produce what middle class consumers really want—and your company will be relegated to nothing more than an obscure Wikipedia entry.

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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.

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.”

elon musk for twitter 2

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.

Auto Industry: Slow on Tech Innovation

It’s the time of year in America when our kids are back in school and the auto industry has released next year’s models, so let’s talk about consumer tech in cars. It’s nice that even some entry-level automobiles feature cool tech like Bluetooth, backup cameras (mandatory in all cars sold in the United States by 2018), and in-built wireless technologies like 4G. But why do I always get the feeling that the auto industry is continually dragging its heels, always playing catch up with mobile devices and all the wireless tech with which we’re surrounded on a daily basis?

With consumers habituated to fast upgrade cycles for items like smartphones and personal computers, why is the auto industry so bloody slow when it comes to jumping on the same bandwagon? Just like the consumer electronics industry, car companies release new models every year, so they certainly have the opportunity.

tesla model s replacement for blogI can almost understand a conspiracy theorist who might insist that auto manufacturers are colluding in their seeming refusal to embrace new tech and interoperability between our mobile devices and their products. Yes, there was Microsoft Sync in Ford’s automobiles (RIP) and Apple has introduced CarPlay, which began rolling out in a few 2014 models (and works only with Apple’s products; this isn’t an industry standard). But this still feels more like a push from tech titans like Apple and Microsoft than true innovation from the auto industry itself. Simply connecting to our existing mobile devices is part of the equation, but where’s the “gee whiz” stuff?

Where is the Angry Birds or Snapchat of automobiles?

Yes, I do like “new” technologies like LED taillights, adaptive cruise control, and computer-controlled suspension systems. But we’re talking innovation here. While uber-cool, these are tech that have been around for a long time. In fact, it’s a sign of how slow the automobile industry is not only to innovate, but simply to roll out existing technologies based on past innovations. While LED lights are finally beginning to trickle down to even entry-level cars, nice tricks like laser-based adaptive cruise control and sci-fi-inspired head-up displays are still the territory of luxury vehicles.

We expect a culture of affordable innovation from companies like Google, Apple, and Samsung. It’s the foundation of their existence. But the fact that they have to push their tech on the auto industry is sad. Yes, really cool technology is expensive and auto manufacturers don’t want to reduce their already sometimes razor-thin profit margins. I get it. But we also know that truly innovative tech becomes considerably less expensive as more consumers jump on the bandwagon. Any manufacturer that decides to roll out a given technology (LED taillights, for example) across it’s entire catalog will experience such per-unit price discounts that the cost of this tech should not be its primary concern. What should be? Beating the competition by satisfying the tech lust of middle class consumers. But if recession-strapped Americans gobbling up $600 iPads at unheard of rates isn’t enough to convince auto execs of this, what is?

Where are the advanced sound systems that use basic acoustic science to drown out road noise and vastly improve our listening experience? Where is the uttered “down window” that prevents me from taking my hands off the wheel? Just the fact that so many cars manufactured today lack auto-on headlamps is enough to make you cry. Unfortunately, auto industry executives just don’t seem to get it. At least not when it comes to innovations that satisfy consumer demand and recognize dominant social trends.

It’s nice to know that if you were frozen in a cryogenic chamber 35 years ago and awoke today, you could capably drive a 2014 or 2015 model car. Yes, we need standardization. But when I jump in a friend’s sedan and we cruise down the road and I can’t even tell who manufactured the vehicle without looking at its badging, I think we have a problem.

nissan leaf for linkedinWith the distinct exception of Toyota’s Prius hybrid, Nissan’s all-electric LEAF, and anything from Tesla, cars seem to totally lack differentiation. Sometimes it feels like they’re all manufactured by one huge World Car Corp. and they simply offer a wide range of shapes, sizes, luxury levels, and prices. This is especially painful given the price of automobiles. Really, Buick and Kia, the best you can do is Bluetooth, LED lights, and a crappy, difficult-to-navigate touch screen on the dashboard?

Voice navigation and head-up displays are probably the most promising uses of new-tech we’ve seen in a while. Both improve driver attention where it matters: At the road. And both are way-cool and enticing features. But while many of us actually have Bluetooth or backup cameras in our vehicles, how many can control the music or air conditioning in our cars with our voice?

Exactly.

This is probably one of my lousiest blog posts in terms of educating readers or making a good point (like me, chances are you’re simply angrier now). I’m basically just whining. But at $20,000 to $60,000, the value proposition for tech in cars is among the lowest of any consumer purchase. Considering how much we spend on personal transportation, I think we’re all entitled to a bit of whining—whether you drive a Toyota Yaris or a BMW M5.

I sincerely love that Google, Ford, and Volvo are doing some incredible things with advanced perimeter sensing, collision avoidance, and automated parking in their quest for better safety and, eventually, fully autonomous vehicles. Self-driving cars make for great headlines in the media. But while we salivate over this future tech, the cars actually sitting in our driveways aren’t that much different from models from ten or even fifteen years ago—and none of us would use a cell phone or computer from 15 years ago, would we?

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Curt Robbins

[See also Time for Tesla and Electric Car Adoption: Not Why You Think.]


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.