There are 19 million flex-fuel vehicles on the road in the United States, including 1 million in California alone. We’re going to venture out on a limb and guess that the vast majority of people who own those vehicles don’t know what “flex-fuel” means. So let us offer you a primer!
It’s difficult to predict what’s in store for the CAFE standards technical assessment to be released later this year, the first step in a thorough process to revisit fuel-efficiency standards for cars, trucks and SUVs. Read more
Southern Californians are in a state of shock. Again. Prices for regular unleaded gasoline shot up literally overnight late last week, and they continued climbing this week: According to GasBuddy.com, the average price for 87-octane gas in the Los Angeles area was $4.155 Monday, up 20 cents from Sunday, and 60 cents over the past week.
At some stations, the disparity was even more of a jolt: At a 76 station in Sherman Oaks, the price went from $3.99 to $4.59 in minutes last Friday; at a Mobil in North Hollywood, it was $4.99. The national average was only $2.78, a benchmark tied to the relatively low price of oil, which stood at $57.85 Monday.
It’s a familiar ritual in SoCal: Prices jump for no apparent reason (at least this time no one can say they weren’t warned); oil companies and refineries offer rationalizations, based on byzantine economic factors; often people in power demand answers, possibly even scheduling some kind of inquiry or legislative hearings; and then prices float back down again, never as quickly as they rose, and consumers forget about what the heck just happened.
The latest explanation, as parroted by many among the local media, is this: There’s a shortage of gasoline inventory, and a drop in fuel imports coming from overseas. California has a cleaner standard for gas than the rest of the country. And by the way, it’s summer, etc. Allison Mac, an analyst for GasBuddy, also said the explosion and fire at the ExxonMobil refinery in Torrance back in February has had a lingering effect: “That is still down,” she told NBC4, adding that the refinery accounts for about 10 percent of SoCal’s gasoline supply.
Jamie Court, president of the Santa Monica-based group Consumer Watchdog, suspects price-fixing. “Make no mistake, this is all about pure profits for the oil companies,” he told KTLA-TV. “Crude oil costs are like under $60 a barrel right now. We have four refineries that control 78 percent of the market. All they have to do is pull a couple ships coming in, and the prices go up 60 cents in a night.”
Consumers have a right to be outraged. But many of them are strangely resigned, insisting they have no control over the gyrations of the gas market.
“We have to pay for gas. I mean, like, we’ve got to get around. There’s no getting around it.” — Jaclyn Williams, Van Nuys, to ABC7.
“What are you gonna do? I mean, you gotta … I actually bike to work a couple times a week, so I try to balance it out like that. –- Jason Bielawski, Los Angeles, to Channel 5.
“The price went up real bad. Whose fault is it? Let’s blame somebody,” he joked. “What can we do?” — Frank Zamarripa, Santa Ana, to the Orange County Register.
Drivers don’t have to just take it, and they don’t have to start riding a bike in L.A. traffic (if you do, use a scuba tank). All they have to do is start using E85, which is up to 85 percent ethanol (a cleaner-burning, cheaper fuel) and 15 percent gasoline (the dirtier, crazy-expensive fuel).
You might be driving one of the more than 17 million flex-fuel vehicles, which can take any ethanol blend up to E85. Others who don’t own an FFV are filling up on E85 anyway, owing to the attractive price point. There are more than 2,600 stations that sell E85, including many in Southern California. I dropped in at the G&M station at Beach Boulevard and Warner Avenue in Huntington Beach. The station has two Propel Fuels pumps that dispense E85 (Propel the company featured in PUMP the Movie), and the best attribute of ethanol is right there on the marquee:
$2.99. That’s the price G&M was charging Monday for E85, a full dollar less than 87 unleaded.
Despite that differential, the green Propel island was getting no love from customers. Someone had just been there, a truck, it seemed, because it had just pumped 24.7 gallons for $74.00. The other drivers lined up to pay the exorbitant price for gasoline.
They included Janet Martin, a web designer from Laguna Beach, who filled up her Toyota Camry. “I think it’s greed,” she said when asked her theory of high prices. “It seems to get more expensive when it’s tourist season or summer vacation, where people are using their cars more often.
“It’s frustrating, but we have no control. It’s the people up on top, it’s the people who have the money, it’s the people that are in charge of the corporations …”
As long as oil remains our predominant fuel choice, American consumers will continue to be vulnerable to market gyrations. Prices go up and down, sometimes based purely on market forces, other times based on events in the Middle East, other times still based on not much at all. As former Shell Oil president John Hofmeister says: “We will never get past the volatility of oil until we get to alternatives to oil.”
