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Car buyers go shopping for better mileage

With the price of oil down from about $115 to $63 since last June, the impression has been created that the auto world is once again in the hands of the oil industry, and that the gasoline engine is here to stay.

But this week at the Bloomberg New Energy Finance Conference, there was the distinct impression that alternatives to the gasoline engine are moving up so fast that within another five years we may see big changes. Bloomberg Business wrote that the result is “Future transport is likely to look a lot different than what the major oil companies are fueling now. Instead of biofuels such as ethanol and green diesel making the internal-combustion engine fit into a world with greenhouse gas limits, wholesale new solutions are coming fast.”

“Where we are is in an age of plenty,” Michael Liebreich, BNEF’s founder, told Bloomberg. “We have cheap oil, cheap gas, cheap renewables. You do have an abundance of supply in a way you haven’t had for decades. We also are in an age of competition.”

The biggest piece of news is that gasoline consumption has leveled off over the last decade and now is lower than it was in 2006. This is a remarkable development that no one knows quite how to explain. Part of it may be the lingering recession. Fleet mileage improvement has definitely made a difference, improving from 24.5 in 2001 to 31.6 today, a dramatic surge of 29 percent in 13 years. The Age of the Hummer is over, and people are being more selective in shopping for better mileage, even as the vehicles improve.

But Bloomberg Energy sees alternatively fueled vehicles also making headway in a way that is just becoming visible. Electric car sales have quintupled over the last four years, although they did start at a very low base. But battery prices are coming down as rapidly as solar-panel prices, which means that they soon will be in a range where the average American can afford them. Tesla’s 2017 debut of the Model 3, priced in the $35,000 range, is going to be a real turning point, if everything goes right.

Also coming along rapidly is the hydrogen car, which the Japanese auto industry has chosen as its alternative to gasoline. Toyota and Honda are just beginning to market their models in Japan, and BNEF anticipates there will be 4,200 on the road in Japan by 2018. But California is another big potential market, and sales are scheduled to begin there sometime late this year. The California Legislature has responded by expanding the Hydrogen Highway initiated by former government Arnold Schwarzenegger, making it easier for drivers to refuel.

Of course, all these predictions are taking place on a world scale, and there the progress may be even more rapid than in the United States. One thing Tesla discovered in its relatively abortive attempt to crack the Chinese market is that China already has a thriving electric-car industry. The cars, moreover, are not scaled-down versions of powerful sports cars but slow-moving vehicles that have been designed from the ground up.

In an article in Forbes last week, Jack Perkowski outlined what he called “China’s other electric vehicle industry:”

While the global automotive giants struggle to find a winning formula for electric vehicles, approximately 100 manufacturers in China have already identified a large potential market undiscovered by the traditional players. The common problems faced by EV automakers — high cost, driving range, and the availability of charging stations — are not issues for these manufacturers because their target customers are satisfied with low-speed and limited range EVs, as long as they provide affordable transportation. In 2014, 400,000 so-called ‘low-speed’ EVs were sold in China, compared to only 84,000 conventional all electric and hybrid electric vehicles.

To get a glimpse of the size of China’s potential market, consider this: China is already the world’s largest vehicle market, accounting for 25 percent of all vehicles manufactured globally. Yet there is only 1 vehicle per 10 people in China, whereas in the United States there are 8 for every 10 – more than one vehicle for every person of driving age. China also has another huge market for other electric vehicles. It has sold 90 million motorcycles and 120 million electric bicycles.

Estimates are that China now has a million such low-speed EVs on the road now and might reach 3 million by 2020. These cars can do about 48 miles per hour and are used for short runs around town in smaller cities, so range is not a problem. They are doing wonders for air pollution. Manufacture only began in 2006, and already some provincial governments are starting to write requirements that they be preferred to the older gasoline types.
Surprisingly, the only government entity that has been slow to embrace the low-speed EVs is the national government in Beijing. The Central Government has not counted these EVs is their official automotive statistics and is only now starting to write regulations on how crash-worthy they must be and on what roads they will be allowed to travel.

