Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Bob Lutz defends the Volt, calls on Republicans to be truthful

GM's former Chairman, Bob Lutz, blasts the right wing media for lying about the Chevy Volt.

Yesterday Forbes published an op-ed piece from GM's former CEO, Bob Lutz defending the Chevy Volt and calling on certain right wing media outlets to focus on telling the truth, rather than concocting lies. One wonders after reading his piece whether the Republican Party believes in that Communist strategy that the ends justify the means?

Lutz, the Father of the Chevy Volt, has a legacy to defend in that he led the charge (grin) within GM to develop the Chevy Volt. In part the op-ed, "Chevy Volt And The Wrong-Headed Right," exists to defend his reputation, but along the way he points to a narrative in right wing media attacking the Volt with falsified stories full of fake claims that are embarrassing to anybody who wants to see the truth prevail.

For a couple years now there have been varying levels of attack against the Chevy Volt and other electric cars, with the attacks intensifying since November's revelation that a single Chevy Volt caught fire following a crash test in NHTSA's New Car Assessment Program (NCAP).

An example of these attackers is Rush Limbaugh who has, several times, launched into rambling attacks on the Volt filled with half truths, innuendo, and lies such as the idea that the Volt can only go 35 miles total (truth: the gasoline engine gives the Volt effectively infinite range so long as gasoline stations are nearby). Limbaugh has such a long-running reputation for misinformation that one would think he'd be regarded as a comedian rather than as a legitimate news source, but try saying that to his legion of loyal fans.

Another example cited by Lutz is a report by Lou Dobbs saying "It doesn’t go fast and go far on electricity. What happens is it catches fire," and that all "Volts catch fire, and therefore all Volts have been recalled.” Anybody who has read truthful reporting of the Chevy Volt fire controversy, or knows the design and specifications of the Volt, knows these statements are utter lies.

Lutz characterizes the spin created by the right wing media as: Much air time was spent on the $50 billion-plus bailout, which, the audience was left to assume, “funded” the Volt, doubtlessly at the whim of Obama’s known army of evil enviro-Nazis, intent on forcing vehicle electrification on a good-ole’-boy, V8-lovin’ populace.

What does Lutz say is the truth?

Not one Chevrolet Volt has ever caught fire in normal use or in accidents. Not a single one. In the NHTSA crash testing there was one Chevy Volt which caught fire, and there were a couple battery packs which caught fire when tested in isolation. GM and the NHTSA say that no Volt's have caught fire after crashes in normal use. That much is true, and was part of the NHTSA's final report released last week. However those who have closely followed the news know that two or three Chevy Volt's were in garages that caught fire, leading some to wonder if the Volt's had caused those fires. In each case local fire officials and others studied the fires and concluded none of those fires were caused by the Chevy Volt sitting in the garage.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, even after the highly artificial crash test (placing the car on its back, even though it did not roll over in the test) nevertheless awarded the Volt NHTSA’s highest crash-safety rating: 5 stars. Volt is supremely safe. It has admittedly been a head-scratcher for a car that caught fire after a crash test to be given a five-star crash-safety rating. Clearly this combination of facts requires one to take a step back to ponder the full range of evidence, rather than just jump to the popular conclusion that these government bureaucrats are incompetent nincompoops (as many are likely to do). As we'll see in the next point, the fire risk is low to nonexistent. The NHTSA had test results showing excellent crash-safety, and they had a single fire. In June/July knew of the fire, but did not know whether it was a fluke, and it took several months of intense forensic investigation to discover the cause of that fire. It would have been irresponsible, perhaps illegal, for the NHTSA to cry alarm before being certain there was a real risk.

The crashed Volt, its battery shorted by coolant from the period unjustifiably spent “feet up,” caught fire three weeks after said test. (I submit that this would provide adequate time for surviving passengers to exit the vehicle.) As we just said, the fire risk is low in that the design flaw requires a specific sort of crash to trigger the conditions for fire. The NHTSA and GM were unable to replicate the fire in subsequent crash tests, even after they had identified the design flaw. What Lutz means when he says "battery shorted by coolant from the period unjustifiably spent 'feet up,'" is that the NHTSA crash test procedure includes strapping the crashed vehicle on a large platform that's then turned upside down and held there for five minutes. The test is meant to simulate rollover crashes and the resulting sloshing around of fluids.

That there was only one single instance of fire in a crash tested Volt, after several crash tests, demonstrates the low risk from this design flaw. What then of the two battery packs that caught fire during November's testing? GM's CEO Akerson characterized those tests as having "doused the pack in coolant" as if those tests were even more artificial than the original crash test.

On average, 278,000 cars with gasoline engines caught fire in the U.S. each year between 2003 and 2007, according to the National Fire Protection Association. Indeed, why isn't there a similarly loud hue and cry over this destruction of property that occurs every year, not to mention the hundreds of deaths resulting from these car fires? Why is so much emphasis placed on the Volt and its supposed risks when those risks are so minimal?

No factory-produced electric vehicle has ever caught fire, to the best of my knowledge. This isn't entirely accurate, so let's take a tour through some history. First there is the Chevy Volt that caught fire after last summer's NHTSA crash, the one that's causing this hullabaloo. That's clearly a factory built electric car that, well, caught fire. But we're supposed to consider that Lutz has already dismissed that fire as having occurred under extreme conditions. There is an earlier example where two or three EV1's caught fire while being charged. Maybe Lutz would say those cars weren't built in a factory, but in some kind of limited production prototyping facility instead? The culprit in the EV1 fires was found to be bad design in the on-board charging circuits, which GM fixed and sent those cars back out to lease holders.

An important point to consider is that gasoline cars carry a tank full of explosive liquid. Electric cars do not. Except that the Chevy Volt is a hybrid car having both a battery pack and a gasoline tank.

The Volt, the most technologically advanced car on the planet, was conceived by me and my team well before any federal bailout of GM. While the Volt is a technology advanced car, the word "most" here is debatable. What is true is that GM began the project well before the Obama Administration came along.

The truth is that the Bush Administration gave strong support for developing advanced technology (electric) vehicles that would reduce oil dependency and environmental consequences. In Bush43's 2006 State of the Union Address he famously said "America is addicted to oil" before launching into his laundry list of programs he promised would address the U.S. oil dependency and transportation sector environmental impact. Among the Bush43 era programs was the Advanced Technology Vehicles Manufacturing (ATVM) Loan Program which was a direct loan program funded by Congress in the fall of 2008 that provide loans to U.S. automakers funding projects to help the U.S. meet higher mileage requirements and lessen U.S. dependence on foreign oil. Another program, the Energy Improvement and Extension Act of 2008, was the origin of the $7,500 tax credit for electric cars.

When the right wing political leaders and right wing media say that support for electric car development is Obama's program, they are denying the factual history. It's a fact that the Bush43 Administration and several earlier Administrations enacted loan, and grant and tax incentive programs to assist development of various clean energy technologies including electric cars. It's a fact that general concept of government loans or grants or tax incentives for businesses spans back over decades or longer, and is a tool used by governments around the world. Yes, some of the electric vehicle programs were enacted during Obama's term (the American Clean Energy and Security Act of 2009 and the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009) but the general concept of incentivizing clean technology predates the Obama Administration.

If it is wrong for the Obama Administration to follow this general strategy, then it was wrong for every previous Administration to follow the same pattern. Yet somehow it is the Obama Administration upon whom the ire is being heaped.

What we have are Republican leaders and right wing media who is creating fictional news reporting about the Chevy Volt in an obvious attempt to damage the Obama Administration. Lutz asks us why is it okay when the right wing media spreads false information, damages "the reputation of perhaps the finest piece of mechanical technology our country has produced since the space shuttle", hurts "an iconic American company that is roaring back to global pre-eminence", or hurts the employment created by that iconic American company?

Originally published at TorqueNews: http://www.torquenews.com/1075/bob-lutz-defends-volt-calls-republicans-be-truthful

Monday, January 30, 2012

NRDC says to Speaker Boehner's energy plan, don't drill and drive

According to the NRDC, House Speaker Boehner wants to steer America onto a disastrous transportation policy path, that makes America's energy security and environmental problems worse, is financially dangerous, and leaves the nation's highway system subject to political manipulation akin to taking a road to nowhere.

On Feb 2 the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure will consider a reauthorization of federal surface transportation programs under a proposal from Speaker Boehner he calls the American Energy & Infrastructure Jobs Act. The NRDC describes Boehner's plan as an attempt to hijack what's normally a bi-partisan process in order to further the interests of the oil companies.

Writing on the NRDC Switchboard blog yesterday, Rob Perk describes the Federal surface transportation law as a long-time non-controversial, non-partisan process. The surface transportation law is what organizes the billions of dollars that go into building and repairing roads and bridges around the country. Congress routinely passes extensions to the surface transportation law with broad bi-partisan support, but this year is different. In the Senate the Environment and Public Works Committee recently unanimously passed out of committee a transportation bill, but in the House the process has been hijacked by Boehner's American Energy & Infrastructure Jobs Act.

