Monday, March 5, 2007

Interviewed by middle school student...

writing a report on hybrids, electrics and social impact:

1. What do you believe is the main reason that many electric cars are not being mass marketed? Any others?

I believe that the main reason electric cars are not being mass marketed is because of money. Money can be broken down into several factors including Research & Development (R&D), marketing, sales and profits.

Using the EV-1 as an example, General Motors spent an estimated $1,000,000,000.00 for R&D and a little into marketing. According to Wikipedia, 1,117 units were produced which included 650 lead acid battery and 457 NiMH versions.

Assuming each EV1 was leased for $500 each for an average of 18 months, estimated total revenues for the EV1 fleet was about $10,000,000.00. So GM spent $1 billion to mass market the EV1, leased every unit except for two, and lost 99% of the investment.

This may not even include the salaries and other expenses paid to clean up the mess after the cars were developed. So, it’s safe to estimate that GM lost $10 million per EV1.

Not very many people, companies or organizations can afford to lose $10,000,000.00 per unit of a new mass marketed product, so why did GM develop the EV1? Because the California Air Resource Board’s mandated that 2% of vehicles had to be zero-emissions.

Comparing mass marketing a new gasoline car to an electric, the money is completely different. For a gasoline car, dealers are setup, showrooms, service departments, mechanics, etc. Then there are oil changers and gasoline stations and all the jobs to keep cars on the road. The auto industry hires 1 in 10 Americans and that does not even include things like rubber to make tires, or clerks working at the gas station.

Compare all those jobs to what’s available and ready or the costs of developing an infrastructure for electric cars. If the EV1 cost $10 billion to develop, the infrastructure to fuel, service and recycle electric cars could cost the world trillions. How many of the six billion people on the planet own their homes and have access to solar panels or windmills and reliable electricity?

Millions of people around the world can grab a can of gas, oil or diesel and vote.

Jobs, voters and politics are the other reasons that people, groups and organizations do not want to kill off the existing oil based infrastructure.

2. Is there any major flaws in hybrid and electric cars that you believe should be fixed?

Assuming you are asking about technology and the cars themselves, looks, performance and size are probably the most common complaints by non-owners. Owners and buyers love their hybrids and will rarely go back to a conventional vehicle.

The main flaw is aesthetics or looks. Since some hybrids are as slippery as fighter jets, the body designs are unusual for most consumers. In fact, the majority of hybrid buyers are female, and calling hybrids cute has been cited in many studies.

The cars are also small, so a buyer looking for space might call it a flaw, whereas in Asia, small cars are an advantage where streets are narrow. For example in Japan, many city streets have mirrors to see around the tight blind corners that few SUVs could handle.

Another traditional trait for cars has been horse power. Hybrids lack horse power because electric motors provide more torque, not horse power. This flaw is being challenged by miles per gallon (MPG) as gasoline prices are correlated to hybrid sales.

American buyers may see hybrid cars as feminine and small, Asian buyers see them as too expensive because they do not value the environment as much, and European buyers may view hybrids are lacking in performance

Aside from minor flaws like not having a masculine sound, electric cars have always been flawed in range, top speed and fueling. Batteries limit range and electric cars do not perform at racing speeds. For some Europeans it’s very hard to provide electric cars that can keep up with traffic on the German autobahn for example. In Japan, top speeds are moot in a country with few open highways.

Tesla Motors has increased the range flaw with a very expensive climate controlled and computerized battery pack of over 7,000 individual cells. It’s wrapped in a very sexy and masculine car, but top speed is only 130 mph. On one charge an average driver might be able to drive 250 miles in a Tesla, 400 miles in a gasoline car, 500 miles in a diesel car and 700 or more in a hybrid.

Electrics also have a major flaw outside of the home owner population with access to cheap, safe and convenient electricity. For buyers and drivers that cannot park near a safe charging station, electrics do not help lower income renters.

For example, my cousin lived in San Francisco, and had to plan each car trip 10 minutes ahead to walk to his $3,000 per year parking space two blocks away, warm up the car,

drive back to the house, pick up his wife, and then drive her to work. How could he do that with an electric car? Every night, his two block long extension cord would have to cross intersections including a cable car line, and any cords or equipment would probably get stolen or vandalized every night. Cords could also cause hazards and lawsuits.

