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Model X

Tesla won’t produce the Model X until it’s sufficiently awesome

Elon Musk would rather wait to put out an eagerly awaited product than push one out that’s not awesome.

That was apparent from the language used in Tesla’s Q3 newsletter, published Tuesday (emphasis ours):

We recently decided to build in significantly more validation testing time to achieve the best Model X possible. This will also allow for a more rapid production ramp
compared to Model S in 2012.

In anticipation of this effort, we now expect Model X [the company’s forthcoming SUV] deliveries to start in Q3 of 2015, a few months later than previously expected. This also is a legitimate criticism of Tesla – we prefer to forgo revenue, rather than bring a product to market that does not delight customers. Doing so negatively affects the short term, but positively affects the long term. There are many other companies that do not follow this philosophy that may be a more attractive home for investor capital. Tesla is not going to change.

Tesla’s earnings beat analyst’s expectations, but some weren’t impressed by the pace of deliveries by the luxury electric-car maker. Tesla said it would deliver about 33,000 vehicles in 2015, lowering its estimate by 2,000. John Thompson, CEO of Vilas Capital Management, said on CNBC’s “Closing Bell” program that Tesla is “grossly overvalued … A company making 33,000 cars is worth half of Ford Motor Company today.”

Still, Tesla’s stock closed at $240.20 Friday, down 98 cents for the day, but up from $230.97 since Tuesday’s earnings report. Ford closed at $14.17, down 2 cents.

(Photo: Darren Brode, Shutterstock)

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The decline of oil and gas prices, replacement fuels and Nostradamus

“It’s a puzzlement,” said the King to Anna in “The King and I,” one of my favorite musicals, particularly when Yul Brynner was the King. It is reasonable to assume, in light of the lack of agreement among experts, that the Chief Economic Adviser to President Obama and the head of the Federal Reserve Bank could well copy the King’s frustrated words when asked by the president to interpret the impact that the fall in oil and gasoline prices has on “weaning the nation from oil” and on the U.S. economy. It certainly is a puzzlement!

What we believe now may not be what we know or think we know in even the near future. In this context, experts are sometimes those who opine about economic measurements the day after they happen. When they make predictions or guesses about the behavior and likely cause and effect relationships about the future economy, past experience suggests they risk significant errors and the loss or downgrading of their reputations. As Walter Cronkite used to say, “And that’s the way it is” and will be (my addition).

So here is the way it is and might be:

1. The GDP grew at a healthy rate of 3.5 percent in the third quarter, related in part to increased government spending (mostly military), the reduction of imports (including oil) and the growth of net exports and a modest increase in consumer spending.

2. Gasoline prices per gallon at the pump and per barrel oil prices have trended downward significantly. Gasoline now hovers just below $3 a gallon, the lowest price in four years. Oil prices average around $80 a barrel, decreasing by near 25 percent since June. The decline in prices of both gasoline and oil reflects the glut of oil worldwide, increased U.S. oil production, falling demand for gasoline and oil, and the likely desire of exporting nations (particularly in the Middle East) to protect global market share.

Okay, what do these numbers add up to? I don’t know precisely and neither do many so-called experts. Some have indicated that oil and gas prices at the pump will continue to fall to well under $80 per barrel, generating a decline in the production of new wells because of an increasingly unfavorable balance between costs of drilling and price of gasoline. They don’t see pressure on the demand side coming soon as EU nations and China’s economies either stagnate or slow down considerably and U.S. economic growth stays below 3 percent annually.

Other experts (do you get a diploma for being an expert?), indicate that gas and oil prices will increase soon. They assume increased tension in the Middle East, the continued friction between the West and Russia, the change of heart of the Saudis as well as OPEC concerning support of policies to limit production (from no support at the present time, to support) and a more robust U.S. economy combined with a relaxation of exports as well as improved consumer demand for gasoline,

Nothing, as the old adage suggests, is certain but death and taxes. Knowledge of economic trends and correlations combined with assumptions concerning cause and effect relationships rarely add up to much beyond clairvoyance with respect to predictions. Even Nostradamus had his problems.