That act, unveiled last November by Speaker Boehner, aims to, as Boehner's website says, "create millions of new American jobs by eliminating some of the unnecessary government barriers that prevent our country from utilizing its vast energy resources". The plan does this by lifting "President Obama’s drilling ban on new offshore areas by requiring the administration to lease offshore areas estimated to contain the most oil and natural gas resources," and "set clear rules for the development of U.S. oil shale resources and promote shale technology research and development," and finally "open less than three percent of ANWR’s 19 million acres in the North Slope, ... , for oil and natural gas development." The new revenue coming from new oil and gas exploitation would be used to fund spending on highway repair and construction.

In short, Speaker Boehner wants to slash away more of the environmental protections, keep America on the path of using dirty fuels with their negative environmental impact, and keep America on the path of ignoring the threat of peak oil looming ahead of us. This sort of plan puts Speaker Boehner in the "Drill Baby Drill" camp that says the path to national energy security is to drill more oil wells, no matter the consequences.

In a blog post by Marc Scribner of the Competitive Enterprise Institute (CEI) it's pointed out that Boehner's plan breaks a long-standing "user pays" system where transportation system funding comes from user fees, such as the gasoline tax. Speaker Boehner wants to change that to a different funding source that "will almost certainly increase political manipulation of transportation investments in the future, thereby increasing waste, fraud and abuse". Scribner went on to say “Congress is well known for going down roads to nowhere."

What we have here is a collision between different directions the U.S. should take on national energy policies. On the one hand is the oil-friendly Congressmen in the "Drill Baby Drill" camp pushing for the model Speaker Boehner proposes. On the other hand are certain realities about America's oil supply, which say clearly to anybody that can look at the facts, that we must end the use of fossil oil, and move to clean energy systems.

In his State of the Union address the other night Obama said that rather than be obstructionary to new oil and gas drilling, his Administration has allowed that activity to flourish. Namely "Over the last three years, we’ve opened millions of new acres for oil and gas exploration, and tonight, I’m directing my administration to open more than 75 percent of our potential offshore oil and gas resources. Right now -- right now -- American oil production is the highest that it’s been in eight years. That’s right -- eight years. Not only that -- last year, we relied less on foreign oil than in any of the past 16 years."

Even though domestic oil production is the highest in 8 years, America still imports well over half of the oil it consumes. This is a national security and national economic policy problem, because it puts America at risk to manipulation from foreign oil producing countries, and ships zillions of dollars of America's GDP overseas to buy oil. The collision between different directions is over what is the best direction to take to solve this problem.

Obama went on to say "But with only 2 percent of the world’s oil reserves, oil isn’t enough" recognizing a fact some of us call "peak oil". Namely that U.S. production of oil peaked way back in 1971, and that U.S. oil production has steadily declined ever since. America doesn't have enough oil resources inside its borders to make any significant difference. This means that the "Drill Baby Drill" crowd is speaking nonsense, that their path of drilling for more oil cannot solve the national energy security problem, and that Obama knows this when he said "This country needs an all-out, all-of-the-above strategy that develops every available source of American energy. A strategy that’s cleaner, cheaper, and full of new jobs."

Unfortunately Obama believes "We have a supply of natural gas that can last America nearly 100 years" and wants to use natural gas as a transportation fuel. A few years ago the prospects for the natural gas supply was dim, until the controversial hydraulic fracturing technology began to be used. Obama's remedy for that controversy is to require disclosure of the chemicals being used, which makes one wonder if the environmentalists will be satisfied with mere disclosure. Not to mention the methane gas releases from fracked wells that are wreaking greenhouse gas disasters.

Obama went on to talk about clean energy, wind turbines, batteries for electric cars and grid storage systems, energy efficiency, and more. Obama also talked about the need to repair America's "crumbling infrastructure" but suggested a different funding source than revenue from increased oil drilling. Instead, in the next few weeks he plans to "sign an executive order clearing away the red tape that slows down too many construction projects" and for funding he suggested they redirect the money no longer being spent on the war. A peace dividend, if you will, namely: "Take the money we’re no longer spending at war, use half of it to pay down our debt, and use the rest to do some nation-building right here at home."

The NRDC website has a fact sheet about this titled "Don't Drill and Drive".

Originally published at TorqueNews: http://www.torquenews.com/1075/nrdc-says-speaker-boehners-energy-plan-dont-drill-and-drive

The inconvenient bankrupcy of battery maker Ener1

Lithium battery maker Ener1 inconveniently declared bankruptcy the day after President Obama's State of the Union declared support for the domestic advanced battery industry.

Any company can run into trouble if the market conditions shift, that's what bankruptcy courts are for. Last week when lithium-ion battery maker Ener1 entered bankruptcy proceedings it was at a highly inconvenient moment for President Obama. Because of that company's history, and what that company makes, and who some of its customers were, this bankruptcy is leading some to inappropriately tarnish with the same ugly reputation as the collapse of Solyndra. However the case with Ener1 is very different from that of Solyndra.

Ener1 is the parent of several companies in the clean energy sector, including EnerDel, an Indiana based lithium-ion battery maker. EnerDel was one of the recipients of the Dept. of Energy grants in 2009 which gave a huge boost to the lithium battery industry in the United States. Beefing up the U.S. advanced (lithium-ion) battery manufacturing capacity is an important strategic move when coupled with starting a long term shift towards electric vehicles. We wouldn't want to trade a dependency on foreign oil for a dependency on foreign batteries, especially considering that most battery manufacturers in the world are based in China. In addition to the grants EnerDel received in 2009, it also received some grants during the Bush Administration, also for advanced battery technology development.

Ener1's bankruptcy announcement came the day after President Obama's State of the Union address in which he declared "I will not cede the wind or solar or battery industry to China or Germany because we refuse to make the same commitment here." Ener1 is one among several companies in the domestic battery referred to by Obama's statement, making it a highly inconvenient time for Ener1 to have chosen to enter bankruptcy.

Following Ener1's bankruptcy announcement, the chorus focused on a negative interpretation, that it's a failure of Obama's green technology vision, that Ener1 is shattered and broken and completely dead, and that it's proof nobody wants electric cars anyway. The truth is not so dark as all that so let's take the points one-by-one.

Is this a failure of Obama's green tech vision? Maybe not. As we'll see in a moment the conditions of Ener1's bankruptcy weren't all in the hands of Ener1's management team. Fact is that this company makes powerful batteries, powerful enough for Lighting Motors to set a 216 miles/hr electric motorcycle land speed record last summer, as well as turning in awesome results in the 2011 TTXGP races. One might ask what role does the battery pack play in a performance like this? The battery pack plays a crucial role by sustaining a high discharge rate over a long period of time, and not all batteries can perform to the level required to drive a motorcycle that fast.

Ener1 explains the cause of their bankruptcy as coming when "the marketplace did not evolve as quickly as anticipated" and "Our business plan was impacted when demand for lithium-ion batteries slowed due to lower-than-expected adoption for electric passenger vehicles." Additionally "volatility in the debt and equity markets" limited their ability to borrow money, and loss of a major customer, Think Global, dealt a big blow. There's a lot of details to unpack there but the key thing is their customer, Think Global. What Ener1 did not mention was that until last May, Ener1 was also a major share-holder in Think.

Think is a Norwegian based electric car manufacturer dating back to the 1990's. Think has gone bankrupt several times, each time being rescued by an investor group. Their design focus is on small electric city cars manufactured completely with recyclable materials. About 10 years ago Ford had bought Think with the idea to launch their car in the U.S. but when CARB backed off the ZEV program, Ford's investment in Think was one of the casualties. More recently Ener1 became the lead investor in Think, and as a result Think was in the process of building a factory in Indiana to build cars that would be powered by Ener1's batteries. In 2010 both Think and Ener1 received additional investments allowing them to move forward with those plans. Ener1 also announced plans to provide batteries to a couple other large customers, including a Chinese electric vehicle manufacturer.

By the spring of 2011 however Think had fallen on hard times again and by June, Think declared their latest bankruptcy, and a rescue agreement with a Russian investor. In May 2011, Ener1 simply returned to Think all the certificates of stock ownership, that's how bad conditions were at Think. By the end of the summer Ener1 had informed the SEC they would have to restate earnings reports for the last couple years, had begun to "restructure" the company's senior notes, had sacked the CEO, and by November the company had been delisted from the stock exchanges.

This litany of troubles sure sounds like a company about to sink beneath the waves never to be seen again. The fact is that the stake-holders in Ener1 have known about the troubles since at least last summer. Everybody involved have had ample time to plan Ener1's resurrection. Indeed, Ener1 has announced a unanimous agreement with its primary investors and creditors to restructure the company's debt and "provide up to $81 million to recapitalize the Company to support its long-term business objectives and strategic plan." The company has asked for a "pre-packaged" Chapter 11 process in the U.S. Bankruptcy Court in the Southern District of New York and if all goes well with the Bankruptcy judge they expect to be done in 45 days.