Electric cars do not help those people that do not have their own garages with expensive custom charging stations. Of the six billion people in the world, very very few have their own garages. Many more can get to a can of alcohol, gasoline, diesel, pond of algae, etc.

That brings up another flaw when talking worldwide use of electrics, standards. I don’t have time to talk about AC vs. DC other than there is a lot of efficiency lost in conversion and AC motors are required for regenerative braking whereas all solar panels are DC, but I will say that the plugs for all the electric cars are different.

Why? Because when companies R&D new things, the main way they protect themselves and make money in the future is to file patents. For example, the Prius has over 650 new patents and the Ford Escape hybrid has over 350 with over 20 borrowed from Toyota.

When companies file patents, other companies developed a different idea or variation. All these different plugs, voltages, charging units, battery packs, etc. hurt the customers.

The EV1 has a different plug than the RAV-4 and wouldn’t you know it, Tesla created a whole new system so that they could patent it, get customers locked in, and hopefully sell them a sister company produced compatible solar system.

So the major flaws with electrics have to do with use around the world regardless of income or living conditions.

3. What to you believe is the more common reason to developing hybrid and electric cars: the fact that oil is a non-renewable source, or environmental related issues like global warming?

The more common reason automakers are developing hybrids is because the other car companies (rivals) are developing them. Big businesses tend to copycat each other because of not wanting to risk money on new things. Small businesses on the other hand, such as Tesla Motors, like to take risks and may develop electric cars because they are angry, frustrated, curious or just rich and bored.

World’s first hybrid
Porsche invented the first hybrid over 107 years ago because he wanted to build a faster electric car. At that time, most of the cars on the road were electric or coal/wood-steam hybrids. There were very few electric plugs available, so his hybrid allowed for more speed and range. In fact he was able to win races, set world records and make a splash at

the 1900 World’s Fair with his world’s first hybrids. So the first hybrid had nothing to do with oil or the environment, it was developed for performance.

World’s first mass-produced hybrid
The Prius was led by an engineer with a background in vibration and noise (note that noise is a form of pollution and one reason people buy hybrids). He led a team of 1,000 engineers hired by a manager of the Global 21st Century Project G21 at Toyota’s secret factory in Japan around 1993. In this case, the main reason in developing the world’s most famous hybrid was to respond to the Kyoto Protocol. At first, the manager challenged the engineers to make a car that got 50% better mileage. But as the deadline got closer, he doubled the goal to 100%. After throwing out 80 designs, the G21 team came up with a concept that became the Prius. It was 32% efficient, that is, it used 3 of every 10 gallons of gas to turn the wheels. Most of the world’s cars and trucks only use 1 or 2. Today, the world’s most famous hybrids accounts for almost 90% of all of the almost one million hybrids around the world, and it was developed because of environmental reasons.

I would say that in the 90s, hybrids were developed for environmental reasons. In the 2000s, hybrids were bought for both gasoline prices and environmental reasons. And after Al Gore’s movie came out, more consumers are buying for global warming reasons.

I would say that the car companies are developing new cars to survive because of the patent game (once a rival lands a patent, it’s hard to copy the same idea), and are looking to get ahead in any new technology for money.

Oil will run out regardless of which cars we develop because there are over 5 billion people that do not have a car yet. After all, how many people can afford a hybrid or electric when they’re buying their first car?

Electrics don’t really make any money, yet. Tesla is the first to develop a performance electric and is landing large male dollars. I don’t think that the people who develop electric cars understand the global impact of adding a billion electric cars to the world.

If every family has a two car garage, is there really enough electricity and battery components? The problem is that there is enough coal for the electricity, so could you imagine 10 times more smog because more electric cars that need more electricity from the grid which is primarily powered by coal.

So I think most electric cars are developed by people who are angry at the infrastructure and I would answer back in angry question? How many people in the world can afford an electric and can plug into a solar panel or windmill. The answer may be a dozen people in the Bay Area, and when you look at the big picture of every electric vs. hybrid or gas, electric car are irrelevant in reducing oil or smog.

4. What is your stance on other alternative energy automobiles like hydrogen, solar, biodiesel? Are they as effective as electric types?

This is a great question, and the answer changes everyday. The only accurate answer is a moving target, possibly based on well to wheel analysis + a real time dust to dust analysis + social impact metrics.

In other words, the best alternative energy automobile depends on many different variables. The most important is probably the how the end user operates the vehicle.

