Friday, October 24, 2014

Daimler, Toyota, cut ties with Tesla Motors, maybe to make room for BMW-Tesla tie-up

A few days ago Daimler announced it had sold its entire stake in Tesla Motors, and now Toyota has sold "some" of its Tesla stake.  That's Tesla's two major corporate backers, both the Daimler and Toyota investments were critical to Tesla's survival to this point, exiting their relationships with Tesla Motors.  At the same time some reports are circulating that BMW may buy a stake in Tesla Motors, and Tesla's growth rate makes the company look set to challenge the incumbent automakers sooner rather than later.   What's going on?

On the one hand it may be a simple case of cashing out.  Daimler's investment of $50 million in May 2009 turned into over $780 million, the proceeds Daimler received from selling its Tesla stake.  Toyota's investment of $50 million in May 2010 gave Tesla the money with which to buy the NUMMI plant from Toyota, but reports don't say what price Toyota got for selling its Tesla stake.

In other words, both companies could be doing what any investor does - cash out when they've got a huge gain on their hands.

At this level, corporations investing in corporations, the game is a little different.  For example, Daimler had some interesting leverage over Tesla because Daimler had the right to name a Director to Tesla's board.  For example, Toyota had an asset it no longer needed - the NUMMI plant - and the deal allowed Toyota to exchange that asset for a stake in a fast growing upstart, whose technology might have been of use to Toyota had that company been more willing to work with Tesla.

Both Toyota and Daimler enlisted Tesla for help with each company's electric vehicle programs.  For Daimler, Tesla provided components for the Mercedes B-Class Electric (and an earlier vehicle whose name I'm forgetting).  For Toyota, Tesla provided components for the Gen2 RAV4 EV.

In Toyota's case the Gen2 RAV4 EV had a limited lifespan from the outset - if only because it was built on the previous RAV4 platform.  For Toyota to produce more RAV4 EV's would mean redesigning the integration.  It's not, as some report it, an "abrupt end" to the Toyota/Tesla relationship.  It was known from the outset that Gen2 RAV4 EV production would be limited.

If Toyota were interested in continuing down the electric vehicle path, maybe the two companies would be seriously moving towards another Toyota/Tesla electric vehicle.  Instead, Toyota is making it clear they think the future is in Fuel Cell Vehicles while glowingly boasting of their successful hybrids.

With Daimler, it's not so clear what the future there is between the two companies.

Over on BenzInsider they suggest three possible reasons Daimler sold its Tesla stake:
  1. Tesla's plan to share patents for free made it less necessary for Daimler to keep hold of its Tesla stake
  2. Feeling that Tesla's stock is overvalued
  3. Tesla had eliminated Daimler's representative on Tesla's board, eliminating the leverage Daimler had over Tesla
Daimler did issue a fairly lengthy statement on the matter.  Daimler says they're pursuing a strategy for "emission-free driving" of which "electric vehicles are one component" and that Daimler's relationship with Tesla will continue.  Specifically, an investment in Tesla by Daimler is not necessary for the cooperation between the companies to continue.

In what we can take only as a wild-assed guess, ValueWalk suggests that BMW may have bought Daimler's stake in Tesla Motors.  ValueWalk offers no proof for this assertion, but reminds us that BMW did meet with Tesla last summer around the time Tesla opened its patent portfolio, and additionally wouldn't it be cool if Tesla were to use BMW's cool carbon fiber technology in building the Model 3?  A Forbes contributor gives a similar theory about a possible tie-up between BMW and Tesla.

In other words, all we clearly know is that Daimler & Toyota are exiting from their investments in Tesla Motors.  It's not clear why this happened.  If you happen to be an insider to the deals, and want to let us know, there is a comment box below.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Tesla Motors might franchise dealers, while monopolizing repair of salvage-title Tesla cars

Last April I suggested an agreement between Tesla Motors and New York State was in effect a capitulation by Tesla, and that the company had lost its argument over its preferred model of selling cars directly to customers.  The ebb-and-flow of events since have made it unclear whether that's indeed the case, even though popular opinion says Tesla Motors should have the freedom to sell directly to customers.  A few days ago Michigan passed a law banning Tesla Motors from selling cars in that state, and it seems Tesla Motors CEO Elon Musk is on the brink of agreeing to set up franchised dealerships.  Finally, the company seems to be exercising its control over Model S repair services in a way that might lead Tesla to evil practices just as I theorized some time ago.

Tesla Motors has a huge positive image right now.  The company is doing wonderful things, and are successfully navigating the extremely difficult terrain of launching an automobile manufacturing startup company.  This line is business is so difficult to enter there have been zero successful automaker startups in the last 60+ years (in the U.S.).  That Tesla Motors has gotten as far as it has is nothing short of amazing.

