Cars & Technology of the Future

Cars & Technology of the Future

vw-e-Golf, all electric

VW’s glimpse of the future

What’s Coming in Cars; Some Is Already Here

The fifth annual “Future Cars, Future Technology” event put on by the Western Automotive Journalists’ association on Oct. 17, offered several glimpses of the future. You could drive a prototype electric Volkswagen Golf, due to go on sale next year, or hear an executive from the California Air Resources Board predict that future pickup trucks would be powered by fuel cells. Or you could hear that according to Stanford’s Dr. Sven Beiker we don’t really know what distraction is so figuring out how to deal with it is going to be more complicated than simply banning texting.

The symposium, sponsored by Club Auto Sport, Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca, Fiat, Ford, General Motors, Kia, Mitsubishi and Volkswagen, started with a hands-on view of the divergent paths that the auto world is currently taking. In the parking lot available for driving evaluations were five different approaches to the automotive future:

  • Pure electric cars, which were represented by the prototype e-Golf, Chevy Spark EV, Fiat 500e and Ford Focus Electric.
  • Plug-in hybrids represented by the Ford C-Max Energi.
  • Hybrids were represented by the Kia Optima Hybrid and VW Jetta Hybrid.

    Kia,Optima Hybrid,future cars

    The Kia Optima Hybrid attracted a crowd

  • Diesels representing by a Ram 1500 EcoDiesel, VW Passat TDI and a second Passat TDI running on Solazyme’s SolaDiesel renewable diesel. The latter showcases a biofuel path that would replace petroleum diesel or gasoline with a bio-based fuel that would present a greener carbon footprint as well as reduced emissions.
  • Advanced technology gasoline vehicles were represented by the 2014 Mitsubishi Outlander, which, in addition to offering more than 30 mpg in a seven-passenger SUV, has adaptive cruise control, lane departure warning and forward collision mitigation. The latter technology will alert the driver of an impending crash and apply the brakes if the driver fails to.
  • Missing from the collection of cars and trucks was a fuel cell vehicle. Although that technology path was not present, Toyota and other manufacturers have said they would have vehicles on sales by 2015.

Automotive Electronics/Smartphones & Cars

The technology suite found in the Mitsubishi in the ride-and-drive provided a good segue to the first panel of program, which featured Dr. Beiker and Ford Silicon Valley Lab leader T.J.  Giuli discussing new electronic systems in automobiles and whether they are making vehicles safer or less safe by introducing new sources of distraction.

The two agreed that the path forward with electronics was not clear, which consumers expecting more connectivity and technology in cars and automakers challenged to keep up because of the short product cycle for electronics compared to automobiles. “How do we keep up?” Giuli mused. But he added that new features such as AppLink promise to bring smartphone applications seamlessly in the car. Beiker suggested that maybe it was a matter of car companies needing to “explain to consumers what they need” because the market pull at the present was stronger than the technology push.

The vision of an autonomous, self-driving car, while technically feasible now, is still at least a decade away from practical use, according to the panelists.

Zero/Near-zero Emission Cars

Later, discussion turned to powertrains and fuels of the future with Dr. Alberto Ayala, deputy executive officer of the California Air Resources Board (CARB); Dave Barthmuss, group manager, environment, energy & policy communications for General Motors; and Roland Hwang, transportation program director for the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC). The three were challenged to give a view of where the automotive world is headed and what we might be driving as cars move toward the 2025 goal of 54.5 mpg.

Dr. Ayala said “we know the path” we have to take in California to reach state emissions goals; it involves decarbonizing energy and fuels and boosting efficiency in vehicles. “We need to get to zero/near-zero emissions vehicles (ZEVs), which means battery electrics and fuel cells.” The challenge now is to incentivize the market and generate consumer interest in the cars that will help the state reach its goals, he added.


Future Cars Panel

In CARB’s view by 2040 every new car sold has to be a zero emission vehicle and by 2050 the state expects 90 percent of the cars on the road to be ZEVs. The other challenge is to get drivers to reduce the number of miles they drive.

Hwang said the auto industry faces an “innovate or die” situation. High oil prices have radically reshaped the world of the automobile in his view and he sees auto companies changing and adapting to this new world. According to Hwang’s assessment, the industry is making good progress toward the 54.5 mpg goals. He cited a University of Michigan study that found industry fuel economy at an all-time high last year at 29.8 mpg. He also noted that California expects to have 30,000 electric cars registered by the end of 2013, which is about 50 percent higher than had been predicted.

Barthmuss noted that with the introduction of the Cadillac ELR early next year GM will have three electric vehicles on the market – it will join the similar Chevy Volt extended-range EV and the Chevy Spark EV. “We’ve bet the farm on electrification,” he said, noting this is “not a moonshot.”  In addition to its electric moves, GM is pursuing a “no silver bullet” approach, introducing stop-start on its high-volume Malibu model this year, adding a bi-fuel gas-CNG Impala model and bumping up fuel economy on vehicles from its full-size pickups to the Corvette (which now gets 29 mpg on the highway).