Here’s a list of some examples:

The average driver that doesn’t own their home:
A used hybrid or natural gas vehicle to reduce oil dependency and smog by up to 90%

The occasional urban driver without access to parking:
Carshare hybrid and mixed fleets with vehicles for specific uses, such as pick up truck borrowed for a few hours to move a couch, hybrid for shopping trips, SUV for carpooling, family or group events, etc.

Restaurant owner or food service worker with access to used grease:
A cheap biodiesel conversion

Middle to upper class technologist and home owner:
A new or used hybrid converted to plug in fueled by off the grid electricity

Middle to upper class home owner with solar panels and short commute or deep pockets:
An expensive electric car that can be charged in a private garage off the grid

The rest of the world:
Think globally and act locally. For example, if there are ponds around, try algae biodiesel. If you live near an oil well, try a clean diesel. If there is biofuel garbage or feedstock for alcohol (ethanol) use that.

The answers are numerous and the main point is that most efficiency is lost moving things around. Make the fuel, impact, vehicle etc. closer and/or smaller.

5. Now that hybrids are commonly used on the roads, what is the next step we should take in manufacturing alternative energy cars?

There are already millions of alternative vehicles on the road and in the showroom. The next step is to buy new ones every two years.

The next step is already being taken by California consumers. Consumers are buyers who go and take a chance with their wallets on something new and different. There are plenty of people talking, but consumers are the next step.

It’s not up to us to decide the answers; it’s up to the people of the world. Give them choices and they will take their own next step in the way they see fit.

In America so far, over 4 million have taken the next step on Ethanol vehicles and almost 1 million on hybrids with very few hydrogen and electrics on the road. Why waste time talking about and taking next steps with cars that aren’t even on the road yet?

In other words, buy a hybrid today, buy a plug in tomorrow, and buy an electric when they’re ready. Stop talking and put your money where your mouth is.

I divorced my hybrid almost two years ago, walk up to 60 blocks on some days, ride electric or diesel buses and trains almost every week, car share hybrids and occasionally bike and job. The next step is to use your wallet or legs to buy less oil.

6. Some of the electricity used by electric cars comes from power-plants that use non-renewable sources. Is this problem easily fix-able?

Actually, I would say that most of the electricity in the world comes from coal. Of course all the power plants can’t be fixed easily. Why fix them? To lose money and clean up the air? Why would a company want to do that?

How much do you think a power plant costs? What about the wires and grid computers and transformers and equipment under our city streets that maintained everyday? There is a huge established system that can’t just be fixed.

Today, the electric car fleet hardly matters, only a few people are driving them, and even those people who have solar panels, still pay for electricity. If they were all unplugged one day, it really wouldn’t create a global difference. Now if every regular car stopped going to the gasoline station one day, the world’s oil demand would go into shock.

If you add up all the smog reduced by all the hybrids versus all the electrics, the electric cars are losing badly, as a fleet.

No matter what is said, the truth is that the impact of the electric cars on the roads of the world is not really part of the world’s energy problems. The power plants will be fixed for early deaths, climate change, policy and green business, not electric cars.

7. With your experience with hybrid cars, do you find them reliable and easy to use?

In addition to owning and driving everything from mini-bikes, motorcycles, go-karts to muscle cars to trucks, I’ve personally driven 6 different hybrid cars and light trucks and have ridden in 4 others. I’ve also ridden in a RAV-4 and electric kit car.

My opinion is that the hybrids built in the last 10 years were built with more attention to detail than any other modern cars every made. I know that the Honda Insight was hand built by the world’s best auto engineers.

I had an Insight and drove it very very hard; it never broke down while I owned it. My dad, on the other hand, get’s a big bill every time he takes the same exact model of Insight into the dealer, because mechanics can always find something wrong with any car, and that’s part of the big business that exists and is reluctant to go away.

Hybrids are very easy to use. There is no required change of behavior if the driver does not care about gas mileage. Many buyers don’t even understand how hybrids work, but they know how to push a button and fill up. That’s one reason why hybrids are popular and effective, practical and simple change.

Overall, reliability and ease of use has contributed to the success of the hybrid phenomenon.

8. With the world dependent on oil, do you see electric cars as a way of solving this problem?

Not today, because most of the people in the world don’t own modern electric houses, have windmills or special solar panels, converters, safe garages and expensive charging stations. On the other hand…

Over 5 million Ethanol and Hybrid cars and trucks are solving this problem every minute of driving as we speak right now all over the world.

