Monday, March 31, 2008

Breaking News II: Electric Boogaloo

(OK, that title was a bit of a stretch, but I just had to work Electric Boogaloo in there somewhere).

There's a lot going on in the world of electric cars (and not just with Tesla Motors).

Quick hitters:
Smart Charging Up Plans for Electric Vehicle Test Fleet

Electric on 11th Avenue: Nissan Debuts Denki Cube

Volt news
Volt Redesign Yields Major Efficiency Gains

GM: We'll Lose Our Shirts on the Volt, But That's OK

Bob Lutz: Saturn Vue plug-in, Chevrolet Volt to be more expensive than originally thought

Mitsubishi i MiEV
Mitsubishi to produce all-electric i MiEV, Concept CX

Mitsu Testing Electric Vehicles, Too

Subaru R1E:
Subaru Testing EVs Stateside

Big City, Little City Car: Subaru's Quick-Charge R1e

Subaru to test R1e electric car in New York City

Subaru R1e to Begin Testing for Potential U.S. Sales

California Air Resources Board meeting on the ZEV mandate:
CARB Faces Reality versus Fantasy

Will California Kill the Electric Car — Again?

California Almost Killed EVs. Will It Try To Again?

Opinions Fly at California Air Resources Board Meeting

California Cuts ZEV Mandate In Favor of Plug-In Hybrids

Tesla In Production

As you know, we've been following the saga of Tesla Motors here pretty closely over the past year. There's just something compelling about an electric car that's as beautiful as this: Tesla Roadster

Well, now it looks like it's even closer a reality. Tesla says that the Roadster is now in production and that the first customers will get their cars soon (more here).

If that wasn't enough good news for those of us interested in the idea of a viable electric car manufacturer, it was recently announced that Tesla is one of the entrants in the Automotive X PRIZE, a $10 million competition to build a production-ready 100 mpg vehicle. (More here and here.)

And hey, do you live in Europe? You might be able to get yourself a Tesla too!

Lastly, did you know that Tesla Motors has their own blogs? Somehow I'd missed that.

High Tech? Green Tech? Fuel Economy? What Do We Want?

With rising gas prices and a flood of new technologies, the car market is in a state of serious change. So what do consumers really want? That nifty iPod interface? A hybrid engine? Scented tires (seriously)? Well, I guess it depends on who you ask. did a small poll of their readers and found that folks really like the geek stuff. Who cares if the car gets 70 mpg if you can't plug in your iPod?

But wait. AAA did their own survey and determined that fuel economy is the #1 concern of buyers, even above the manufacturer.

If you're one of the folks more like the ones AAA asked, has an outstanding article for you. They tested a number of different fuel-saving tips to see which ones really paid off. The results aren't shocking (driving at a consistent 65 mph is your best bet), but they are very interesting anyway.

Friday, March 21, 2008

TWSJ on Online Car-Buying Resources

Walt Mossberg's right-hand gal, Katherine Boehret, was in need of a new vehicle recently. She wrote about her experience using online resources to search for a new car. For anyone looking for a new car, this one's worth a read.

"Safety" Features, Anyone?

For those of you who subscribe to Smart Money, you may have seen their recent article on "The New Backseat Drivers". (In a move of pure stupidity, it seems, they make it incredibly difficult to a.) find their article online, and b.) link to it.) I've also found another interesting article from cnet. As the cnet article states, "your car could one day tell you when you're about to screw up". The problem is how your car tells you this.

How about a vibrating seat, or a red light showing up in your rear view mirror, or even a vibrating steering wheel? Some cars may even come "equipped" with a system that will apply the brake to your vehicle if it "senses" you're about to get into an accident.

I don't know about you, but I think I'd be a bit distracted by some of these "safety" features. I guess I'd actually have to see how they work in practice, but you're supposed to actually be paying attention when you drive, right? It seems to me that a vibrating steering wheel or a light in the rear view mirror might actually distract you from the road at the exact time you needed to pay attention to it.