If I had to place a bet I would tilt toward gas and oil prices rising again relatively soon, but it is only a tilt and I wouldn’t put a lot of money on the table. I do believe the Saudis and OPEC will move to put a cap on production and try to increase prices in the relatively near future. They plainly need the revenue. They will risk losing market share. Russia’s oil production will move downward because of lack of drilling materials and capital generated by western sanctions. The U.S. economy has shown resilience and growth…perhaps not as robust as we would like, but growth just the same. While current low gas prices may temporarily impede sales of electric cars and replacement fuels, the future for replacement fuels, such as ethanol, in general looks reasonable, if the gap between gas prices and E85 remains over 20 percent  a percentage that will lead to increased use of E85. Estimates of larger cost differentials between electric cars, natural gas and cellulosic-based ethanol based on technological innovations and gasoline suggest an extremely competitive fuel market with larger market shares allocated to gasoline alternatives. This outcome depends on the weakening or end of monopolistic oil company franchise agreements limiting the sale of replacement fuels, capital investment in blenders and infrastructure and cheaper production and distribution costs for replacement fuels. Competition, if my tilt is correct, will offer lower fuel prices to consumers, and probably lend a degree of stability to fuel markets as well as provide a cleaner environment with less greenhouse gas emissions. It will buy time until renewables provide a significant percentage of in-use automobiles and overall demand.

Gas vs. Electric pump

The Price of Hybrid and Electric Cars Is Plummeting. Here’s Why

USA Today just reported that Ford is cutting the sticker price of the fully battery-powered plug-in Focus Electric by a flat $6,000. That’s on top of a $4,000 price reduction on the same vehicle a year ago. The new sticker price is $29,995 including shipping—but not including federal tax credits of up to $7,500 and state incentives that might effectively knock another $2,500 off the amount buyers pay.

Read more in TIME.

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Paul Revere: The Teslas are coming, the Teslas are coming!

When he died, the patriot Paul Revere was embalmed in V8 juice, tanning lotion and several energy drinks. Surprisingly, he reappeared at a relatively recent conference of the Massachusetts Association of Automobile Dealers, looking fit and ready for another ride. The dealers had prayed for his second coming. They hoped that even though his previous ride was only one horsepower, he would consent to try a low-horsepower vehicle and ride the state, warning their brave residents that Tesla is online and in-store sales of electric cars coming. The dealers’ marketing folks felt that a reincarnated Revere would do wonders for their shaky image as wheeler dealers (excuse the pun). His deep, holier-than-thou, Fred Thomas-type voice (you know, the actor-turned-politician-turned-actor who now sells most anything on TV for money) would convince all but his former peer group (dead people) that Tesla was anti-American.

“What did Tesla do wrong,” asked Revere? Oh, it’s trying to sell its non-horse, torque-engine vehicles directly to modern-day patriots. Can you imagine euthanizing horsepower? Tears came to Revere’s eyes. But there’s more, paraphrasing a former automaker and cabinet officer Charles Wilson, one of the dealers indicates that what’s good for automobile dealers was and will always be good for America. What Elon Musk, the head of Tesla Motors, wants to do is eliminate dealerships. If the present case before the courts in Massachusetts is won by Tesla and Teslas are sold online, from a storefront, or shopping mall, surely Ford, Chrysler and General Motors will not be far behind. Forget capitalism, forget free markets, forget competition, even forget, Paul, your membership in the old Tea Party in Boston (you know, the taxation-without-representation crowd). Forget everything you fought for. By eliminating dealerships, Tesla will cost jobs. Dealers soon will have to close their doors. Bypassing dealers to sell cars will also first limit and then end our community philanthropy — you know, Little League teams, Fourth of July concerts, community picnics, jerseys for kids etc. Tesla’s headquarters is in California, and it’s a crazy state with Hollywood and all that. Californians act like foreigners. Tesla’s founder believes in global warming, he isn’t satisfied with life in America and he is developing a spaceship where the elite can, someday soon, travel to a second home and ruin our local economy. Losing dealers will make every community less American. Sure, vehicle costs may come down and emissions may improve, but what American is unwilling to pay extra to save his or her friendly auto dealer?

Revere was puzzled. He was a merchant way back then and he believed that competition and the free market were part of the American Dream. (To be honest, he also feared riding and did not understand how he could ride a multiple-horse powered vehicle. He had only mounted one horse.)