At the same time we should always be on the watch for whether Tesla Motors turns evil.  There was a time Google, for example, could Do No Evil and had a hugely positive image.  It's fair to say that Google's image is tarnished nowadays, and it's possible that company is doing Evil.

The laws governing car sales were ostensibly meant to protect consumers.  While the laws vary from state-to-state they generally implement the system of car sales we see today in the U.S.  Every car dealership is independent from the car manufacturer, is required to carry used cars, is required to have a service department, etc.

Keeping car dealers independent from car makers means we are insulated from the manufacturer acting like a monopoly.  We have the freedom to buy from a range of dealers, and can play dealers off one another to get a better deal.  We also have the freedom to service the car anywhere we like, or to do the service ourselves.  We can even rebuild cars, swapping the gas engine for another one, or even an electric drive train, and to rebuild cars with salvage titles.

It's not that car dealerships are angels - far from it, that industry has a hugely negative image.  A recent study from the Institute for Transportation Studies at UC Davis goes into some of the huge negative baggage hanging around the necks of car dealerships.

It's clear the NADA's fight against Tesla Motors is more about protecting NADA's power over the process of selling cars, than the protection of consumers.  With that power, they've perpetrated an extremely unpleasant system of buying and servicing cars.

On Oct 1, 2014, the Michigan Legislature passed a law that will prevent Tesla Motors from opening any kind of gallery or store in Michigan, and may even prevent the company from doing anything to inform Michigan residents about Tesla's cars.  Tesla Motors says they got a "Raw Deal in Michigan".  The blog post calls on people to directly lobby Gov. Snyder to not sign the bill, but he has since done so.

There currently is no Tesla store or gallery operating in Michigan, but was hoping to open one next year (according to the Detroit Free Press).   According to that piece, Gov. Snyder claimed the law he signed did not change the conditions for Tesla Motors.  It reports Diarmuid O'Connell, Tesla's Vice President of Business Development, saying that Gov. Snyder wants to see a robust debate in the Legislature next year.

Several voices in the piece suggest it's silly to think this didn't change conditions for Tesla Motors.  If it didn't make any changes, then why was the Michigan Auto Dealers Association so keen on inserting language in the bill that harmed Tesla Motors?

But there's a bigger question - will Tesla Motors have to adopt a franchised dealer model anyway?

Ponder what it will take for Tesla Motors to be selling a half million cars per year by 2020.  The company has repeatedly stated this goal, and it's a whole lotta cars.  Can Tesla Motors sell that many cars through store fronts in upscale shopping malls?

According to Autoline Daily, Elon Musk is considering a "hybrid" approach of selling through franchised dealerships in some cases. Here’s Musk’s exact words: “We may need a hybrid system, with a combination of our own stores and some dealer franchises.”

Over on Cleantechnica, they combined that bit of news with comments supposedly made during a closed-door regulatory meeting a year ago, and come to the conclusion that it's foregone that Tesla will have to adopt some form of franchised dealerships.  According to that piece, the Auto Dealers Associations are claiming it will be impossible for Tesla Motors to scale to the half million per year sales level on their own shoulders.

The final bit I want to cover today is an indication that Tesla Motors is conducting some minor evil in the service department.

I'm referring to the fate of people who attempt to self-service the Tesla Model S, or to buy wrecked Model S's with salvage titles and attempt to resurrect their car.  What Tesla has done several times now is send letters to these people requiring Tesla's sign-off before they can drive their cars.  In at least one case the charging system was remotely disabled.

Traditionally one can buy a salvage title vehicle, repair it, and get it back on the road.  Tesla Motors insists on inspecting such cars, to determine whether the car can be repaired.  If so, the work can be done at a Tesla repair center or at a certified repair shop.

I know of two instances where there are problems and salvage title Model S owners being left unable to drive or use their cars.

Peter Rutman bought a wrecked Model S for just $50,000 then spent another $8,000 repairing it, according to Auto Blog Green.  But Tesla Motors insisted on an inspection, and has remotely disabled the charging system, leaving Mr. Rutman steaming mad and refusing to undergo the inspection.  Rutman is afraid that Tesla will take the car away from him, but Tesla insists that's not the case.  Instead, the company is concerned over improperly repaired cars being on the road (Rutman had the repairs done at a non-Tesla-Certified shop).