The company expects to be fully in operation during the bankruptcy, and none of its subsidiaries are going through bankruptcy.

Is this a shattered broken company that's about to disappear in a puff of smoke? Nope. Ener1 has a group of investors who are doubling down on their investment. Instead of an example of a failed government investment, it's an example of Capitalism at its best. Investors putting their cash on the line to build a company that's making great products. It's also an example that there are no guarantees, and that not all investments work out. Sometimes businesses fail and sometimes they succeed.

Is this proof that nobody wants electric cars? Not necessarily. The investors in Think may simply have under-estimated how much money would be required to launch a car company. There have been no successful automobile startup companies in the U.S. in over 50 years, that's how hard it is to launch a new car company. Just because Think went through yet another of their bankruptcy's does not mean that the consumer public do not want electric cars.

It's simply proof that the only guaranteed thing in life is that nothing is guaranteed.

Originally published at TorqueNews: http://www.torquenews.com/1075/inconvenient-bankrupcy-battery-maker-ener1

After Keystone XL, oil companies seeking outlet for Alberta Tar Sands oil via Vancouver

Here in the U.S. we effectively killed the Keystone XL project.  Aren't we proud of ourselves?  We held anti-Keystone XL rallies in front of the White House and elsewhere, and got Obama to reject the proposed Keystone XL pipeline.  That should mean the end of the tar sands crude oil plans, right?  That icky stuff should be remaining safe in Alberta?  Nope.  Sorry.  The oil companies are taking an end-run through even more sensitive territory.  Namely, over the mountains, through the woods, and into Vancouver where it will be loaded on ships to be sold to China.

Here's a map.

The tar sands are in Alberta, shipping ports in Vancouver.  The original route had been south across the Plains states to shipping terminals in the Southern U.S.  The new route is across these mountains, to shipping terminals in Vancouver.  The end goal is the same, sale of this crude oil on the world market, the difference is the route.

This route goes across many miles of pristine wilderness and native peoples lands.  It goes across the headwaters of two rivers that each have the largest Salmon runs in North America.

Here's a map of the Vancouver area:

Notice that for ships to get in and out of Vancouver requires navigating a long set of passages between islands that head into the sounds which connect between Seattle and Vancouver.

Below is audio from Radio Ecoshock which did an excellent job covering this in a recent episode.  The people in the episode speak about these issues much better than I can.  Listen to them.

But first is video of a young lady singing a song ...

And the same young lady speaking at a TEDx meeting

This text will be replaced

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Is GM going to build the Chevy Volt in China, and does it matter if they do?

Reports have been circulating since last year that GM is planning to move electric car development and/or manufacturing to China.  In some circles, especially those who like to rephrase GM's name as "Government Motors", this thought is highly controversial.  In truth GM sells more cars in China than it does in the U.S., China has become the largest market for vehicle sales in the world, surpassing the U.S., GM has 30 subsidiaries or joint ventures in China, some of which focus on electric vehicle technology.  In other words, GM is a U.S. Government (partially) owned and subsidized corporation acting to increase jobs in China when jobs are badly needed here in the U.S.   These are facts which do not sit well with some, obviously.

A couple weeks ago the first Chevy Volt was delivered to China for "for vehicle and infrastructure testing and analysis".  This and a recent statement by GM that "we'll know in June whether [the Chevy Volt] will have legs or not," that "you adjust production to demand," and that GM "will keep driving the cost down," has reawakened talk about whether GM is planning to move electric vehicle production to China.  For example a recent news report stated as a fact that "GM has already agreed to transfer production for the next EV platform to China," which isn't entirely true (as we see below), but is obviously a concern for those demanding that Obama's green jobs vision be successful in creating jobs in the U.S.

In part the issue is one of globalization.  All the major corporations have significant operations in other countries, and it's sometimes tough to properly answer whether any specific globalized corporation is an "American Company" or not.  For example, GM’s largest national market is China, their international headquarters are in Shanghai, the company does business in over 120 countries, it has manufacturing facilities in over 30 countries, and uses these brands in countries around the world:  Baojun, Buick, Cadillac, Chevrolet, GMC, Daewoo, Holden, Isuzu, Jiefang, Opel, Vauxhall and Wuling.  Is GM an American Company?  Or is it a globalized company that has no loyalty to any given country?

Nearly a year ago, in February 2011, GM reaffirmed their commitment to having a strong presence of aggressive investment in China.  At the time GM Chairman and CEO Dan Akerson was quoted saying  “GM will continue to make China one of our priorities.  We plan to introduce more than 20 new and upgraded models over the next two years, strengthen our local product development capability, expand our cooperation and sharing of technology with local partners, and lead in the introduction of new energy vehicles including the Chevrolet Volt extended-range electric vehicle. All of this is part of GM’s long-term commitment to the sustainable development of China’s automotive industry.”

In September 2011, an agreement was made between GM and SAIC to co-develop a new electric vehicle architecture in China.  The Pan Asia Technical Automotive Center (PATAC), an already existing facility jointly owned by GM and SAIC, will be used to house the development.  They stated at the time the target was delivery of products developed in China with Chen Hong, president of SAIC Motor, saying “Our agreement will enable SAIC and GM to take advantage of economies of scale and get new technology to the market faster than by going it alone. It will help bring about our goal of leading the automotive industry in new energy vehicles and our vision of sustainable transportation."  They described it as developing "key components" in China, to develop vehicles for sale in China under both GM and SAIC branding, and to use the newly developed vehicle architecture to develop vehicles to be sold around the world.

The same month the GM China Advanced Technical Center opened as the newest of GM's network of technical centers around the world.  This center, in Shanghai, was described as "the most comprehensive advanced automotive technology development center in China," will work with the PATAC just mentioned, and will house four design organizations: the China Science Lab, Vehicle Engineering Lab, Advanced Powertrain Engineering Lab and Advanced Design Center.   The first phase, the Advanced Materials Laboratory Building, includes a battery cell testing lab, battery material lab, metallography and electrochemical lab, cell fabrication lab, and micro-foundry and formability lab.

In December 2011, GM announced the second phase of the ATC was on track for completion in July 2012.  GM said the organizations installed in the second of the ATC would "focus on advanced design, vehicle engineering, advanced powertrain development, urban mobility and manufacturing processes"

Also in December, GM announced opening a design studio in China.  The center is located at GM's headquarters in China, and is focused on developing vehicle designs for the Chinese market and other key global markets.  Wulin Gaowa, Design Director of GM China Advanced Studio, said "The China market is playing a dominant role both in Asia and globally. As demand in China accounts for a bigger portion of GM’s global sales, our success in China is critical.  We need to closely monitor and predict Chinese customers’ mobility behaviors, needs and preferences to ensure we are bringing the right products to the market."

GM also issued many press releases over the last year bragging about strong sales growth in China.

As a globalized corporation some would say GM would be foolish to ignore China, especially considering how big the Chinese appetite is for buying cars and trucks.

Yet there are some who like to portray China's growth as a threat to the U.S. and for example throw out phrases like "SAIC taking over development of GM's electric vehicle platform means that the taxpayer money spent on the promise of a bright green future with loads of American jobs created is now going to benefit China."  In other words, the perception is that SAIC (which is owned by the Chinese government) is being handed electric vehicle technology on a platter.  As SAIC's Chairman said above, their corporate goal is to be the leader in developing electric vehicles and sustainable transportation.

The actual news, however, is more along the "Sputnik Moment" meme that Energy Secretary Chu has spoken of numerous times.  China is moving quickly to develop a strong clean technology industry, and already has leading companies working on electric vehicle and battery technology.  What's most urgently needed is to strengthen the US clean technology industry.  Many of the people making statements like in the previous paragraph are also slamming the Obama administration for meddling in the free market by subsidizing the companies that would be developing the US clean technology industry.  By spurning grants and loans to domestic clean tech companies, where would those companies turn?  There are many examples of formerly U.S. companies shutting down domestic operations to set up shop in China, to seek the grants and loans the Chinese government offers.

But let's get back to the question at the top.  Is GM going to build the Volt in China, and does it matter?  If we go by the GM/SAIC press release, their plan is not precisely laid out.  It's clear they plan to develop electric vehicle components in China for use on vehicles sold in China, and to jointly develop in China an electric vehicle platform for sale around the world.  GM has already set up a battery testing and development laboratory in Shanghai, and is working rapidly to develop other labs.  Does that mean GM will stop development activities in the U.S.?  Is this any different from Microsoft, or Google, or any other company setting up offshore research and development centers?  All the globalized companies are doing this, so why is GM under special scrutiny here?  If globalization is bad then it's bad for any company to engage in globalization.  If globalization is good, then its good for any company to engage in globalization.

Friday, January 27, 2012

California passes regulations requiring new Advanced Clean Cars

California continues to lead the nation in developing standards for advanced clean, zero emissions, vehicles from cars up to big trucks.

