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It seems we’re well past the tipping point for electric cars now, 25 years after GM’s groundbreaking but short-lived EV1 electric car went on sale. Automakers have now committed to huge investments in expanding their EV offerings, suppliers are stepping up with new innovations,  and consumers are interested like never before. Plus, of course, some serious government regulation and incentives are driving the electric car field ahead in ways that only government can.

But there are challenges ahead. It isn’t enough that far better electric cars are being built today with compelling features, attractive designs, and desirable performance and range. Many other elements must fall into place for electric vehicles to become the success story we all hope will come to pass.

Moving beyond the media’s breathless reporting on electric vehicles and a widespread assumption that the age of internal combustion is nearly behind us, I would suggest that we view this field with some perspective. Perspective is a useful tool, and honestly, I have plenty to share since I’ve been immersed in this field since Green Car Journal first appeared on the scene in 1992, long before green cars were really a thing.

Living my early years amid the worst of Southern California’s smog, witnessing the emergence of Earth Day following the massive Santa Barbara oil spill in 1969, and driving Sears’ experimental DieHard XDH-1 electric car in 1977 all brought me to this conclusion: The automotive field can do better, in so many ways.

This conviction influenced my focus on the unfolding electric, alternative fuel, and advanced internal combustion vehicle field while feature editor at Motor Trend, as I recognized important movement toward better environmental performance. It also prompted me to launch Green Car Journal as a way to promote understanding of cars and their environmental impact. There’s been a lot of information to share since I’ve had the benefit of driving and analyzing electric cars from the very beginning of the modern EV age.

From the beginning, Green Car Journal’s mission has been to focus on ‘green’ vehicles of all types that will lead us to a more environmentally positive future, with no bias. These vehicles have included, and continue to include, advanced internal combustion vehicles, those that run on alternative fuels, and others powered by advanced propulsion systems like hydrogen fuel cells.  An important part of our focus for the past 16 years has been Green Car Journal’s annual Green Car Awards™ program that has weighed the merits of all these vehicles, headlined by our signature award, Green Car of the Year®.

As a traditional ‘car guy’ to the core, I am also an admitted electric vehicle proponent…always have been, long before electric vehicles became ‘real’ and before the thrill of living with GM’s EV1 electric car was my daily reality.

Over the years I have been vocal about electric cars and their importance to the future of personal mobility. My speech at the opening session of the North American Electric Vehicle and Infrastructure Conference in 1999 was no less than a call to arms for auto manufacturers, energy companies, regulators, state and federal government, and all those involved in the automotive field to come together to make electric cars happen and avoid a developing crisis.

And here we are 22 years later…facing a developing crisis.

It’s exciting to see the age of the modern electric vehicle finally unfolding before us after a three-decades-long journey of endless triumphs and setbacks. But as an auto industry analyst and publisher of Green Car Journal, I understand it isn’t productive to simply embrace this momentum and dismiss the array of challenges that remain as electric vehicles aim to displace internal combustion models in the years ahead.

This is especially true as a growing array of battery electric vehicles compete in a field replete with increasingly more efficient gasoline, hybrid, and plug-in hybrid models, with these vehicles featuring significantly decreased carbon emissions and almost always lower cost than pure electric vehicles. They all have their role to play in the unfolding journey ahead.

It isn’t enough that regulations and incentives are helping drive greater production and purchases of electric vehicles. Those bend to the whims of political change, and these days, there’s no telling how things might evolve in the future. So, addressing key inhibitors of an electric future is crucial. Let’s take a look at the top 5 reality checks that are top-of-mind.

1) IT’S ALL ABOUT BATTERIES: Back in the 1990s when there was great excitement at the prospect of electric cars, there were also big questions. There was no battery front-runner, though there were many technologies and chemistries at play including advanced lead-acid, nickel cadmium, nickel-metal-hydride, sodium-sulfur, sodium-bromine, zinc-air, lithium-ion, and more. Still, choices had to be made so EV programs could move forward. Ultimately, advanced lead-acid won out for small vehicle programs and the first  generation of GM EV1s, followed by better and more energy-dense batteries like nickel-metal-hydride and lithium-ion.

Today, nickel-metal-hydride and lithium-ion are the batteries primarily used for hybrid, plug-in hybrid, and battery electric vehicles. Lithium-ion, or one of its cousins like lithium-polymer, is used for electric vehicles due to its greater energy density and thus longer driving range. However, lithium batteries are costly and additional challenges remain.

Of great concern are instances of thermal runaway issues and a limited number of spontaneous vehicle fires caused by lithium-ion batteries. Some Teslas have suffered from such battery fires, and GM can certainly attest to this unexpected challenge since it’s now involved in a recall of all Chevy Bolt EVs made due to potential fire issues, to the tune of an expected $1.8 billion. Hyundai went through its own recall with the Kona EV for similar issues with its batteries.

Battery technology continues to improve and costs have gravitated downward in recent years, making the cost of building electric vehicles more reasonable, though still considerably higher than building internal combustion vehicles. Yes, there are substantial cost savings realized by owning and driving an electric vehicle. But to truly be a success, at some point they must be affordable enough for everyone to buy, and battery safety issues must be fully resolved.

2) WHERE TO CHARGE? The ideal location to charge an electric vehicle is at home with a 220-volt Level 2 wall charger. All mainstream electric vehicles support this type of charging, plus significantly slower charging with a portable ‘convenience’ charger plugged in a standard 110-volt household outlet.

Charging up with a 220-volt wall charger is convenient and efficient, with a full charge typically coming in about 2 to 10 hours, depending on the vehicle being charged and the battery’s energy level when you plug in. Simply, if your battery shows 40 miles of range left, it will take considerably longer to fully charge than if 140 miles of range is shown. For convenience, electric vehicle owners typically plug in at home during the evening so there’s a fully-charged EV waiting for them in the morning.

EV owners living in apartments, condos, and elsewhere – including dense urban areas where there may be no garage – need other solutions. To a limited degree, this is being addressed with pay-for-use chargers in common areas or even dedicated outside chargers at assigned parking spaces. Public chargers are also being installed in increasing numbers in urban developments as part of a growing public charging network. In addition, the number of chargers provided at the workplace is seeing greater interest, allowing EV owners to energize their batteries while parked at work.

Charging away from home is becoming easier with a significant expansion of a public charging network by companies like Electrify America, ChargePoint, Blink Charging, EVgo, SemaCharge, Volta, and Tesla. Still, this is a relatively nascent effort with charging opportunities far eclipsed by the abundant and convenient opportunities to refuel gasoline vehicles. Plus, to offer the kind of charging most meaningful to drivers, public chargers must ultimately offer fast-charge capability that enables gaining an additional 80 or 100 miles of range in just 20 to 30 minutes, if an EV is fast-charge capable. This network is growing but far from adequate, especially if it’s to  keep pace with the large number of electric vehicles coming to our highways. Building out a nationwide network of fast chargers is costly since the investment for each is in the neighborhood of $100,000.

3) FOCUS ON THE GRID: Many electric vehicle enthusiasts and electric utilities are quick to point out that our existing electrical grid can adequately handle the charging needs of millions of EVs on the road. I'm unconvinced. Plus, if the aspirations of EV enthusiasts come to fruition, there will be many more than just a few million EVs on the road in the future.

For years, certain areas of the country have experienced power outages as electricity demand outpaced grid capacity. Heat waves exacerbate this as air conditioning use soars, something made even worse in recent times with record-setting temperatures attributed to climate change. Given the trends pointed out by climate experts, these extraordinary heat waves are likely to increase.