Tesla gave this statement to ABG:
Safety is Tesla's top priority and it is a principle on which we refuse to compromise under any circumstance. Mr. Rutman purchased a vehicle on the salvage market that had been substantially damaged in a serious accident. We have strong concerns about this car being safe for the road, but we have been prevented from inspecting the vehicle because Mr. Rutman refused to sign an inspection authorization form. That form clearly states that in order for us to support the vehicle on an ongoing basis, we need to ensure the repairs meet minimum safety standards.
Regardless of whether or not the car passed inspection, Mr. Rutman would have been free to decide where to conduct any additional repairs and to leave with his vehicle. There was never any threat to take away his vehicle at the inspection or any time thereafter and there is nothing in the authorization form that states or implies that we would do so.
Additionally, Mr. Rutman opted to have his vehicle repaired by a non-Tesla affiliated facility. We work with a network of authorized independent repair facilities to ensure our safety standards are met. It is also worth noting that Mr. Rutman is not on any "blacklist" for purchasing Tesla parts. While we do sell certain parts over the counter, we do not sell any parts that require specific training to install. This is a policy that is common among automakers and it is in place to protect customers from the risk of repairs not meeting our safety standards.
The other case concerns Otmar Ebenhoech, a long-time pioneer in the DIY Electric Vehicle conversion industry.  He's the designer of the Zilla controller widely used in electric vehicles.

Back in the late 90's he built a Stretch Vanagon, by welding together the front half of one Vanagon to the back half of another Vanagon.  At the time he meant to make it a hybrid vehicle, running an electric drive train on one of the axles.  However, that did not come about.  A year or so ago he bought a wrecked Tesla Model S with the intent of transplanting its drive train into the stretched Vanagon.  The result is meant to be called the Stretchla.

Otmar spent quite a bit of time piecing together parts, some bought through the local Tesla repair center, to resurrect his car.  He calls it the Wreckla, and it can currently be driven and even charged at a Supercharger station.  But it has a cracked frame, and he had to disable the air bag system.

In a blog post dated in mid-July 2014, Otmar explained why he'd parked the Wreckla after receiving a letter from Tesla's service department.
Due to the salvage status of your Model S, I have been instructed to cease providing you with parts. Tesla is very concerned about vehicles with salvaged titles being improperly repaired. Going forward, all salvaged vehicles must be inspected by us or our approved body shop, Precision Auto Body. If declared a candidate for proper repair, reconstruction must be completed by a Tesla-Certified Body Shop.
Otmar had previously been receiving much help from the local repair shop.  He'd been able to buy quite a few parts "over the counter" as Tesla said in their statement concerning Mr. Rutman.  In this case, as in Mr. Rutman's case, the company is expressing a concern over proper repairs.

Otmar went into quite a long bit of writing about some concerns Tesla might have.

He asks us to consider what would happen if an improperly repaired Model S were to wreck, killing some people.  Would the typical news report tell us the subtleties between a regular Model S and a salvage title vehicle?  No, it will focus on whatever fire or blood was spilled.

That's what we saw in the media frenzy following the Model S fires over the last year.

In other words, Tesla Motors has a motive of heading off potential negative press.

It's not quite a sign of Tesla Motors being evil.  But, the company is exerting quite a bit of control over the right to repair a Tesla car. the due course of time....?

By the way, there is an organization named Right To Repair advocating for policies requiring car makers to support the repairability of the cars they sell.  We as consumers are, theoretically, better off in a system letting us repair the car ourselves or at any car repair shop.

Tesla Motors is quickly developing into a mature automaker.  As a result the company is facing two kinds of growing pains, as shown here, in sales and repair of Tesla's cars.  We don't know how it will turn out, but perhaps Tesla's growth will eventually convert it into a regular car company with all the warts that implies.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Batteries can catch fire in the most unusual ways - iPhone 6 bent in half, catches fire in mans pants

In the electric car field we're worried about public perception of electric car safety.  Despite the fact there's over 200,000 gasoline car fires per year in the U.S. alone, causing hundreds of fatalities and property damage costs, there is inordinately outsized attention paid to the very small number of electric car fires.  On the one hand gasoline powered cars are carrying a tank of explosive liquid, and it's automaker engineering prowess preventing there being more gas car fires.  Since electric vehicles don't carry explosive liquids, they're supposedly safer, but obviously batteries can catch on fire.

On October 11, 2014, Phillip Lechter reports that he and his family had gone to Tuscon, AZ for the Univ. of Arizona family weekend and football games.  He was carrying a brand new iPhone 6 in his pants pocket.  While riding in a bicycle-drawn-richshaw he says the rickshaw driver accidentally tipped over while crossing trolley tracks.  That caused Mr. Lechter to wedge himself against the rickshaw frame such that not only did his iPhone 6 bend in half - it caught on fire, in his pants, causing bad burns, etc.

It comes on the heels of the whole iPhone 6 bendgate problem.  Being an iPhone 6 owner, I've studied the design and understand the flaw.  You can see it in this picture clearly - there are buttons on the side for adjusting volume etc.  Follow the crease to the top of the phone, and see the bit of silver button stuff sticking out the top?  That's the button in question.  The iPhone 6 case is weaker at that point than elsewhere in its structure.