Today the California Air Resources Board (CARB) passed new regulations that could help shape the future of the automotive industry. Previous era's of California's clean air regulations have both made California's air cleaner, and have acted to drive development of generations of cleaner vehicles. The Advanced Clean Cars program approved yesterday by the Air Resources Board is a single coordinated package of requirements for model years 2017 through 2025 meant to provide a wide range of benefits including cleaner air.

"The California Advanced Clean Car rules will clean our air, fight climate change and provide cars that save consumers thousands of dollars at the pump," said ARB Chairman Mary D. Nichols. "The Board’s action today will create thousands of new jobs, transforming California into the advanced car capital of the world. California is now in pole position in the race to provide next-generation ultra-clean cars to the global car market."

The range of benefits cited by CARB include: Consumer Savings, fuel cost and operational savings with "nearly $6,000 in fuel cost savings over the life of the car" by 2025; Fight Smog and Climate Change, from a 75 percent reduction in smog-forming emissions and 34 percent cut in greenhouse gas emissions; Deliver Next-Generation Cars, by 2025 over 1.4 million zero-emission and plug-in hybrid vehicles will be on the road and will be 15.4 percent of new car sales; Create Jobs, with 21,000 new jobs in California by 2025.

Unlike previous era's of California's clean vehicle regulations, the new standards were developed jointly with Federal regulators. The Obama administration proposed increased CAFE standards and other regulations last summer, to which CARB says "Once the proposed federal standards are adopted, they will be deemed sufficient for compliance in California." Auto-makers should see this as an advantage in no longer having to build California-specific versions of their vehicles.

Environmental goals at both Federal and California level require reduction of smog-forming pollution by an additional 75 percent from 2014 levels. With over 26 million cars on the road reducing pollution from those cars is a high priority means to meeting the tougher requirements coming in the future. The new regulations, known as LEV III, will drive development of the cleanest internal combustion engined vehicles ever seen.

The new requirements are expected to usher in wide ranging adoption of zero emission vehicles up to 87% of California's car fleet, with a dramatic upswing in use of not only battery electric vehicles but even fuel cell vehicles.

The technologies they expect automakers to employ include: turbocharging and engine downsizing, direct injection improvements, valve timing improvements, cam switching, exhaust gas recirculation, cylinder deactivation, low friction engine design, advanced lubricants, dual clutch automatic transmissions, high speed transmissions, vehicle weight reduction, electric motors, battery advances, high speed charge ports, hydrogen fuel tanks, improved fuel cells, and more.

CARB's expectation is that half of the cars sold in California will be fuel cell driven with another 30 percent or so will be battery electric. Meeting this level of fuel cell vehicle sales will require more disruption and change than will meeting high levels of battery electric vehicle sales. Fuel cell vehicles will require a whole new hydrogen delivery infrastructure to be built, whereas battery electric vehicles can reuse the existing electric grid especially as improvements are put into place as the smart grid develops. Fuel cell vehicles are being incentivized by awarding more ZEV Credits than they do today, to add more incentives for their adoption.

CARB has also added a new class of Plug-in Hybrid vehicle, one meant to be driven primarily on battery power, that earns an appropriate level of ZEV credits. This class appears meant to fit the Chevy Volt, a plug-in hybrid vehicle with an all-electric range long enough to allow drivers to do most of their driving on electricity alone.

Starting in 2018 there are requirements of increased zero emission vehicle sales with a 2025 goal that 15.4% of new car sales will be ZEV's and plug-in hybrids. This move is meant to increase sales and bring down the incremental cost of these vehicles.

CARB projects that by 2025 owners of these new advanced clean vehicles will see $4000 in operating cost savings over the cost of the vehicle. As we've discussed before, the day-day operating costs of even today's electric cars is far lower than equivalent sized gasoline cars. This comes because electric vehicles are far more efficient with energy than gasoline cars, plus electricity is less expensive than gasoline.

In job growth CARB cites the existence of Tesla (headquartered in Northern California, and recently resurrected the NUMMI plant), Coda (headquartered in Los Angeles, with an assembly plant in Benicia) and Fisker Automotive (headquartered in southern California) as evidence that California will see job growth in this sector. In addition to those companies there are several other electric vehicle component manufacturers based there, as well as Zero Motorcycles widely recognized as a worldwide leader in electric motorcycle design and manufacture.

Recognizing that vehicle manufacturers will need sufficient lead time to implement the required changes, the phase-in of the Advanced Clean Cars program gives manufacturers this lead time. Indeed, several automakers such as Ford have said they recognize that governments around the world are aiming for ever-cleaner vehicle emissions regulations and that it's better for the automakers to be out in front of the regulations, rather than being pushed by the regulations. Ford's strategy is to have their own sustainability and clean vehicle roadmap allowing the company to reduce emissions on their own terms rather than being pushed by new regulations.

"The California Air Resources Board (CARB) vote today was truly historic and will encourage accelerated growth of the clean transportation technology industry," said CALSTART President and CEO John Boesel. Going on he said, "The suite of strong pro-clean car policies adopted by the Air Board today were made possible because of the tremendous technological progress made by the industry over the last 20 years, and because of the potential going forward."

Originally published at TorqueNews: http://www.torquenews.com/1075/california-passes-regulations-requiring-new-advanced-clean-cars

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Volt Owners May Soon Get Charged with Renewable Energy via the Smart Grid

A couple days ago GM and Google announced a joint project to explore using smart grid technologies to let Volt owners get the semblance of sourcing their electricity from renewable energy resources.  The technology appears to the user via OnStar, and shows the percentage of available renewable energy on the grid.  Data from this forecast is downloaded to the OnStar cloud, or Advanced Telematics Operating Management System (ATOMS). OnStar uses this signal to simultaneously manage the charging of many Volts and to match the renewable energy availability. A mobile app could also be used to alert customers when renewable energy is available.

The project is a test fleet of 17 Volts at Google's headquarters.

“This demonstration shows that in the near future customers will have a real signal of demand for renewable energy,” said Nick Pudar, OnStar vice president of planning and business development. “As customers configure their Volts to favor renewable energy for their charging cycle, this real demand signal will influence utilities to tap into renewable sources."

The renewable energy technology is the latest addition to OnStar’s suite of Smart Grid solutions. OnStar has also developed intelligent energy management technology solutions including:
  • Demand response – This solution connects utilities to companies that have intelligent energy management products. These companies can use OnStar to manage energy use for Volt customers who opt in for the service. This future service allows the customer to save money on energy costs while enabling more efficient use of the electric grid.
  • Time-of-Use (TOU) rates – OnStar can receive dynamic TOU pricing from utilities and notify Volt owners of the rate plan offers via email. Owners will be able to use OnStar to load the rate plans directly into their vehicle and access them to schedule charging during lower-rate periods.
  • Charging data – OnStar also sends and receives EV data that helps utility providers without having to interface with the vehicle’s electric vehicle supply equipment. This includes location-based EV data that identifies charging locations and determines potential load scenarios.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

GM's Akerson says Chevy Volt not designed to be a political punching bag

A politically charged Congressional Hearing this morning questioned the NHTSA's integrity following the Chevy Volt crash test fire last summer, with Administrator Strickland bearing the brunt of Rep. Jordan's angry questioning.

In a politically charged Congressional Hearing held today, the safety of the Chevy Volt, and the integrity of the NHTSA, was called into question by members of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform. The sometimes heated hearing gave both the NHTSA and GM an opportunity to defend their investigation and response to last summers Chevy Volt crash test fire.

The hearing began with NHTSA Director David Strickland, testifying on the NHTSA's investigation, and it was Strickland who received the brunt of attacks by some committee members, primarily the Chairman Rep. Jordan, Rep. Mike Kelly, and Rep. Issa (all Republicans). Stricklands testimony was followed by GM's CEO Dan Akerson, testifying on GM's role, GM's resurgence as a company, and the history of the Volt project. Those two were followed by John German, a Senior Fellow with the Council on Clean Transportation who gave testimony on the CAFE Standards negotiation as well as the background of lithium ion battery safety.

While several talked about the politically charged scene none captured it better than GM's CEO Akerson when he said GM's engineers had not designed the Chevy Volt to be a political punching bag.

While a huge variety of topics were discussed, a thread throughout the hearing was the sense of Trust being Violated. Specifically Trust in the Integrity of the NHTSA in their handling of the Chevy Volt fire controversy. The elements of the eroded trust were represented by the sort of questions asked, which appear here in bold.

What did the NHTSA know and when did they know it? What was the timeline of discovering the cause of the fire? Why did it take six months before disclosing the fire to the public? Both NHTSA's Strickland and GM's Akerson answered these questions to show there was no wrong-doing, but their answers did not appear to satisfy Rep's Jordan, Kelly or Issa each of whom repeatedly hammered Strickland and to a lesser extent Akerson.