Perkowski concludes: “Low-speed EVs may not fit the stereotype of today’s modern passenger car, but in China, where incomes remain low for a large part of the country’s population, affordability often trumps those values held dear in more developed countries.”

Could China’s low-speed EVs find a market in the United States? It’s certainly possible. In any case, the anti-gasoline revolution may be coming in ways we did not anticipate.

Alternative fuels and vehicles: Good news on all fronts

If we’re going to replace the gasoline in our tanks, we’re going to need help from all kinds of directions. None of the alternatives is likely to do the whole job by itself, but every little bit helps.

That’s why it’s so encouraging that there was good news on all fronts this week, and why each little success gets us closer to having legitimate alternatives to take the place of gasoline.

Here’s a sampling of some of the news:

Batteries. A team at Stanford University announced it had developed a high-performance battery out of aluminum. This is important because aluminum is much cheaper than lithium, the current favorite among battery-makers. Aluminum has been used to make batteries, but the problem has always been keeping the voltage high after repeated charging and recharging. Now the Stanford team believes is has found the answer.

“We have developed a rechargeable aluminum battery that may replace existing storage devices, such as alkaline batteries, which are bad for the environment, and lithium-ion batteries, which occasionally burst into flames,” said Hongjie Dai, professor of chemistry who headed the team. “People have tried different kinds of materials for the cathode. We accidentally discovered that a simple solution is to use graphite, which is basically carbon. In our study, we identified a few types of graphite material that give us very good performance.”

This raises the question of whether Elon Musk can substitute aluminum batteries in his Gigafactory, a work in progress that is set to build lithium batteries for the new Tesla.

Hydrogen. Hydrogen cars are clean, producing only warm water for exhaust. But the problem is getting the hydrogen. The only known methods to date have been electrolysis of water, which is expensive and energy intensive, and “reforming” natural gas, which produces carbon dioxide and makes hydrogen just another fossil fuel. But now a team of scientists at Virginia Tech has come up with a catalyst the can make hydrogen quickly and cheaply from biomass.

“Researchers from Virginia Tech have developed a way to drastically cut the time and money necessary to produce hydrogen fuel,” reports The Christian Science Monitor. “By using discarded corn cobs, stalks, and husks, they have improved on previous methods deemed too inefficient by energy experts. Their research, which was funded in part by Shell, was published today in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.”

Using genetic algorithms, Percival Zhang and Joe Rollin developed an “enzymatic pathway” that speeds up the reduction of hydrogen from biomass. By including two simple plant sugars, glucose and xylose, they were able to increase the rate of hydrogen production while emitting an “extremely low amount” of carbon dioxide.

“Cost effective and productive in volume, this method could breathe new life into the hydrogen car,” says the CSM.

Biofuels. And speaking of enzymes, another team of researchers working for the Department of Energy has come up with a bacterium that efficiently breaks down biomass without pretreatment. The team has been using the system to extract ethanol from switchgrass, a fast-growing weed that has long been a favorite of biofuels enthusiasts. The strategy, called consolidated bioprocessing, uses the Caldicullulosiruptor beseii bacteria to split cellulose and then ferments it into ethanol. The strategy eliminates the very expensive pretreatment that requires heat and more enzymes. Several facilities are now trying to break down cellulose and convert it into ethanol, but this one-stop process would be a huge saving.

EVs. A study at the Stockholm Environment Institute says that electric vehicles may be coming into their own much faster than everyone thought. This is because the price of batteries is coming down faster than anticipated. EV batteries now cost approximately $300 per kilowatt-hour. They weren’t expected to fall much lower than that over the next five years. But the authors Bjorn Nykvist and Mans Nilsson say that recent developments have brought the price down as low as $150 per kilowatt-hour, which could make electric vehicles appealing for a much wider range of customers. Since the batteries normally make up at least half the price of the vehicle, it could reduce costs significantly. Or manufacturers might use the new low price to load up on batteries, increasing the range of the electric vehicle. Either way, the package becomes more attractive.

