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As passenger cars featuring outdated ICE tech inevitably begin to vanish, what will replace them?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

Advertisements

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.

curtsig2 - trans
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.

 

 

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.]

curtsig2 - trans
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?

curtsig2 - trans
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.

why-the-toyota-mirai-may-flop-gooey-rabinski-7

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.

why-the-toyota-mirai-may-flop-gooey-rabinski-6

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.

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.

curtsig2 - trans
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.

Iowa DOT Engages Regarding Tesla

As part of my ongoing beratement of the seemingly clueless bureaucrats and politicians in Iowa involved in the cancellation of part of the September test drives conducted by Tesla Motors, I recently emailed Paul Steier, the Director of Iowa’s Bureau of Investigation & Identity Protection, part of the state’s Department of Transportation.

Below is my email thread with the Iowa DOT (I apologize for the length of this post, but I wanted to include each volley out of respect to the Iowa DOT, Paul Steier, and Mark Lowe).


Dear Mr. Steier:

Because you’re mentioned in the following blog post, Tesla Bigot: IADA’s Bruce Anderson, I wanted to share it with you. Although I don’t mention you in other blog posts regarding the issue of the legitimacy and legality of Tesla test drives and sales in Iowa and Michigan, you may be interested.

This issue isn’t going to simply disappear. Consumers deserve options and Tesla deserves to sell in the state of Iowa (and offer test drives). Allowing foreign companies like Toyota, Kia, and Range Rover to conduct test drives and sales, but not a company like Tesla that employs 6,000 hard working Americans, is really short-sighted. Citing existing laws is endorsing stupidity. You folks are establishing a legacy for yourselves—and future generations won’t view it in a positive light.

Regards,

Curt Robbins


In response, I received the following email from Mark Lowe, Director of the Motor Vehicle Division at the Iowa Dept. of Transportation [I apologize for the lack of paragraph breaks]:

Dear Mr. Robbins,

Paul Steier, Director of our Bureau of Investigation & Identity Protection, shared with me your recent blog regarding cancellation of the Tesla sales event in Iowa.  Although you have every right to debate the merits of Iowa’s motor vehicle sales and dealership laws, I feel compelled to defend Mr. Steier against your suggestion that he lacks intelligence or ethics.  Mr. Steier is a highly intelligent, ethical person who provides valuable service to Iowa citizens every day by helping to model s and solar panelsprotect them against identity, vehicle, and other consumer frauds.  In this instance, Mr. Steier was interpreting Iowa law exactly as it was and is currently written — Chapter 322 explicitly prohibits engaging in the business of selling vehicles without a dealer’s license, and section 322.2(7) of the Iowa Code defines being “engaged in the business” as “doing any of the following acts for the purpose of the sale of motor vehicles at retail: acquiring, selling, exchanging, holding, offering, displaying, brokering, accepting on consignment, conducting a retail auction, or acting as an agent for the purpose of doing any of those acts.”  In this instance, Tesla was clearly engaged in the business of selling motor vehicles  — in addition to displaying vehicles by offering test drives for the purpose of inducing sales, Tesla representatives were encouraging and helping customers to complete actual sales transactions.  In addition, section 322.2(14) specifically prohibits a manufacturer from acting as a dealer in Iowa.  When contacted during the event, neither the Tesla representatives at the event nor Tesla’s counsel disagreed that Tesla was engaged in the business of selling motor vehicles without a required dealer’s license in contravention of Iowa law.  The provisions of Chapter 322 that prohibit engaging in the business of selling motor vehicles without a dealer’s license are mandatory and may not be waived by the Iowa Department of Transportation, and Mr. Steier is obligated to explain and enforce the law as it is currently written.  Thank you.

Mark Lowe
Director, Motor Vehicle Division
Iowa Dept. of Transportation


Unlike Iowa Senator Matt McCoy and Rep. Peter Cownie, Mr. Lowe has actively engaged me in constructive dialog regarding the cancellation of the September test drives conducted by Tesla Motors.

