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Hydrogen-powered cars steal some sex appeal in Detroit

Visitors to the North American International Auto Show in Detroit this week likely were awe-struck, along with critics, at the sight of the new high-powered Acura NSX and the Ford GT.

But this might be the show where hydrogen-powered vehicles finally graduated from the drawing board to the public consciousness.

Much buzz was created in the Motor City when Honda unveiled its FCV (for fuel-cell vehicle) concept car, which is expected to go on sale in the United States in 2016. The car is an answer to Toyota’s Mirai FCV, which is expected to be available in the U.S. later this year (Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe became the first person in the world to get one last week.)

The cars join the Hyundai Tucson and the Mercedes F-Cell in the hydrogen ranks. Hyundai reportedly has decided to lower the price of its vehicle (said to be about $139,000) to increase its competitiveness with its rivals.

Cost could be a big issue with consumers: The Mirai costs about $62,000, roughly the same as the Honda FCV.

Refueling access is another issue: There are only 13 hydrogen stations in the U.S., 11 of them in California. But the state is investing more than $46 million to build 28 new stations.

FCVs combine hydrogen, from a tank or cell, with oxygen that powers an electric motor. The key benefit is the short refueling time: Honda said its FCV could be fueled in about 3 minutes (at about 10,00 pounds per square inch). The vehicle has a range of roughly 300 miles, an improvement over the 240 achieved by Honda’s first-generation fuel-cell vehicle, the FCX Clarity. The Mirai also has about a 300-mile range.

One person unimpressed with all the attention hydrogen-powered cars were getting in Detroit was Tesla founder Elon Musk. As MLive reported:

“I just think they’re extremely silly,” he told reporters at Automotive News’ annual World Congress.

Musk argued that hydrogen acts as an energy storage unit, not a source of it, making it impractical for powering vehicles. He called drawing hydrogen from water “an extremely inefficient” process.

“If you’re going to pick an energy storage mechanism, hydrogen is just an extremely dumb one to pick,” Musk said.

Toyota is undaunted, saying it will share the 5,680 patents that went into its hydrogen fuel cells. Musk announced last year that Tesla would make its patents available to other carmakers.

Time reported:

“Hopefully by sharing these patents with others, these new fuel systems can be refined and improved,” said Toyota Senior Vice President Bob Carter, “to attract a larger market of buyers.”

The Mirai is starting with a small batch of 700 vehicles in 2014 with the goal of growing to tens of thousands by the 2020s. “We believe hydrogen electric will be the primary fuel for the next 100 years,” Carter said.

(Photo: Honda FCV, via Honda.com)

Electric company: GM makes statement with Bolt, Volt

General Motors CEO Mary Barra has sent a strong message to the auto industry: It’s serious about producing electric cars for the middle class.

One of the most talked-about vehicles unveiled Monday at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit was GM’s Bolt, an all-electric concept car that could go on sale in 2017, the Detroit Free Press reported. The company also officially unveiled its redesigned Volt, a plug-in electric-and-gasoline hybrid that got a first glimpse at CES in Las Vegas last week.

The Bolt’s price tag is $30,000, including the $7,500 federal tax incentive, GM North America president Alan Batey said. It would get about 200 miles on one battery charge.

As the Detroit News reported, GM is positioning the Bolt as an affordable EV option:

“This is truly an EV for everyone,” Barra said. “For most people, this can be their everyday driver.”

Batey said the Bolt isn’t aimed at Tesla, noting Tesla’s current average transaction prices are above $100,000.

“They are for the rich and famous. This is for the people,” Batey said of the Bolt. “I would probably counter and say I haven’t seen Tesla with anything like this.”

Despite what Batey said, Forbes took the unveiling as a direct challenge to Tesla:

The Bolt is a clear shot at upstart rival Tesla, which has said it is working on a less-expensive version of its $70,000+ Model S. Dubbed the “Model 3,” it would cost somewhere between $30,000-$40,000, a clear attack on the most popular segment of the automobile market.

Barra is clearly looking to meet the challenge. The Bolt, she said, would be an “all-electric vehicle for the real world.” Tesla CEO Elon Musk is scheduled to appear at a related auto industry conference in Detroit on Tuesday afternoon.

As for the revamped Volt (with a “V”), the biggest news is that the battery range has gone up to 50 miles. At that point, the gasoline engine, a 1.5-liter “range extender,” kicks in, pushing the limit to 400-some miles before the vehicle needs a charge or a fill-up. With the electricity and gas range combined, mpg on the highway is about 41. In all-electric mode, however, it’s 102 for a gallon-of-gasoline equivalent, thanks to the new 18.4-kilowatt-hour lithium battery.

Auto Blog notes:

To compare, today’s four-seat 2015 Volt has a 38-mile range from a 17.1-kWh battery in a powertrain that offers 37 mpg and 98 MPGe. So, across the board, there are notable improvements.

The blog has much more about the dashboard improvements, and the Verge has a bunch more photos.