To this point, the California Independent System Operator, which manages electricity delivered through California’s long-distance power lines, issued multiple Flex Alerts this summer. The Flex Alerts included a request for EV owners to charge in the morning and early daytime hours to avoid placing additional load on an already-overtaxed grid. While that request is counterintuitive to the long-held notion that charging EVs overnight is ideal since electrical demand lessens during overnight hours, it may make sense in a state like California that increasingly relies on renewable power as an important, zero-emission component of electrical generation. Simply, renewables like solar and wind-generated power wane at night.

Another challenge to a future of large-scale electric vehicle charging is the increasing frequency and scope that wildfires pose to the reliable delivery of electricity. In California, a long-time leader in encouraging electric vehicles, this could become a particularly vexing issue as the state continues to battle historic wildfires. Because downed powerlines have sparked numerous catastrophic fires here, the state’s electric utilities can – and have – preemptively initiated Public Safety Power Shutoffs that cut power to regions expected to experience high winds that could cause trees to damage electrical lines. No power, no charging.

Still, this doesn’t mean that an increasingly ‘smart’ grid can’t support large numbers of electric vehicles or that strategic, system-wide upgrades can’t be made to allow the grid to effectively deal with the challenges of wind, wildfires, and climate change. It does mean we should be aware of the potential for problems and make no assumptions, but rather plan far in advance to ensure that electric vehicle charging can be done consistently and won’t overwhelm the nation’s electrical grid in any way.

4) UNDERSTANDING EVS: Electric vehicles remain a very small part of today’s new vehicle market – perhaps 3% or so – for a multitude of reasons. Among these are cost, the perception that a battery electric vehicle may not fulfill a driver’s varying needs, and a general hesitation to embrace what many perceive as an unfamiliar and unproved propulsion technology. When enough of your friends and neighbors are driving electric and others see how well EVs fit their driving needs, that’s all likely to change. But we have a long way to go.

Education represents as important an element in realizing an electric vehicle future as resolving the challenges of charging infrastructure, sufficient grid capacity, and ensuring that EV batteries are inherently safe, sustainably made, and responsibly recycled. Over the years, Green Car Journal has hosted technology displays, electric car ride-and-drives, and discussions like the Automobiles and the Environment Conference and Green Car Summit on Capitol Hill. All these were aimed at promoting understanding of electric vehicles, their environmental benefits, and the issues surrounding them to consumers, the media, and government officials.

While automakers and an array of electric vehicle interests have pursued similar goals over the years, much more needs to be done. There are more people today than ever who have a decent grasp of electric cars and how they work because of the much greater exposure these vehicles have in the general media. That said, there is a greater percentage that really have no clue. That must change if electric cars are to increase market share to the degree that people want and expect. EV education must happen at all levels, and fast.

New car dealers have a unique opportunity to share knowledge of electric cars with would-be buyers, especially if a dealership is committed to the cause and there’s a knowledgeable EV specialist on hand. While a new generation of automakers aiming to exclusively sell EVs have their educational and outreach strategy down, legacy automakers largely do not. Those coming to dealerships are generally prospecting for a new car purchase or lease, now or later. They want to compare models and features, sit behind the wheel, and take a test drive.

While more electric vehicle product is being offered than in previous years, most buyers will not gravitate toward them naturally. What better opportunity than to encourage a first drive of a new electric model? The experience will be enlightening for those who have never been behind the wheel of an electric, with the seamless driving experience and unexpected performance a likely surprise. Leaving a dealership with a greater understanding of electric vehicles and how they work will return rewards, whether in the short- or long-term.

5) IF YOU BUILD IT. THEY WILL COME: If you bet everything on a decision that may drive you past the point of no return, is it the right choice? That depends on the outcome, of course. It worked for Kevin Costner’s character Ray Kinsella in the film Field of Dreams, as he literally bet the farm on blind faith that forces beyond understanding would beckon folks to the baseball diamond in his Iowa cornfield. The movie was compelling and its emotional attraction undeniable. So, too, is the prospect of millions of zero-emission electric vehicles plying our nation’s highways.

We were able to relive Field of Dreams recently as the Yankees and White Sox played a real-life game at a Major League Baseball stadium amid the cornfields, next to the Dyersville, Iowa diamond seen in Field of Dreams. And now we’re living with the very real prospect of an electric vehicle future, with many dedicated people, companies, and institutions focused on making it happen. Still, will that brand of faith work for electric cars?

Amid all the challenges, automakers new and old are betting their future – and possibly ours – that it will.

Robert Barrosa, Senior Director at Electrify America

As we forge ahead in 2021, consumers and businesses alike are feeling a sense of cautious optimism. While the personal, political, and professional anxieties from last year won’t go away with the flip of a calendar, we can share reasons for hope for a brighter year ahead. One of those reasons is around a renewed focus on climate action, specifically around clean transportation through electric vehicles (EVs) and the charging infrastructure to support them. This hope is giving many of us a brighter – and greener – outlook for 2021 and beyond.

It’s exciting to see a growing wave of electric vehicle offerings on the horizon, helping create more interest and demand than ever before. But while new makes and models are inspiring, the industry is reaching an inflection point. Making EVs mainstream will require much more than just the vehicles themselves. The U.S. and the world need significantly more charging infrastructure and a stronger overall charging ecosystem to drive true adoption, things my colleagues and I work toward every day.

Let’s think about existing infrastructure as a starting point. Currently, there are well over a million individual gas pumps across the United States, and almost everybody is familiar with how they operate. For reference, there are less than 100,000 individual public chargers, and most Americans don’t know how to use them. The collective ‘we’ have some work cut out for us.

For EVs to really take off, consumers need to start seeing charging stations much more frequently than they do today. And the charging experience needs to take minutes, not hours. That’s why Electrify America is building the nation’s largest open, ultra-fast DC fast charging network, with chargers capable of up to 350 kW. We’re investing heavily to ensure the EVs of today and of the future will be able to charge faster than ever imagined. By the end of 2021, we expect to install or have under development approximately 800 total charging stations with about 3,500 DC fast chargers, including along two cross-country routes.

One of the many benefits of EVs is the ability to offer drivers multiple options when it comes to powering up. Charging is still a new experience for most, so emphasizing this point has been meaningful in our ongoing EV education and awareness efforts. Offering seamless solutions for home and workplace charging, in addition to continued focus on public ultra-fast charging, is helping to build confidence for any driver or fleet operator interested in making the switch to electric transportation.

As enthusiastic as we are about our progress, we know we can’t create the infrastructure and EV ecosystem needed to ignite this revolution alone. We need industry partners, automakers, utilities, businesses, and government to all come together to accelerate our charging capabilities to help spur future EV adoption – and we’re working with many groups to make that happen. A lack of collaboration can crush this movement, which remains in a hopeful, yet fragile place. More investment and partnerships across the board are what will keep the momentum going to adequately handle a growing number of EVs. That’s why we believe continued investment in charging will drive EV adoption, and that all stakeholders should be fully supporting all charging industry growth.

While lack of public charging remains a main deterrent for EV purchase consideration – an issue we are working hard to address – the true beauty of EVs is that between home, public, and workplace charging options, drivers will actually have more opportunities to power their vehicles than gas-powered cars. And that’s a future worth celebrating.

Dr. Gill Pratt, Chief Scientist, Toyota Motor Corp.

As Chief Scientist for Toyota Motor Corporation, one of my most important responsibilities is to think about how to address climate change using science, data, and facts. When it comes to electrification, my role is to maximize environmental benefits with the limited number of battery cells the world can produce.

Toyota’s way of thinking about this question is strongly influenced by the Toyota Production System (TPS). It forms the basis for how we conserve resources and eliminate waste to maximize the quality, durability, reliability, and value of our products. Based on TPS, we believe that maximum net environmental benefit can be achieved by considering the most limited resource – in this case the battery cell.