And that doesn’t even include the possibility that the aluminum battery developed at Stanford could be making batteries more efficient and lowering prices even further.

There’s a tremendous synergy going on in these fields, as researchers pursue numerous pathways in exploring alternative vehicles. One way or another, it means that alternatives to foreign oil are soon going to be making their way into the customer’s field of vision very soon.

Is Tesla really all that disruptive?

Elon Musk’s dream of revolutionizing the auto industry seemed to lose some of its luster last week as the fledgling electric car company ran into a few roadblocks in getting its new models into consumer hands.

The $35,000 Model X is scheduled to be leaking out to a few early customers late this year. Then full-scale production will begin in 2016. But already there is talk of delays and missed deadlines, so there might be an asterisk attached to those numbers soon.

The ultimate goal is selling 50,000 Model X’s by 2017, which still seems way over the horizon. A lot of those sales were supposed to come from China, and that’s developing into a problem. Musk was in China last week talking things over with Zhao Kuiming, head of Tesla’s China sales division, but Musk has already decided to “reboot.” It appears that Chinese buyers are still spooked by the lack of recharging stations, even though there have been a few grand openings around Beijing. Tesla was hoping to sell between 4,000 and 8,000 models in China in 2015, but only 120 cars were sold in January. Musk has cut the China staff from 600 to 420 and is recalculating just what can be expected from the Middle Kingdom. The tastes of the few Chinese millionaires who could be counted on to purchase the Tesla as a status symbol aren’t going to get him very far.

All this has spooked investors as well. They’ve driven the price of Tesla stock down nearly 20 percent since the start of the year. Once the highest flyer on the market, Tesla peaked at $293 a share last September, but it’s been a long descent ever since. Prices lingered around $180 per share last week. Even then, Tesla is trading at 232 times its expected earnings for 2015. The average stock on the NASDAQ, where it trades, is 21 times earnings. All this has lifted the short interest on Tesla stock to 27 percent of floating shares. The average on the NASDAQ, once again, is only 5 percent.

Nevertheless, all this could turn around quickly. Tesla already has 20,000 pre-orders on the Model X, and there is every reason to think its release could revolutionize the industry, much as Musk says. As it is emerging, the Tesla is going to be a device much more attuned to electronics and Silicon Valley as it is to Detroit and the auto industry. Musk is already introducing over-the-air (OTA) updates of the car’s software in a model, much more like an iPad than a Ford Focus. All those features you see advertised by the major automakers — rearview cameras, automatic emergency braking — will be standard in the Tesla. Musk is already talking about an automatic driving feature that will allow drivers to guide the car hands-free on Interstate highways. Of course, there are lots of state regulations that will have to be satisfied before this feature can go into effect. California, Nevada, Michigan, Florida and Washington, D.C., already have laws allowing driverless vehicles driving, but it’s unclear how Tesla’s system will be judged under these statutes.

Also decided at the state level is the question of whether Tesla can sell directly to customers or must work through established car dealerships. These laws are generally put into effect at the behest of local dealers to prevent the major auto companies from setting up their own shops. But Tesla has run afoul of the law in many states. The company just won a major victory when New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie came down in favor of Tesla. Georgia has also opened its doors to direct sales at five stores. But West Virginia has gone in the opposite direction, banning sales of Tesla altogether. There probably aren’t that many potential Tesla customers in West Virginia anyway.

Perhaps the unkindest cut came from Wall Street Journal columnist Holman Jenkins, who wrote a piece titled “Tesla: Just Another Car Company.” If you wanted to insult Elon Musk, you could hardly do better. “Elon Musk has proved that a market exists for electric cars, despite their many inconveniences, especially if they come wrapped in taxpayer subsidies,” Jenkins wrote. “But he hasn’t proved he can make a profit.”

Jenkins sees the Tesla operating in a niche market, in which a small percentage of customers are willing to ignore the problems in order to be “green.” Once this niche is filled, however, the market will thin out quickly. “Uber is disruptive,” he writes. “Tesla isn’t. Tesla is disruptive mostly of a driver’s confidence that he’s going to reach his destination without needing a tow.”