For years Apple has been chasing a thinner-is-better design model.  But, really, I don't want structural integrity to be sacrificed on the altar of thinness.  You hear me Apple?  You've taken thinness too far!

Let's get back to battery pack safety.

The battery pack on this phone caught fire, and you can see the burns Mr. Lechter suffered over on his blog post.  There's nothing flammable (that I know of) on an iPhone just as there's not much flammable on-board an electric car.  How, then, can electric cars or iPhones catch fire?

It's the energy in the battery pack which, if released "correctly", can cause fire.  I've experienced this myself.  It's absolutely amazing when you accidentally touch battery terminals with a wrench, the blinding flash of light, and how quickly the wrench vaporizes.

For this iPhone, as for the Tesla Model S fires last year, all that's required is battery terminals shorting out.  One look at that phone tells you the battery got shorted somewhere.  The release of energy would have caused heat, igniting something to cause an actual fire.

In the case of the Tesla Model S fires, Tesla Motors sent instructions to all Model S's to increase the ride height and then developed a new titanium shield decreasing the risk that battery packs would be skewered by road debris.  How will Apple mitigate this risk?

By the way - "cell phone catches fire in mans pants" incidents have been happening for years.

In fact - In February 2014 an incident occurred to a teenage girl at school.  Her iPhone was in her back pocket, and when sitting down she heard a crack/pop after which the phone caught on fire.  That phone was at most an iPhone 5s so we can't attribute the fire to weak structural integrity.

The intersection of smart grid services, energy storage systems, and electric cars, contains a huge economic opportunity

At the intersection of smart grid services, on-site renewable energy generation, on-site grid energy storage, and electric cars, is the new energy energy model.  I've recently written a few posts about the stone age energy model, where we burn things to create heat, motion or light.  Most cars, trucks, etc are one way we are remaining stuck in the stone age model, by burning liquid fuels.  Even electric vehicles keep us stuck in the stone age if the electricity comes from burning fossil fuels.  Burning things, especially fossil fuels, causes many problems.

We want our electric cars to take part in the new energy model, rather than the stone age model.  That's why they're often pictured next to wind turbines and solar panels.  Here's an image I created a few months ago demonstrating one method of powering electric cars with properly renewable energy - the new energy model.

Let's focus this picture on the key elements

What we're looking at are electric car charging stations not connected directly to the grid, but indirectly through a grid-connected energy storage unit.  That is, a large battery pack.  There are several reasons for this, all of which are compelling:

  • Eliminating the demand charges which plague fast charging installations
  • Earning revenue on smart grid services - both demand response as well as sending energy into the grid
  • Protection against blackout - cars can be refueled even if there's a large scale power outage
  • Erase the stigma of coal powered electric cars
  • Serving a large number of electric cars without straining service panel capacity

The key is co-locating the grid energy storage unit (large battery pack) with the charging stations.  That energy storage unit can be charged from the grid at a modest rate - one that's low enough to not trigger demand charges - while charging the connected cars at a high rate.

There's a huge potential to earn significant revenue from the grid energy services, and to benefit from the spread between night-time and day-time electricity rates.  In many places there's so much excess electricity at night that the cost goes negative ("dollar cost negative") meaning the utility company is paying people to take that electricity.   This might be enough that the charging networks could afford to give away charging services for free.

It's been promised that electric car owners would be able to earn money by leaving their car connected to the grid full time.  In the due course of time it may be that every parking space in every parking lot has electric car charging service.  A question would be - what would motivate every parking lot owner, and every car owner, to build that infrastructure and to ensure their car is constantly connected to the charging infrastructure?  Is there enough money earning potential from smart grid energy services to make it worthwhile?  We don't know yet, but let's think about a few things which can be done.

Demand charges are levied by some utility rate plans on intermittent high-load services.  For example, the person who pulls up to a DC Fast Charging station and plugs in their car - they're suddenly pulling 50 kilowatts from the grid.  The utility providers have to quickly switch gears or pull levers or something to handle that sudden demand spike.

The demand response service is the flip side of demand charges - because it's the demand response providers who often provide the capacity to handle demand spikes.  That signal is sent by grid operators to cooperating partner organizations when there load on the grid (the demand) is momentarily too high, and needs to be lowered.  Typically a company will respond to demand response signals by turning air conditioner or refrigeration or lighting units to a lower setting (or off) momentarily.  Responding to such signals can earn quite a few dollars.

An electric car charging station operator can perform demand response by adjusting the charging rate for electric cars.  The charging rate adjustment is simple to implement by sending a command signal through the charging interface to the car.