But he understood what the dealership folks were trying to tell and sell him. While in his heart, he was a bit ambivalent, he finally said he would do the famous ride again, and this time, because mileage capacity had increased and population of Massachusetts had grown, he agreed to try to go farther west than in his famous, poet-legitimized and sanctified ride.

But just as he gave them the okay, the dealerships received an email from a colleague in Boston that Tesla had won in the Massachusetts court. One dealer started crying. Several others criticized “those activist judges.”

Revere asked to read the email. It indicated that the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court unanimously determined that the Mass. State Automobile Dealers “lacked standing to block direct Tesla sales under a state law designated to protect franchises owners from abuses by car manufacturers” (Reuters, Sept. 15, 2014). Succinctly, the law was tied to the franchise relationship rather than unaffiliated manufacturers like Tesla.

The court’s finding should make it easier for Tesla to secure positive rulings in many other states. Earlier this spring, senior officials from the Federal Trade Commission strongly indicated that laws outlawing direct sales harmed consumers. Revere, after looking at the email, felt guilty that he had all but agreed to replicate his famous ride. But he was consoled by the fact that freedom and competition won out, at least in the Tesla case in Massachusetts, and that at least consumer democracy was alive and well in the state. He couldn’t help but muse on the fact that Texas, a state supposedly committed to minimal regulation and almost zero interference by government concerning businesses and citizens’ lives, turned its back on Tesla because of lobbying by dealers. Tesla cannot sell directly in Texas. But, as Ralph Waldo Emerson suggested, “foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.” After driving a Tesla (with no horsepower), Revere went back to the halo- lit neter lands happy. We haven’t heard from him since. But on faith alone, his experience with reincarnation likely would have made him a fan of Tesla’s electric cars and other alternative fuels.

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Self-driving cars

It seems like a kind of Hollywood fantasy — autonomous little roadsters scooting in and out of traffic, breathlessly avoiding collisions and getting to their destination before anyone else.

Then again, it seems like the inevitable. If computers can perform medical diagnoses, accomplish instant translations for tourists and power Martian rovers, what’s so complicated about driving a car?

The self-driving car has gotten a lot of publicity lately. Google has a demonstration project and there have been the usual speculations about how long before self-drivers become a common sight. Four states have passed legislation allowing their operation and this month self-driving cars received the ultimate accolade of any new technology by being opposed by the Ralph Nader’s Consumer Watchdog, thereby joining fracking, nuclear power, GMO foods and other technological advances as being opposed by the Naderites.

Yet in truth, the idea of self-driving vehicles has been around for a long, long time. Experiments go back as far back as the 1920s. Engineers tried burying electric cables beneath the road to send signals that would keep cars on track. With the development of computers, however, research switched to autonomous vehicles with a dozen auto manufacturers and universities doing serious work.

In 1995, Carnegie Mellon University built an autonomous vehicle that traveled 3,100 miles cross-country for the “No Hands Across America” tour, with only minimal human intervention. In 2005, a Google vehicle equipped with 3D cameras, radar and a software package called Google Chauffeur won a $2 million prize in a Grand Challenge sponsored by the U.S. Department of Defense. In 2010, four self-driving vehicles designed at the University of Parma, Italy duplicated Marco Polo’s expedition by driving from Italy to China with only occasional intervention by their human drivers. Google’s fleet of a dozen self-driving cars has now logged 700,000 miles on public highways without experiencing any trouble. The only accident occurred when one of them was read-ended by another vehicle at a traffic light.

Indeed, as things stand now, the biggest obstacle to widespread adoption may be the predictable human reluctance to have the wheel taken out of their hands. One poll in Germany found that while 22 percent of respondents had a positive attitude toward driverless cars, 44 percent were skeptical and 24 percent were actively hostile toward the idea.

So aside from inspiring a hundred high school science projects and proving that computer geeks can do just about anything, what would be the advantage of self-driving vehicles? Here are a few of the possibilities:

Greater fuel efficiency: Advocates say that the precision achieved by automated vehicles in evening out traffic flows would cut down on national gasoline consumption. Instead of some cars dawdling in the fast lane while others weave in and out, traffic would follow a much more orderly pattern. Estimates are that a large fleet of self-driving vehicles could cut national fuel consumption by as much as 10 percent.