Californians should know this better than anyone by now, and they should be first in line to demand alternatives. Learn more about what you can do at our Take Action page.
You’ve seen the badges on the rear ends of cars, trucks and SUVs, likely while you’re stuck in traffic. They say “FlexFuel” or, more descriptively, “FlexFuel … E85 Ethanol.” Almost 20 million vehicles in the United States come off the assembly line as flex-fuel, meaning they can run perfectly well on any mixture of gasoline and ethanol, up to E85 (which is actually 51 percent to 83 percent ethanol, the rest gasoline).
But not all of them have that shiny badge declaring them flex-fuel vehicles (FFVs). Sometimes a yellow gas cap is the dead giveaway, but those caps only started appearing on model-year 2008 vehicles (2006 for General Motors). Buried deep inside the owner’s manual, too, is a notice about which fuels are approved to run in your vehicle.
Now, there’s an easy tool that will tell you whether you’re one of those lucky 20 million whose vehicle can take E85. Fuel Freedom Foundation has just unveiled the Check Your Car tool. You can enter in your vehicle’s make, model, year and engine size, and it’ll tell you whether you’re driving an FFV.
This tool is long overdue, because ever since the first FFV rolled out of the factory — the 1996 Ford Taurus, which actually could run on gasoline, ethanol and methanol — FFV owners have consistently not taken advantage of all these engines can do. Less than 10 percent of such drivers use E85. Part of the reason likely is that only a small percentage of the nation’s fueling stations offer it. But that proportion is rising: E15, which has twice as much ethanol as regular gasoline (which contains up to 10 percent ethanol already), is spreading around the country, and more stations are offering E85 as well.
Using higher ethanol blends, and less gasoline, has multiple benefits:
- It’s cheaper for consumers. The Renewable Fuels Association says blending ethanol into the nation’s gasoline supply saves the average American family about $1,200 a year.
- It’s a natural octane enhancer, which makes engines perform better.
- Since ethanol burns more efficiently, it results in fewer tailpipe emissions being released into the air, which is better for air quality.
- It’s an American-made fuel, requiring American-based jobs. The U.S. only produces less than 10 million barrels of crude a day but consumes some 19 million. The difference must be imported.
Check Your Car is part of our Fuels 101 initiative, which will soon include other features such as an education page about the various fuel types; how to find a station that sells alternative fuels (for the time being, use the Alternative Fuels Data Center’s locator); and how to find a kit that could convert your gasoline-only engine to run on ethanol.
So check back soon. In the meantime, kick the tires and take Check Your Car for a test drive.
Some environmentalists believe that if you invest in and develop alternative replacement fuels (e.g., ethanol, methanol, natural gas, etc.) innovation and investment with respect to the development of fuel from renewables will diminish significantly. They believe it will take much longer to secure a sustainable environment for America.
Some of my best friends are environmentalists. Most times, I share their views. I clearly share their views about the negative impact of gasoline on the environment and GHG emissions.
I am proud of my environmental credentials and my best friends. But fair is fair — there is historical and current evidence that environmental critics are often using hyperbole and exaggeration inimical to the public interest. At this juncture in the nation’s history, the development of a comprehensive strategy linking increased use of alternative replacement fuels to the development and increased use of renewables is feasible and of critical importance to the quality of the environment, the incomes of the consumer, the economy of the nation, and reduced dependence on imported oil.
There you go again say the critics. Where’s the beef? And is it kosher?
Gasoline prices are at their lowest in years. Today’s prices convert gasoline — based on prices six months ago, a year ago, two years ago — into, in effect, what many call a new product. But is it akin to the results of a disruptive technology? Gas at $3 to near $5 a gallon is different, particularly for those who live at the margin in society. Yet, while there are anecdotes suggesting that low gas prices have muted incentives and desire for alternative fuels, the phenomena will likely be temporary. Evidence indicates that new ethanol producers (e.g., corn growers who have begun to blend their products or ethanol producers who sell directly to retailers) have entered the market, hoping to keep ethanol costs visibly below gasoline. Other blenders appear to be using a new concoction of gasoline — assumedly free of chemical supplements and cheaper than conventional gasoline — to lower the cost of ethanol blends like E85.