Below is my response to Mr. Lowe:

Dear Mr. Lowe,

I appreciate you taking the time to respond to my email to Mr. Steier and my blog post regarding the cancellation of Tesla’s test drives in West Des Moines in September.

Apparently it is Iowa’s antiquated laws that are hurting consumers and unfairly penalizing Tesla Motors, not Mr. Steier’s actions. However, I respectfully argue the issue of whether Tesla was “selling” vehicles at the test drive event. If Iowa’s law is so backward and poorly phrased that it illogically defines “displaying” as sales, then I suppose you have me—and thousands of Iowa citizens who desire to learn more about Tesla’s vehicles—on a technicality.

Thus, I’ll cease picking on Mr. Steier and instead pester you and Governor Branstad. When will Iowa’s leadership do the right thing for its citizens, economy, and environment and change its archaic laws, allowing tax-paying voters to do something as simple as test drive a 21st century all-electric vehicle?

Regards,

Curt Robbins


In response, Mr. Lowe sent the following:

mark lowe iowa DOTI think there are several things to consider. One is that the purpose of displaying an auto is of course to encourage and facilitate its sale, but beyond that, and probably more importantly, the law has tried to protect consumers by helping them know who they are dealing with and where to seek recourse should something go wrong, either with the mechanics and operation of the vehicle itself or the clear title to the vehicle.  Vehicles, particularly in a rural state like Iowa with fewer public transportation options, are a major investment for most citizens and a key to personal and professional mobility — obtaining a vehicle that is not fit for operation of that cannot be registered can be a major disruption personal and professional disruption for most people [sic].  Much of what is in Chapter 322 is designed to protect citizens against someone blowing into town, unloading mechanically unfit vehicles and/or vehicles that cannot be titled clearly, and then vanishing into the night.  This is not to suggest that Tesla was doing that, but only to say that broadly defining sales, requiring persons selling vehicles to have a license and requiring them to declare their places of operation has helped protect consumers from unscrupulous sellers. (Consider, for a moment, the prospect that someone wholly unassociated with Tesla could obtain a hotel conference room, display a Tesla vehicle from the hotel room and offer test drives to perspective customers, and then induce down payments for orders never go be delivered on [sic]. These are the kinds of activity our dealer laws have long sought to protect people from.)

None of this is to say that laws long in place cannot be reviewed to determine whether they are keeping pace with current markets and means of doing business, but is only to say that there are important consumer protection issues that should not be overlooked in the review.

Best regards,

Mark Lowe
Director, Motor Vehicle Division
Iowa Dept. of Transportation


My response:

Dear Mr. Lowe:

I appreciate your quick response and attention to this issue. I agree wholeheartedly that consumer protection is of paramount concern. You and every one of the appointed or elected officials with any influence whatsoever over issues concerned consumers in the state of Iowa should take this issue seriously. I’m glad to see that you do.

I agree that Iowa—and every state in the U.S.—should have laws that, as you state, “protect citizens against someone blowing into town, unloading mechanically unfit vehicles and/or vehicles that cannot be titled clearly, and then vanishing into the night.” Bravo (none of my trademark cheeky cynicism implied). This is exactly what government and persons such as yourself and Peter Steier should be working to achieve and maintain.

However, your next statement reads, “This is not to suggest that Tesla was doing that, but only to say that broadly defining sales, requiring persons selling vehicles to have a license and requiring them to declare their places of operation has helped protect consumers from unscrupulous sellers.” I would agree. But do you, Mr. Steier, or anyone else at the DOT perceive Tesla Motors to be an “unscrupulous seller”? This award-winning and revered company has sold tens of thousands of its vehicles around the world. From what I’ve learned in my research, most of Tesla’s customers are not only satisfied, but many are evangelists or zealots.