Every battery cell is an investment of environmental and financial resources. Carbon is emitted for every battery cell produced. Once built, every battery cell has the potential to produce more benefit than what was invested, or what we call a positive Carbon Return on Investment (CROI). But that CROI is not guaranteed. The result depends on how the battery cell is put to use. The physics of climate change (which accumulates carbon in the atmosphere for decades) and limited battery cell production suggests that we minimize total carbon emissions from all of the world’s vehicles by maximizing the CROI of every manufactured battery cell.

Let’s consider the average U.S. commute of 32 miles roundtrip each day. In this case, a 300 mile range battery will yield a very low CROI. The reason is that the vehicle carries excessive battery capacity and excessive weight that is rarely needed or used. The bulk of the energy stored in the battery cell (and the battery cell’s weight) will be carried around most of the time for no purpose, consuming extra energy for its transport, and wasting the opportunity to use that energy for more benefit to the environment. In TPS terms, we consider this to be a waste of transport and inventory. Put another way, that same battery capacity could be spread over a handful of plug-in hybrid vehicles (PHEVs), each of which would utilize most, if not all, of the battery capacity while rarely using its internal combustion engine (ICE). In this case, the overall CROI is higher for the same number of battery cells.

As another example: If a battery cell in a battery electric vehicle (BEV) is recharged by a high-carbon intensity powerplant, the CROI of that cell will be small compared to one recharged by a renewable energy powerplant. So in this case, consider a situation of two cars – one ICE-type and one BEV, and two geographic locations – one with renewable power and the other with high-carbon intensity power. More net CROI will be derived by operating the BEV in the area with renewable power and the ICE in the geography with non-renewable power than the other way around.

Finally, if a battery cell ends up in a long-range BEV whose price puts it beyond the budget of a consumer, or in a street parked vehicle that must use high-rate chargers that lower the battery cell’s life, the CROI will again be smaller than what is possible, versus placing the battery cell into, for example, a PHEV.

BEVs are an important part of the future of electrification. But we can achieve greater carbon reductions by meeting customer needs and circumstances with a diversity of solutions. Wasted CROI harms the environment because there is a limited supply of battery cells, and the cost of production to the planet and to the producer is not zero. Given this fact, how and where battery cells are actually used and charged are critically important.

In summary, given limited battery cell production and significant environmental and financial costs, the way to maximize CROI is to target battery cells into diverse vehicle types – hybrid vehicles, plug-in hybrid vehicles, battery electric vehicles, and fuel cell vehicles that match customer needs and circumstances, and maximize the CROI for every battery cell. This strategy is similar to running a factory efficiently in the Toyota Production System, where efficiency is maximized by eliminating waste at each stage of production and maximizing the benefit derived from every resource and cost. And it forms the basis for Toyota’s belief in this result.

Here’s the thing about plug-in hybrid electric vehicles (PHEVs): You get the benefits of a battery electric vehicle for driving a certain number of zero-emission miles, with the versatility of a gas-electric hybrid without range limitations. There’s no secret to it, and it’s that simple. But PHEV ownership does take some thought, and some effort.

The thought part is straightforward. If you’re in the market for a PHEV and your intent is to drive electric as much as possible, then part of the decision making is choosing a new plug-in hybrid model offering a battery electric range that fits your driving patterns. Some plug-in hybrids offer battery electric range as low as 14 to 19 miles, with a great many featuring electric range in the low to high 20s. Some raise that number up to 42 or 48 miles of battery electric driving, like the Toyota Prius Prime and Honda Clarity PHEV, before requiring a charge or the addition of  combustion power. Many families find the electric range of Chrysler’s Pacifica Hybrid to be entirely workable at 32 miles, with its total 520 miles of driving range reassuring for any driving need.

The effort in owning a PHEV is that you need to install a 240-volt home wall charger and commit to using it to gain maximum benefit. Really, that’s no different than an all-electric vehicle, with the exception that an electric vehicle must be charged to function, while a PHEV will continue operating with the aid of combustion power once batteries are depleted. Both can be charged with a 120-volt convenience charger plugged into a standard household outlet, but that’s rarely a good option since the charging time at 120 volts is so long, while charging at 240 volts is comparatively short. The goal in achieving maximum benefit, of course, is to keep a PHEV charged in any event so you’re operating on battery power whenever possible.

What range do you really need? If your daily driving or commute is about 20 miles – as is the case for so many – then choose a PHEV with a battery electric range offering that capability, or more. Drivers with longer average daily drives should choose a PHEV with greater all-electric range. If you charge every night and wake up with a fully-charged battery ready for your day’s regular activities, you’ll likely find trips to the gas station unnecessary until longer drives are needed. In those cases, there’s nothing to think about because the transition from battery to combustion power happens seamlessly behind the scenes, with no driver action required. Yes, you’ll want to keep gas in the tank for those eventualities, but if your daily use fits within your rated electric range then fill-ups will be infrequent.

From my perspective, the ability to drive electric most of the time with the ability to motor on for hundreds of additional miles without thought is a win-win. I’ve been doing this for years with a variety of PHEV test cars, and more than a year-and-a-half now over 30,000 miles in a Mitsubishi Outlander PHEV. As much as possible, my driving is electric with zero localized emissions, as long as I’m consistent about plugging in at night and my charger isn’t required for another test car. I’m driven to do that not only because driving with zero emissions is the right thing to do, but also because electricity offers a cheaper cost-per-mile driving experience. If you’re on a utility’s electric vehicle rate plan and charge at off-peak hours, there’s even more money to be saved. And let’s not forget the blissful and effortless convenience of charging at home, right?

Any claim that PHEVs won’t deliver their desired environmental benefit is based on assumptions that drivers won’t plug in. That isn’t likely, given that PHEV drivers have paid, sometimes significantly, for the privilege of having a plug-in capability. The notion may have its roots in an unrelated alternative fuel story years ago, when we witnessed the phenomena of motorists driving flexible-fuel E85 ethanol/gasoline vehicles without ever fueling up with E85 alternative fuel. That occurred because of a loophole that allowed automakers to gain significant fuel economy credits by offering flexible-fuel vehicles without any consideration whether drivers would ever fuel up with E85 ethanol. Those vehicles were sold at no premium by the millions, with most drivers unaware their vehicle had an alternative fuel capability or whether E85 fueling stations were nearby.

But this is different. While you have the option to use public charging stations, and that’s a nice benefit enjoyed by many EV and PHEV owners, if you do this right there will be a plug in your garage that requires no effort at all to keep your PHEV charged up. Consider, too, that if a buyer spends the extra money for the plug-in hybrid variant of a popular model, there’s clearly an incentive to plug in most of the time to make the most of one’s PHEV investment.

PHEVs will be with us a long while because they are a sensible solution for many who wish to drive electric, and when used as intended they represent a logical pathway for the all-electric future many envision. There’s no doubt that the increasing number of plug-in hybrids coming now, and in the years ahead, will aim at greater electric driving range than the models that came before them. More choices and greater range will provide an even more compelling reason to step up to a plug-in hybrid for the daily drive.

Since the launch of Green Car Journal in 1992, it’s been clear to me that environmental compatibility isn’t just a passing phase. Today, the most forceful drivers of change are the need to mitigate carbon emissions and reduce mankind’s potential impacts on our global climate. But long before that, there were other imperatives already prompting a rethinking of mobility and how it was affecting our collective lives.

Urban areas were often choked with smog, the result of far too many vehicles on the road,  with levels of tailpipe emissions that would be unthinkable today. Major cities across the country were in non-compliance with air quality standards. Smog alerts recommending limited outdoor activity were an unfortunate and regular occurrence in major cities and regions. I lived this growing up in the greater metropolitan L.A. area, as the smog from Los Angeles migrated some 50 miles eastward and stopped at the San Gabriel Mountains two miles from my home, causing the mountain range to magically disappear in the haze every summer.