The Volt is expected to be in showrooms in the second half of 2015 as a 2016 model.

(Photo: General Motors)

Throwback Thursday: Henry Ford, alcohol-fuel visionary

We might think of oil and automobiles as inextricably linked. But the earliest mass-produced vehicles were designed to run on multiple fuels, not just gasoline.

Henry Ford brought us the original mass-market flex-fuel vehicle. That fact made him one of the biggest stars of the Fuel Freedom-produced documentary PUMP the Movie, which is available on Netflix and DVD.

Ford’s Model T, introduced in 1908, could run just as well on alcohol fuels as on traditional gasoline. The driver could easily switch from one fuel to the other simply by turning a brass knob to the right of the steering column. This turned a screw in the carburetor, allowing either more or less fuel to enter the engine and mix with air. Alcohol fuel doesn’t contain as much energy as gasoline, so more of it needs to be injected to run the engine as well.

As David Blume, another PUMP star, shows in this video, drivers needed to switch between fuels because they wouldn’t know which fuel source would be available when they were out on a drive.

Henry Ford22Ford grew up on a farm in Michigan and always held farms, and farmers, dear to his heart. As historian Bill Kovarik’s fascinating study of Ford’s alcohol-fuel dedication shows, he clearly wanted to help cash-strapped farmers get into new markets by promoting agricultural products as fuel sources — not only corn, but anything else that could be fermented.

In 1919, Ford told The Christian Science Monitor (according to this New York Times account): “The fuel of the future is going to come from fruit like that sumach [a flowering plant] out by the road, or from apples, weeds, sawdust — almost anything.”

The movement to run vehicles on ethyl alcohol, or ethanol, was dealt a severe blow by the passage of the 18th Amendment to the Constitution, known as Prohibition, which banned the “manufacture, sale or transportation of intoxicating liquors,” even alcohol (ethanol is also known as grain alcohol, or “moonshine”) used as a fuel. Prohibition was repealed in 1933, and by then the ethanol market was severely weakened in America. Read Bill Ganzel’s truth-stranger-than-fiction account of what happened next, when the U.S. became convinced that leaded gasoline was the best way to raise gasoline octane levels.

But ethanol has staged an epic comeback: More than 13 billion gallons was used in 2013, according to the Renewable Fuels Association. That figure could reach 36 billion gallons by 2022 if the federal government continues to mandate blending an increasing amount of ethanol into the nation’s gas supply, under the Renewable Fuel Standard guidelines.

Make your voice heard: Sign Fuel Freedom’s petition urging major independent fueling retailers like Costco and Walmart to offer ethanol as an option for their customers.

Because unlike back in the day, you don’t even need a knob to make the switch to ethanol.

Despite cheap gas, EV sales were strong in 2014

One narrative for 2014 is that cheap gasoline reduced the incentive for energy-efficient vehicles.

Tell that to all the people who bought electric cars during the calendar year.

With sales data still coming in, it appears certain that U.S. sales of EVs, including both all-electric and plug-in hybrids, surpassed 100,000 units.

That marks the third straight year of sales increases, since the electric vehicles we know today first went on sale in December 2010, according to Green Car Reports. The growth rate won’t come close to 2013, however, when 97,000 EVs were sold, nearly doubling the 2012 total of 53,000.

Nissan is emerging as the sales champion for the year, having moved 30,200 all-electric Leafs, a new U.S. record for an EV. That’s up nearly 34 percent over 2013, when 22,610 Nissan Leafs were sold.

Compare that figure to the Chevy Volt, of which 18,805 were sold — down 19 percent from the previous year, when 23,094 were sold.

According to the Auto Blog, Volt sales really tailed off in December, with just 1,490 units, a 38 percent falloff from the same month in 2013. Nissan sold 3,102 units for the month, up 23 percent from December 2013. The federal government’s $7,500 sweetener might have played a role, as new-car buyers sought to grab that tax savings before the calendar turned.

More Auto Blog:

The Leaf outsold the Volt every month in 2014. The closest gap was 215 units, in February. The biggest was 1,612, in December.

One theory for the Volt slowdown is that potential buyers are waiting for the redesigned 2016 model. Although the car won’t be officially unveiled until the Detroit Auto Show next week, Chevrolet opened the kimono to allow journalists a peek Sunday night at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. Check out stories here, here and here.

What about sales of the Tesla Model S, you ask? The company doesn’t post monthly sales reports, so we’ll have to wait until later in the winter for its annual report. But Inside EVs mentions both Nissan and Tesla “hitting it out of the park” in December.

Inside EVs also has a breakdown of how other anticipated models sold during the year. For instance, Cadillac moved 1,310 units of its plug-in ELR. And BMW moved 6,092 units of the i3, “not bad considering it was only available for 7 full months in the US.”

Also:

Current owners got some good news this month as earlier, long standing issues surrounding the onboard chargers being muted to avoid failure incidents has now been rectified and BMW has a recall/repair bulletin out for owners to now get new units installed. 7.4 kW charges again for everyone!