In another example of manufacturer markups gone berserk, the Smart Money article states that some of the "safety" technology can carry as much as a "fivefold markup from wholesale". With markups like that, are we really supposed to believe that our safety is a high priority of the manufacturers?

Friday, March 14, 2008

Random Rumblings

Shaking the Intertubes and seeing what rolls out ...

Could plug-in hybrids and electric cars actually be worse for the environment than old skool gasoline cars? Seems crazy, but USA Today wrote a big article on it, getting most of their info from two studies, one by the Natural Resources Defense Council and another by the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency. The gist of the claim is that the increased electricity usage will require burning a lot more coal.

I gotta admit that the NRDC sounds suspiciously like something an oil company might have thrown together to fight the rising tide of alternative fuels for vehicles, but it is actually a legitimate pro-environment group.

But wait, there's more. PHEVs and electrics cars will also use more water than their gas-powered bretheren. As that article points out, this issue isn't a show-stopper, but it's one more variable to consider.

A mass-produced 70mpg car? Maybe. VW showed off their diesel-hybrid Golf at the Geneva Motor Show. It looks and sounds pretty darn cool, but there's some debate over whether it will actually get to market. VW is being coy and saying it's just a prototype, but that's not what these guys say. Unfortunately for the US, it may be a Europe only thing. We'd get a gas-hybrid instead.

More hybrid and alternative fuel news:
Toyota and GM racing to put out the first plug-in hybrids. I guess they don't read USA Today.

While a bit late to the game, GM is already pushing their next-generation hybrid system using Li-ion batteries.

Sure that Golf, may be sexy, but Toyota isn't jumping on the diesel-hybrid bandwagon.

Toyota (man, are they all over the hybrid news or what?) thinks Li-ion is soooo 2009. They are totally into zinc-air batteries these days. At least until zinc-air sells out and signs on with the big companies.

We posted a couple of weeks ago about the potential ecological impact of switching to biofuels. It gets worse. The New York Times has discovered that the plants that refine the stuff are dumping tons of hazardous gunk into local streams and rivers.

File this one under the "never would have guessed it category" (that's in the 'n' drawer) - a nationwide sawdust shortage might make cars a bit more expensive. That's just odd.

The Insurance Institute For Highway Safety (IIHS) recently posted PDFs of their last two status reports. The big issues seem to be driving speed (duh) and roof strength.

Looking to buy a new car? Consumer Reports doesn't seem to be too high on American cars. Again. They do like Hondas though. You might want to also consider the NADA's recent finding that luxury cars are the worst when it comes to depreciation. Forbes also looked at car depreciation and found a more varied list of offenders.

Lastly, I couldn't resist this one. James Bonds' Lotus-cum-submarine from The Spy Who Loved Me remains one of the coolest cars ever. If only it really existed. Well ... this little baby's pretty close. It's a Lotus. And it's a submarine. And get this, it's a convertible.

You have to watch the video:

Saturday, March 8, 2008

Catching up with the Tesla Roadster

Software developments often end with a product that is delivered late and has fewer features and functionality than originally planned. Well, the Tesla Roadster--founded by Silicon Valley techies--seems to share these unwelcome similarities. The delivery date for the car has slipped (now March 17). And the first production vehicles will ship with a "temporary" one-speed transmission that can be swapped out in the future for the two-speed transmission that was originally planned.

For all the Tesla-bashing, however, it's exciting to think that the company may be at the forefront of--and accelerating the arrival of--a new chapter in transportation history. I don't think it's a stretch to say that Tesla's founders want to change the way people think about driving (a high-performance, electric-powered sports car), give them an relatively environmentally-friendly alternative to gas-fueled vehicles, and blunt the negative effects of global warming and the world's dependence on oil. While the Tesla Roadster may not be the "greenest" vehicle to hit the market (new models are flown to the US from England, where they are produced; there are questions about the production, useful life, and disposal of the batteries; the $100,000 Roadster will never be a "mainstream" car), this just may be the beginning of a world in which electric-powered vehicles are a realistic alternative for a majority of drivers. And that's exciting.