But in this picture it's not the car that's connected to the grid, but the energy storage unit.  Whether that unit is pulling power from the grid depends on the storage unit's size relative to how frequently it's used to recharge electric cars.  The storage unit need not be big enough for a full day of electric car charging w/o pulling power from the grid.   It just needs to be big enough to avoid a large demand spike.

That means the on-site storage unit will probably be charging most of the day from the grid, unless there are also on-site solar panels.  This means demand response revenue can be earned from the on-site energy storage unit.  If there is excess energy, say from on-site solar or on-site wind generation, that energy could be sold into the grid to earn additional revenue.

What's meant by "without straining service panel capacity" is a situation in many public or workplace charging situations.   Parking garages typically aren't provisioned with huge electricity supply circuits.   Instead, in most cases, the electricity service is either nonexistent or just enough for the overhead lights.   Since we're going to be adopting electric vehicles in large numbers within a few years - how will there be enough electricity supply in parking lots when the vast majority of parking lots have inadequate electricity?

That brings us to the back room filled with grey electricity service boxes.  What happens there is crucial to the success of this project of getting electric vehicles adopted everywhere.

The current rule is that each charging station is assigned to one circuit in the service panel.  The calculation is simple - multiply the amps per circuit (typically 40 amp capacity) by the number of charging stations, and that's the size of the required service panel.  It's relatively cheap to increase number of charging stations until you hit the limit imposed by the service panel capacity.  Upgrading the service panel is relatively expensive, an amount the parking lot manager is unlikely to pay.

What if power could be apportioned out to the charging stations, allowing there to be more charging stations than indicated by the service panel capacity?  A controlling unit would be required that can adjust the charging rate as needed to avoid overloading the service panel.  For example, with a 1000 amp service panel and 100 electric cars connected to charging stations, each car could be adjusted to charge at 10 amps, 50 cars adjusted to charge at 20 amps, and so on.

In March, Honda showed off a house implementing a small form of this idea - which they're using as a research lab to study the intersection of smart grid, photovoltaics and electric cars.  Everything is sized for the needs of one house, and one or two electric cars.  The house has a solar electricity system on the roof, a grid energy storage system in the garage, and uses CHAdeMO for DC charging the car.  Everything in the system is DC power to avoid conversion losses.

Last weekend Valery Miftakhov, CEO of Electric Motor Werks, presented to the EAA Silicon Valley chapter over a project implementing just the demand response portion of this model.  EMW is part of a pilot project in California combining smart grid services with electric car charging stations.  Participants get a free charging station, and EMW will act as a "demand response aggregator" earning its revenue from responding to "demand response" signals.

Miftakhov suggested to us that when there are a significant number of electric cars (1 million?  2 million? etc) that, summing together all their battery packs, would be an energy storage capacity equating to a huge chunk of the electricity running through the electrical grid.  That fact represents a lot of power, not only electrical power, but economic power.

Demand Response is a small example of that power.  That signal is sent by grid operators to cooperating partner organizations when there load on the grid (the demand) is momentarily too high, and needs to be lowered.  Typically a company will respond to demand response signals by turning air conditioner or refrigeration or lighting units to a lower setting (or off) momentarily.  Responding to such signals can earn quite a few dollars.

For better or for worse what motivates companies to do things is money, and earning profit.

The simple model (buy electricity, sell to customers) for electric car charging service might not offer enough revenue-earning potential to make a profit.  But the picture above affords many more revenue earning opportunities.

The design can be scaled to any size from a single family home up to installations supporting thousands of cars.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Lockheed promises compact fusion reactor, cheap and safe enough to remake society according to the hype

Today Lockheed-Martin announced new Fusion Reactor technology which could shift humanity's energy supply from the stone-age mentality to the modern energy paradigm.  Some of my recent postings have drawn a distinction between the old energy paradigm, that I've called the stone age energy mindset (burning things to get light, heat or motion), and the new energy paradigm that's based on electricity, electromagnetism and similar forces for everything.  This distinction is important for electric car owners because we want these cars to make a big environmental difference, but overwhelmingly the electricity we use is generated by burning fossil fuels negating some of the benefit.

Electric cars powered by renewably generated electricity, where no fossil is burned, are highly desired.  That's why electric cars are often pictured with a backdrop of solar panels or wind turbines.

Getting back to Lockheed's Fusion Reactor announcement - this isn't about Fusion Reactor research such as is happening at Lawrence Livermore National Labs.  Traditional fusion energy research, like at LLNL, involve huge magnetic fields containing ultra hot plasma's and huge amounts of energy in huge facilities and it's taking decades to work through all the bugs.  That sort of research may eventually produce a large scale fusion reactor that makes a huge beneficial impact on society.  What Lockheed announced is at the opposite end of the spectrum.

