NY Times overview of electric cars, and what’s coming.

Photo: The Phoenix Motorcars “SUT” electric pickup.

The New York Times has come up with an overview of what’s happening with the electric car market, including a list of many of the major companies trying to launch electric cars, and what those cars should be like.

The vehicles mentioned in the article include the Tesla Roadster, Zap-X, Chevrolet Volt, Think City, Phoenix S.U.T. (see our post about a test drive of the Phoenix electric pickup), Wrightspeed X1, Electrum Spyder, Venturi Fetish and the Tango. They do not mention Miles Automotive.

From the article:

Trading the internal combustion engine for batteries could bring well-publicized advantages: reducing pollution, raising mileage, promoting energy independence. E.V.’s and plug-in hybrids could deliver the gasoline equivalent of 100 miles a gallon or more. For consumers, that would in effect roll back the clock to buck-a-gallon gas. Car owners could save money in their sleep, recharging in the off hours when electricity is cheapest.

And compared with hydrogen fuel-cell cars, the infrastructure for electric cars already exists, requiring only more plugs in more places. Aside from home recharging, it would be easier to install pay-per-use outlets at curbsides and in parking lots than to spawn a network of hydrogen filling stations. Wal-Mart and McDonald’s might offer convenient electricity for customers or employees.

Sounds good? There is one problem. There is still not a single E.V. or plug-in hybrid available that can approach the driving range, interior room and performance of a typical gas-powered family sedan, at anywhere near the price that an average consumer would pay.

Note to auto manufacturers: We aren’t stupid. Give us hybrids that actually get good gas mileage or don’t bother!

Flickr photo courtesy of psorgenfrei.

ABC News online writes about how car manufacturers are introducing hybrid models left and right, but few of them actually provide better gas mileage than regular cars.

But enter the showroom, and instead of seeing green, you may be seeing red. Many of the market’s hybrids — cars which combine gasoline engines with battery-powered electric motors — forsake fuel-efficiency in the name of power and performance.

The average gas mileage of hybrid models available in the U.S. is 33 miles per gallon (combined city and highway). But Chevy’s newest Silverado hybrid truck gets only 16 mpg. The newest Lexus LS 600h L hybrid sedan clocks in at 21 mpg, the 2007 Saturn Vue hybrid at 26 mpg.

See pictures of the least efficient hybrids at our partner site, Forbes.com

This contradiction is not lost on consumers. The most recent 2006 J.D. Power and Associates Alternative Powertrain Study found that only 50% of new-vehicle shoppers are currently considering a hybrid — down from 57% the year before.

Are car manufacturers really this dumb? I don’t get it.

It’s clear to me that the reason why most people would buy a hybrid versus a regular car is to save money on gasoline.

Why would someone want to buy a more expensive car with new technology that might break down more often when it doesn’t even provide any benefit other than perhaps slightly lower emissions?

Even Honda did it wrong, and has seen the consequences.

Honda, a company that forged the hybrid car market in the U.S. with the 1999 Insight, understands this. Due to poor sales, the Japanese company is discontinuing its Accord Hybrid, which is considered a “mild hybrid.” Such cars have oversized starter motors that allow gas to be saved when coasting and while stopped, but have no hybrid drivetrains, meaning there is no electric motor to drive the vehicle. Mild hybrids also rarely have regenerative braking — a system that converts kinetic energy from the brakes into electrical energy to help power the vehicle.  

I think this is also why people only think of the Toyota Prius when they think of the hybrid.

But at least Honda is starting to catch on!

GM announces plan to launch entire family of electric cars based on gas automobile platforms

  Photo courtesy of Flickr.

Today’s Wall Street Journal writes that General Motors is planning an entire family of electric automobiles that will share major components with their regular gasoline cars, which will save significantly on production and design costs.

To reduce costs, the company is working on a version of its so-called E-Flex architecture for electric cars, which shares components with its high-volume, mainstream, front-wheel-drive cars, Mr. Lutz said in an interview at the Frankfurt auto show. “The hope is certainly to proliferate E-Flex over a wide variety of brands,” he said. “It is a goal to be able to build E-Flex vehicles in the same plants as our mainstream models.”

Ideally, GM would like to use a common chassis that can accommodate either a traditional gasoline engine and transmission or a battery-powered E-Flex powertrain.

GM and other car makers have at various times responded to political pressure to increase U.S. fuel-efficiency standards — known as corporate average fuel economy, or CAFE — by throwing open the doors of their normally secret research and development labs, in part to impress upon lawmakers the argument that money spent on incremental increases in the fuel efficiency of current models could siphon cash away from researching technology that might produce super-efficient cars tomorrow. Legislation to boost fuel economy is pending in Congress.

Industry critics counter that when it comes to fuel economy in the U.S., tomorrow never seems to come, as the average fuel efficiency of U.S. cars and light trucks has barely budged since the mid-1990s.

GM executives say the Volt will be a real car, and is under development. GM also plans to launch soon gasoline-electric hybrid versions of its large sport-utility vehicles. GM’s electric cars have a battery to store power and use an internal combustion engine only to recharge the battery, not to turn the wheels. Hybrids use either an electric motor or an internal combustion engine, or both, to turn their wheels.

At the Frankfurt show, GM’s Opel unit showed a concept for a sleek electric hatchback that pairs an electric motor with a 1.3-liter diesel engine. Called the Flextreme, it would be able to run for 40 miles on power from a large battery pack that can be recharged during longer trips by the engine.