Disclosure to the public of the Chevy Volt crash test fire occurred with a November 11 Bloomberg News article, and was closely followed by announcements from NHTSA and GM. Rep. Jordan described this as NHTSA holding out on making an announcement until being "outed" by Bloomberg's report. However NHTSA Administrator Strickland maintained that the NHTSA was very close to making their announcement anyway, and that NHTSA's personnel had worked with Bloomberg's reporters on ensuring the facts were reported correctly. Strickland went on to describe that prior to November 11 they were involved with preliminary pre-investigation work necessary to discover just how severe was the risk posed by this one fire. The NHTSA has a statutory duty to disclose risks to the public, but that statutory duty also extends to determining actual risk before disclosing a risk to the public. In other words, the NHTSA's role is not to shout FIRE in a crowded theater if there's no actual fire, but to only disclose actual risks based on data they collect from investigations.

Administrator Strickland explained it would have been illegal for NHTSA to disclose a risk if there was no actual risk.

See Chevy Volt fire: What did NHTSA know and when did they know it? for details on the work by NHTSA investigators to devise new test procedures to test the battery pack in isolation from the Volt. The NHTSA never does "component-level testing", instead they always test whole vehicles. Because they had been unable to replicate the fire, even after crash testing several more cars in September 2011, the investigation team proceeded to "component level testing" of the battery pack. This required designing test procedures and building equipment, with the tests occurring in mid-November. GM's Akerson characterized those tests as "impaling" the battery pack to puncture it, then drenching the pack in coolant while rotating the pack through several positions. Meaning the tests in November and December were designed to artificially induce the flaw (punctured battery pack, and leaked coolant fluid) identified by the forensic investigation between May and November. Even having artificially induced the flaw, it took a week for the tested battery packs to catch fire. While investigators proved they could cause the Volt battery pack to catch fire, it was in an artificial situation.

This explanation of the timeline before publicly disclosure of the fire was not good enough for Rep's Jordan and Issa. In one exchange Rep. Issa demanded why GM's executives hadn't flown in, fully briefed, 3 minutes after learning of the fire back in June. If this, three minutes worth of investigation to understand the cause, is Rep. Issa's criteria for NHTSA being a credible agency, it looks like an impossible criteria to meet. As both Akerson and Strickland explained, in June it wasn't clear what the cause of the fire. It could have been arson, the fire could have started with another vehicle in the storage lot, was it a bad test, and they hadn't torn down the burnt Volt to determine why or how it caught fire. How could NHTSA or GM have credibly warned the public over risks when there was little data about what had occurred?

Did GM and NHTSA or other Administration officials collude to hide anything from the public? Rep's Jordan, Issa and Kelly all discussed the risk of collusion, and the motive for collusion, likening the Volt as a "halo car" not only for GM but for the Obama Administration's green jobs green technology vision. Both Strickland and Akerson denied any collusion in the face of several questions along those lines.

Was this investigation handled differently than other NHTSA investigations? In one exchange Strickland claimed the NHTSA treats all investigations the same, and bases their conclusions on data. However in another exchange Strickland explained that each investigation has a unique nature and follows a different path. Rep. Jordan grabbed ahold of this apparent contradiction, angrily demanding an explanation from Strickland. Strickland started to explain, before being cut off by Rep. Jordan, he meant that at the technical level, each crash and each safety vulnerability is different, that the direction investigators take must suit the nature of the event being investigated, and therefore must be different.

Did the NHTSA follow correct protocol in handling the crash tested Volt? These questions echo'd GM's long-time assertion that there must be a "depowering" protocol following the crash of an electric vehicle. Depowering the battery pack was likened by Akerson to be similar to connecting a huge light bulb to the pack and letting it run down until there's no more electricity in it. The question asked by the committee was whether NHTSA knew of the need to depower crashed battery packs, and why didn't they follow this procedure following the Volt crash test. A further question was if emergency workers across the country know how to handle battery packs in crashed electric vehicles.

Prior to this incident the test protocol for gasoline vehicles was to empty the gas tank and disconnect the 12 volt battery, while for electric (and hybrid) vehicles the protocol was to drain the gas tank (if any) and disconnect all batteries. The protocol did not include depowering the batteries, however. Akerson explained that the Volt fire incident taught them something, that they learned of the need to depower electric vehicle batteries after a crash.

Are lithium ion batteries safe? Rep. Issa named an explosion at a lithium battery plant several years ago, as well as the Sony laptop fires from 2006, asking if these batteries are safe for use in cars. The history of lithium batteries do include instances of intense fires that can't be put out by normal means. One has to understand, as all three witnesses explained, that the flammability of a specific lithium ion battery depends on the specific battery chemistry. Some lithium chemistries are explosive while some are safe, and it's a battery design engineering challenge to avoid thermal runaway conditions (fire). All the automakers know about this and are choosing cells with safe chemistries. The LG Chem cells used on the Volt are regarded as safe. During the hearing nobody asked how, then, did the Volt battery pack catch fire if the cells are regarded as safe. The NHTSA report released last week identified the most likely cause as a combination of an internal short circuit between some cells due to physical damage to the pack, combined with short circuiting induced by the coolant fluid.

Are electric cars as safe as gasoline cars? This question was primarily fielded by John German who explained relative statistics of car fires in gasoline and electric cars, as well as the safety characteristics of lithium batteries we just discussed. The statistics say that over the last several years there have been 287,000 gasoline car fires per year, with 487 deaths, and extensive property damage. That's a rate of one fire per year per 1000 gasoline vehicles. Why? Gasoline is a flammable liquid that's explosive in certain circumstances. If the rate of gasoline car fires were also true for electric cars there would have been 17-18 electric car fires during 2011. Instead there have been no electric car fires, hence EV's are safer than gasoline powered cars. John German characterized one fire in the crash tested Chevy Volt as an isolated incident.

Is the Chevy Volt safe? Strickland professed it is, saying that not only would he drive one he'd drive his mother, wife and younger sister in a Volt. Akerson professed it is, and that not only had he bought one for himself, he'd driven that Volt from Detroit to the hearing. It received five star crashworthiness ratings in every test. Its up to automotive engineers to manage the risks in any car, electric or otherwise. Those who drive gasoline cars are carrying a tank full of potentially explosive gasoline, where fires are so common they aren't even reported in the news, but somehow as a society we collectively take that risk every day. Lithium Ion batteries chosen for automotive use are regarded as safe, but of course any vehicle is only as safe as the person driving it.

Shouldn't Rep. Kelly have recused himself? Nobody asked this question but his dual role as both a U.S. Congressman, and as the owner of a Chevy dealership, appeared odd as he questioned GM's CEO Dan Akerson. Effectively Rep. Kelly was questioning his boss and one wonders what line of reasoning is used to say there was no conflict of interest.

The Chevy Volt has the highest customer satisfaction rating ever measured by Consumer Reports. GM is using technology developed for the Volt in other cars, and GM plans to begin exports of the Volt in 2012. The Chevy Volt was named Car of the Year by several publications. In almost every respect it is a successful car, that has unfortunately become a political punching bag.

Originally published at TorqueNews: http://www.torquenews.com/1075/gms-akerson-says-chevy-volt-not-designed-be-political-punching-bag

Monday, January 23, 2012

Chevy Volt fire: What did NHTSA know and when did they know it?

The NHTSA released a detailed report of the Chevy Volt crash test and forensic investigation last week prior to this weeks House Oversight committee hearing.

On Wednesday this week the House Oversight Committee will take up the question, "Volt Vehicle Fire: What did NHTSA Know and When Did They Know It?" Among the speakers will be NHTSA Administrator David Strickland and GM CEO Dan Akerson. Conveniently the NHTSA closed their investigation last week and released a document about the fire incident answering questions about the timing of the investigation into the Chevy Volt fire.

The following is a summary of a more complete timeline I've published elsewhere.

The crash testing of interest came as part of NHTSA's New Car Assessment Program (NCAP) under the agencies policy of testing vehicles with "new technology". For 2011 they were especially interested in electrified vehicles with lithium-ion batteries, like the Chevy Volt. The program consists of frontal, side, electrical isolation and rollover tests. The post-crash rollover test is intended to test for leakage of electrolyte from battery powered vehicles, or fuel spillage from gasoline or diesel vehicles.

Between April 20 and May 12, 2011, Chevy Volt crash testing occurred at the site of an NHTSA contractor, MGA Research. Based on its performance in that test the NHTSA awarded the five-star NCAP crashworthiness rating. After the crash test the Volt was moved to a storage lot. This much we knew already, it's starting from this point that the NHTSA report begins to fill in details in the timeline.

The NHTSA report lists four crash tests in the April 20-May 12 period. Three were side impact tests, two of which caused intrusion into the battery pack, and it was the test on May 12 which caused battery coolant leakage.

On June 6 MGA's personnel notified the NHTSA that a fire had occurred over the weekend in the storage yard. They initially investigated a possible arson and it was local fire officials who did an initial scene investigation. Hughes Associates were also called in for a forensic investigation, on June 13-14, which determined it was the Chevy Volt that was the source of the fire. The fire scene included four other vehicles, and all were cleared of being the cause of the fire. The Chevy Volt was found to have had a pressure event (a.k.a. explosion) that blew out the windshield, followed by a fire. The fire caused the air bags to explode, as well as the rear hatch pneumatic cylinders. The fire was intense enough to cause the neighboring vehicles to catch fire.