The press release describes a compact reactor.  They believe that Lockheed Skunk Works will be able to build a test reactor within a year, and deploy production reactors within 10 years.

How "compact" is compact?  How about a unit producing 100 megawatts that's roughly the size of a big rig tractor trailer?  Specifically - transportable reactors measuring 23 feet by 43 feet.  Within the realm of electricity generation plants, that's extremely tiny.  Typical natural gas plants that size consume dozens of acres of land housing the necessary large building.

Aviation Week has an exclusive in-depth presentation of the details.  Basically, the Lockheed team went over all published research into fusion reactors, took the best bits of each, combining them in an ingenious way in a novel new reactor design.  The key is a different magnetic field geometry for holding the plasma, that's inherently safe and stable, resulting in a tremendously smaller system design.

Very little material is required to run these reactors - 25 kilograms of "fuel" is enough for a year of operation. The fuel is made of Deuterium and Tritium, both of which are plentiful.  Fission reactors are fueled by rare materials (Uranium, Plutonium).

While the reactor parts do become radioactive through normal operation, the half-life is rapid enough that the radiation dies down within 100 years.  By comparison Fission reactor equipment stays radioactive for thousands of years or more.

There's also no chance of a nuclear meltdown, and the threat of proliferation is basically nonexistant.

In short it sounds like the perfect sort of nuclear reactor.  No negative side effects, small enough to be sited anywhere, and a huge power-to-size ratio.

This could potentially be a big game changer in the quest to completely replace fossil fuels.  However with the mind-set prevalent among the decision makers the cost will have to be lower than the incumbent fossil fuel plants, right?

Over on the ThinkProgress blog they try to position this technology within the quest to avoid climate catastrophe from our addition to spewing carbon into the atmosphere from burning so many fossil fuels.

Staying within 2 degrees C of global temperature rise means peaking greenhouse gas emissions by 2020, and rapidly falling shortly thereafter.  The developed countries (the U.S. etc) may have to peak as early as next year, 2015.

This fusion reactor won't, if it develops as Lockheed-Martin thinks, even be ready for production use until 2025.  Meaning that we cannot depend on this particular technology to save us.

The technology currently available - solar power, wind power - work today and it's just a business exercise to deploy the systems.  There are no technological hurdles to overcome, just the willpower to build out solar and wind power systems at the scale necessary to move the needle on greenhouse gas emissions.

Further, there's a risk this technology could be entrapped by Lockheed's usual customer base - top secret military projects.  Will Lockheed commercialize the compact fusion reactor for civilian deployments, or will it be relegated to powering nuclear powered warships?

Bottom line is that we collectively must abandon fossil fuels as quickly as possible, and if we want to avoid reverting our society to the middle ages we must rapidly deploy clean electricity generation systems.  We can't afford to trust Lockheed's claims because their fusion reactor design might not work out, or may take longer than they think to refine and productize.

Tesla Motors will build at least one battery swapping station by December 2014

According to several sources today, Tesla Motors is going ahead with their robotic battery exchange technology and will deploy one battery swap station somewhere between San Francisco and Los Angeles.  The service will launch by December 2014, and no I don't know anything more than that.

The news came first through SlashGear, and that site says Tesla confirmed the plan to them.  The post gave no more details than that, and Tesla Motors hasn't independently released any information.

Tesla's battery swapping technology was shown in 2013, and can swap battery packs using robotic arms within about 90 seconds.  (Watch the video below)  The system is significantly different from the one developed by Project Better Place - coincidentally that company was formerly headquartered across the street from the Tesla Motors headquarters in Palo Alto.

That Tesla was developing fast battery swapping technology was known as early as June 2010, when I was reviewing SEC filings Tesla Motors filed related to their IPO.  At that time the company said the Tesla Model S would include both rapid charging and fast battery swapping capability.

Both are methods to implement what we know as the Road Trip.  In the theory that drivers deserve to replicate every behavior of gasoline cars in electric cars, many people dismiss electric cars because they cannot do road trips.  How often do most of us take road trips?  The average driving pattern is less than 40 miles a day, right?

In any case the "rapid charging" system became known as the Supercharger, and has enabled Model S owners to routinely take long distance trips with ease.  At a Supercharger port, a Model S can gain about 300 miles of range per hour of charging.  On a long trip one would drive 3-4 hours, stop for an hour at a Supercharger station, stretch their legs, visit a nearby eatery, then get back in the car refreshed from the pause for another 3-4 hours of driving.

That's the healthy way to road trip - defrazzling your mind every so often, and by walking around the lymphatic fluid gets pumped around, etc.

