Report: Electric car buyers hate the dealer experience

Researchers at the Institute of Transportation Studies at the University of California at Davis have made a startling discovery: Consumers in the market for an electric vehicle hate dealing with the traditional car dealers that sell EVs.

Green Car Congress has a story on the UC Davis study, which found that purchasers of plug-in electrics were less satisfied with their experience with the sales departments at car dealerships than purchasers of traditional gas-powered vehicles.

And the feeling is mutual, it seems: Sales people at dealers that sell EVs alongside traditional cars often don’t like to take the extra time (for time is money) to explain the basics of how EVs work. As Green Car Reports notes, “Customers tended to be more discriminating, they said, which demanded more time and effort by the staff to answer questions and arrange test drives.”

The exception to the rule of customer dissatisfaction is Tesla, which doesn’t even use dealers: Buyers pick out the model they want in the showroom, then order online.

Europe says yes to alternative vehicles

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.

What Do Religious Patents And Pope Francis Have To With Reducing Oil Dependency?

Israel has more patents per capita than any other nation in the world. Despite wars and tension at its borders, international investor interest remains high, particularly in high-tech industries. Indeed, high-tech industries continue to grow faster than any other industrial sector.

Okay. I have a serious question for questioning minds. The Jerusalem Post stated that pollution levels dropped by 99 percent on Saturday, Yom Kippur, a key Jewish religious holiday. The article indicated that nitrogen oxides decreased by 99 percent in the Gush Dan and Jerusalem regions and that other serious pollutants that affect health and well-being also dropped significantly. (Truth in advertising compels me to say that Israel has another holiday called Lag B’omer, where folks light bonfires to celebrate a wise sage in Israel’s past. Many also travel to the sage’s tomb. Both activities make air quality terrible. But understanding, apology, patience and penitence may result yet in friendlier environmental options.)

Wow, could Israel patent environmental behavior based in religion to secure a healthy environment? What would they patent? Perhaps, activities resulting from seeking forgiveness for previous driving and fuel related sins generating harmful pollutants. Asking forgiveness and apologizing are what Jews are supposed to do on the Holy Day. Or should they try patenting the environmental God, Himself or Herself, to make sure we have a major partner with respect to minimizing pollution in the environment. Here, they could include other possible partners like the scientists busy at work in Switzerland on the “God particle” in their patent.

Maybe Israel’s success with Yom Kippur behavior would lead Catholics, Protestants, Muslims, Hindus and Mormons to define and patent Holy No Drive Days or better yet, because of lessons learned from Israel and possible Israeli involvement, lengthier environmental behavior days, weeks, months or years. Because of the negative impact on the global economy, international security and the environment of the world’s present dependency on oil and oil’s derivative gasoline, perhaps all the major religions and even the minor ones could agree on a range of environmentally friendly behavior changing initiatives, particularly related to one of the largest pollutants of them all…oil. Each patent would be based on prescriptions written or derived from religious interpretation of each religion’s environmental norms and tenants and holidays. Here’s one: Just say no to gasoline and yes to use of replacement fuels. Tithings from believers or congregants would support the effort. Figure it out, enough long holidays and the world might begin to reduce levels of pollution and likely GHG emissions, as well as oil-based wars and tension. Maybe we could develop a whole set of religious patents, that once patented, would be capable of being used by any nation or religion and any group or individual free. You know, building good, Godly behavior.

No government subsidies, no new government regulations. If behavioral changes stick, based on religious initiatives, our grandchildren and their grandchildren could live in a better world. While, likely impossible and the idea of patenting good behavior is more humorous than real, the thought seems worthy of a prayer or two and lots of meaningful sermons as well as interfaith action.

Collaboration by churches, synagogues and mosques could influence governments to jump in and also play a leadership role. Clearly, religiously inspired guilt is often aspirational and motivational — sometimes politically. Combined with religiously inspired individual commitment concerning grassroots activity, it could secure secular support for the development and implementation of comprehensive fuel policies concerning environmental, security and economic objectives — like social justice.

Where might we go with this? Probably not very far. But think of it. We spend much time arguing about God, and often much less time achieving godliness through reforming institutional and our behaviors as good stewards of the world. If we could marshal (excuse the pun), the leaders of some of the major religions of the world to help reduce harmful pollution from gasoline, GHG emissions and wars related to oil, over time, amendments to individual and group activities could help “convert” the bleak forecasts concerning climate change and increasingly dirty air for the better. Additionally, such an effort could also lead to a reduction of tension in areas like the Middle East, and global and national economic growth based on the development and distribution of both transitional replacement and renewable fuels.

I don’t expect invitations to discuss the matter from religious forums or meetings. But seeking collaboration from the religious community to end dependence on oil is something to think about in terms of the “what ifs.” Maybe in this context, a respected celebrated religious leader like Pope Francis could be asked to try to bring together religious leaders and even some secular ones to at least begin to discuss initiatives across man- or women-made national boundaries.