The advance of non-gasoline fuel systems: Since the experiments with trolley-like electronic tracks of the 1920s, self-driving systems have been associated with electric cars. While it will be perfectly possible to mount self-driving equipment on a gasoline-powered car, the “wave of the future” seems to be associated with non-gasoline vehicles. Google’s self-driver runs on electricity as do nearly all other experimental models.

Fewer accidents: Although humans may be reluctant to admit it, the vast majority of accidents are caused by driver error. The 360-degree visibility and unblinking vigilance of self-drivers could be a vast improvement. Many new cars are already beginning to incorporate some of the features with rear-view cameras and automatic braking. The 2014 Mercedes S-class offers options for self-parking, automatic accident avoidance and driver fatigue detection. One website that projects the self-driving future even suggests that the main job losses would be among: 1) hospital emergency room services, 2) auto repair shops and 3) trial lawyers specializing in auto accidents!

Peer-to-peer sharing of traffic information: The end point of self-driving would be a peer-to-peer information-sharing system whereby individual vehicles would be warned of congestion and traffic tie-ups and routed away from them. A 2010 study conducted by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration projected that an amazing 80 percent of all traffic accidents could be avoided by such a peer-to-peer system that smooth out traffic patterns and prevent cars from bumping into each other on congested highways.

More efficient traffic lights: How much time and gas is wasted by cars waiting for the light to change when no cars are coming in the crossing lane? Computerized systems linked to self-drivers could do wonders to hasten traffic flow and ease the time needlessly spent waiting for red lights.

Driving services for people who cannot drive: Many elderly and handicapped people cannot drive under ordinary circumstances, but could manage a vehicle in which they program it to tell it where they want to go. One of Google’s first early adapters was Steve Mahan, a California resident who is legally blind. This YouTube video shows him running a series of errands through his neighborhood, including a visit to a drive-in taco stand. All this might seem that it would increase driving and add to the nation’s fuel consumption until you consider that many of these people are already serviced by elaborate jitney systems that spend a great deal of time making empty runs. Once again, self-drivers would add precision and efficiency to the system.

Mass public transit  the possibility of a whole new personal mobility system: At the end point of this new technology is the vision of a whole new transportation system where far fewer vehicles would be needed to get people where they want to go. Driving this vision is the statistic that the average car is parked 90 percent of the time. If these vehicles could be put to more efficient use — something along the lines of bike-sharing on city streets  then the need for vehicles might be drastically reduced. Particularly in urban settings, more efficient matching of vehicles and passengers would cut down on the need for street parking. Uber, the San Francisco company that matches passengers with drivers of vehicles for hire, is now operating in 200 cities in 42 countries around the globe. The fuel savings it creates through matching efficiency are phenomenal.

Much of the fruits of these innovations are still in the future, but don’t put it past innovators like Google to make it happen quickly. In 2012 the Nevada Department of Motor Vehicles issued the country’s first license to a Toyota Prius modified with Google technology. Florida and Michigan have also issued permits for road testing. Next January, Google will launch 200 gumdrop-shaped vehicles completely void of steering wheel, brake and gas pedal that will begin cruising the streets of Mountain View, Calif., in an experiment supervised by the California DMV.

The future may be closer than we think.

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Bring back Woodstock and passion, and bring on replacement fuels

The ‘60s and early ‘70s were exhilarating at times and depressing at other times. America seemed angry and divided about the Vietnam War, the struggle over civil rights and equal rights for women. Many of those who were against the war and supported civil rights for minorities and equal rights for women were passionate about their views and saw themselves as change agents in an America that they viewed as perfectible but not perfect. They debated, they marched, they shouted, they irritated, and they (at times) exceeded legal boundaries. Some even took personal risks by becoming Freedom Riders in the south. By the early ‘70s, they had made a positive difference. They had become legends in their own time, capped off by Woodstock — an exotic, culture-changing, music rebellion concert. America would never again be the same!

I ask myself why the effort to break up the oil industry’s monopoly at the gas pump has won intellectual interest among some, but not the passion and the emotion of the ‘60s. No one is riding in a vehicle column through the nation, stopping at gas stations to plead for an opportunity for consumers to choose among alternative or replacement fuels. No one is shouting en masse about the extensive environmental harm and economic loss caused by our reliance on gasoline. Very few are concerned with the widening income gap and increasing poverty in America. Where is the concern about the negative impact that gas prices have on the purchasing power of the poor?

