Apple Watch: Out of Sync?

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

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

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

Core Functionality

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

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

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

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

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

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

The History

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

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

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

Great Gadget; Good Timepiece?

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

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

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

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

Slowly Getting There

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

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

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

“Batteries.”

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Curt Robbins


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

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

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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.

Why the Toyota Mirai May Flop

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

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

The Religious Debate

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

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

why-the-toyota-mirai-may-flop-gooey-rabinski-5

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

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

High Costs, Limited Availability

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

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

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

why-the-toyota-mirai-may-flop-gooey-rabinski-4

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

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

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

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

Lack of Fueling Stations

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

why-the-toyota-mirai-may-flop-gooey-rabinski-2

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

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


The Dialog

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

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

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

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

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

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

why-the-toyota-mirai-may-flop-gooey-rabinski

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

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

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

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

Better ≠ Best

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

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

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

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

why-the-toyota-mirai-may-flop-gooey-rabinski-8

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

Hard Numbers

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

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

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

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

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

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

Only in Los Angeles

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

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

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

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

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

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

curtsig2 - trans
Curt Robbins


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

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

Electric Car Adoption: Not Why You Think

In the past, I’ve written about both the lack of innovation in the auto industry and Tesla Motors. Researching Tesla revealed many things. The physical, technical, and practical advantages of electric versus internal combustion cars are plentiful and amazing.

Yes, I’m convinced that the transition to fully electric cars is indeed inevitable. But it won’t happen for the reasons most people think—and it has nothing to do with helping the environment, running out of oil, or making the world a better place. While those are valid arguments that are well-and-good for the media and proponents of such voltage-based transport tech, they will have little to do with the inevitable success of all-electric personal transportation in the United States.

nissan leaf for linkedinMuscle cars are among the least efficient, loudest, and most smog-producing vehicles on the road. Despite this, they remain the most popular and revered of all cars ever made. I’d kill for a 1963 C2 Corvette or a 1967 Camaro. I watch Supernatural with my daughters just so I can hear the hunky 1967 Chevy Impala’s modified engine through my home theater’s subwoofer.

I can understand muscle car fans wincing at the prospect of driving across town in a nearly silent all-electric vehicle. On the surface, it doesn’t sound tough or cool—which runs counter to the 20th century-spawned notion that cars help define our personalities and, ironically, individuality (think James Dean, Steve McQueen, and Vin Diesel).

Let Me Count the Reasons

Advocates of electric vehicles, often tree-hugging environmentalists, new age hippies, and science geeks, give us countless reasons why electric cars will replace their fossil fuel-guzzling predecessors (not the least of which is the inevitable disappearance of oil). Melting ice caps, serious long-term health ramifications, and the prosperity of our children and our children’s children are all used to make us feel guilty about driving our noisy, sluggish, gas-guzzling sedans and SUVs.

But let’s not fool ourselves. Consumers will decide if electric cars replace internal combustion models, not governments, advocacy groups, or even the media. Because for consumers, it’s all about cost. We might be concerned about rising carbon dioxide levels and climate change, but if an exhaust-emitting internal combustion car is less expensive than a clean all-electric model, consumers—especially middle class consumers—will almost always opt for the cheaper model. At least if we want to take a vacation now and again or send our kids to college.

When Tesla Motors releases its much-anticipated Model 3 in 2017 or 2018—assuming they can actually sell it for $35,000—Americas will do some basic math and realize that they can have a car with decent range (200-250 miles per charge), significantly more storage, zero internally produced noise, Porsche performance (the current Model S sedan is literally faster than a Porsche 911), and the satisfaction of knowing they aren’t creating greenhouse gasses in their own back yard. For about the cost of a nicely optioned Ford Taurus or Nissan Altima, folks will realize they can have so much more.

Huge Savings on Consumables

But that’s the hedonistic car lover’s side of the equation. It’s after they do the consumables math, i.e., add up the costs of fuel and maintenance, that Americans will flock to electric cars in droves. This is primarily because, by selling a $35,000 high-performance all-electric car, Tesla (and any other manufacturer) doesn’t simply match the price of a gasoline-powered vehicle in the short term. It beats it in the long term—by a wide margin. Unlike fossil fuel-powered vehicles, the more you drive an electric car, the cheaper it is to own.

No oil changes, only a few bucks to charge the batteries (instead of the $50-120 required to fill the tanks of conventional piston-pumping vehicles), and no more standing in 10 degree F weather to fill their tanks at gas stations will convince consumers that electric cars aren’t only cheaper, but that they’re also more convenient. And convenience is what Americans are all about. There’s a McDonald’s on every corner and even Pizza Hut has a drive-thru window for a reason.

tesla model s replacement for blogA Tesla Model S owner in Wisconsin reported that he “barely even noticed” any increase in his electric bill when analyzing it to calculate how much it was costing him on a monthly basis to recharge his sleek all-electric sedan. I realize that’s a somewhat ambiguous statement, but the next time you “barely notice” the monthly accumulated gasoline bills for your car, let me know. Significantly less expensive fuel, combined with almost non-existent maintenance costs, dramatically change the overall cost of ownership of an all-electric car like the Nissan Leaf or any of Tesla’s models.

As one Model S owner commented, you simply charge it at night and replace the tires.

Car Dealerships Suck

Despite America’s love of cars, for the average consumer, a visit to a car dealership is like a trip to the dentist or an IRS audit. We don’t like it, and for good reason. It’s a smarmy, hawksterish zone where contention runs high and trust runs low. It’s populated by clueless salespeople, gaudy signage, and loud, obnoxious commercials. Most car dealers are a cheesy exercise in financial obfuscation, cheap and predatory sales tactics, and—all too often—a gross lack of professionalism and honesty. Yes, Lexus, BMW, and others luxury brands have done a lot to counter the mostly skanky state of the dealership industry, especially those representing the big middle class brands like Chevy, Ford, Toyota, Honda, Nissan, Chrysler, and Hyundai. But conventional car dealerships still suck.

During the next few years, two things will happen in the auto industry. First, a company like Tesla will produce an affordable, attractive, and performance-oriented all-electric vehicle with an acceptable range. Obviously, others will follow. Second, Americans will begin to perceive that they can save money by owning an all-electric vehicle.

Dramatically reduced fuel and maintenance costs will motivate consumers to jump on the electric bandwagon—sports car-like performance and gee-whiz technology will simply be the icing on the cake. Once consumers are buying electric cars as fast as they’ve been purchasing iPhones and iPads for the past few years, all auto manufacturers will embrace the approach. Electric sales will soon after outpace those of old school piston bangers with tail pipes.

In the end, it will be the savings and convenience that will convince Americans to get in bed with electric vehicles, not rescuing the environment or even the amazing performance. And if we get to avoid a trip to the dentist in the form of negotiating with sleazy dealership dorks who we despise—and don’t trust—all the better.

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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.

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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.

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.