But that's not good enough for the hard core road tripper - the one who stops only long enough to pee out the soda they drank since the last stop, and who eats quickie food in the car to avoid stopping for any length of time.  The goal is to put as many miles behind you as possible, letting ones health take a back seat.

For such a road tripper, 90 seconds for a robotic battery pack exchange is a direct 1-for-1 replacement for gassing up at a gasoline station.

The plan to go ahead and deploy battery swapping stations immediately raises a large number of questions - cost, etc.  But there's one big question to discuss.

Who owns the battery pack?  How will you be certain "your" battery pack is returned to "your" car?

When Better Place developed their battery pack swapping model - headquarters directly across the street from Tesla Motors - the concept was that battery packs would be leased to car owners, and that Better Place would own the packs.  You, as the car owner, would pay Better Place a monthly fee rather than paying for the pack outright.

This would decrease electric car prices, while insulating electric car owners from battery pack problems.  Lower priced electric cars would make consumers more likely to buy these cars, increasing the speed of greening the transportation system.  Back in 2012, Nissan Leaf owners were complaining about battery capacity degradation.  Wouldn't that scenario have played out differently had the packs been leased to Leaf owners and easily exchanged?  However as Renault owners show us, there's plenty of room for misunderstanding and mistrust with leased battery packs.

But that's not the model Tesla Motors is following.  A Model S owner owns the whole car including the battery pack.

Let's again ask - what happens to your battery pack when the robotic gizmo takes it away and gives you a fresh pack.  Yes, it's cool you nearly-instantly get a fresh battery pack.  But, that's your battery pack which was just taken away.  Right?  What happens to it?

What if you're not taking a round trip - San Fran to LA and then back (a round trip where you can easily retrieve your original pack while returning home) - but instead taking a multi-legged trip, and you will not pass by that swap station again?  Presumably Tesla will deploy other swap stations, maybe even a country-wide network of these stations.  What if you're a one-way coast-coast trip because you're moving from LA to NYC?  How do you get back to the original battery swap station to retrieve your battery pack?

In the video below, Elon Musk tried to tell us the only question we should ask is "Do you want 'faster' or 'free'?"  I hope I've made it clear there are other questions than what Mr. Musk wants us to ask.

We won't know Tesla's plans until the company itself makes a proper announcement.

Friday, October 10, 2014

The electric motorcycles that can run rings around the Tesla Model S P85D (or come close)

Yesterday Tesla Motors unveiled the 'D', the Dual Drive version of the Tesla Model S.  The fully tricked out Model S P85D will set you back a minimum of $120,000, and be the fastest 4 door sedan ever built.  Raw acceleration is demonstrated by the video below, and the spec saying 0-60 miles/hr in 3.2 seconds.  Top speed, about 155 miles/hr.  That makes it the fastest electric vehicle on the market, right?


Of course it depends on how you define "fastest".  The electric motorcycle manufacturers don't get as much attention as they deserve, and are delivering electric motorcycle performance matching this new-fangled Model S P85D.

The 3.2 second 0-60 time of the Model S P85D is impressive, but what about 3.3 seconds for the 2015 Zero Motorcycles SR?

The difference between 3.2 seconds and 3.3 seconds - well, to a racer looking to win that's an important difference, but for regular folk like you and me that's not an important difference.  They're both pretty darn fast.

The SR is the race version of the 2015 Zero S.  It's built with a beefier controller, and an electric motor built for more speed than the Zero S (thanks to better magnets).  The official top speed is 102 miles/hr, but I know some people who will tear into this bike, change the controller settings, change the gearing and some other things, and probably hit 120 miles/hr or more with it.  

The cost?  $17,345 is about 1/7th the price of the fully tricked out Model S P85D.

Brammo is another long-time electric motorcycle manufacturer.  Their Empulse R and Empulse TTX are directly competitive to the Zero SR.  Their Empulse RR is a pure prototype bike that's extremely unlikely to go on sale, but that bike is in the top tier of electric motorcycles whereas the R and TTX are in the second tier.  I'll explain that in a second.

The website only lists a top speed for the Empulse R, of about 110 miles/hr.  I've sent them a query for 0-60 times etc, but let's go with 110 miles/hr for now.  That makes it a bit faster than the Zero's but when I've seen races with both Zero's and Empulse R's or TTX's the Zero's tend to win.  Maybe.

The Empulse TTX is a racing version of the R originally built as a joint project with the TTXGP.  It's an Empulse R kitted out to fit the TTXGP rules.  However, the TTXGP, FIM e-Power and eRoadRacing series have all ceased to exist, and accordingly Brammo's website doesn't show the TTX as an available model.  Perhaps the TTX has been canceled?