Surprisingly, very few Americans seem worried that most of the wars we are fighting either overtly or covertly involve (to some degree) our or our allies’ dependence on oil and, sometimes, lead to our becoming allied with some unsavory folks. I keep remembering a relatively recent conversation I had with a special services soldier who quite clearly indicated that he and his colleagues believed the U.S. was in Iraq not because of the quest for democracy or freedom, but because of the West’s need for oil. He indicated that it was b.s. — all this talk about building democracy. Whether it’s Iraq, Syria, or Egypt, Americans themselves are having growing doubts about why we have been, are now, or might be in the future, involved in Middle Eastern wars. Many, if not most, hope that their kids are not the first in and the last out.

What is it going to take to stimulate the adrenaline of Americans when it comes to the oil industry’s ability to limit competition at the gas pump through price management, franchise agreements, and political muscle in Congress? I suspect the draft helped energize the public’s antipathy toward the Vietnam War, but for the most part, the anti-Vietnam movement secured the intense support of only a minority of Americans. Indeed, polls at the time indicated that both the women’s and the civil rights movements also had less than majority support. Yet, in all three instances, the overlapping minorities among the population wielded a big political voice, bigger than their numbers.

Why? I suspect media-savvy, bright, and committed leadership had much to do with it. Further, they were helped by the tragic assassinations of President Kennedy; his brother, U.S. Attorney General Robert Kennedy; and Martin Luther King, Jr. Growing public distrust of politicians caused by the gap between the facts on the ground and press releases concerning Vietnam increased the willingness of the American public to support the marchers. Polls began to shift on the war, civil rights, and equality for women. All three issues won increasing numbers and granted legitimacy to efforts to end the war and to assist the “have nots” and the “have less” among us. Given the federal budget authorizations and appropriations, an argument could be made that the halcyon days of the Great Society actually occurred during the first years of President Nixon. This is not heresy. Look at the budget details from 1965 through the early ‘70s.

Can we replicate the passion associated with the Vietnam War, civil rights and women’s rights movements and focus it on more democracy and freedom for consumers concerning choice of fuels? Probably not! The issues involved are difficult to grasp for the public. It is unlikely that families will sit down at the dinner table and stimulate conversation on the benefits and costs of replacement fuels or flex-fuel vehicles. Americans are not going to “March on Exxon” as they did on the Pentagon or gather at the National Mall in D.C. in the hundreds of thousands as they did for civil rights.

The term “silent majority” has been used without a hard and sustained predictable meaning in the last four or five decades. It’s a phrase that needs amplification and definition today. It could become the missing public change agent concerning replacement fuels. Coalition building among supportive pro-environmentalists, businesses, consumers, and anti-poverty groups could lead to the development of multitasked, innovative, and interactive national education program with a broad reach (e.g., town meetings, the newspaper and website articles, webinars, Twitter, movies, YouTube, etc.). Its success could convert a now-silent majority or near majority into a thoughtful, articulate majority focused on breaking up the monopoly at the pump. Success would be reflected in poll numbers supportive of federal, state, and local leaders who are willing to push for open fuel markets and increased FFVs. There would be a coalition of the willing; that is, an increasing number of Americans who would provide backbone to public policymakers who, in turn, would commit to challenging the oil companies’ understandable desire to sustain restricted fuel markets and the status quo favoring gasoline over environmentally better, safer, and cheaper replacement fuels. Their support would be conveyed through voting, and the use of innovative communication technology, rather than marching. The results would be illustrated by new, important, expanded democratically made choices by you and me, regarding fuel and vehicles — and maybe a new Woodstock composed of music celebrating America’s new freedoms. I didn’t go to the last one, but will go to the next one celebrating expanded choice for consumers, a healthier economy, and an improved environment. ­

Sand

Making batteries out of sand

shutterstock_207481162Researchers at the University of California, Riverside have come up with a magic ingredient that may improve the performance of lithium-ion batteries by a factor of three. It’s common beach sand.