Perhaps as important, apparently many ethanol producers, blenders and suppliers view the decline in gas prices as temporary. Getting used to low prices at the gas pump, some surmise, will drive the popularity of alternative replacement fuels as soon as gasoline, as is likely, begins the return to higher prices. Smart investors (who have some staying power), using a version of Pascal’s religious bet, will consider sticking with replacement fuels and will push to open up local, gas-only markets. The odds seem reasonable.
Now amidst the falling price of gasoline, General Motors did something many experts would not have predicted recently. Despite gas being at under $2 in many areas of the nation and still continuing to decrease, GM, with a flourish, announced plans, according to EPIC (Energy Policy Information Agency), to “release its first mass-market battery electric vehicle. The Chevy Bolt…will have a reported 200 mile range and a purchase price that is over $10,000 below the current asking price of the Volt.It will be about $30,000 after federal EV tax incentives. Historically, although they were often startups, the recent behavior of General Motor concerning electric vehicles was reflected in the early pharmaceutical industry, in the medical device industry, and yes, even in the automobile industry etc.
GM’s Bolt is the company’s biggest bet on electric innovation to date. To get to the Bolt, GM researched Tesla and made a $240 million investment in one of its transmissions plan.
Maybe not as media visible as GM’s announcement, Blume Distillation LLC just doubled its Series B capitalization with a million-dollar capital infusion from a clean tech seed and venture capital fund. Tom Harvey, its vice president, indicated Blume’s Distillation system can be flexibly designed and sized to feedstock availability, anywhere from 250,000 gallons per year to 5 MMgy. According to Harvey, the system is focused on carbohydrate and sugar waste streams from bottling plants, food processors and organic streams from landfill operations, as well as purpose-grown crops.
The relatively rapid fall in gas prices does not mean the end of efforts to increase use of alternative replacement fuels or renewables. Price declines are not to be confused with disruptive technology. Despite perceptions, no real changes in product occurred. Gas is still basically gas. The change in prices relates to the increased production capacity generated by fracking, falling global and U.S. demand, the increasing value of the dollar, the desire of the Saudis to secure increased market share and the assumed unwillingness of U.S. producers to give up market share.
Investment and innovation will continue with respect to alcohol-based alternative replacement and renewable fuels. Increasing research in and development of both should be part of an energetic public and private sector’s response to the need for a new coordinated fuel strategy. Making them compete in a win-lose situation is unnecessary. Indeed, the recent expanded realization by environmentalists critical of alternative replacement fuels that the choices are not “either/or” but are “when/how much/by whom,” suggesting the creation of a broad coalition of environmental, business and public sector leaders concerned with improving the environment, America’s security and the economy. The new coalition would be buttressed by the fact that Americans, now getting used to low gas prices, will, when prices rise (as they will), look at cheaper alternative replacement fuels more favorably than in the past, and may provide increasing political support for an even playing field in the marketplace and within Congress. It would also be buttressed by the fact that increasing numbers of Americans understand that waiting for renewable fuels able to meet broad market appeal and an array of household incomes could be a long wait and could negatively affect national objectives concerning the health and well-being of all Americans. Even if renewable fuels significantly expand their market penetration, their impact will be marginal, in light of the numbers of older internal combustion cars now in existence. Let’s move beyond a win-lose “muddling through” set of inconsistent policies and behavior concerning alternative replacement fuels and renewables and develop an overall coordinated approach linking the two. Isaiah was not an environmentalist, a businessman nor an academic. But his admonition to us all to come and reason together stands tall today.
One of the many fascinating storylines in the documentary PUMP (which is now available for download on iTunes) is the yarn about how several companies got together to take on a common enemy: popular, affordable electric trains and trolleys that criss-crossed the nation early in the 20th century. That’s a very different country than we live in today, when the automobile is as ingrained in our culture and economy as ever. As former Shell Oil president John Hofmeister puts it in the film:
“We live in a society in which we rely on personal mobility as the primary means of transportation. And there’s no public transportation system to rely upon in the United States of America as an alternative to high prices or shortages.”
Narrator Jason Bateman follows up:
“America wasn’t always without transportation choices. Once upon a time, we had the best and cheapest public transportation in the world.”
Bateman then gives way to an expert on this subject, Edwin Black, whose book Internal Combustion details the effort to target the trolleys. Black explains in PUMP:
“People loved the trolleys. They could hop off, they could hop on … all the trolleys ran on electricity. It was said that you could go from San Diego to New York City on a trolley just by transferring, transferring and transferring.”
In the 1930s and ’40s, five companies — Standard Oil, Mack Truck, Firestone, Phillips and General Motors — colluded to create a secret company that bought up all the trolley lines and passenger cars.