Yet this perspective is probably too negative of Tesla, and electric cars in general. There are people whose driving needs it fits perfectly. “I own a Tesla. It is beyond spectacular,” wrote one of the commenters to Jenkins’ piece. “The car has Di Minimus maintenance as there is nothing to break.” “That is why I bought a Tesla,” says another. “At 270 miles to start with, range anxiety is not my problem, yet. I rarely drive over 100 miles in any given day, and if I needed to, my Chevy Tahoe is still in the garage.” I have friends in Baltimore who bought a Nissan Leaf as a second car to tool around the city and love it.

So Tesla may just be filling a niche, but it is still a sizable one. Infrastructures can change a lot faster than we anticipate, especially where there is a demand for it. Tesla’s stock may be overvalued and due for another nosedive. But the company is still making big changes in the way we power our cars.

10 people who turned anger into solutions for high gas prices

So we’ve heard from Americans who say high gas prices have disrupted their lives and their work. Let’s shift to the people who are more than mad as hell. They’re mad enough to turn their energy into action.

Among these 10 ideas, what’s the most practical for your life?

 

“I just ditched my old 1998 Volvo S70 for a used Prius, and it is so much more fun to fill a 10-gallon tank than an 18-gallon one. And have it last more than a week of heavy Los Angeles commuting. It’s still new to me, so I still kind of giggle every time I fill up the tank. I’m thrilled to put the money I save toward better things.”
— Jennifer

“We save a lot of money in the summer because my wife takes the bus to the south side of Madison to go to work, and I pick her up in the afternoon, about 4 miles south of our home. If I was to take her to work and pick her up, it would be 48 miles round-trip, morning and afternoon. The bus is cheaper.”
— Laverne F., Madison, Wisconsin

“As gasoline was so high for so long, I made a bio-diesel processor from a old electric water heater and made my own fuel for the oil furnace and my old 1984 GMC van with a diesel engine. I still received 21 mpg. Begging for grease was the hard part.”
— Willis W.

“I wish I had a good story for you, but my wife and I drive a plug-in Chevy Volt. We hardly ever stop at a gas station, except perhaps once every 6 weeks or while on an occasional trip. When we top the tank, it seldom takes more than 5 1/2 gallons, i.e. less than $20 worth of premium fuel. The main reason that we stop at gas stations these days is to get an automatic car wash.”
— David and Barbara G., Gaithersburg, Maryland

“Still wondering how to convert my 99 Ford Expedition to NG?”
— Gary S., Laguna Woods, California

(We’re checking around to find a SoCal CNG conversion business. Will update later.)

“I have not visited a gas station since September 2014, when I took delivery of my Tesla. However, I still pay for my daughter’s gasoline, suffer the financial cost, and contribute to the oil industry’s wanton environmental degradation. Savings at the pump could help me fund her college education.”
— Dr. George

“Go electric. I did and am receiving my Tesla next week. No more gas at all.”
— Bob

“Today we bought a 2014 Ford Focus, a flex-fuel vehicle which enables us to use E85 for fuel. A small contribution to energy independence.”
— David

“We need a blender pump [for ethanol] in every station.”
— Melvin M.

“I top off my cars with E85 when I can. I fill up once a month with a discount at Kroger. I am really pushing to get Kroger to provide ETHANOL pumps and shop at the same place!”
— Gerard R., Stone Mountain, Georgia

 

Incidentally, here’s a handy guide to flex-fuel vehicles on the market.

Tesla hits some speed bumps

Tesla’s stock was down around $200 again after its fourth-quarter report disclosed that neither its sales nor profits had met analysts’ expectations. At the same time, the company went into what one analyst called its “insane mode” as founder Elon Musk predicted that by 2025 the company’s market capitalization would reach $700 billion, matching the current value of Apple.