However, I take issue with your statement that, during the test drives, “Tesla was clearly engaged in the business of selling [my emphasis] motor vehicles.” I noted your opening volley: “…your recent blog regarding cancellation of the Tesla sales event [my emphasis] in Iowa.” You label the test drives a “sales event.” But no vehicles were sold. Not only that, but Tesla didn’t attempt to sell vehicles. I recognize, understand, and respect your role and duty in protecting the consumers of Iowa, Mr. Lowe (such protection is part of what makes America one of the greatest nations on earth). Truly.

But to label Tesla’s West Des Moines test drives a “sales event” flies in the face of logic and reality. Simply because Iowa’s old school laws define such an event as “sales” doesn’t necessarily make it so. Why would one of the world’s most innovative and intelligent companies purposefully sell vehicles in violation of Iowa’s laws? Should we suppose that Tesla employs no corporate attorneys or never consults them prior to promotional activities in conservative states like Iowa?

Closing on a positive note: Thank you for your engagement on this issue. Bruce Anderson, president of the Iowa Automobile Dealers Association, as well as Senator Matt McCoy and Rep. Peter Cownie, haven’t responded to my numerous attempts to engage them in a constructive dialog regarding the rationale behind the cancellation of the September Model S test drives. I understand Mr. Anderson’s refusal to respond: He’s the hired gun of Iowa’s auto dealers and clearly a special interest. I’m disappointed, however, that Senator McCoy and Rep. Cownie remain silent (although I understand that, as a citizen of Ohio, I am owed nothing by them). Mr. Anderson owes nothing to the people of Iowa. Senator McCoy and Rep. Cownie, however, are beholden to their constituents and the voters who elected them to office.

Regards,

Curt Robbins


Bravo. Really.

It seems Mr. Lowe is the only one with the integrity to actually engage me in a dialog to, hopefully, push Iowa’s laws into the 21st century and better serve its citizens. While the protection of Iowa’s consumers is critical, the penalization of those same consumers (who might desire to test drive or purchase an electric vehicle) is both harmful and highly ironic.

I applaud Mr. Lowe for taking the time from his day to engage with me and describe the rationale behind the decisions of Paul Steier and the Iowa DOT.

Hopefully this is the beginning of a constructive dialog that will eventually result in the revision of consumer protection laws in the state of Iowa and the advancement of the state’s transportation infrastructure.

Are you paying attention, Michigan?

curtsig2 - trans
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.

EV Enemies: Michigan Luddites

I’ve written at length about Tesla Motors and its ongoing fight with several state governments and automobile dealer associations for the right to sell and simply test drive its vehicles. Unfortunately, a bill that would prohibit Tesla from selling its svelte all-electric cars in the state of Michigan has passed. It is currently sitting on Governor Rick Snyder’s desk, awaiting his signature to become law.

Tesla on October 16 published a blog post, A Raw Deal in Michigan, in response to this pending legislation. While model s and solar panelsattention needs to be focused on soliciting Gov. Snyder for his veto of the bill, preventing HB5606 from becoming law, it’s also critical for electric vehicle fans, environmentalists, and progressive thinking consumers to focus on the source of this legislation: The Michigan Automobile Dealers Association (MADA).

Today’s blog post is my email letter to MADA’s president, Randy Wise, its Executive Vice President, Terry Burns, and Summer Kniss, the group’s Communications Director. If you’re concerned about climate change, true open market capitalism, or simply a fan of electric cars, I encourage you to contact Michigan Governor Snyder (his Twitter addy is @onetoughnerd) and urge him to act in a pro-consumer (pro-voter!), logical manner.

But don’t stop there: MADA and other state automobile associations (like the Iowa Automobile Dealers Association and its president Bruce Anderson) are working to block Tesla and impede fair competition and consumer rights across the country. Let them know that crony capitalism and playing the role of the Luddite is anti-consumer and anti-American—and will eventually put them out of business.

curtsig2 - trans
Curt Robbins

[10/23 update: On 10/21, Michigan Governor Rick Snyder signed into law Michigan’s HB5606, which outlaws the direct sales model of Tesla and other electric car manufacturers.]