“This is the holy grail — a low cost, non-toxic, environmentally friendly way to produce high performance lithium ion battery anodes,” said Zachary Favors, a graduate student working in the lab of professors Cengiz and Mihrimah Ozkan, where the research took place.

Beach-sand lithium-ion electric cars with a range of 300 miles instead of barely 100 – that’s a tall order. But Favors and the Ozkans seem to be on to something.

Favors said the idea came to him about six months ago when he was relaxing — where else? — on a beach in Southern California. He picked up a handful of sand and realized that it was mainly composed of quartz, which is silicon dioxide. Now, silicon has certainly played a large role in the California economy over the last several decades. Otherwise we wouldn’t have Silicon Valley. But that’s all been microchips and integrated circuits — “inscribing a computer on a grain of sand,” as you might call it. But batteries? To date no one had thought of applying silicon in battery technology before.

In his brief career as a graduate student, however, Favors became acutely aware of the challenges that face researchers in trying to devise more powerful and longer lasting batteries in the effort to make electrically driven vehicles a reasonable alternative to the gasoline-driven variety. So it got him thinking.

Favors’ research has focused on the anode, the negative terminal of the battery, which has traditionally been made from graphite. Researchers have tweaked and twisted the graphite in recent years, however, and haven’t been able to improve performance much. Now graphite, as you know, is made of carbon and carbon has the unique quality in that it has four available electrons, which is what makes it so versatile and the basis of all organic chemistry. But occupying the same position on the next line of the periodic table is silicon, which has the same properties. In fact, it is often said that if human beings hadn’t been made out of carbon, we might have been synthesized from silicon.

So Favors decided to see what would happen if he substituted silicon for carbon in a battery.

To do this, he first decided to find the beach sand that has the highest percentage of quartz. This turned out to be at the Cedar Creek Reservoir just east of Dallas, where he grew up! (Is there some karma at work here?) Sand in hand, he returned to the laboratory and began a very laborious process of trying to refine it into pure silicon.

The reason graphite works well as an anode, better than anthracite coal, for example, is because the molecules are loosely spaced, leaving plenty of room for electrons to gather. There’s been plenty of talk about grapheme and other carbon structures that would be an improvement but so far nothing has come of it. What Favors faced was the question of whether silicon could be shaped into such lattice-like structures that would also improve its ability to hold a charge.

Back in the lab, Favors took his Cedar Creek sand and ground it down to a very fine powder. Then he added salt and magnesium and heated the mixture. The salt absorbed the heat while the magnesium stripped the oxygen from the silicon dioxide, leaving a residue of pure silicon.

What Favors and the Ozkans discovered to their delight was that, when put through this procedure, the silicon assembled itself into a very porous, sponge-like formation that maximizes its ability to hold electrons. This “nano-silicon” has an energy density about three times that of the common graphite anodes, introducing the possibility of vast improvements in battery performance.

Silicon has been attempted to be used for battery material, but the problem has been that it degrades quickly and is hard to produce in large quantities. Another problem is that silicon tends to expand when taking a charge, often breaking in the process. But Favors and the Ozkans are hoping their approach can overcome these obstacles. The sponge-like quality of the lattice seems to reduce the swelling problem. And the basic elements — sand, salt and magnesium — are readily available, so costs should be manageable.

Favors, the Ozkans and their team of graduate students have published their findings in a paper entitled “Scalable Synthesis of Nano-Silicon from Beach Sand for Long Cycle Life Li-Ion Batteries” in Scientific Reports. They want to concentrate first on the lithium-ion batteries in cell phones, where substitution would be easy and the market is well established.

Still, it wouldn’t be surprising to find Elon Musk soon knocking on their door.

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Garage filling stations — are we getting close?

One of the greatest appeals of switching to an alternative-fuel vehicle — electric, compressed natural gas or hydrogen — is saving money and freeing yourself from the clutches of foreign oil. But another is being able to supply your own fuel from a garage filling station where you may even be able to generate some of it yourself.

All this takes on a certain air of necessity when you realize that most of the infrastructure for recharging or refilling is not yet in place. In many cases, the garage may be the best option right now. So let’s run down some of the different options available and see how they stack up as being economical and practical.