The proposed agenda would link short-term coordinated strategies to use transitional replacement fuels such as natural gas, ethanol, methanol and biofuels with longer-term plans (with immediate efforts) to increase the competitiveness of electric and hydro fuels. For my religious colleagues and secular friends, it seems to me that beginning these discussions is a moral and practical imperative.

Budweiser trades Clydesdales for natural gas

The famous Clydesdales that have hauled Budweiser’s barrels of beer since the 19th century are finally being replaced by 21st century compressed natural gas-driven vehicles.

Well, it isn’t quite that simple. There’s been an 80-year interval between the 19th and 21st centuries, when Budweiser’s trucks ran on gasoline and diesel fuel. But for 66 trucks at Budweiser’s Houston brewery, the 53-foot trailers loaded with 50,000 pounds are now going to be hauled by trailers running on compressed natural gas.

Anheuser-Busch actually has plans to convert its entire fleet to natural gas, according to James Sembrot, senior transportation director. “It’s significant that A-B feels comfortable swapping for an entire fleet that runs on CNG,” Christopher Helman wrote in Forbes. According to Sembrot, “the intention of shifting to natgas…is to reduce carbon emissions and fuel costs, while doing something green(ish).”

“The Houston brewery is among the biggest of the 14 that A-B operates nationwide. The closest breweries to this one are in Fort Collins, Colo., and St. Louis. Each truck rolls virtually around the clock — traveling in an average of 140,000 miles in a single year hauling beer to wholesalers. They move 17 million barrels of beer each year.” That’s a lot of beer running on natural gas.

Actually, it’s not Anheuser-Busch that is taking the initiative on Budweiser. The natural gas vehicles are being made available through Ryder, the nation’s largest trucking company since merging with Budget Truck Rental in 2002. Budget now has 2,800 businesses and 132,000 trucks around the country. Although only a small percentage run on natural gas, the company is dedicated to converting its fleet with all due dispatch, and the savings may prove to be extraordinary. According to Helman, “Sembrot tells me that the old trucks were getting 6.2 miles per gallon of diesel and running 140,000 miles per year. That equates to 1.45 million gallons of diesel to go 9.2 million miles. At about $3.80 per gallon, that’s roughly $5.5 million in total diesel costs per year. If they save about 30 percent per ‘gallon equivalent’ when buying CNG, that’s a savings of about $1.65 million per year.” That’s a lot of money save for switching to natural gas.

But it’s not just Budweiser and Ryder and a few forward-looking companies that are pushing ahead with natural-gas vehicles. The whole state of Texas seems to have gotten the bug. The Lone Star State now has 106 CNG filling stations, the most in the country. Forty are them are open to the public, while the others are fleet vehicles where vehicles from Anheuser-Busch and Ryder can fill up. Actually, far ahead of these innovators are FedEx and UPS, which have not converted their fleets for many years. And hovering in the background is T. Boone Pickens and his “hydrogen highway,” which is installing huge natural gas depots at key truck stops along the Interstate system. Much of this is aimed at Texas and the first complete link has joined San Diego to Austin in a seamless string of stations that will allow tractor-trailers to make the whole trip on natural gas.

All this has done wonders for Texas tax collections. At the start of the year, the Texas Controller’ Office was anticipating revenues less than $ million from excise taxes. Yet by July 31, 2014, collections were 220 times of that anticipated, and the Texas Controller’s office had collected $2,178,199. “These collections are more than double the estimated amount,” said David Porter, Texas Railroad Commissioner. “At 15 cents per gallon equivalent, $2 of motor fuels tax equals sales of 14,521,326 gallon equivalents of natural gas.”

Texas may be famous for fracking and producing more oil than Iraq, but they do not hesitate to look for new uses for gas and oil as well.


Photo by by Paul Keleher from Mass, US.

Are We Entering the Age of Batteries?

Last week in Houston, Secretary of Energy Dr. Ernest Moniz told CERA Conference attendees that storage batteries may be the next big energy breakthrough.  “It’s pretty dramatic,” he said.  “The research is moving very, very fast.”

Indeed, if you’re looking for “energy breakthroughs” on the Internet these days, most of the hits are likely to turn up something new about “flow batteries,” “ten times the storage capacity,” or some new cathode material that dramatically improves the performance of lithium-ion batteries.

So where do we stand in this energy revolution now, and what are the possibilities that any of these breakthroughs are likely to lead to real improvements in our attempts to wean ourselves off traditional energy resources like fossil fuels?