Still, there were bright spots amid the haze. California launched its Low Emission Vehicle Program in 1990, mandating cleaner vehicles in the years ahead. Part of this landmark program was the Zero Emission Vehicle Mandate that helped accelerate electric vehicle research and development, and ultimately drove auto manufacturers to get serious about vehicle electrification.

An important part of Green Car Journal’s mission over the years has been to explain the benefits and characteristics of ‘green’ cars of all types, regardless of their approach to better environmental impact. In the end, the goal has always been to present an overview of the directions, technologies, and fuels being explored, dive down into specifics, and enable readers to make up their own minds on what’s important based on what they learn.  

A complementary part of this has been the Green Car Awards, starting with the magazine’s annual Green Car of the Year® award first presented at the L.A. Auto Show in 2005. Green Car Journal editors conduct significant research every year to review the universe of new models to consider as the ‘best-of-the-best’ that exhibit commendable environment performance. Through an extensive vetting process, the field is narrowed down to five finalists for each award category. The goal has remained the same since that first award program in 2005 – recognize vehicles that significantly raise the bar in environmental performance and exhibit environmental leadership.

When it comes to positive change, leadership is important. A new direction acknowledging the automobile’s impact on our environment is important. New and better choices that speak to our future are important. These are among the compelling reasons why the Green Car Awards exist.

In the early years of the Green Car Awards, there were relatively few truly worthy vehicles to be considered. But change, though slow, has been ongoing. Now our cities and streets benefit from an ever-growing number of vastly more efficient, lower emission, and environmentally positive vehicle choices powered by advanced or electrified powerplants. Today, ‘green’ cars have come into their own through design, innovation, and consumer desire. That last part is crucial. Auto manufacturers have done a good job of bringing an increasing number of advanced and electrified vehicles to market. They have invested heavily, even subsidizing some models’ real cost along the way, to make them approachable to buyers.  But a serious and sustained desire for these vehicles had been lacking…until now.

Thankfully, the tipping point for ‘green’ cars is now behind us. While not all new car buyers are in the market for a high efficiency, hybrid, plug-in hybrid, or electric vehicle, the numbers are no longer small, and they’re growing significantly. Interest and demand are up. Consumers are eager to know more and they want to understand which vehicles, and manufacturers, are leading the field. And we’re proud that our annual Green Car Awards help deliver this critical information.

It’s no surprise that the move toward electrics is also being driven by growing consumer interest in vehicles that address the challenges of greenhouse gas emissions and climate change. Those who don’t see this this transition aren’t paying attention. However, taking this as a sign that the imminent end of the internal combustion vehicle is upon us assumes too much. The numbers and trends do not bear this out.

While our focus here is on all ‘greener’ vehicles offering lower emissions, higher efficiency, and greater environmental performance, we give significant focus to electrification on GreenCarJournal.com because, to a large degree, this represents our driving future. There are many electrified vehicles now on the market that have met with notable success, particularly gasoline-electric hybrids. In fact, hybrids have become so mainstream after 20 years that most people don’t look at them differently. They simply embrace these vehicles as a normal part of their daily lives, enjoying a familiar driving experience as their hybrids deliver higher fuel efficiency and fewer carbon emissions.

Less transparent are electric vehicles of all types because they have a plug, something that’s not familiar to most drivers. This includes plug-in hybrids that really are seamless since they offer both electric and internal combustion drive. The challenge is especially pronounced for all-electric vehicles that drive exclusively on batteries.

A recent survey of consumers and industry experts by JD Power underscores this. Even as the overall survey indicated most respondents had neutral confidence in battery electric vehicles, many said their prospect for buying an electric vehicle was low. They also had concerns about the reliability of battery electric vehicles compared to conventionally powered models. Clearly, there’s work to be done in educating people about electric vehicles, and it will take time.

Overall, automakers do a good job of providing media with the latest information on their electrification efforts, new electric models, and electrified vehicles under development. That’s why you’ll read so much about electric vehicles in mainstream media and learn about them on the news.

What’s less evident is that consumers truly learn what they need to know about plug-in vehicles at new car showrooms. Car dealerships are critical even in an era where online car buying is starting to gain traction. Showrooms are still where the vast majority of new car buyers shop for their next car, and the influence salespeople have on a consumer’s purchase decision is huge.

The JD Power study illustrates consumers’ lack of understanding about the reliability of electric vehicles…even though reliability is a given since electrics have far fewer moving parts to wear and break than conventional vehicles. Dealer showrooms can help resolve this lack of understanding with readily-available materials about electric car ownership, a sales force willing to present ‘green’ options to conventional vehicles, plus adequate stock of electrified vehicles – hybrid, plug-in hybrid, and battery electric – to test drive.

Sales trends tell us that conventional internal combustion vehicles will represent the majority of new car sales for quite some time. More efficient electrified vehicles will continue to make inroads, but not at the pace many would like, even at a time when greater numbers of electric models are coming to market. In the absence of forward-thinking dealerships willing to invest in change, an enthusiastic sales force eager to share the benefits of electrics, and auto manufacturers willing to incentivize dealers to sell electric, this promises to be a long road. It’s time to change this dynamic.

First thing: Have you driven an electric car? If you’ve lived with one for a time, then you likely have some solid ideas of your EV’s best features. Those who have just done a few test drives or haven’t driven electric at all could use some illumination. So here you go.

1. Hey, speed racer! Most electric cars boast pretty impressive acceleration from a stop. Unlike an internal combustion engine, electric motors generate 100 percent of their torque right out of the gate, which means your launch from standing still can be much more aggressive than you would imagine. We’re not saying you should do this as a matter of course…just that it’s kinda fun to know that capability exists.

2. Charging is way cool. Really. There’s nothing like parking your car for the night, plugging in, and starting the next day with a full ‘tank’ of energy on board. Just imagine life without the need to stop at a gas station. If you’re able to sign up for an electric vehicle rate plan from your electric utility, then set your charging to take place at non-peak hours overnight. You’ll have a full charge in the morning at the least possible cost. Plus, an ever-expanding network of public chargers is available for charging away from home, and while many now require a fee, a great many still provide energy for free. So, benefit from the kindness of strangers.

3. Electric vehicles are quiet, so enjoy your solitude. In the early days of EV development during the 1990s, there were unexpected noises to contend with like gear whine, high frequency noise from motor controllers, and such mundane things as the sound of tires contacting pavement and wind rushing past the windshield. Really. The familiar sound of internal combustion that normally masks the everyday sounds of motoring was notably absent. Over the years electrics have been engineered with better and quieter controllers, additional soundproofing, and other engineering measures to create the quiet EVs we have today. Experience the Zen.

4. EVs are extraordinarily efficient so you’ll be saving money every mile you drive, compared to driving on gas. The exact amount varies since gasoline and electricity costs differ by state, region, and city. A recent analysis by the Department of Energy indicated the national average for a gallon of gas was $2.74 compared to $1.21 for an ‘eGallon.’ DOE’s calculations factor the cost of fueling with gas compared to a similar vehicle that runs on electricity. The difference is even more dramatic in California, where I recently fueled up with standard grade gas at $4.59 per gallon. I was glad to get behind the wheel of an electric at the earliest possible opportunity.

5. Driving electric is like being in an immersive game. You have an extraordinary level of influence over your car’s efficiency with instrumentation providing continuous feedback on your driving and how this is affecting range. That’s not as critical in an EV with a 250-mile range capability as it is in one that can go only 90 miles on a charge, but that doesn’t matter. You’ll find yourself intrigued by your car’s instant feedback on energy usage, battery status, and distance-to-empty. There will be times when you will consciously (or unconsciously) adjust acceleration, speed, and downhill coasting to eke out more miles on that constantly recalculating distance readout, since more efficient use of on-board energy adds miles in real-time. Backing off the accelerator early and coasting up to a red light to maximize regenerative braking that feeds energy to the batteries is also human nature for an EV driver. Game on!