To catch up with some of the recent developments at Tesla, I scanned Autoblog for some interesting articles.

Tesla co-founder Elon Musk took delivery of the first production Tesla in February. Follow the link for an article and some (not too exciting) video of the Roadster on the pavement.

Wish you could test drive the Tesla? Autoblog did. There's some more extensive video at this link, along with a video (scroll down, second video) that let's you experience the sound--or lack thereof--the Roadster makes as it cruises along.

Despite still working toward full-capacity production and delivery of its Roadster, Tesla is already working on its Whitestar sedan and a mass-market vehicle, currently dubbed Bluestar. The Whitestar sedan will probably fall in the $50,000 to $70,000 price range, and is expected to be available in 2009, with a functional prototype by year-end 2008. Tesla may partner with another firm to produce and market Bluestar, which seems to still be in early concept stages.

Finally, talk of a Tesla IPO has begun. Co-founder Elon Musk says that profitability might be reached by 2009, and an IPO could come within the next two years.

Thanks again to Autoblog for all the posts. And if you didn't get enough of Tesla here, just go to Autoblog and search on "Tesla". There's a lot more there.

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Random Rumblings

Random finds while surfing the net instead of working ...

Spinning 22s? Full-surround air bags? Hybrid engines? A zillion miles to the gallon? Yeah, yeah, those are all great, but what Americans really want are a few more cup holders. Thanks to Autoblog for the find.

Yesterday's technology today - in an effort to squeeze even more efficiency out of their hybrid vehicles, Honda is looking into steam engine technology. When a hybrid is cruising along at regular highway speeds, it isn't really any more efficient than a standard car. Honda is looking to address that by harnessing some of the immense heat created (and then lost) by a combustion engine. Slap a small steam generator on that baby and use it to charge the vehicles batteries and voila! The 2000s borrowing from the 1800s. Pretty cool stuff.

Ever wonder what happened to that beater you drove in college? Or maybe the car dad drove you to soccer practice in? Check the Lost Car Registry and maybe you can find out. You're gonna need a VIN though. You still have that, right? (Thanks to Autoblog)

The debate over the benefits of ethanol rage on. The latest volley comes from Science magazine. And they have some pretty harsh criticism. Their main critique seems to be that forests would need to be cut down to make room for all of the new crops. The loss of those trees would have a "carbon cost" of 17 to 420 times the annual savings by using the new fuel. Uh oh.

Looking for a new ride? The 2009 Nissan Murano is the Insurance Institute For Highway Safety's top pick for SUVs. The next best choices are the Mazda Cx-7 and CX-9 and the Mitsubishi Endeavor. THe poorest performers are the Jeep Liberty, Jeep Wrangler and Kia Sorento.

If you aren't looking for an SUV, you might want to check out Consumer Reports' Annual Auto Issue which is about to be released. Hyundai is a surprise winner, with two best-in-class choices in the Elantra SE (Small Sedan) and Santa Fe (Midsized SUV). Otherwise, you can always stick with the regulars - Toyota had four winners.

One drawback to electric vehicles has always been the batteries, in particular their size and weight and the cost of the precious metals they require. A small company out of Portland, Oregon might have a solution. QuantumSphere says that their catalytic nanoparticle coatings greatly increase the catalytic action of any materials. They have produced a battery with a 320-percent power gain over traditional alkaline batteries.

Do you like cars? Do you like stock markets? Do you like fantasy sports? Well, step right up, mister, because Edmunds has something for you. They are launching their Car Stock Exchange, an online exchange of new car models using play money. Think a model is going to be a big seller? Buy! Is GM making a big mistake with their new Box On Wheels? Sell short! Maybe you can become the Warren Buffett of the fake car stock market.