Analysts were scratching their heads as Musk’s vision seemed utterly at odds with the difficulties that are starting to pile up with Tesla’s ability to meet current goals. The company’s 2014 revenues rose to $3.2 billion, up from $2 billion the year before. However, expenses continued to mount, and losses widened from $74 million to $294 million last year. For the fourth quarter, Tesla delivered only 9,834 of the 12,000 cars it had predicted. Musk blamed the winter weather and customers’ holiday travel for the shortfall. A bigger disappointment has been sales in China, where Tesla sold only 120 cars in January. Musk has supposedly messed up by insisting that the cars be sold only by dealers, whereas the Chinese want anyone to sell them. He also says that concerns about home chargers and the lack of public charging stations have made it extremely difficult to crack China’s notoriously tough market. Musk now says that the company is now not counting on any sales in China to help it reach its goals.

But those goals are wildly ambitious. Musk told analysts that Tesla is anticipating a 30 percent increase in revenues per year for the next 10 years, which is the pace needed to put Tesla’s market value on par with Apple’s. “That would imply sales volume of well over 5 million vehicles per year,” Edward Niedermeyer wrote in Bloomberg View. “That would have Tesla surpassing the 2014 sales of such familiar names as Nissan, Honda and Fiat-Chrysler – at highly significant profit margins – within a decade.” Needless to say, Niedermeyer and many others find this prospect unlikely.

But Tesla isn’t standing still. It announced last week that it will produce a battery for home electricity storage. This will fold nicely with its partnership with SunCity, run by Musk’s cousin. People who install solar panels on their roofs will welcome a battery system that allows them to store electricity for times when the sun doesn’t shine. Just as solar seems to function best when distributed across a wide variety of users, so energy storage may ultimately work best when it is distributed over a wide variety of users.

Whether Tesla will be able to survive all this, however, is still an open question. The main threat to Musk’s vision seems to be coming now, not from predictable delays and bumps in the road, but from healthy competition from experienced automakers. Chevrolet has announced the Bolt, a successor to the Volt, which will be swinging right in Tesla’s wheelhouse – the $30,000 market for electric vehicles that can travel 200 miles or more on one charge.

General Motors has moved the introduction date up to 2017 (the same as the Tesla 3) and seems deadly serious about entering the EV market. “The Bolt EV concept is a game-changing electric vehicle designed for attainability, not exclusivity,” General Motors CEO Mary Barra said in a statement. “Chevrolet believes electrification is a pillar of future transportation and needs to be affordable for a wider segment of customers.”

Besides the Bolt, GM will have an improved version of the Volt, plus the $75,000 Cadillac ELR, a plug-in model. Daniel Miller of Motley Fool isn’t terribly impressed with any of these efforts, noting that the ELR has already had little success competing with Tesla’s Model S in the luxury-car category. “Because of that premium, first-mover brand image that Tesla created with its Model S, it’s hard to imagine how the Bolt will steal much of Tesla’s Gen 3 market in 2017, even if it is price-competitive,” Miller writes.

But if Tesla really has something to worry about, it’s the rumors that Apple, its Silicon Valley rival and the world’s largest company, is preparing a secret plan to enter the car market as well. Just this week it was revealed that Apple has a secret project employing 1,000 people to come up with some kind of concept car that will rival the Tesla Model 3.

“Apple has batted around the idea of developing a car for years,” reported Adam Satariano and Tim Higgins of Bloomberg Business. “Phil Schiller, Apple’s senior vice president of marketing, said in 2012 court testimony that executives discussed building a car even before it released the iPhone in 2007. Mickey Drexler, an Apple board member and head of J Crew Group Inc., also said in 2012 that Apple co-founder Steve Jobs had wanted to build a car.”

Apple has worked on batteries for the iPhone and iPad and also has a supply chain that could easily be applied to vehicles. “The mapping system it debuted in 2012 can be used for navigation. Last year, Apple also introduced CarPlay, a software system that integrates iTunes, mapping, messaging and other applications for use by automakers,” Satariano and Higgins wrote. Of course, that’s a long way from turning out thousands of vehicles, but Apple has invaded other businesses before. It basically knew nothing about the music business when it started on iTunes, and had no experience with telephones when it invented the smartphone.