Dear Ms. Kniss, Mr. Burns, and Mr. Wise:

Governor Rick Snyder is garnering the attention of electric car proponents in the state of Michigan—and nationwide—who are attempting to persuade him to not sign HB5606 into law. While Gov. Snyder is the current focus, the genesis of this anti-consumer and unfair bill was your organization, the Michigan Automobile Dealers Association.

nil

Randy Wise, MADA president (2014)

Social media is allowing consumers to learn of such crony capitalism in real time and to counter strike with more force than even lobbying groups and your organization can muster. In the end, government serves the people—not corporations or non-profit associations like yours. Citizens (and voters) are learning about and craving all-electric personal transportation that delivers to them a cleaner environment and less expensive fuel and maintenance.

I understand, and even theoretically support, an organization like MADA that represents auto dealers to serve their best interests. However, it’s sad, unfair, and pathetic that your group must penalize consumers to accomplish its overly self-serving, anti-consumer goals.

Dealerships across America are intimidated by Tesla Motors. They may cite how they don’t like the direct-to-consumer sales model of this innovative company, but their true fear is Tesla’s vehicles themselves. They’re disruptive and, arguably, a paradigm shift. Your members sell products based on a 155-year-old technology (internal combustion). They’re loud, expensive to fuel, relatively slow, and contribute to climate change. Meanwhile, Tesla’s vehicles are the opposite. And your members don’t have anything to compete.

Consumers are becoming increasingly savvy when it comes to their personal transportation options. Efforts of groups like yours and the Iowa Automobile Dealers Association (headed by another legacy Luddite, Bruce Anderson)—while they may cause temporary setbacks for companies like Tesla and headaches for progressive-minded consumers—will not stop the electric car movement. Nor will they stop Tesla Motors.

You and your members are desperate. Instead of competing fairly with Tesla and similar 21st century companies, you and your affiliate dealerships want to call on political friends to outlaw them! Your members know that their products can’t compete with those from Tesla.

Maybe the service you should be providing to your members is recommending that their source manufacturers, like Ford, GM, and Toyota, hire forward-thinking engineers as CEOs instead of MBAs, accountants, and lawyers. Because without better vision and strategy, you—and your members—are destined for the dinosaur graveyard (along with those 12 MPG Hummers no longer for sale).

Regards,

Curt Robbins
Technical Writer / Author
https://middleclasstech.wordpress.com
Stow, Ohio


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.

Tesla Test Drives: Responding to Bob

My blog post entitled Tesla Bigot: IADA’s Bruce Anderson from October 4 is gaining a bit of traction and has actually garnished some feedback (always exciting for new bloggers like myself). Below is a comment received from this post and my response.model s and solar panels

I also sent a Tweet to Anderson (@IADA_Bruce), the president of the Iowa Auto Dealers Association, asking him for a public dialog allowing us to debate the validity of his successful effort to cancel Tesla’s test drives in early September. In addition, I copied Senator Matt McCoy (@mccoyforsenate) and Rep. Peter Cownie (@petercownie) in an attempt to involve these Iowa politicians in the dialog.

curtsig2 - trans
Curt Robbins


bob
Submitted on 2014/10/06 at 5:59 pm

So according to this decisions all expo, conference & trade shows should now follow this decisions and not be allowed. Be careful what you wish for.

curtrobbins
Submitted on 2014/10/06 at 6:05 pm | In reply to bob.

Hi Bob,

I’m confused. Can you elaborate? I honestly don’t understand exactly what you’re getting at. I enjoy—and seek out—an intelligent and honest dialog regarding any consumer tech topic. But can you clarify your comment?