The cost for the Empulse R is $18,995 or also about 1/7th the price of the Model S P85D.

The Empulse RR is in a whole other league of performance than the Empulse R or Zero SR.  Those bikes perform, in race conditions, similarly to 250-450cc gasser bikes.  On the other hand, Empulse RR and Mission RS and Lightning LS-218 and some other bikes performed, in race conditions, similarly to the 600cc superbikes or even better, in some cases.  The Empulse RR is not for sale, and Brammo treats it as a testbed with which to prototype design ideas.

This is what I meant earlier by top tier and second tier.  These tiers are readily apparent in the road racing on a race track events I've attended.  What's most important in that case are lap speeds, not 0-60 times.

The top tier of electric motorcycles got, at the Laguna Seca raceway, lap speeds below 1:40.  The lap speed record is 1:31 set by Steve Rapp riding a Mission Motorcycles Mission RS in the 2011 FIM e-Power/TTXGP race at Laguna Seca.  Lightning Motorcycles, MotoCzysz and Brammo have all hit lap times close to the 1:31 record still held by Mission.  That's the top tier bikes, lap speeds under 1:40 and approaching 1:30.  The second tier bikes get lap speeds starting at 1:55 and longer.

The fastest lap speed for a Tesla vehicle is about 1:50, set by Tesla's own lead test driver with a Model S P85+ at the 2013 REFUEL race.  He was closely followed (10ths of a second difference) by Joe Nuxoll driving a Tesla Roadster with race tires at the 2013 and 2014 REFUEL race.  It will be extremely interesting to see the results of the 2015 REFUEL race to see whether the Model S P85D will break through the 1:50 lap time barrier in any significant way.

The Mission RS, by Mission Motorcycles, is in the top tier of electric motorcycles, and the company is promising to bring it and the Mission R to market.  Sometime.  The model they plan to sell is derived from the bike Mission Motors brought to the FIM e-Power (and TTXGP) race at Laguna Seca in July 2011.  Their rider, Steve Rapp, is among the top tier of motorcycle racers, and with the bike broke the lap speed and top speed records for all electric vehicles at that track.  Those records still stand today, despite attempts by Lightning Motorcycles, Brammo and others to best them.

According to the Mission Motors website, the RS performance is better than the Model S P85D.  Top speed is 150+ miles/hr, 0-60 time under 3 seconds, and 1/4 mile time of 10.492 seconds.

The cost is $58,999 or $74,999 with the "GP Package" that beefs up the suspension system.  The company plans to build just 40 of these bikes, pouring the income into production of the Mission R.

That bike, the Mission R, has similar performance specs to the RS, 0-60 time under 3 seconds, and 1/4 mile time of 10.492 seconds.  Top speed is either 140 miles/hr or 150+ miles/hr depending on which variant you buy.  

Price ranges from $32,499 to $42,499 depending on the battery pack size.  That's about 1/3rd to 1/4th the price of the Model S P85D.

The Lightning Motorcycle LS-218 is also in the top tier of electric motorcycles.  The company has been racing with variations of this bike since 2011, in the TTXGP, land speed racing, and the Pikes Peak International Hill Climb.  

In 2011 they set the land speed record for electric motorcycles, on the Bonneville salt flats, at 215 miles/hr.  The model name LS-218 comes from the top speed hit during that run, 218 miles/hr.  In 2013 they beat every motorcycle rider at the Pikes Peak International Hill Climb by over 20 seconds.  By "everyone" we mean, all the motorcycle riders, even the ones with 1200+cc fully tricked out gasoline powered superbikes.  They also won other events in the TTXGP, FIM e-Power and other series.

The production version of their motorcycle has all the same equipment as the prototypes with which they achieved those wins.  From 0 miles/hr to 215 miles/hr, no gear changes.  

Richard Hatfield, CEO of Lightning Motorcycles, tells me the company has not attempted to score optimal 0-60 or 1/4 mile times.  He believes they would get sub-3 seconds from 0-60 and sub-10 seconds in the 1/4 mile, with good traction.

The company is nearly ready to sell motorcycles, and the starting price is $38,888.   That's about 1/4th the price of a Model S P85D.

Your electric thrill ride can be had in the form of an electric motorcycle with all the speed and acceleration of the Tesla Model S P85D, but a fraction of the cost.

If your pocketbook is modest, you can get competent bikes from Zero Motorcycles or Brammo with most of the oomph of a P85D, but at a fraction of the cost.  These bikes are in the 2nd tier of electric motorcycles and will certainly give the P85D a run for its money.  If your pocketbook is suitably large enough to plop down $35,000 or more on a motorcycle, you can buy one that will run rings around the P85D - well, when Lightning and Mission finally get their bikes into production.