In any case, even if Tesla finds itself in competition with much larger established companies – something Musk predicted at the start – it is revolutionizing the field of automobiles by making the electric car seem practical. Although Musk’s dream may prove to be overblown, he has certainly advanced the search for alternatives to the internal combustion engine.

U. of Minnesota’s ethanol study falls flat

Every so often, a new “study” is published that shows why many of oil’s competitors are “bad” in one form or another. Such “studies” are usually widely circulated in the media without much fact-checking. When other experts start looking into the “study,” they usually find that it is anything but scientific (remember all those “studies” that said that smoking is good for you.)

The question each American should ask is, Why are they trying to tell us which fuel we should use? All these studies basically don’t want Americans to be exposed to other fuels (in order to maintain the oil monopoly). Americans are smart enough to decide which fuel is best for them, but that’s what scares the oil monopoly. They don’t want competition at the pump. Take a look at the most recent “study.”

Researchers at the University of Minnesota have stirred up a hornet’s nest by supposedly proving that ethanol is no better than gasoline for air emissions, and electric cars don’t fare much better either, especially if they get their electricity from coal. The study compared the air pollution level of gasoline with 10 alternative fuels and came up with a winner – what they called “renewed methane” — methane captured from landfills, which have no link to fossil fuels.

Air-pollution groups and the ethanol industry pointed out that the study was deeply flawed and based on outdated assumptions.

“On a full lifecycle basis, the study’s results are contradictory to the results from the Department of Energy’s latest GREET model,” the Renewable Fuels Association wrote in a response published the next day. (GREET stands for “Greenhouse gases, Regulated Emissions, and Energy use in Transportation,” a recent standard set by the Department of Energy that attempts to measure all energy use for the different fuels through the entire life cycle. GREET shows ethanol doing fairly well, while the Minnesota study used an older model that is not as favorable to ethanol.)

“There is a substantial body of evidence proving that ethanol reduces both exhaust hydrocarbons and CO emissions, and thus can help reduce the formation of ground-level ozone,” the RFA said. The study “… excludes NOx and SOx emissions associated with crude oil extraction, a decision that grossly under-represents the actual lifecycle emissions impacts of gasoline. Omitting key emissions sources from the lifecycle assessment of EVs and crude oil inappropriately skews the paper’s results for the overall emissions impacts of these fuels and vehicles.”

The study included the entire lifecycle components of ethanol but excluded the lifecycle components of gasoline (like tar sands extraction). This is not a minor omission. It essentially means that the entire report is materially incorrect.

The Urban Air Initiative was also highly critical of the Minnesota report. “The study utterly failed to consider a vast body of research by auto industry and health experts that conclusively show gasoline aromatic hydrocarbons are the primary source of the most dangerous urban pollutants,” said David VanderGriend, president of the Initiative. “The aromatics — which comprise 25–30 percent of U.S. gasoline — are responsible for a wide range of serious health effects, including autism, cancer and heart disease.”

“Urban air pollution, and specifically summertime smog or ozone, is a mix of volatile organic compounds, carbon monoxide, particulates, NOx, and countless other factors. Gasoline itself is a toxic soup of chemicals, but as we add ethanol we clean up that gasoline and protect public health,” added VanderGriend, whose group keeps track of pollutants in cities.

VanderGriend pointed out that ethanol is a source of clean, low carbon octane that is used in federal reformulated gasoline in major U.S. cities. Although it is not required, refiners choose ethanol for its clean-burning properties and its ability to help them meet emission standards. “Excess carbon monoxide has essentially been eliminated in the U.S. due to the presence of ethanol, and ozone violations are at the lowest levels in the history of the automobile,” said the RFA response. According to the EPA, the amount of ozone in the air has decreased 18 percent from 2000 to 2013.