The in-depth forensic investigation found the battery pack had not only been punctured, but that the pack had bent at the point of impact, and that cells near the impact point had been damaged. The report says there is a "good possibility that this physical damage produced an internal short within the cells that resulted in the release of flammable gasses (electrolyte) that were eventually ignited". Once some of the electrolyte gas ignited, the other cells will have heated up, releasing their own electrolyte, feeding the fire. Occam's Razor is cited at this point in the report because physical damage causing an internal short was the simplest of the possible scenarios investigators came up with.

The damaged vehicle and its battery pack were shipped to an NHTSA test center in East Liberty, Ohio, where Hughes Associates, the NHTSA and GM engineers did a forensic inspection and battery teardown. It was here that they learned a "transverse stiffener" had penetrated the battery pack tunnel, damaged battery cells and ruptured coolant lines. Hughes concluded at this time that battery damage and electrical shorts in the pack led to the fire.

On Sept 21, 2011, another Chevy Volt crash test was performed, with additional instrumentation and cameras. The car was monitored for three weeks, and the cameras recorded no intrusion into the battery pack, no coolant leakage, and no fire.

Separately to these efforts the NHTSA, Dept of Energy, Dept of Defense, worked to devise test procedures that would replicate the damage they saw in the Volt which caught fire. They designed an impact test and constructed rollover equipment for the battery pack. This led to the battery pack crash tests performed in mid-November 2011.

In the battery tests, each battery was impacted and then rotated in a method similar to the full vehicle crash tests. The battery coolant system was intentionally ruptured so that coolant could drip around onto the circuit boards inside the battery pack. They found the coolant to be conductive at high voltages, and that it could cause short circuits in the right conditions. In the November tests, one of the battery packs caught fire one week after the crash test, and in another sparks and flames jetted out when the pack was in an upside-down position. These sparks lasted about 1 second, and were due to shorts in battery wiring and circuitry.

Another set of battery tests focused on cell damage, shorting of the high power inter-cell connections (bus bars), and battery coolant leakage. Those tests were conducted in December 2011. In the December tests, one battery pack showed discolored wires indicating heating, but with no fire, and another battery pack caught fire 6 days after the test.

In yet another line of research the NHTSA and GM began investigating all crashes involving Chevy Volts as well as the two garage fires in garages containing Chevy Volts. None of the crashes, including some severe accidents, resulted in a fire. In both garage fires the Chevy Volt's were cleared of having caused those fires.

Additionally GM had developed a fix to mitigate intrusion of the transverse stiffener. This fix was installed into a Chevy Volt which was shipped to MGA where another side impact test was performed on December 22. There was no intrusion into the battery pack, no coolant leakage, and after three weeks of observation, no fire.

It's clear from this record of events that the NHTSA was not sitting on their hands but were performing an intensive forensic analysis. By November engineers had replicated the conditions of the fire in June, but the final report was unable to come to a definitive conclusion.

Back in 2008 when LG Chem was chosen as the cell supplier for the Chevy Volt (beating out A123 Systems), LG Chem's press release claimed their battery chemistry was not flammable. Anyone researching the history of lithium batteries knows of the potential for catastrophic fire, and that battery chemistry designers focus on many factors including non-flammability. However the NHTSA has shown that the electrolyte used by LG Chem, in the conditions of this test, become a flammable vapor. Which presents an engineering challenge to vehicle designers of the sort they face in designing gasoline fuel tanks (gasoline being a flammable explosive liquid). Namely, constructing the vehicle so the vulnerable portions are unlikely to catch fire. Fortunately the conditions identified in this test take quite a while, weeks even, to develop into a fire giving crash survivors ample time to get to a safe distance.

Ever since the fire became public knowledge GM has consistently stated that there must be a "depowering" following electric vehicle crashes. If the NHTSA had depowered the battery pack, the internal short caused by the crash test would not have been conducting electricity, and if the NHTSA conclusion is correct, the flammable electrolyte would not have caught fire.

Originally published at TorqueNews: http://www.torquenews.com/1075/chevy-volt-fire-what-did-nhtsa-know-and-when-did-they-know-it

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Should GM kill the Chevy Volt, stand pat, or create the Volt2?

You may have noticed a hyped-up controversy attached to the Chevy Volt, the current round of which is the battery pack fire plus side issues like the amount of federal support behind the Volt. The controversy, irregardless of whether there's a real danger, is causing some to suggest that GM should kill the Chevy Volt because it has become a public relations burden. This really raises the question of which direction GM should take, and the direction other car-makers are taking.

An example of the "Should GM kill the Volt" perspective is a Motley Fool article today with that title. It's argument is that GM isn't making much money on the Volt, not many Volt's are being sold. Toyota is selling a zillion more Prius models than the Volt and the Chevy Volt doesn't stack up well against competitor vehicles, and there's the public relations problem. While this line of reasoning has some truth, it's eerily like a replay of the bashing the Prius received when it was first introduced. Go back in time 11 years or so, and you'll see complaints about Toyota losing money on each Prius they sold, how nobody wanted one, then step forward a couple years from that to the Gen2 Prius which sold like hotcakes to make it a highly successful car. A car, by the way, which some still bash.

In part this situation is one of colliding cultural viewpoints that date back to the 1970's oil crises. Those crises led to a wave of highly efficient cars, solar panels on the roof of the White House, and even a decrease in oil consumption. That pattern lasted for a few years until Reagan was elected, removed the White House solar panels, and told us all to go back to driving SUV's.

But let's stay with the present. There are approximately three directions GM could take moving forward.

Should GM kill the Volt? (retreat) This is an unlikely path for GM to take. In part the Volt was GM's opportunity to repair their image after being tarnished with having "killed the electric car" when they shut down the EV1 program. GM almost certainly chose to call the Volt an "electric car" (it's proper description is "plug-in hybrid") in an effort at corporate image repair. If killing the EV1 was a disastrous PR move, killing the Volt would be doubly so, especially after the glowing portrayal of the Volt program in the recent movie "Revenge of the Electric Car."

It's obvious that many want GM to kill the Volt, and the House Oversight Committee meeting next week appears to be staged to create more negative political baggage attached to the Volt.

Yet, does that mean GM's only choice is to cave in to negative PR and political pressure? A couple years ago with the over-hyped controversy over the Prius sticky accelerator problem, did Toyota cave in to negative PR and political pressure? No, they scrutinized the evidence, and developed fixes for the problems they found. Two years later and that controversy is a dim memory in the past. GM is following a similar path with the battery pack fire. They're scrutinizing the design, coming up with fixes, and communicating with their customers to accommodate any fears they might have. The Volt was cleared yesterday by the NHTSA, and perhaps in the due course of time this too will be a dim memory in the past.

And what of the technical reasons to keep the Volt in existence? In total the 7500 or so Chevy Volts in existence have driven enough gasoline-free miles to prevent burning 34,000 barrels of oil in 2011. While that's a drop in the bucket of oil consumption, it's a move in a direction many want to take towards a clean transportation system that ends oil dependence.

Additionally the Voltec drive train is going in to other GM vehicles, and killing the Volt would put GM behind the wave of electrification in the automotive industry. The other auto-makers do not appear ready to abandon their electric vehicle plans, but are moving forward (if cautiously) with additional hybrid, plug-in hybrid, and battery electric vehicles. Are we at the beginning of a wave of vehicle electrification that will shortly become unstoppable? If so wouldn't GM be foolish to retreat from their electrification plans?

Should GM keep the Volt as it is? (stand pat) This, too, is an unlikely path for GM to take because no automaker stands still. They're always working on the next model of every vehicle. A next generation Volt won't come out for a couple years, and in the meantime GM would stand pat with their current design. Perhaps with a few tweaks each year.

There's the "halo car" effect where GM has noted that the Volt has brought new customers to GM, ones who'd never previously owned GM cars. They came to GM looking at the Volt and then perhaps bought something else.

How does the Volt compare against its competitors?

At a $40k price range it's more expensive than the other plug-in hybrids coming this year. Its 40 mile electric-only range is larger than the 10-15 mile electric-only range of those competitors. That 40 mile electric-only range comes because of a larger battery pack, adding to the price. Whether a particular customer buys a Volt or a Prius plug-in or one of Ford's Energi plug-in hybrids will depend on various factors. Where GM targeted an electric range sufficient for typical daily driving distance, Toyota and Ford targeted affordability ending up with a shorter electric-only range.

The $40k price range makes the Volt more expensive than most of the electric cars available in 2012, but here the price differential is smaller. The battery electric cars all have a longer electric-only range than the Volt, generally 100 miles, but they all lack the pragmatic trade-off of the on-board gasoline generator.