“… the rails were pulled up, the trolley cars themselves were burned in public bonfires [as seen in the photo above], and they replaced them with smelly, oil-consuming motor buses. Eventually, the federal government discovered that this was a conspiracy to subvert mass transit. All five corporations were indicted, they were tried, they were found guilty. A corporate conspiracy was responsible for destroying the trolleys in America.”
The reckoning was a little late, however. Back to Bateman:
“With cheap public electric transportation eliminated by oil and car companies, the vision of America’s future switched from rails to roads.”
That led to the interstate highway system, which only intensified our love affair with the automobile. A relationship that relies, essentially, on just one fuel type: gasoline. Of course, many of today’s municipal bus fleets run on compressed natural gas (CNG) or liquefied natural gas (LNG). And rail projects are often on the minds of planners. But getting away from gas-burning transport has been a difficult road, as anyone following the fight over California’s $68 billion high-speed rail project knows. To get a sense of how the story of oil’s dominance came to, and to see what you can do to end our addiction to it, watch PUMP. (Photo credit: Submarine Deluxe)
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)
Things have always been a little easier in Europe when it comes to saving gas and adopting different kinds of vehicles. The distances are shorter, the roads narrower, and the cities built more for the 19th century than the 21st.
Europeans also have very few oil and gas resources, and have long paid gas taxes that would make Americans shudder. Three to four times what we pay in America is the norm in Europe.
Thus, Europeans have always been famous for their small, fuel-sipping cars. Renault was long famous for its Le Cheval (the horse), an-all grey bag of bones that’s barely powerful enough to shuttle people around Paris. The Citroën, Volkswagen and Audi were all developed in Europe. Ford and GM also produced models that were much smaller than their American counterparts. Gas mileage was fantastic — sometimes reaching the mid-40s. A big American car getting 15 miles per gallon and trying to negotiate the streets of Berlin or Madrid often looked like a river barge that had wandered off course.
More Europeans also opt for diesel engines instead of conventional gasoline — 40 percent by the latest count. The overall energy conversion in a diesel engine is over 50 percent and can cut fuel consumption by 40 percent. But diesel fuel is still a fossil fuel, which have a lot of pollution problems and don’t really offer a long-range solution. So, Europeans decided that it’s time to move on to the next generation.
Last week the European Union laid down new rules that will try to promote the implementation of all kinds of alternative means of transportation, making it easier for car buyers to switch to alternative fuels. The goal is to achieve 10 percent alternative vehicles by 2025 over a wide range of technologies, removing the impediments that are currently slowing the adoption of alternatives. If everything works out, tooling around Paris in an electric vehicle within a few years without suffering the slightest range anxiety would become a reality.
By the end of 2015, each of Europe’s 28 member states will be asked to build at least one recharging point per 10 electric vehicles. Since the U.K. is planning to have 1.55 million electric vehicles. That would require at least 155,000 recharging stations, which is a pretty tall order. But members of the commission are confident it can be done. “We can always call on Elon Musk,” said one official.
For compressed natural gas, the goal is to have one refueling station located every 150 kilometers (93 miles). This gives CNG a comfortable margin for range. With liquefied petroleum (LPG) it will be for one refueling station every 400 kilometers (248 miles). These stations can be further apart because they will mainly be used by long-haul trucks travelling the TEN-T Network, a network of road, water and rail transportation that the Europeans have been working on since 2006.
Interestingly, hydrogen refueling doesn’t get much attention beyond a sufficient number of stations for states that are trying to develop them. There is noticeably less enthusiasm for hydrogen-powered vehicles than is expressed for EVs and gas-powered vehicles. All this indicates how the hydrogen car has become a Japanese trend while not arousing much interest in either Europe or America.
At the same time, Europeans are planning very little in the way of ethanol and other biofuels (they also mandate 20 percent ethanol in fuel). Sweden is very advanced when it comes to flex-fuel cars. They have been getting notably nervous about the misconception that biofuels are competing with food resources around the world — Europe does not have its own land resources to grow corn or sugarcane the way it is being done in the United States and Brazil. Europe imports some ethanol from America but it is also now developing large sugar-cane-to-ethanol areas in West Africa.
Siim Kallas, vice president of the European Commission for TEN-T, told the press the new rules are designed to build up a critical mass of in order to whet investor appetites for these new markets. “Alternative fuels are key to improving the security of energy supply, reducing the impact of transport on the environment and boosting EU competitiveness,” he told Business Week. “With these new rules, the EU provides long-awaited legal certainty for companies to start investing, and the possibility for economies of scale.”