When Tesla began selling its long-awaited $35,000 Model 3 early this year, there was no doubt a collective sigh of relief on the part of Tesla fans who had waited three years for this to happen.

This price tag is important since the Model 3 has been widely-promoted as a $35,000 ‘everyman’s electric vehicle’ affordable to the masses, even as the cheapest models available were uplevel, higher content variants initially priced at $49,000. That cost moved down to $46,000 and ultimately $43,000 before Tesla made the leap to its latest $35,000, slightly decontented base model. At that price it’s doubtful that Tesla makes a profit, and in fact it wasn’t long ago when Tesla CEO Elon Musk said the company would lose money on the Model 3 at that price point.

Still, the promised base model is here and we can celebrate that. But it’s not an entirely happy story for some – no doubt many, many thousands – who were expecting something more.

When the Model 3 was introduced in April 2016, anticipation had been building a long time already for an affordable long-range electric car from Tesla. For fans of the marque who couldn’t pony up the substantial bucks for a premium-priced Model S or Model X, the $35,000 Model 3 was their answer. The problem is, a great many buyers understandably assumed that the bottom-line cost would be much lower.

Until recently, the federal tax credit for a Tesla was $7,500. Add in state incentives that could vary from $1,000 to $5,000 or more, and buyers were looking at an all-electric Tesla Model 3 they could acquire for a very approachable, conventional vehicle-like price as low as net $25,000. While the cost of a typical Tesla has always been beyond the reach of most buyers, a bottom line transaction of 25 grand was considered do-able by many.

There were an estimated 200,000 reservations for the Model 3 within a day of its unveiling accompanied by $200 million or so in deposits, a number that has continued to grow to surpass 400,000 reservations over time. Deliveries of higher-priced, uplevel Model 3s began in mid-2017, with qualified buyers enjoying the generous $7,500 tax credit. However, it has taken so long to get to a deliverable $35,000 Model 3 that the federal tax credit for Teslas has been a reduced $3,750 for the first half of 2019, then $1,875 for the second half, then at year’s end…done.

Why is this happening? To its credit, Tesla has cumulatively sold over 200,000 electric vehicles (Models S, X, and 3). This number triggers a federal tax credit phase-out according to a predefined schedule set for all makers of electric vehicles. The federal incentive’s strategy is that once an automaker has momentum for its electric vehicles by achieving greater than a 200,000 sales volume, there is no further need for a subsidy.

To those who lament the loss of federal EV subsidies and feel it unfair, consider this: The program was never intended to last forever, but rather help more environment-friendly electric vehicles gain traction in a market that has been dominated by internal combustion for well over a century.

Tesla surpassed 200,000 electric car sales and has achieved impressive momentum. Its electric Model 3 became the best-selling luxury car in the U.S last year. By all measures, for Tesla the federal tax subsidy’s story is ‘mission accomplished.’

ron-cogan-capitol-hillI drive an electric vehicle every day as part of my job testing cars. It’s not a new thing. In fact, this has been part of the drill here at Green Car Journal since the publication’s launch in 1992…way ahead of the electric car curve.

Back then I was testing electrics like the Honda EV Plus, Nissan Altra EV, Toyota RAV4 EV, Ford Ranger EV, and many more electrics from automakers and wanna-be specialty companies with their eye on a developing electric car market. I was also driving electric prototypes, some that never came to fruition and others, like the GM Impact, that did.

At the time I had the memorable experience of driving GM’s EV1 electric sports car for a year. I’ll never forget it. It was sleek, bright red, and fast. It seemed to coast forever when you lifted off the accelerator. Being a Gen 1 car equipped with advanced lead-acid batteries rather than the nickel-metal-hydride batteries that came in Gen 2, mine was also pretty range limited. In fact, it delivered about 50 real-world miles of driving between charges, less than the 60 to 95-mile range capability projected at the time. I didn’t care. The EV1 was amazing to drive and served my needs commuting to work and running errands around town. If I needed to travel farther than its range capability, well…I took another car.

And that’s the thing about electric cars some 20 years later. While the latest crop of battery electric vehicles here or coming soon offer 200-plus miles of all-electric driving – which many consider the number needed for EVs to effectively compete in the mass market – most offer far less. At the low range of sub-200 mile electric cars you have the Smart EV at 58 miles and at the upper end the new Nissan LEAF at 150 miles, with all the rest falling somewhere in between. Does offering less than 200 miles of driving range mean some electrics are no longer relevant in an evolving world where range is the next Big Thing?

gm-ev1-side-1Not at all. In fact, the decision making for buying/leasing an electric car is no different than when buying any new car. The bottom line is: Does it fit your needs? There are the usual considerations like cost, performance, safety, quality, and passenger capacity. Once those cuts are made, in the electric world it comes down to driving range. If your daily commute and around-town driving is about the average at 30 miles or so and you charge daily, then any electric model is suitable for the job. Charging at home overnight and getting an additional charge at work or from a public charger while shopping works all the better for extending your overall range. Occasional longer distance drives aren’t an issue if there are multiple cars in your household, which is the norm.

If your daily needs are closer to the limits of an electric model’s range, then opting for a range extended electric car might make sense, rather than one operating exclusively on batteries. The Chevrolet Volt and BMW i3 REx are two such examples that lend range flexibility.

Don’t get me wrong. Longer-range electric cars are wondrous things, and they’re coming. But EVs with more modest range can also be a good fit depending on need and circumstance.

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ron-cogan-capitol-hillCharging your electric vehicle used to be an easy thing, at least in many areas where electrification has long been promoted. Public chargers were installed in high-profile areas like shopping centers, parking garages, and at the workplace. For the longest time, it wasn’t unusual to see these chargers go unused for long periods of time. Green Car Journal editors experienced this first-hand for many years during our daily travels with plug-in test cars.

Often enough, ours was the only electric vehicle plugged in at a bank of four chargers at a local commercial center in our city. It was the same story in the parking garage downtown. But that’s changed, signifying both the positives and the challenges of a plug-in vehicle market that’s gathering momentum, and numbers. These days those chargers are often occupied when we pull up. Like most places, there simply don’t seem to be enough chargers to go around.

Many have heard about incidents at Tesla Supercharger sites, places where you can top off 80 percent of your battery charge in 30 minutes and then be on your way. The problem is, not everyone plugs in and then moves on. Superchargers, and chargers in general, are often located in areas where businesses are nearby so the experience is convenient and there’s something to do while charging. Tesla, in fact, has hinted that it’s taking this further and exploring Supercharger sites with food and amenities for those charging up their cars.

To be sure, not everyone stops for a 30 minute cup of coffee while charging. Shopping experiences in nearby stores can take much longer than that, and if all chargers are being used with others waiting to top off before continuing their journey, long waits are a problem. At times that leaves EV drivers frustrated with those who leave their car plugged in long after their needed charge is complete. The result? An interesting phenomenon in recent years called ‘charge rage.’

charging-at-two-chargersThis isn’t unique to Superchargers or to public charging sites. Workplaces can have similar experiences as employees in increasing numbers step up to battery electric and plug-in hybrids. They’re encouraged to do so not only to drive ‘greener,’ but also to benefit from shorter commutes in states that allow solo EV drivers in high occupancy vehicle (carpool) lanes. That privilege alone has spurred many commuters to go electric. Time isn’t just money. It’s also…time. Spending a half-hour less each way during the daily commute is worth more than money in many respects. And once the commute is done, it’s time to charge.