In terms of being careful about what I wish for: I wish simply that a disruptive, game-changing company like Tesla would be permitted to at least demonstrate its technology first-hand. It’s sad enough that this company can’t actually sell in the state of Iowa due to…I know, I’ve said it so many times before…antiquated laws from a bygone era. Those laws served 1950s-80s America really well. But no more. (Technical clarification: Anyone, in any state, can purchase Tesla’s vehicles from its website.)

tesla model s replacement for blogPlease note that I’m not suggesting Buick, Ford, or Hyundai be prohibited from conducting test drives. I believe healthy, fair competition is what has made America great. But to prohibit an American company as promising as Tesla from simply demonstrating its product to prospective customers is really Neanderthal thinking. I want the voters of Iowa—and any state in this great union—to be able to test drive, purchase, sell, and service vehicles involving a wide variety of technologies from a multitude of companies.

Politicians like to cite patriotism. Ok. How patriotic is to allow Toyota (Japanese), Kia (Korean), and Range Rover (Indian) to conduct test drives on American soil, while prohibiting Silicon Valley-based Tesla from not only selling cars, but even test driving them? Tesla employs 6,000 hard-working Americans, and is expanding rapidly. I’m not suggesting Tesla deserves any special treatment. However, for American politicians to state that they are pro-American companies and pro-economic growth and then oppose—at any level: municipal, state, or federal—an American company embracing these very principles is, well, both illogical and hypocritical. Not to mention short-sighted.

I wouldn’t vote for them. Would you?

Now, back to your point of me being careful what I wish for. I wish that every one of my fellow Americans could understand, test, and have the ability to purchase any reasonably safe personal transportation vehicle on the market. Especially if it comes from an American company. No sane politician would disagree with me so far.

I’ll do my best to help people understand electric car technology and their product options (that’s what I do for a living). But if consumers know what they want and can’t even get it, how well are any of us serving them?


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.

Tesla Bigot: IADA’s Bruce Anderson

Bruce Anderson, president of the Iowa Automobile Dealers Association (IADA), recently forced the shutdown of a planned day of Model S test drives being offered by Tesla Motors in Des Moines. I’ve written before about Tesla and how auto dealerships—and their political allies—oppose the all-electric car manufacturer’s direct-to-consumer sales model.

But what car dealers, dealership trade groups, and self-serving Luddites like Anderson really oppose isn’t a particular sales model or how Tesla works with its customers. Rather, they fear fair competition. Compared to Tesla’s next-gen vehicles, their products suck. And they know it.

IADA Bruce Anderson - RESIZEAs reported in the Des Moines Register on September 25, “The Iowa Department of Transportation asked Tesla to stop its West Des Moines test drives after being alerted to the event by the [IADA].” One local resident, who had scheduled a test drive on the final day that was cancelled, lamented, “I hope they get [the laws] changed, because it’s just ridiculous.” Of course, are any of us really surprised that Iowa’s car dealers—in the form of Anderson—went crying to mommy because of a little competition?

And the logic behind the shutdown? In Iowa, “state law requires auto dealers to be licensed, and by offering test drives, Tesla was acting as a dealer,” wrote the Register. And who drew this conclusion? Paul Steier, Director of the Department of Transportation’s Bureau of Investigation and Identity Protection. More proof of the lack of intelligence and spirit of fair play in both government and old boy networks like car dealer associations.

To add insult to injury, Iowa lawmakers have little interest in changing the archaic laws currently prohibiting Tesla from conducting something as simple as a test drive of one of its efficient, zero emission cars. The blatant kowtowing of Iowa politicians to big business flies in the face of the desires of Iowa consumers.

Iowa Senator Matt McCoy, chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee, is, ironically, a fan of Tesla’s cars, having test driven a Model S (in another state, natch) and publicly stated that he plans to purchase the less-expensive Model 3 after its release in 2017. However, McCoy is about as clueless and lacking in foresight as Anderson. “I have mixed feelings about it because I really like the car and I really like what the car stands for,” he said. “But in Iowa, we tend to respect our system and the way it was set up, and I don’t see any appetite to change that.”