What the Minnesota study completely misses is the role that ethanol is playing in reducing our dependence on foreign oil. People have jumped to the conclusion that because our imports have fallen and because the price of oil has nosedived, we don’t have to rely on oil from countries that oppose our policies at all. Nothing could be further from the truth. We still import about 40 percent of our oil and spend $300 billion in the process. This figure is likely to remain high as oil bounces back from its recent lows. The major chunk of our trade deficit is made up of imported oil.

We still have a lot way to go in freeing ourselves from these responsibilities. All these strategies – ethanol, methanol, compressed natural gas, electric vehicles and others – can play a part. The important thing is to give consumers a choice – as Fuel Freedom Foundation has long recommended. The last thing we want to do is be influenced by studies that are heavily biased against ethanol or any of the other alternatives that threaten the monopoly of gasoline.

Swappable batteries make a comeback, in the Smartscooter

Shai Agassi had a great idea. Buy an electric car in which you can swap out the battery for a fresh one. That way you bypass the recharging time, which may be up to 4 hours.

It was a great idea, and Agassi got a lot of publicity when he introduced it in 2011. He was going to set up a network of charging stations in Israel, then try to expand into Europe and the United States. But A Better Place, Agassi’s company, declared bankruptcy in 2013. The idea didn’t catch on. Battery-swapping stations proved more complicated and difficult than anticipated, and the idea just didn’t resonate with motorists.

Now a secretive American designer named Horace Luke has come up with the same idea, but he wants to apply it to a new electric scooter called the Smartscooter. The battery will be much smaller. The machine in which you exchange your depleted battery for a new one will be about the size of an ATM. You will get about 40 miles to the charge, which will make it excellent for commuting. Altogether, it’s not just an alternative vehicle but an entirely seamless system he hopes will revolutionize transportation. Once the idea catches on with scooter owners, he hopes it will eventually extend to cars as well.

There are pluses and minuses to the idea: Luke hopes it will diminish dependence on gasoline and introduce electric vehicles as a true alternative. Critics point out that there are no reliable indicators that powering a car with electricity does anything to reduce carbon emissions, especially if some of the electricity is produced by coal, which provides 46 percent of the nation’s power. Luke counters that much electricity can be produced by wind and solar, and that batteries are an excellent way of storing surplus power. There is even talk that these batteries will be a way of evening out the ups and downs of the grid — although, of course, they will not be able to feed the grid and get you home from work on your Smartscooter at the same time.

There are other problems as well. Many people complain that scooters are useless in the rain and cold, while others say a good raincoat or warm clothing will solve that problem. There are also concerns about scooter finding a place to park where they can be chained up, and worries that they are easily stolen. But overall, the idea of a scooter that can be easily recharged and make 60 miles per hour on an electric battery seems to have some appeal.

In any case, it’s enough to help Luke raise $150 million for his company, Gogoro, which intends to start marketing the scooter system this year. Both the price of the scooter and the subscription that will allow the owner to start swapping batteries are yet to be announced.

Luke is not the first since Agassi to come up with the idea of substituting swapping for recharging. In defiance of Agassi’s abortive effort, Tesla has shown off a concept for a station that would allow a Model S to replace its battery in 90 seconds. Although the system was promised by the end of 2013, Tesla has barely mentioned it since. There was some talk about a launch early this year. The problem is that a Tesla battery weights about 100 pounds and requires a complex system to replace, whereas the scooter battery exchange can easily be handled by one person. “We no longer want to talk about charge time,” said Luke, “we want to talk about swap time.”

The Smartscooter received a nice write-up in the current edition of Wired, but even there the sophisticated readership had its doubts that the technology could be applied to cars. One online commenter wrote: “Even if it [the battery] could be replaced in 1 second, people would still rather fill their tanks, than assembling heavy batteries back and forth. Only battery enthusiasts are willing to do every inconvenient thing, to keep their dream alive.”

Other readers complained about how lithium ion batteries lose their charge and don’t store easily. They will have to be continually recharged, which of course requires electricity.