Most companies offering chargers have limited numbers and often site these in favorable parking areas close to the workplace, further encouraging employees to go electric. It’s good for a company’s image and it’s the right thing to do. That said, expecting employees to free up a charger after a few hours and move their car farther out in an expansive parking lot is asking a lot, human nature being what it is.

charging-bankConsider, too, charging sites at public parking garages adjacent to convention centers and other venues. Those who plug in while attending a conference of expo aren’t likely to return after an hour or two to unplug and move to another less convenient parking spot. With a limited number of charging spots available, other EV drivers counting on a range-extending charge aren’t likely to be pleased if all charging spots are taken.

Yes, there’s change afoot. Charging companies, automakers, utilities, and both state and local governments are striving to install an exponentially larger number of public chargers to alleviate the problem and keep pace with the growing number of plug-in vehicles on the road. But it hasn’t been fast enough…certainly not at a pace that’s keeping up with the larger number of electric vehicles on the road today.

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Drivers have long been promised perks like free public charging, access to carpool lanes with a single occupant in an electric vehicle, and favorable parking with charging available, all to encourage them to go step up to a battery electric or plug-in hybrid vehicle. While not disappearing, these perks are getting harder to realize. And that’s not a good thing for the electric vehicles and the industry as a whole.

ron-cogan-capitol-hillWill electrified vehicles dominate our highways in the future? It’s a question on the minds of many these days as an increasing number of battery electric and plug-in hybrid models come to new car showrooms. The answer is not an easy one, especially since there’s the potential that future CAFE (Corporate Average Fuel Economy) requirements could be modified. CAFE has been a driving force in the accelerated research and development in plug-in vehicles and new model introductions.

Automakers as a whole have said the current CAFE requirement of 54.5 mpg by 2025 cannot be achieved without a serious emphasis on electrification and the efficiencies these models bring. Thus, there has been an undeniable momentum for plug-ins underway as witnessed by the 39 battery electric and plug-in hybrid models from 20 automotive brands available in the U.S. market during calendar year 2017.

It has been a long path to get to this point since modern electrics emerged in the early 1990s. Along the way, early battery electric vehicles have been constrained by the limitations imposed by the very nature of battery electric propulsion. Simply, batteries are very heavy and costly, which result in two distinct penalties – greater weight that saps overall efficiency and high production costs that either make these vehicles expensive to buy, or require automakers to absorb much of these costs.

Those were the issues in the 1990s and, not coincidentally, these remain the issues today. Battery electric cars in 2017 are an order of magnitude better than those of a few decades back. But driving range and cost remain significant challenges. Plug-in hybrids are another matter.

Since these offer both all-electric driving and hybrid operation after batteries are depleted, there is no ‘range anxiety’ – the concern that a battery electric vehicle’s battery power could be insufficient for daily driving needs. Automakers are into plug-in hybrids in a big way and this has become a very competitive part of the automotive landscape.

So what does our driving future hold? There are nearly 40 plug-in vehicles for sale this year and that’s a big statement. Most major automakers have thriving electric research and development programs underway with electric model launches of one type or another in the pipeline. We will see an expanding offering of plug-in hybrids with battery electric models featuring greater driving range, as witnessed by the benchmarks being set by Chevrolet and Tesla and the new commitment to electrics by Volvo.

One wild card is that internal combustion continues to achieve surprising efficiency gains, at reasonable cost compared to electrics. That means the combustion vehicles we’ve had on our roads for more than a century will continue to ply our highways for some time to come, at approachable cost and without the need for the federal and state incentives that now help motivate buyers to go electric.

Still, there’s a growing desire for the emissions and inherent efficiencies of electric drive so there’s every reason to expect this interest to increase. We don’t yet know if plug-in vehicles of one stripe or another will dominate the market in the years ahead. But what is clear is that electrification is poised to play a major role moving forward.

ron-cogan-capitol-hillLike most kids growing up in the 1960s, my first experience with an electric race car was at a slot car track as a teenager. They were fast…really fast if you used a hopped-up rewind motor capable of smoking competitors off the track.

This was followed decades later with the full-scale, real-life electric cars I witnessed competing in the APS Solar & Electric 500 at Phoenix International Raceway in 1991. They were electric conversions of one type or another, using commercially- available batteries or experimental ones with exotic chemistries, once again reinforcing that racing is where automotive technology is proved on the track, then evolved and adapted for cars on the road.

Segue to 2017, where the process continues in full force. Not only are electrics competing in FIA Formula E racing, but automakers are now signing on in a big way. Audi, Jaguar Land Rover, and Mahindra are competing with factory teams during the 2017 Formula E season and others are sponsoring race teams. It’s no mystery why auto companies are involved in Formula E since electrification is playing an increasingly important role in the automobile’s future.

Now there’s a new twist that combines electric racing with the high-profile competition in developing autonomous cars: the Roborace. Ten teams will use identical autonomous electric race cars with an eye toward earning the checkered flag exclusively through the prowess of artificial intelligence (AI) and their programming skills. No driver required.

The application of increasingly sophisticated AI in our cars is evident in the advanced driver-assist systems being integrated in new models, creating ‘smart’ cars that can respond to emergency situations faster than most drivers. In fact, the processing speed of machines versus humans was recently on the mind of Tesla Motors’ Elon Musk, when he recently shared that the processing speed of machines is so superior to humans that “over time I think we will probably see a closer merger of biological intelligence and digital intelligence.”

What does that mean? Apparently, being human in a future world of AI is not enough because we are so slow. “It’s mostly about the bandwidth, the speed of the connection between your brain and the digital version of yourself, particularly output,” says Musk. His reasoning is that “some high bandwidth interface to the brain will be something that helps achieve a symbiosis between human and machine intelligence and maybe solves the control problem and the usefulness problem.” Yikes. I’m not the first to think ‘cyborg’ after hearing this. I’ll pass…although I will enjoy the benefits of connectivity and driver assistance systems in the meantime.

In a different and certainly more comforting look ahead, we know that plug-in vehicles are a hot item. Would you be surprised to know there are now 39 plug-in models - battery electrics and plug-in hybrids - being sold now or coming during the 2017 calendar year? That's a huge statement for electric drive and that number will certainly grow in the years ahead.

While Tesla models presently claim the greatest battery electric range at an entry point of $84,700, the new $37,495 Chevy Bolt EV stands out as the first battery electric car affordable to the masses with a driving range over 200 miles. Tesla has promised its coming Model 3 will also have a driving range greater than 200 miles at a base price of $35,000.

Without a doubt, the integration of semi-autonomous features and ‘green’ technologies will continue to grow. Welcome to your driving future!

 

todd-kaho-leftThere is a strong push for self-driving autonomous cars sweeping the auto industry. It’s an interesting mix of competing companies merging with both the traditional car brands and the tech industry. The overriding assumption is that taking the driver out of the transportation equation is better for safety and the environment than human involvement in the operation of the vehicle.

Full disclosure right up front: I am not a fan of the idea of a car driving me rather than me driving the car. You see, the reason I fell in love with cars in the first place is rooted in the fact that I love to drive and want to stay connected to the road. And yes, I prefer a manual transmission over an automatic. The idea of climbing in a vehicle and telling HAL 9000 (reference from 2001: A Space Odyssey) where I want to go doesn’t have much appeal to me.

That said, I do like many of the technological advancements that are making self driving cars possible. They can contribute to both safety and efficiency. My favorite of those currently available is adaptive cruise control. With this technology the vehicle maintains a safe distance from the car or truck in front of you when the cruise control is activated. Most allow the driver to set the distance or buffer the car will follow. If you have the cruise control set on 65 and close on a semi that is doing 60 up a grade, the car will automatically slow to the speed of the truck in front of you. If you pull out to pass, your car will accelerate back up to the preset 65 mph speed if no other slower vehicles are ahead. Adaptive cruise control is becoming more and more common and works quite well.