Apparently McCoy’s “mixed feelings” are caused by his affinity for the Model S paired with his desire for corporate campaign contributions. By the Senator’s logic, his state would never have evolved beyond horse and buggy, because the Iowa Buggy Dealers Association would have called on its political friends and bureaucratic allies to block sales of the Model T—rationalized by antiquated laws passed before automobiles even came into existence.

Even West Des Moines State Rep. Peter Cownie, chairman of the House Commerce Committee, is in on the game. “You can’t have two sets of rules. That would create an unfair playing field for the small business owners and small car dealers,” he said. By Cownie’s logic, don’t the outdated laws preventing Tesla from offering simple test drives unfairly limit it from doing business and marketing itself in the state of Iowa? Tesla is, after all, a “small business” compared to Ford, Toyota, and GM (each of which, individually, produces more vehicles per day than Tesla has since its inception in 2003).

More important, aren’t these politicians, who were elected to serve their constituents, unfairly limiting the car buying options of those who voted them into office (many of whom have proven they wish to test drive and purchase all-electric cars, like those offered by Tesla)?

According to Anderson (a former attorney), auto dealership licensing “is a matter of consumer protection.” “You can’t just set up in a hotel parking lot and sell cars,” he said. Anderson denies targeting Tesla, saying “it’s not a Tesla issue. This is a regulated industry.” Meaning that it’s not only Anderson and dealerships that are the problem, but also state and federal politicians and bureaucrats. Do Anderson and the dealerships he represents really consider denying residents of their state the opportunity to test drive—let alone purchase—an all-electric vehicle to be “protecting” them?

model s and solar panelsCar dealers nationwide have been freaking out over Tesla’s entry into the crowded auto market. And for good reason. Tesla makes and sells sexy cars that are nearly silent, fast as a Porsche, and do zero damage to the local environment. But what really begins to sway consumers: Tesla’s all-electric vehicles are far cheaper to operate and maintain than their gas-guzzling siblings from Detroit and Tokyo. In comparison, the products from every other automaker—with the exception of Nissan’s all-electric Leaf—are more expensive to operate, damaging to human health, and contribute to climate change. (You can’t commit a Hollywood-style suicide in a Tesla with an open window in a closed garage.)

Because Tesla’s models are currently too expensive for the average joe, call the recent dealership shenanigans a pre-emptive strike. But pre-emptive or not, dealerships, their political allies, and shortsighted dopes like Anderson and his cronies are pulling out all the stops in their desperate efforts to stop Tesla in its tracks. Fortunately, Iowans can purchase Tesla vehicles online—like the rest of the country (helpful for residents of Arizona, New Jersey, Maryland, Texas, and Virginia, where sales of Tesla vehicles are either banned or restricted).

If you think auto dealers are panicking now, wait until Tesla introduces its much-anticipated Model 3 in about three years. Slated to start at roughly $35K, the “everyman’s Tesla” will bring the fight between old-school car dealers and Tesla’s superior alternative to a head. Both dealership owners and auto manufacturers will be frantically spinning their 1988 Rolodexes to reach out to any politician owing them a favor.

But fear not, tree huggers and lovers of future-tech. Tesla will probably get the last laugh. Legacy Luddites like Anderson, Steier, Cownie, and McCoy are a dying breed. Their protectionist attitudes and policies, sustained at the expense of their fellow state citizens, will soon lie in the dinosaur boneyard, just like those 12 mile-per-gallon Hummers that are no longer for sale.

curtsig2 - trans
Curt Robbins

[Also see my response to blog post commenter “bob” and my original Time for Tesla post. If you agree with any of the above, send Bruce Anderson a Tweet at @IADA_Bruce and let him know your feelings.]


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.

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.

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 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.

curtsig2 - trans
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?

curtsig2 - trans
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.