Let’s start with the easiest one — electric cars. There are three types of chargers available to owners of a Prius, Leaf or Chevy Volt. The first is a Level 1 “trickle” charger, which is just a basic 120-volt line that plugs into any three-pronged outlet. This is the standard plug-in for all EVs. The problem is the amount of time it takes for a complete charge. For the Leaf, it takes close to 21 hours, which means that you can’t even do it overnight. For hybrids there’s some leeway since you can always revert to the gas motor and do some brake recharging as well. But if you’re planning to rely completely on a home outlet, you’d better have a second car.

More favorable is a Level 2 240-volt circuit. If you have an electric clothes dryer in your house, you’re already equipped. If you don’t have a 240-volt system at home, installation is easy enough. It will require a 40-amp circuit breaker, which may need a permit from the local building department, but the job is simple enough. Recharging time will be cut to less than eight hours, enough for an overnight. Plugincars.com puts the price at $600 -$700, although vendors such as ClipperCreek lists some for less.

If you really want to go really high-tech, you can move up to a Level 3 480-volt power supply that can give you an 80 percent charge in half an hour. The whole package costs $30,000, but with federal tax breaks and some help from the car companies, you can get it down to $10,000. Nissan offers a unit for $9,900. You could probably recoup some of the costs by recharging EVs for your neighbors, but you might need a zoning variance.

So how about compressed natural gas? What are the options there?

The Honda Civic is the only CNG passenger vehicle being sold in the United States. (Most of the progress has been with delivery trucks and long-haul trailers.) There are currently 1,000 CNG filling stations across the country, but half of them belong to companies that are using them for their fleets. Only about 500 are available to the public. So, unless you’re traveling along an Interstate and can make it to one of Clean Energy Fuels’ new truck stops, you’re going to have a hard time.

Refilling at home, however, isn’t all that impractical. More than half the residences in the country are equipped with natural gas for home heating, cooking or hot water. The trick is to get a device that can compress this household gas to be used in your car.

Honda originally offered a home refueling kit, the Phill, which costs $4,500 and could do a refill overnight. Honda stopped making the offer after 2012; however, due to concerns about the widely varying quality of non-commercial gas and the possibility of home devices allowing moisture to collect in the fuel system. For those willing to take the chance, the Phill is still available from its manufacturer, BRC FuelMaker. The question is, “Why is it so expensive when the same pump would cost 10% if it filled air bottles?” There is a regulatory review needed to reduce the cost.

Seeking to promote the technology, the Department of Energy (DoE) handed out grants a few years ago to encourage companies to develop affordable home systems. Now one of them may have come through. The Eaton Corporation of Cleveland, already prominent in the field of electrical charging stations, announced in 2012 that it plans to market a CNG home refueling device by 2015. “The system will use liquid to act as a piston in compressing the gas,” says Chris Roche, vice president at Eaton’s Innovation Center. “We have also developed an innovative heat exchange technology that will improve efficiency and cut costs dramatically.” Eaton is aiming at production costs of $500, which means the device could sell for less than $1,000. GoNatural, a Salt Lake City company, has also promised to have a product available by 2015. “It could be a game changer,” said New York Times reporter Paul Stenquist, in profiling CNG home compressors last October.

So, what about hydrogen? Is there anything available there? Hydrogen is very difficult to deal with. It is the smallest atom and will leak through just about anything. It’s hard to store and transport and must be kept under high pressure.

The upside, however, is the possibility of generating your own hydrogen, particularly from renewable resources. This can be done with simple electrolysis of water, which only requires an electric current. If you can generate that current with wind or solar energy, then you are essentially powering your car for free.

Making it happen is probably a long way off, although people are working on it. HyperSolar, Inc., a Santa Barbara company, has announced “proof of concept” of a method for generating solar hydrogen. “Using our self-contained particle in a low cost plastic bag, we have successfully demonstrated our ability to mimic photosynthesis to produce renewable hydrogen from virtually any source of water using the power of the Sun,” said CEO Tim Young while making the announcement. Horizon Fuel Cells, a Singapore company, released a “desktop” hydrogen generator in 2010 that generates hydrogen through electrolysis from any power source. It sells for $250 on Amazon. Although the company is targeting much smaller fuel-cell devices, it could eventually scale up to handle quantities needed to run a hydrogen fuel cell car

Altogether for cutting loose from the local gas station, electric vehicles are the best bet for now. But natural gas in its many forms — including methanol — are moving up and renewable hydrogen may be on the horizon. With home-generating devices proliferating, it is not hard to see all this eventually making a dent in our consumption of fossil fuels.