Like the article itself, I am a bit skeptical, although hopeful that GM will go through with the plan. Seems to me though, that as soon as the next recession hits and oil and gasoline prices fall back down, these designs will go right into the dustbin of concept cars that never get developed.

My hope is that one of the startups like Tesla, Phoenix Motorcars or Miles Automotive Group will launch a real car that takes off like the Prius, forcing the mainstream automobile manufacturers to respond. After all, thanks to the success of the Prius, most of the major manufacturers have hybrid cars on the road or in the pipeline for launches soon. Even brands like Porsche!

How much would an electric car need to cost before you would buy it? If the upfront costs were $5K to $10K higher, but you’d make it back on reduced fueling, would you still be willing to pay it? And would 150 to 200 miles per charge be enough for you to buy one, or would it have to be more than that?

For me, as soon as a real electric car hits the road that is at least as big as a Civic or a Prius, goes at least 150 miles per charge and costs less than $50K, I’ll buy it.

New technology to replace batteries, allow an electric car to go 500 miles per charge?

Photo courtesy of Flickr.

CNN reports about an Austin based company that claims it has a new technology that will completely replace batteries, and would eventually allow an electric car to drive 500 miles between charges.

Don’t get too excited yet though, because they don’t actually have a product yet, and their claims aren’t really backed by any kind of demonstration or evidence. But they did get some real companies to invest serious money, so there might be something to it.

For years, EEStor has tried to fly beneath the radar in the competitive industry for alternative energy, content with a phone-book listing and a handful of cryptic press releases.

Yet the speculation and skepticism have continued, fueled by the company’s original assertion of making batteries obsolete — a claim that still resonates loudly for a company that rarely speaks, including declining an interview with The Associated Press.

The deal with ZENN Motor and a $3 million investment by the venture capital group Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, which made big-payoff early bets on companies like Google Inc. and Amazon.com Inc., hint that EEStor may be on the edge of a breakthrough technology, a “game changer” as Clifford put it.

ZENN Motor’s public reports show that it so far has invested $3.8 million in and has promised another $1.2 million if the ultracapacitor company meets a third-party testing standard and then delivers a product.

Clifford said his company consulted experts and did a “tremendous amount of due diligence” on EEStor’s innovation.

EEStor’s founders have a track record. Richard D. Weir and Carl Nelson worked on disk-storage technology at IBM Corp. in the 1990s before forming EEStor in 2001. The two have acquired dozens of patents over two decades.

Neil Dikeman of Jane Capital Partners, an investor in clean technologies, said the nearly $7 million investment in EEStor pales compared with other energy storage endeavors, where investment has averaged $50 million to $100 million.

Yet curiosity is unusually high, Dikeman said, thanks to the investment by a prominent venture capital group and EEStor’s secretive nature.

Related links to companies mentioned in the article:

ZENN Motor Company
EEstore Wikipedia page (So secretive they don’t have a public company web site!)
Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers

Compact cars, hybrids get a beat down from new EPA method of calculating gas mileage standards

Photo courtesy of Flickr.

If you’ve ever bought a car and been disappointed that your gas mileage is nowhere near what the sticker on the car at the dealership said it would be, then you’ll understand why the EPA has revised the way that it calculates gas mileage to make it more accurate to the way that Americans really drive.

Today’s Dallas Morning News writes about the new gas mileage EPA standard that will begin appearing on 2008 vehicle stickers at a dealership near you.

The old EPA standard drove the test vehicle around at 20 mph for the “in town” version of the gas mileage calculation, and drove on the highway at an average speed of 48 mph! Oh, and they also never turned on the air conditioner during the test. The test also included a much slower level of acceleration than people use in real life now.

The new standard drives the car faster, accelerates faster, and turns on the air conditioning some of the time. It also takes in to account that the car will be stuck in traffic sometimes and includes that in the gas mileage calculation.

As a result of the new EPA testing method, the gas mileage number that you see on the stickers of new cars will actually be pretty close to what you’ll get, and you might actually be able to do better than the sticker. (Dealers will like this, because they get a lot of complaints from people who buy a new car and then come back and complain that they don’t get gas mileage anywhere near what the sticker said they should get.)

The gas mileage on car stickers will drop anywhere from 10 to 25 percent from what they used to say, because of the new method of calculating.

Strangely, small cars and hybrids are going to see the biggest drop, according to the article. I assume their small engines are particularly susceptible to faster acceleration and the air conditioning reducing gas mileage, compared to bigger engines.

At a time when consumers are paying greater attention to fuel consumption, the biggest losers will be hybrids and four-cylinder vehicles, which struggle more with air conditioning and hard acceleration than vehicles with bigger engines, officials say.

The seeming declines in economy, in turn, may prompt some disappointed consumers to forgo compacts for more comfortable midsize sedans with larger engines, some industry officials say. In general, vehicles with V-6 and V-8 engines dropped only one or two miles per gallon in the city fuel tests, while some compacts dropped by four mpg or more and some hybrids by 10 mpg or more.

“My take is there will be almost a perverse impact,” said George Hoffer, a professor of economics at Virginia Commonwealth University and longtime observer of the auto industry. “The most fuel-efficient cars will take the biggest hits. As a result, I think we will see some movement from compact to midsize.”

Who wants to guess what the new 2008 Toyota Prius gas mileage sticker will read?

The article says they haven’t released the actual figure yet, but they think it will drop from 60 mpg to the mid 40s.

Want to improve your own gas mileage? Please check out our previous post on 5 Ways to Make your Car More Environmentally Friendly.