Forward-facing radar is commonly used and sometimes laser and multiple video cameras as well to judge distance and closing speed. This technology can also safely bring the vehicle to a complete stop when approaching a stopped vehicle or other fixed obstruction. Automatic braking technology can be a life saver if a driver is distracted, falls asleep, or is otherwise incapacitated. And to think that is wasn’t all that long ago that antilock braking was the latest innovation, and now it is mainstream!

True autonomous cars, however, must have input from many other sources to know exactly what is happening all around the vehicle. Sensors to the side, for example, are used in modern lane detection and lane change anti-collision systems. These detect objects to the side of the vehicle and some read lane markings on the road. Most give an audible alert first to get the driver’s attention, but some will actually pulse the steering wheel if they think the situation is urgent. Vehicles currently use some of the same equipment to allow production vehicles to park with little driver input other than engaging the system.

A self-driving car needs to sense conditions 360 degrees around its perimeter. Multiple radars, sensors, lasers, GPS, and cameras must all work together for complete situational awareness. It’s a very complex business when you add in the ability to read traffic signals, watch for pedestrians, motorcycles, bicycles, etc. Car-to-car communication is also a key element in making this all work together.

Naturally, this doesn’t come without additional complexity and expense. I look for a future with vehicles that will always have a steering wheel in front of me and at least two pedals at my feet, though three would be better.

ron-cogan-capitol-hillWhen it comes to chips, automakers are all-in. That is, the silicon variety and not those with which you can gamble away a fortune, something auto companies are loathe to do. Traditionally, the risks auto manufacturers undertake are carefully calculated and always rooted in the world of profit and market share. As they look to the future, their chips are increasingly riding on ‘green’ and ‘connectivity.’

Key to this is Silicon Valley, which for decades has been synonymous with the high tech world of consumer electronics, encompassing everything from computers and cellphones to software and apps. Today this storied list has expanded in important and unexpected ways to include technology that’s at the heart of the auto industry’s future. It’s here that auto manufacturers have forged strategic alliances with Silicon Valley icons like Google and Apple, plus noted tech companies like NVIDIA and an array of Silicon Valley start-ups that promise to bring new and exciting functionality to our vehicles.

Striking alliances with tech companies is an important direction for an industry that has been entrenched in its own world for well over a century. It’s so important, in fact, that many auto manufacturers have gone beyond just alliances, establishing dedicated research and development centers in Silicon Valley to tap the undeniable expertise here. We have seen surprising moves in recent times, like Toyota’s short-lived alliance with Tesla to develop the excellent, though quite expensive, battery electric RAV4 crossover a few years back. Sometimes things work out, sometimes not. But ventures like this are important to the journey as a future unfolds that will certainly find advanced electronics playing a major role in the cars we drive, or perhaps, to cars that drive themselves.

This is happening already with an increasingly sophisticated array of on-board electronics incorporated into new car models. As you might expect, much of this is showing up in higher-end vehicles first as technology costs are absorbed into the price of aspirational vehicles already expected to command a higher point of entry. As technology costs decrease, advanced systems like these tend to move down-market to more affordable vehicles. We’re already seeing this happening in real time.

In addition to the on-board systems we tend to take for granted today – such as navigation, back-up display, satellite radio, and Bluetooth cellphone integration – there’s a new generation of sought-after features that use a vehicle’s integrated cameras and sensors to perform wondrous tasks. Adaptive cruise control that automatically maintains a safe distance from the car ahead is one of these.

Beyond that is the latest generation of such systems with a stop-and-go function capable of automating the boring task of driving in urban gridlock. Lane minder systems that warn if you stray outside your lane are being enhanced with automated features that nudge you back where you belong. Automated parking is yet another popular feature in electronics-rich models. This is just the start as technologies like pedestrian avoidance systems make their way into new models, plus technology that automatically brakes or slows your car at intersections if another vehicle comes into your path.

All this is coming together to make our vehicles more fuel efficient, convenient, and safer as we drive toward a more connected future. Strap in because big changes are ahead.

todd-kaho-leftDiesel haters seem to be overly anxious to pile-on and shout ‘death to diesels’ these days. It’s human nature to take offense at being fooled and the diesel market certainly is paying the price of the recent emissions scandal. Serious deception took place and it’s far from forgotten, even as corrections are underway or being explored. The green car market is very competitive so it’s not surprising that some supporting alternative transportation technologies are quick to point the finger.

Allen Schaeffer, Executive Director of the Diesel Technology Forum, responded to a story entitled “The Dirty Truth About Clean Diesel” in The New York Times with the following statement, which the Times ran in its Opinion pages. “Here are the facts about diesel straight from the Environmental Protection Agency and California Air Resources Board: Clean diesel technology and fuels have reduced particulate matter and nitrogen oxide emissions by more than 98 percent, and sulfur content by 97 percent. The American Lung Association cites clean diesel fleets as one of the two primary reasons for improved air quality in the United States.”

Personally, I’ve owned a diesel powered Ford pickup for many years and its overall capability and economy are simply hard to replace. Consider that nearly every product we touch on a daily basis – from the food on our table to the consumer products we all rely on – are harvested and/or transported by diesel powered trucks, trains, and ships. Diesel is an important part of our infrastructure and without it the cost of all goods and services would certainly increase.

I don’t mind admitting I’m still a fan of advanced diesel. I find it discouraging that just as smaller next-generation diesel passenger vehicles were gaining momentum in the North American market, this distrust has many questioning diesel’s place in the automotive landscape. As far as the driving experience goes, it is tough to beat the satisfying torque that a modern diesel delivers. When combined with advanced transmissions they are quite fun to drive.

With EPA federal rules requiring significantly better fuel economy and lower CO2 emissions by 2025, next-generation diesel should be a key player in achieving these goals. A primary advantage of diesel has always been superior fuel economy. A diesel will generally deliver 30 percent higher fuel economy than a comparable gasoline model. That huge bump in mileage also brings a significant decrease in CO2 emissions.

b20-powerstroke-emblemPlus, it’s important to note that the more advanced diesels on the road, the greater the potential use of even cleaner-burning biodiesel, a renewable diesel fuel replacement that has experienced significant growth over the past decade.

The road back to diesel acceptance will likely come first in the light truck and sport utility vehicle market with more light-duty diesel pickups and luxury SUVs moving forward. Good examples are the recent introduction of the 5.0-liter V-8 Cummins turbo diesel in the new Nissan Titan and 2.8-liter Duramax four-cylinder turbo diesel in the mid-size Chevy Colorado and GMC Canyon. Want something a little more exotic? Land Rover and Range Rover are now offering models with their Td6 next-generation diesel, with other automakers also introducing newer, more efficient, and cleaner diesel models as well.

We hope to see lower-priced, high mileage next-generation diesel models in the near future to fill the void in the small car market.

todd-kaho-leftSome cars leave an impression that lasts a lifetime. The Ford Mustang is one of those cars for me. As a kid, I was blessed with a dad who always had something unique in the driveway, from a Morris Minor to a Triumph Herald. None were exotic or expensive, but they were fun and more than a little quirky.

So, when the first generation Mustang came out, Dad had to have one and in the summer of 1964 there was a 1964 1/2 Mustang convertible in our driveway. It was copper with a white interior and white top. Powered by a 289 V-8 and a ‘three-at-the-knee shifted manual transmission. Detroit was producing big iron at the time and this car seemed lean, efficient, and mean. Many happy hours were enjoyed in that first generation Mustang.

When Ford offered to let me drive a 2015 Mustang not long ago, I was understandably thrilled. Then I read the specs. The car would be a four-cylinder with an automatic transmission. No, really?