Comparing the Volt against the two electric cars with over 100 mile electric range is most interesting. The Coda Sedan has a 150 mile range and a price point similar to the Volt, whereas the Tesla Model S will be built with a 160, 240 or 300 mile range at price points well above the Volt's $40k. Where GM positions the Volt's gasoline generator as the cure for range anxiety, the other cure for range anxiety is to simply have enough battery capacity to give a long enough electric range to cover larger daily driving needs. Obviously the 300 mile Tesla Model S comes with a hefty price tag that very few can afford, but this does point to a continuum of price points a customer could hit. At one end is the Mitsubishi i-Miev whose price is in the $29k range, well below the other electric cars, and at the high end is the 300 mile Model S with a $77k base price, and with several choices in-between.

Should GM create a Volt2, and create more plug-in vehicles? (reenvisionment) As should already be obvious, this is GM's most likely path forward. To keep improving the Volt and to make other plug-in electrified vehicles. They're already on tap to introduce the Chevy Spark EV in 2013 for example. While the Volt is already popular with its owners, there's no reason it cannot be improved upon. A "Volt2" should, similarly to the Gen2 Prius, lead to bigger sales and broader acceptance.

One thing GM could change is the T-shaped battery pack on the Volt. The pack intrudes into the seat, preventing the rear seat from seating three people, unlike most other sedans of its size.

GM could develop a Volt with a shorter electric-only range and much smaller price tag. When Toyota and Ford chose a 10-15 mile electric-only range for their plug-in hybrid EV's, they did so by balancing a large number of factors, premier of which was affordability. The lower price tag opens the doors to a broader range of potential customers, while the Volt's higher price tag limits the potential customers to those who can afford a $40k car.

GM already is developing a range of electrified plug-in vehicles, and could develop even more. The other automakers all have long range strategies to improve gasoline fuel efficiency, reduce vehicle weight, more efficient engines, and adopt electric drive technology, with a long term goal of wide-spread electrified drive train adoption.

An interesting possibility would be a tie-up with either Via Motors or Bright Automotive. Via Motors is a start-up focusing on converting GM trucks and vans to be "extended range electric vehicles" using a pure electric drive train and an on-board gasoline generator, and their vehicles are targeted at construction or utility usages. GM has already invested a small amount in Bright Automotive, who is another start-up focusing on developing an electric delivery van.

In the due course of time there will be battery technology development allowing higher energy density, higher range, at lower cost. Several promising developments are under-way along these lines, and it's not certain when better batteries will be commercially available. When better batteries are available, GM and the other automakers should seize the day, improving electrified car range and cost.

The last thing GM should do is unrelated to the Volt. It would be to pay off the government loans and end the "Government Motors" moniker they've been tagged with. Whether the auto industry or banking industry bailout's were a good or bad thing, the relationship between GM and the U.S. Government is quite unusual in U.S. history. This relationship is an unnecessary aspect of the controversy related to the Chevy Volt.

Originally posted on TorqueNews http://www.torquenews.com/1075/should-gm-kill-chevy-volt-stand-pat-or-create-volt2

Electric car charging: perk, privilege or pay-to-charge

We are at a chicken-and-egg moment where prospective electric car owners want to see electric charging stations, but prospective charging station owners want to see electric car owners using their stations.

The parking situation for electric car owners seems to have inspired a case of "EV Envy" in the mind of a Fox News reporter with a piece yesterday titled "Electric car parking: Perk or Privilege?" The report, which focuses on the privileged placement of most electric car charging stations, makes electric car owners seem like coddled lazy bums.

Let's get the obvious bit out of the way first. Even gasoline powered cars have a limited range, but because of the ubiquitous placement of gasoline stations gasoline car owners have the illusion of infinite range. A few decades ago when it was harder to find filling stations wasn't there a form of range anxiety called "running out of gas," and the solution was to carry a gas can? Especially in the far reaches of Nevada which have signs reading "last gas for 50 miles"? As electric vehicles become more common over the coming years, an electric charging station infrastructure must be built just as gasoline cars have a gasoline charging station infrastructure today. The question really should be, what is the best placement for the electric charging station infrastructure, and what is the correct pricing model to pay for electric car charging.

In the meantime we are at a chicken-and-egg moment where prospective electric car owners want to see electric charging stations, but prospective charging station owners want to see electric car owners.

Electric car charging stations are being installed in some cities but the infrastructure is far from being sufficient to give electric car owners the same infinite range illusion currently enjoyed by gas car owners.

Frequently (not always) the charging stations hold a primary position in a parking lot, sometimes next to the handicapped spots. And even though there were 20,000 or so electric cars sold in 2011, that isn't enough cars to utilize all the electric car charging stations. That leaves the electric car charging stations under-utilized while sometimes (not always) taking up a front-and center position in parking lots. It's understandable that some could resent the electric car owner for their privileged parking spots, just as some resent the handicapped as well.

In fact, this situation is not new because the first program of charging station installation did not happen in 2011 but in the late 1990's with California's first wave of electric cars. Those charging stations are still installed in some places and for years have gone under-utilized and some of the braver gasoline car owners brazenly parking there despite the signage saying "Electric Car Parking". This condition is known as "ICE-d" because electric car parking is blocked by an internal combustion engine (ICE) vehicle. ICE'd electric car parking prevents the electric car owner from recharging, causing frustration to that car owner, and perhaps threatening their successful return home if they'd counted on charging in that parking lot.

Today laws exist in some locales making it a crime for a car to be parked in a posted electric car charging spot, but not plugged in to a charging station. Such cars can be towed away so that these parking spots remain open.

The EV charging stations aren't always located in a prime position at the front of the parking lot. What determines the position is availability of an electrical circuit for the charging station, as well as whether the business owner wants to make a big deal of the charging station. Many electric car owners are nervous about under-utilized charging stations at the front of the parking lot creating a negative impression, and would rather the charging stations be out of the way. On the other hand, some business owners might be looking for green credibility and install the charging stations up front so that everyone knows just how green they are.

Maybe electric car charging stations should operate like gasoline stations, the EV owner would drive in, fill up the battery, then drive away. Unfortunately this isn't possible, yet, because EV charging is not a five minute or less operation. Yet. Maybe in a few years fast charging EV's will be more common and we could have EV filling stations just like today's gasoline stations. In the meantime it means EV charging stations have to be positioned in places where it's convenient to park for a couple hours.

For example at workplaces where you're inside for 8 hours, you won't notice the 3-4 hours it takes to recharge the car because you're inside with your nose to the grindstone. Shopping centers are another likely place and are useful even if you're only popping in for a half hour or less of parking. This is called "opportunity charging" meaning to take whatever opportunities that arise to charge. While an opportunity charge isn't a full recharge it can add a few miles range.

Business owners know that the longer a person spends inside a store, that they're likely to spend more. A business might offer free EV charging as an incentive to bring customers, ones who will be incentivized to spend more time in the store because their car is charging outside.

Will free EV charging be the norm in the future, or will there be paid EV charging? In some cases there may continue to be free EV charging but that's not a given for the future, and even today there are paid EV charging stations. One issue are regulations preventing electricity to be sold by any entity that is not an electric utility. This prevents an EV charging station owner from selling electricity outright, making the fee at todays paid charging station owners be the amount of time the car is plugged in. Fees range from $.50 per hour up to $3 or more per hour the car is connected to the charging station.

The chicken-or-egg problem we alluded to earlier could prevent electric car sales from ever taking off if sufficient charging station infrastructure is not available. Policy makers know this and some charging station infrastructure is being built now in the hopes of giving comfort to prospective electric car owners. If it goes well a few years down the road there will be enough electric cars on the road that charging stations have higher utilization and the rising number of EV's leads automatically to more charging stations.

Originally published at TorqueNews: http://www.torquenews.com/1075/electric-car-charging-perk-privelege-or-pay-charge

Friday, January 20, 2012

Natural gas from Shale not a clean "bridge fuel" and may worsen climate change

Some promote natural gas as a clean fuel for transportation that can solve both the climate change and energy security crises, but a paper released yesterday in Climate News casts doubt on that direction.

Some have proposed Natural Gas to be used as a supposedly clean "bridge fuel" to address both climate change and national energy security concerns. However recent research, published in Climate News, by a team led by Robert Howarth, Renee Santoro, and Anthony Ingraffea of Cornell Univ, casts a shadow of doubt on this proposal due to methane leakage, not to mention the controversy over hydraulic fracturing that has enabled the natural gas boom to exist in the first place.

While natural gas is, well, a gas, and frequently used for generating electricity and heating, it can be used as a transportation fuel if compressed (CNG) or liquified (LNG). Many see natural gas as clean, but that's when compared against coal. For transportation fuels the primary advantage of natural gas is that it's a domestic fuel available widely inside the U.S. due do the rapid growth of hydraulic fracturing. Primarily transportation fuels in the U.S. come from fossil oil imported from other countries. Because the U.S. passed its peak of oil production in 1971, it's not possible to make a meaningful increase in domestic oil production. Even if U.S. domestic oil production could be meaningfully increased, it would come at the cost of environmental and climate degradation. This means the U.S. is stuck with a transportation fleet utterly dependent on foreign fossil oil, sending vast reams of money to foreign countries to buy that fossil oil, no meaningful way to increase domestic fossil oil production, and some prominent voices suggesting natural gas is both clean, abundant and domestic.