A good place to start is “Next Generation Electrical Energy Storage: Beyond Lithium Ion Batteries,” a panel put together for last February’s meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Chicago.  Three experts – Haresh Kamath; of the Electric Power Research Institute, Mark Mathias; of General Motors, and Jeff Chamberlain; of Argonne National Laboratory – discussed the latest developments in the industry.

All three panelists agreed that battery research is progressing along two separate tracks:

1) lithium-ion batteries that power most consumer electronic devices are now being scaled up for electric vehicles; and

2) larger and more durable conventional batteries for the storage of grid-scale electricity.

Despite whatever hopes Elon Musk may have that his new “Gigafactory” will be able to address both of these markets at the same time, that does not seem likely.  “Lithium-ion just doesn’t have the durability that we’re looking for in the utility industry,” Kamath of EPRI told the audience.  He continued:

I was doing cable research one time and we had a model for a product that would last 40 years.  The utilities looked at it and said, `Could you try for 60 or 80?’  The utilities are looking for things that last a long, long time.’ said Kamath.

“There’s a lot of experimenting going on,” Kamath added, “but everything that is on the grid right now is a demonstration.  No one has yet come up with a sustainable business model.”

With electric cars, on the other hand, the challenge will be in equipping batteries with enough energy density so that their weight does not load down the vehicle to the point of being counterproductive.  “The standard measure is that you need 100 kilowatt-hours of power to drive a mid-sized vehicle 300 miles,” said Mathias, who works at GM’s electrical storage research and development project.  He explained.

If you get up in the density range of 350 Watt-hours per kilogram, you can make it.  But current batteries are operating at around 150 Wh/kg, which gives them a range of 125 miles.  The best we can project is that they can achieve 225 Watt-hours per liter, which still leaves them short. (Mathias).

“Fuel cells operating on hydrogen actually do a much better job at this point,” he added.  “They can now get us up in the 300-mile range.  We regard them as electric vehicles as well.  It’s just that you generate the electricity on board.”

Then there’s the matter of cost.  Capital costs for lithium-ion batteries quickly rise into the $20,000 range.  Fuel cells cost only $6,000 and gas-electric hybrids, $4,000.  “The good news for EVs is that fuel costs are only about one-third that of gasoline,” said Mathias. “Over a span of 100,000 miles, a gasoline engine will cost you $10,000 in fuel.  A hydrogen fuel cell vehicle will cost only $6,000 and a pure EV, $3,333.”  Still, that’s a long time to wait and a long way from complete cost recovery.

Refueling time is also a bit of a problem.  “When you pump gasoline into your car, you’re actually adding range at a rate of 150 miles per minute,” said Mathias.  He went on to say:

With hydrogen fuel, it’s 100 miles-per-minute, which is acceptable. But even with the new 120-kW superchargers, you can only add mileage to an EV at a rate of 6 miles per minute.  If you take a long- distance trip, you’re going to spend 20 percent of your time       recharging. (Mathias)

Overall, Mathias was not overly optimistic about further improvements.  “There’s not much on the horizon,” he concluded.  He was more optimistic about hydrogen cars.

Chamberlain, of Argonne National Laboratory, is part of a $120 million program funded by the Department of Energy that is aimed at developing batteries with five times the current energy density at 1/5th the cost within five years.  “That’s a very ambitious goal,” he told the audience, “but we feel that’s what’s needed to transform the transportation sector.”  A long chain of national and university laboratories are involved in the project.  Of course, government goals and mandates are just that – projections that may or may not come true.  Steve Jobs was good at inspiring his cast to pursue seemingly impossible goals but the federal government does not always have the same success.

So far, the research has involved searching the periodic table for more candidates.  “We’re not sure what we’re going to come up with,” said Chamberlain, elaborating:

We’ve decided that capacitors will never help us reach our goal.  The charge dissipates too quickly.  So we’re exploring other materials.  It may involve a metallic anode and a suspended-particle cathode.  If you move to magnesium or aluminum, you’re releasing two electrons  instead of one.  But zinc-air and lithium-air doesn’t get you there               because they simply don’t have the power.”  (Chamberlain)

Chamberlain said that a lot is already known about lithium-ion.  “We may be able to get two times what we have now.”  He had to agree with Mathias that no other significant developments are on the horizon right now.

Mathias warned against new reports that are constantly announcing progress at the material level.  “We often realize right away that they’re not going to work,” he said.  “It’s not worth the manufacturing dollars.

Overall, the takeaway from the panel was that Tesla has its work cut out for it.  Progress on electric vehicles will be tough.  The panelists agreed that natural gas vehicles make a lot of sense.  “The problem is you don’t really solve the CO2 problem,” said Mathias.  He did express confidence that battery research would eventually pay off in the end.  “All this progress will eventually be harvested at the hybrid level,” he said.  “It may not lead to pure electric level, but there is going to be a lot of improvement in hybrids.”