If you want to know how far the automotive industry has advanced in the last 50 years, go drive the new 2.3-liter EcoBoost four-cylinder Mustang. For those of us of a certain vintage let me clarify, this is not a Pinto engine. This 2.3 is a beast. The first time I pushed the start button, the raspy growl made it clear that the EcoBoost means business. This engine, produces 310 horsepower and 320 lb-ft torque. At just 137.5 cubic inches it’s less than half the displacement of Dad’s 289 V-8.

For perspective, consider that this new four-cylinder also makes more horsepower than the 2005 Mustang GT 4.6-liter V-8 of just 10 years ago. EcoBoost uses smaller, more efficient engine designs aided by turbocharging to do more with less. It’s not a new idea, but Ford has been refining it for years with impressive results. The 2.3 Mustang engine uses a twin-scroll turbo with split exhaust runners to feed immediate boost. It produces low-end power more like a V-6 or V-8 than a four, delivering a very satisfying driving experience.

2015 Mustang Media Drive in L.A.I’ve always preferred manual transmissions, but the six-speed auto in the Mustang was quite nice. It can be manually shifted with paddle controls on the steering wheel for more control and fun.

The best part about this whole equation is that the EcoBoost engine is lighter than V-6 and V-8 counterparts. That makes all vehicle dynamics simply work better. Everything from acceleration to handling and braking are improved. The car literally feels lighter and is more nimble, which makes it a joy to drive.

Now for the ‘green’ part. The EcoBoost Mustang has an EPA highway fuel economy rating of 32 mpg. This car is quick and will spring from 0-60 mph is 5.6 seconds. But we also decided to push it in the other direction and see how it would do in economy cruise mode. At legal speeds, mid-to upper 30 mpg averages are easily obtainable. You can use this car as a daily commuter and not break the bank.

It’s an interesting and compelling contrast to look back 50 years to the first Mustang, and even 10 years to the last generation Mustang. But what I love most is that this iconic car still has swagger and will stir emotions. I’ll take that over an automotive appliance any day.

Connected car technologies are transforming the automotive industry much like smart phone apps revolutionized the mobile phone sector.  A new generation of aftermarket products are helping tech-savvy drivers reduce accidents, lower insurance costs, save fuel, and plan routes more effectively.

stephen-thompsonCars and trucks have become mobile computing platforms and the tech transformation is accelerating. By 2020, it has been estimated that 75 percent of the world’s cars will have the technology to connect to the internet and to each other via Wi-Fi. Studies by the U.S. Department of Transportation estimate that these connected-car technologies could reduce the number of collisions by 80 percent.

For companies such as Intelligent Mechatronic Systems (IMS), based in Waterloo, Ontario, the data that can be collected by connected-car technologies is a valuable resource that can help drivers save money and improve their driving skills. IMS’ DriveSync platform can collect data through automaker-installed systems, aftermarket devices, or smartphone apps. This data, in turn, is analyzed in real-time and the results are delivered as actionable information.  It can also be used as a coaching tool for young drivers to improve driving skills, or as a fleet management system that helps commercial operators reduce fuel consumption and insurance costs. A number of North America’s leading insurance companies offer drivers lower premiums if they install DriveSync and share the data.

During a presentation at the company’s head office, founder and CEO of IMS, Dr. Otmar Basir, said that the platform is “all about transforming your car from a dumb machine into a smart appliance. DriveSync is a platform for greener, safer, more human-centric driving.”

The speed of consumer acceptance and the demand for more and more internet-connected technologies surprises even some industry veterans. High tech has become a product differentiator in the fiercely competitive automotive marketplace.

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“What makes a car different today is not the steel but the technology,” said Bob Moran, CEO and founder of Weather Telematics, during an interview at the company’s head office in Ottawa, Ontario. “Cars used to be about steel and rubber. Now, what matters is intelligence and connectivity.”

Weather Telematics applies advanced meteorological science to real-world driving needs. It combines real-time data from a vehicle’s sensors with up-to-the-minute weather-related information drawn from an array of internet-based sources to provide drivers with accurate intelligence about immediate road conditions.

This is not a ‘40 percent chance of rain in your region’ type forecast, but information about the specific conditions the driver will face on that particular highway within the next mile or across a particular route programmed into the GPS system.  Moran calls it ‘now-casting,’ not weather forecasting. “This is hyper-local weather advice,” Moran said. The overriding goal is to use these technologies to save lives and reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.

Weather Telematics“Weather risks in transportation – rain, fog, snow – contribute to 10,000 deaths every year in the U.S. alone and traffic congestion wastes 2.9 billion gallons of gas annually,” Moran said. “We provide drivers with a new kind of technology that can help them mitigate those safety risks and reduce fuel consumption.”

The growing market for next-generation automotive technologies is drawing more companies into the industry. Ontario, Canada is one of the few jurisdictions in the world with world-class clusters in both automotive production and information technology and has nearly 100 companies now involved in connected-car technologies – and that is very good news for both sectors.

The number of vehicles on the road worldwide is expected to double from 1 billion to 2 billion by 2035, and embracing these technologies can make our roads safer and reduce GHG emissions.

 

Stephen Thompson is the Senior Economic Officer and Consul for Ontario International Trade and Investment, based in San Francisco

ron-cogan-capitol-hillThere are many outspoken and polarizing proponents of the various fuels and technologies at play today. This has been the case for several decades now and isn’t likely to disappear anytime soon. Many electric car enthusiasts do not see a future for internal combustion or even hydrogen fuel cell vehicles. Hydrogen proponents point out that fuel cell vehicles make more sense than battery electrics since hydrogen generally offers greater driving range and fuel cell vehicles can be refueled in under five minutes, while battery electrics cannot. Biodiesel enthusiasts point out the obvious benefits of this biofuel and even as this fuel gains momentum, wonder why support isn’t stronger. Natural gas advocates see huge and stable supplies of this clean-burning fuel now and in our future, without the truly significant commitment to natural gas vehicles this should bring. And those behind internal combustion vehicles achieving ever-higher efficiency simply wonder what the fuss is all about when conventional answers are here today.

So in the midst of all this, where are we headed? Simple. In the right direction, of course.

As I was writing about these very fuels and technologies some 25 years ago, it wasn’t lost on me that the competition for dominance in the ‘green’ automotive world of the future would be hard-fought and long, with many twists and turns. As our decades-long focus on the ‘green car’ field has shown us, the state-of-the-art of advanced vehicles in any time frame is ever-changing, which simply means that what may seem to make the most sense now is likely to shift, and at times, shift suddenly. This is a field in flux today, as it was back then.

When Nissan powered its Altra EV back in 1998 as an answer to California’s Zero Emission Vehicle mandate, it turned heads with the first use of a lithium-ion battery in a limited production vehicle, rather than the advanced lead-acid and nickel-metal-hydride batteries used by others. Lithium-ion is now the battery of choice, but will it remain so as breakthrough battery technologies and chemistries are being explored?

Gasoline-electric hybrids currently sell in ever-greater numbers, with plug-in hybrids increasingly joining their ranks. Conventionally-powered vehicles are also evolving with new technologies and strategies eking levels of fuel efficiency that were only thought possible with hybrid powerplants just a few years ago.

What drives efficiency – and by extension determines our future path to the high efficiency, low emission, and more sustainable vehicles desired by consumers and government alike – is textbook evolution. Cars are adapting to meet the changing needs of future mobility and the imperative of improved environmental performance. Some of these evolutionary changes are predictable like lightweighting, improved aerodynamics, friction reduction, and enhanced powertrain efficiencies. Other answers, including the fuels that will ultimately power a new generation of vehicles, will be revealed over time.

So here’s to the cheerleaders who tell us quite vocally that their fuel, technology, or strategy is the answer to our driving future. One of them may be right. But the fact is, the evolutionary winner has yet to be determined.