Natural gas and methane are essentially the same, chemically speaking. Methane, which is a far more powerful greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide, occurs naturally in various contexts such as decomposing biological material, from landfills, and is also released during hydraulic fracturing operations. A few years ago Natural Gas supplies were seen to be extremely tight with the peak of natural gas production right around the corner and a decline in natural gas production would have set in by now, if it were not for hydraulic fracturing. The hydraulic fracturing process involves pumping water laced with various chemicals underground to fracture the rocks, and cause chemical reactions, resulting in a release of methane. That methane is meant to be captured and sold on the market as natural gas. However, many blame hydraulic fracturing with polluting groundwater, and in any case Howarth's team showed that not all is rosy perfect with this scenario.

The advantage of burning methane or natural gas is that, in addition to operating a machine or making heat, the methane is converted into carbon dioxide. While carbon dioxide is still a greenhouse gas, it is less potent than methane. Hence it can be argued that if the methane already exists, burning it makes it less harmful while producing a benefit.

Compressed natural gas (CNG) is widely used as a transportation fuel but in specific niches such as city bus systems.

With that basic understanding out of the way, let's turn to the study.

Robert W. Howarth, Cornell University, said: "We believe the preponderance of evidence indicates shale gas has a larger greenhouse gas footprint than conventional gas, considered over any time scale. The greenhouse gas footprint of shale gas also exceeds that of oil or coal when considered at decadal time scales, no matter how the gas is used. We stand by the conclusion of our 2011 research: 'The large [greenhouse gas] footprint of shale gas undercuts the logic of its use as a bridging fuel over coming decades, if the goal is to reduce global warming.'"

The team published yesterday, in Climate News, a rebuttal to criticism they received after their groundbreaking April 2011 paper. The new paper, titled "Venting and Leaking of Methane from Shale Gas Development: Response to Cathles et al." is the "first comprehensive analysis of greenhouse gas emissions from shale gas obtained by hydraulic fracturing, with a focus on methane emissions."

The core of the Howarth team's argument is methane leakage during mining of natural gas from hydraulically fractured shale formations, as well as leakage in the distribution and transportation infrastructure. Remember that methane when burned converts from a potent greenhouse gas, to the less potent carbon dioxide. But methane leaking out of pipes is still methane, and is a highly potent greenhouse gas. What Howarth's team has done is create a comprehensive estimate of the methane leakages.

Following a hydraulic fracturing process methane leaks out of the well before the well can be capped. Howarth's team notes an EPA report documenting that methane emissions from the well during hydraulic fracturing cleanup are simply vented to the atmosphere, in other words adding to the greenhouse gas footprint.

Natural gas pipelines are sometimes leaky, due to the age of the pipeline infrastructure. The average long distance gas transmission pipeline is over 50 years old, and in some cities the natural gas infrastructure is 80-100 years old. Overwhelmingly the pipelines are made of steel, and steel rusts. An example of this problem is the pipeline explosion in San Bruno CA (just south of San Francisco) a couple years ago which has been attributed to aging natural gas pipelines that were incorrectly manufactured in the first place.

From these factors and more Howarth's team calculated that the natural gas industry accounts for 39 percent of the U.S. total methane emissions. The natural gas industry already accounts for 17 percent of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions, and this is expected to grow to 23 percent as shale gas production expands.

The paper concludes these two problems can be fixed. First the EPA has proposed regulations to capture methane leaking from shale gas wells. Secondly, the methane leaking from the aging infrastructure can be addressed by rebuilding the U.S. natural gas pipeline infrastructure. However, this will be extremely expensive to accomplish and the paper asks this highly relevant question: "Should society invest massive capital in such improvements for a bridge fuel that is to be used for only 20 to 30 years, or would the capital be better spent on constructing a smart electric grid and other technologies that move towards a truly green energy future?"

Originally published at TorqueNews: http://www.torquenews.com/1075/natural-gas-shale-not-clean-bridge-fuel-and-may-worsen-climate-change

Thursday, January 19, 2012

GM's CEO to testify before Rep. Issa's committee on Chevy Volt fire

The firestorm over the Chevy Volt battery pack fire is moving next week to a hearing before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, the hearing is to feature Dan Akerson, GM's CEO.

In May 2011 a Chevy Volt underwent extreme crash testing by the NHTSA, and three weeks later it caught fire while on a storage lot. In September 2011 the White House was notified of the fire, but it was not disclosed to the public until November 12, 2011 when Bloomberg News broke the news. This delay in public disclosure is the subject of a hearing next week before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee. It was learned today that GM's CEO Dan Akerson will appear before the committee.

In December the committee sent a letter to National Highway Traffic Safety Administrator David Strickland suggesting that "In light of the Administrations clear promotion of electric vehicle technology, we are deeply troubled by the fact that the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has deliberately suppressed public knowledge of the safety risk posed by the Chevrolet Volt." The letter goes on to portray the fire issue as a "serious risk posed by these vehicles" and noted that the NHTSA "delayed disclosing the safety deficiencies in the Volt battery system." The letter was signed by Rep. Issa, Chairman of the House Oversight committee, Rep. Jordan, Chairman of the Subcommittee on Regulatory Affairs, and Rep. Mike Kelley who is not a member of the committee but has since proposed legislation to kill the electric vehicle tax credit.

The NHTSA was of course aware of the safety risk, portrayed by the committee as a "serious risk". The letter names a timeline of events when the NHTSA could have disclosed the fire but did not: a) in July 2011 when the agency "finalized negotiations on fuel/economy regulation", b) on July 29, 2011 when President Obama announced the agreement on those regulations, c) and in October 2011 when Strickland testified before the Government Reform Committee. At no point did the NHTSA disclose the Chevy Volt fire, to the public, until a Bloomberg News report in November 2011 and the subsequent disclosure by the NHTSA and GM.

The letter goes on to demand answers from Strickland that center on two points: a) When did the NHTSA notify various government stakeholders such as the EPA and President Obama? b) Does Strickland stand by previous testimony that 'economy/emissions regulations will be "safety neutral"'? c) Why did the NHTSA delay public disclosure? d) Was the delay of disclosure due to political strategy? e) Was the delay of disclosure to help GM?

In light of these demands we should not be surprised to learn the title of next weeks hearing is "Volt Vehicle Fire: What Did NHTSA Know And When Did They Know It?"

This letter clearly fits the general narrative where some are blowing the safety risk out of proportion and are using the situation as further political leverage to attack the Obama Administration. At the same time the delay in disclosing the fire is troublesome and the demands from the committee are in line with its Oversight role over the Administration.

This letter also positions the concern over the Volt battery pack fire within a broader context of the proposed increase in CAFE fuel efficiency standards, citing a concern for potential negative safety consequences from ramping up fuel efficiency.

Officials from the NHTSA, the Dept of Transportation, the EPA, the White House and GM have all denied hiding anything and have continued assertions that the Volt is safe to drive. As many have noted there have been no fires involving either the Chevy Volt or Nissan Leaf, compared to the hundreds of thousands of gasoline car fires occurring every year.

A report last December in the Detroit Free Press quoted Transportation Secretary LaHood saying it was "absolutely not true" that regulators kept information from Congress on the battery fire, and that "The last thing we do at NHTSA is hide information but we want to make sure what we have is accurate." That report noted the NHTSA was gathering information and looking to see if the one fire was a one-time incident or an easily reproducible flaw.

In other words, would it be appropriate for the NHTSA to raise an alarm over an issue that might turn out to be a false alarm?

Last week the Detroit News obtained a letter sent by Strickland to three Republican Representatives disclosing briefings in September, on the June fire, from the NHTSA to the Transportation Dept and eventually President Obama. The NHTSA was not asked to keep any information secret; "No one from the Executive Office of the President requested or in any way suggested that NHTSA delay public release of information related to the Volt fire." The letter also noted the NHTSA rarely opens a formal investigation after just one incident, but that "Because the Volt incident involved a potential risk in newly emerging technology, NHTSA proceeded to open this investigation based only upon the results of limited test data and without waiting for data from real-world incidents."

Yesterday it was disclosed that GM's CEO Dan Akerson would appear before next week's committee hearing which obviously is being staged to be a contentious fight.

On the one hand the House Oversight committee has demanded answers amid suggestions of wrongdoing by the NHTSA, GM and the Obama Administration. The NHTSA has not answered the committee's demands with Ali Ahmad, Issa's spokesperson, saying "NHTSA has stalled on responding to the committee's inquiry for six weeks and inexplicably refused to provide any documents. The committee expects full compliance with its request and will consider compulsory methods if NHTSA does not immediately change its position."

On the other hand the NHTSA is saying they needed time to do fault analysis study, to determine just how serious a risk they had on their hands.

"Dan has agreed to testify at the hearing, and he looks forward to doing it," GM spokesman Greg Martin said.

Originally posted at TorqueNews: http://www.torquenews.com/1075/gms-ceo-testify-rep-issas-committee-chevy-volt-fire