In short, the swappable electric scooter is no sure thing. There are plenty of obstacles that will make it difficult to catch on. But it’s definitely a step in the right direction in making people more accepting of modes of transportation other than imported gasoline.

(Photo credit: Gogoro)

Tesla going full speed ahead, but it has competition

Shrugging off any concern about falling gas prices, Tesla is planning to have its medium-priced Model III on the road by 2017. If it meets with anything like the reception of the 2014 Model S, Tesla will be in good shape.

Auto reviewers were ecstatic about the Model S, saying it put Tesla in a class by itself. As Ali Aslani wrote on MasterHerald.com:

If you think electric cars are slow and wretched creatures, you obviously haven’t seen the 2014 Tesla Model S. This vehicle is a beast on wheels that will make you forget half your life’s problems, until you look down at the dash and remember that you cannot pull up to a gas station for refueling, once you run out.

That refueling is becoming less and less common, however, as Tesla’s battery technology has pushed the range for its vehicles to 400 km, or 250 miles. It’s enough for a good commute to work. And recharging stations are becoming more common as Tesla and other auto manufacturers push to have them installed.

What really turns on car enthusiasts, however, is the acceleration possible with an electric motor. Alex Kerston posted a video on CarThrottle.com, in which a user who normally drives a Lamborghini Aventador has just ridden in the 691-hp Model S P85D:

The acceleration is ridiculous. I daily drive an Aventador and I thought I got used to fast acceleration. But no. … As a passenger, you do not get a chance to get ready for it at all. My internal organs were glued to the back of my body. … after about a dozen of those 0-60 accelerations, I felt like I had to puke – probably the first time I’ve felt this way in many years.

The question is, is this the kind of performance ordinary drivers are looking for? The Model III will weigh 1,000 pounds more than the Model S and therefore won’t be in the same class as the roadsters. But at $35,000 to $50,000, it will still be in the higher class of buyers. With all the inconveniences of recharging and being a first mover in the electric field, it will be a wonder if the Tesla standard model will be able to reach the 500,000 sales mark at which the company is aiming.

Meanwhile, other auto manufacturers are not standing still. Last week, Volkswagen, the largest auto company in the world, reportedly bought a stake in the Silicon Valley battery manufacturer QuantumScape, which gives VW access to a technology that could potentially deliver far more range that Tesla’s 400 km. QuantumScape’s solid-state batteries also carry a smaller risk of fire than the lithium-ion batteries used in many electric vehicles, including Tesla’s. Hybrid technology leader Toyota has been developing comparable technology since at least 2010, and EV leader Nissan has been promising similar developments. By the time Tesla comes to market with its lithium-ion-driven Model III, it could end up looking downright conservative in its technology.

Volkswagen’s investment in solid-state batteries is especially interesting, since at one point it was actually copying Tesla’s approach to EV battery technology. In 2009 and 2010, Volkswagen was working with Tesla co-founder Marin Eberhard on Tesla’s cylindrical-style lithium batteries but rejected the technology as too complex when it brought the e-Golf to market. Now Volkswagen is looking to leapfrog Tesla into solid-state technology.

Volkswagen Group is planning a short-term offensive against Tesla. It will bring out the $100,000 electric R8 sports car to compete with the Model S. Also in the works is the forthcoming Q8 crossover coupe. Both cars will be produced by VW’s Audi subsidiary.

Other manufacturers are taking aim at Tesla’s share of the $100,000 electric sports-car market. BMW is likely to add more products to its electric “I” brand and has unveiled an electric powertrain that it’s calling the “Tesla killer.” Porsche, also owned by Volkswagen Group, is said to be planning an electric version of a smaller sedan, code-named the Pajun. Former Tesla investor Mercedes-Benz is also working on an electric version of its flagship S-Class vehicles.

The takeaway is that powerful electric vehicles with a suitable range are no longer going to be a luxury item. If Tesla is successful in breaking through with the Model III, it’s going to be followed quickly by competitors in the same class and perhaps with a different technology.

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)

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!