Is there any chance that the public is going to take an interest in all this? Well, one poll in Britain found last week that 65 percent would consider buying an alternative fuel car and 19 percent might do it within the next two years. Within a few years they find the infrastructure ready to meet their needs.
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.
Remember when Japan’s Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry (METI) used to sit atop the Japanese industrial complex, steering it like some giant Godzilla hovering over the entire world?
Those were the days when Japan’s government-industry partnership was supposed to represent the future, when Michael Crichton wrote a novel about how Japan would soon devour America, when pundits and scholars were warning that we had better do the same if we hoped to survive – before, that is, the whole thing collapsed and Japan went into a 20-year funk from which it has never really recovered.
Well those days may be returning in one small part as METI prepares to direct at least half the Japanese auto industry into the production of hydrogen-powered fuel-cell cars.
“Japanese Government Bets the Farm on Fuel Cell Vehicles” ran one headline earlier this month and indeed there’s plenty at stake for everyone. The tip-off came at the end of May when Jim Lentz, CEO of Toyota’s North American operations, told Automotive News that electric vehicles are only “short-range vehicles that take you that extra mile…But for long-range travel, we feel there are better alternatives, such as hybrids and plug-in hybrids, and, tomorrow, fuel cells.” The target here, of course, is Tesla, where Elon Musk appears to be making the first inroads against gasoline-powered vehicles with his $35,000 Model E, aimed at the average car buyer. Toyota was originally in on that deal and was scheduled to supply the batteries until it pulled out this spring, ceding the job to Panasonic.
But all that was only a preview of what was to come. In early June, METI announced it would orchestrate a government-private initiative to help Toyota and Honda market fuel-cell vehicles in Japan and then across the globe. Of course that leaves out the other half of Japan’s auto industry, Nissan and Mitsubishi, pursuing their version of the EV, but maybe the Japanese are learning to hedge their bets.
The hydrogen initiative will put the fuel-cell vehicle front-and-center in the race to transition to other forms of propulsion and reduce the world’s dependence on OPEC oil. Actually, hydrogen cars have been in the offering for more than twenty years. In the 1990s soft-energy guru Amory Lovins put forth his Hypercar, a carbon-fiber vehicle powered by hydrogen fuel cells. In 2005, California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger inaugurated the “Hydrogen Highway,” a proposed network of hydrogen filling stations that was supposed to blanket the Golden State. Unfortunately, only ten have been built so far, and there are still no more than a handful of FCVs (hydrogen fuel cell vehicles) on the road. Mercedes, BMW, Audi and VW all have small lines but none are marketed very aggressively in the United States.
This time, however, there may be a serious breakthrough. After all, Toyota, Honda and METI are not just in the business of putting out press releases. Toyota will begin production of its first mass-market model in December and Honda will follow with a 5-passenger sedan next year. Prices will start in the stratosphere — close to $100,000 — but both companies are hoping to bring them down to $30,000 by the 2020s. Meanwhile, GM is making noises about a fuel-cell model in 2016 and South Korea’s Hyundai is already unloading its hydrogen-powered Tucson on the docks of California.
What will METI’s role be? The supervising government ministry promises to relax safety standards, allowing on-board storage of hydrogen at 825 atmospheres instead of the current 750. This will increase the car’s range by 20 percent and bring it into the 350-mile territory of the internal combustion engine. Like the ICE, hydrogen cars can “gas up” in minutes, giving them a huge leg up on EVs, which can take anywhere from 20 minutes with superchargers to eight hours with household plugs. METI has also promised to loosen import controls so that foreign manufacturers such as Mercedes-Benz can find their way into Japan. And, of course, it will seek reciprocal agreements so Toyota and Honda can market their models across the globe.
So will the one-two punch of government-and-industry-working-together be able to break the ice for hydrogen vehicles? California seems to be a particularly ripe market. Toyota is already the best-selling car in the state and the California Energy Commission is promising to expand the Hydrogen Highway to 70 stations by 2016. Still, there will be stiff competition from Elon Musk if and when his proposed Gigafactory starts turning out batteries by the millions. Partisans of EVs and fuel-cell vehicles are already taking sides.
In the end, however, the most likely winners will be consumers who will now have a legitimate choice between hydrogen vehicles and EVs. It may be a decade or more before either of these technologies makes a significant dent in our oil consumption, but in the end it will be foreign oil providers that will be feeling the pain.