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Elon Musk brings California to Detroit

shutterstock_185337863Elon Musk said he was going to shake things up in the auto industry and he certainly has. The billionaire PayPal founder from South Africa caught everyone by surprise two weeks ago when he announced that he will make most of Tesla’s patents available to competitors in an effort to speed the introduction of electric cars.

“Yesterday there was a wall of Tesla patents in the lobby of our Palo Alto headquarters,” wrote Musk in his Tesla blog on June 12. “That is no longer the case. They have been removed, in the spirit of the open source movement, for the advancement of electric vehicle technology.”

“Tesla Motors was created to accelerate the advent of sustainable transport,” he added. “If we clear a path to the creation of compelling electric vehicles, but then lay intellectual property landmines behind us to inhibit others, we are acting in a manner contrary to that goal. Tesla will not initiate patent lawsuits against anyone who, in good faith, wants to use our technology.”

The immediate consensus among pundits and industry analysts was that it was a brilliant move. “Musk isn’t naive, and Tesla isn’t a charity,” wrote Slate’s technology analyst Will Oremus. “Rather, he knows…the obstacles to Tesla’s success aren’t the Nissan Leaf and the BMW i3—they’re the constraints of technology, cost, infrastructure, and customer expectations. The more money is put into electric batteries, the cheaper and more powerful they’ll become. The more electric cars there are on the road, the greater will be the demand for regional and national networks of electric charging stations. And guess what company will stand to benefit the most?”

As Musk pointed out on MSNBC, the 400,000 electric cars on the road now “isn’t even near the decimal point” among the billion cars in the world today. And Musk won’t be satisfied with occupying a niche market. He wants to revolutionize our entire transportation system. His main concern is global warming, but any effort to substitute electric vehicles for the gasoline engine reduces our dependence on foreign oil as well.

So will the strategy speed the widespread use of electric cars? Pundits have scrambled for historical analogies. Several cited Ben Franklin’s lightning rod — although they seemed to miss the Founding Father’s even more important contribution, the Franklin stove, for which he did not seek a patent because he wanted to share it with the world. Both devices are still in use today. But the best contemporary example came from the familiar world of the Internet: “Sir Tim Berners-Lee, the creator of the World Wide Web, did want a penny for the Internet he built at CERN,” wrote Tanya Basu in Atlantic. “For the web to become the invaluable resource that it is today, it needed mass usership. Similarly, electric vehicles are hampered today because there aren’t a critical mass of users.”

So are we witnessing the birth of a technology as transforming as the Franklin stove or the World Wide Web? Can Tesla’s growing success become contagious, spreading to the entire auto industry? It’s certainly within the realm of the possible.

Musk will soon be choosing the location for his Gigafactory that, in theory at least, will turn out more lithium-ion batteries than the current world production. His efforts at open-sourcing EVs already seem to be bearing fruit as well. Immediately after the patent announcement, Tesla was reported to be in negotiations with BMW and Nissan about a mutual effort in funding charging stations. Maybe Ford and GM will end up jumping into the pool after all.

Some environmentalists have been critical of electric vehicles, arguing that as long as the grid runs on coal and natural gas there will be no overall reduction in emissions and the situation may even be made worse. But EV enthusiasts have countered with a very interesting observation. The power train in an electric vehicle is far more efficient than in a gasoline-powered car. About 60 percent of the original electricity is transformed into motion in an EV, as opposed to only 20 percent in the internal combustion engine. (Of course two-thirds of the original energy in fossil fuels is lost in transforming it into electricity.) When all the business of range and the availability of charging stations is settled, EVs may emerge as having many advantages that haven’t been prominent to this point.

So Musk’s unorthodox style may prove to have as big an impact in helping us reduce our consumption of foreign fuels. And here’s one more straw in the wind. Clean Energy Fuels, the company that is trying to convert the nation’s heavy-duty tractor-trailers to compressed natural gas, announced this week that it has completed a CNG Superhighway, stretching form Los Angeles to Houston, which will make refills easy for long-haul drivers.

We may be moving toward oil substitutes faster than we think.