According to Toyota, their American hybrid fleet has already saved
• 4 million barrels of oil
• over 125 million gallons of gasoline

How many barrels have all the electric cars in America saved?

Oil for energy
2/3 of the world’s energy is from oil. So 2/3 of electric cars would actually increase the demand for oil, unless they ran on pure DC. I have talked to many electric car owners, and have yet to meet any who were not plugged into the grid. Most will tell you that their meter runs backwards for credits, but throughout the year, the credits eventually get used and the electric car home owners end up consuming a net amount of electricity.

This situation could change if there are millions of electrics plugged in at any moment allowing the various world grids to share and equalize energy production, but that is a question for another interview and global solution.

Oil for cars and trucks
99% of every vehicle man drives including the ones that deliver almost everything we use for daily life, are addicted to oil. But, all the cars and trucks in the world only use about 25-35% of the world’s oil.

So if 2/3 of the world’s energy is addicted to oil and cars and trucks use the rest, more electric cars simply shift consumption to power plants. Whether or not this shift takes place, the world’s oil will run dry in a century or two.

So the real question is, how can we stop the world from becoming addicted to coal (the dirtiest fuel in the world) when there is much more available, and half the world’s electricity is produced by it?

Collaboration (no patents), efficiency (eliminate waste) and diversity (different answers for different areas and communities) are the only way to make the oil last a bit longer and avoid a future of even dirtier coal. Even oil can’t handle the world’s two car garage, when 5 billion people buy their first cars.

9. Should the government act on developing electric cars? If so, should they pass laws to promote electric cars or give money to developers?

Let’s see if we can use collaboration, efficiency and diversity as an answer.

If the government can provide something like the following example, it might work. Let’s say a tax break or incentive to a developer that build green and clean energy, shelter and transportation solutions as a system.

For example, 200 condominiums powered by solar and wind, with standard electric parking spaces for electric cars and plug in hybrids as well as anything else such as scooters and bikes. Buyers would pay for housing, energy and transportation all in one.

The development would have to be off grid and various players would collaborate with tenants to pick a diverse mix of clean and green solutions.

10. Do you believe that people are leery of electric cars? Are electric cars too different and are many people not willing to change?

Of course! Are people leery of any new device with a plug you’ve never seen and could kill you if not handled correctly? When people go to the dealership, are they ready to install solar panels, junction boxes, charging units, etc. without being leery?

Gasoline stations all have the same size nozzles and gas tanks are all about the same size. Why can’t electric cars get this right? Hybrids fill up and go; electrics are for America’s upper class at this point, wealthy technological savvy home owners and mainly golfers.

Here is the reality of the electric vs. other fleets:
Fuel/Vehicle 1998 1999 2000 2001 2002 2003 2004 2005 Growth
Gasoline-Electric Hybrid 0 50 11951 19843 34689 50,357 88272 139595 279090%
Diesel-Electric Hybrid 7 3 6 29 31 175 419 311 4343%
Hydrogen Fuel Cell Vehicle 0 0 0 0 2 6 31 74 3600%
Alcohol Conventional 217034 426724 600832 581774 834976 859261 674678 743948 243%
Electric 1844 1957 6215 6682 15,484 12,395 2,200 2,281 24%
Gaseous Conventional 16221 19420 14347 14,715 10,802 8,344 10,038 4,072 -75%
Total 235,106 448,154 633,351 623,043 895,984 930,538 775,638 890,281
Source: adapted from the EIA

The electric fleet is very small, slow growing and not very successful. It’s hard to deny the public benefit of over half a million hybrids compared to 50,000 electrics (most of them neighborhood vehicles). As a fleet, Alcohol vehicles and Hybrids are having the biggest impact.

So the questions should be about the electric car fleet vs. the hybrid fleet vs. the ethanol fleet. Rather than asking if people are leery, the question is how many are leery?

Because as a whole, fleets will change the world’s air and oil addiction. With five million ethanol vehicles on the road, America’s corn has double in price and pretty soon everything from meat to cereal to cola may go up.

With five million more electric cars, our internet bills, electric bills, computer related and electronic costs would probably change too, along with the costs of building houses and other things.

So the important answers break down the world’s fleet and question the two car garage. With only 1 car per 9 people in the world, can our planet, oil and coal handle 5 to 10 times more vehicles of any kind?

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