But he also offered a cautionary note on fuel cells. During his company’s recent Project Driveway that put 100 fuel cell-powered Equinox SUVs in consumer hands, they were limited to two zip codes for distribution of the vehicles because of a lack of infrastructure. Along with limited infrastructure issues, Barthmuss also said his optimism for the future is tempered by the challenge of driving the market in the direction of efficiency.

In questions about the potential trade-offs between focusing on reducing both criteria pollutants and greenhouse gas emissions, Ayala admitted that “we want to have our cake and eat it too,” but he held out that the CARB standards (and the federal ones as well) are performance-based so they don’t favor any specific technology and will allow for potential new technology in the future.

Challenged on how large, work-oriented vehicles like full-size pickup trucks (which represent some of the best-selling vehicles in the country) could become zero emission vehicles, Ayala speculated that adding fuel cell technology could be one path industry could take to reach the ZEV goal. He also noted that the lack of hydrogen fueling infrastructure for fuel cell vehicles was being addressed by the state through recent legislation that guaranteed funding for enough stations to support the initial introduction of the vehicles.

To sum up the day-long program and paraphrase the philosopher Heraclitus, the only thing constant about the future will be change. The 100-plus year-old auto industry is heading into uncharted territory as it grapples with change inside and out of the vehicle. Electronic technology promises to radically alter the interaction of the driver and vehicle, even as the propulsion technology and fuel shifts to new ground and, in some cases, necessitating new lifestyles. One thing is clear, “Future Cars, Future Technology” will be an ever-changing topic for years to come.

For more on these subjects, please check out:

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Electric Car Deals May Threaten Segment’s Future

Top 10 Markets for Electric Cars

Electric Car Deals May Threaten Segment’s Future

Electric Car Deals May Threaten Segment’s Future


Better Deal or Bitter Deal

While price cuts and low lease rates have been moving electric cars like never before, resulting in “sold out” models and tight supplies at some dealerships, there may be a dark side to the deals. Last week, ALG Inc., the organization recognized by the auto industry as the arbiter of the residual values for vehicles, cut those values for electric vehicles, plug-in hybrids and conventional hybrids because of high incentives, price cuts and a potential glut of models, according to a report in Automotive News.

As an example, ALG dropped the predicted residual value of a Nissan Leaf after 36 months by about $2,500. ALG values are used by banks so any rates using residual values above theirs mean the manufacturer is subsidizing the lease, which of course negatively impacts income from a vehicle. A drop in residual value like the one for the Leaf could typically raise the lease rate by $70/month.

The Leaf hasn’t been the only one dropping its retail prices, as we have noted at Clean Fleet Report. Volt dropped its price on the 2014 model by $5,000, which of course resulted in price drops for the 2013 models still on the lot. Honda’s Fit EV, Smart’s ED, Mitsubishi’s i-MiEV, GM’s Chevy Spark EV, the Fiat 500e, the Toyota RAV4 EV and Ford’s Focus Electric all have discounted lease deals aimed to boost sales. And more new models are coming on the market during 2014, including the BMW i3 and Golf-e, with the former’s announced price indicating an aggressive marketing stance by BMW.

When discounts like this happen in the rest of the auto market and residual values drop, the impact on auto companies is clear. Profits on the discounted vehicles drop and the models are often dropped or given a redesign aimed at revitalizing or repositioning them in the eyes of the consumer. For new models, it is often the kiss of death.

The concern ALG expressed reinforces talk in the auto industry about the overall weakness of the alternative fuel vehicle segment. Since several automakers have said bluntly that the vehicles are being produced solely to comply with government mandates (California’s ZEV Mandate being the main target), many have questioned their sincerity in marketing the cars or commitment to produce vehicles if there is consumer demand beyond the mandated volumes. The exception to this sentiment appears to be Nissan, led by its CEO Carlos Ghosn, who has put his company (along with partner Renault) on record as aiming for mass market electric vehicles by the end of the decade.

So the lower prices have been moving electric cars at a quicker pace than the rest of the market (overall sales numbers, though, can be characterized as miniscule but promising). Chrysler said that after offering the Fiat 500e

fiat,500e,electric car

Fiat 500e – Sold Out or Sell Out?

for the same lease price as its gas-powered models, its 2013 allotment of vehicles was sold out (though it declined to specify how many cars that was). Honda dropped its lease price on the Fit EV, which had been languishing on dealer lots, and suddenly the cars moved and dealers were clamoring for more. EV advocates used these incidents as examples of pent-up consumer demand for electric cars while automakers shrugged them off as fire sales that brought no return to the company.

Our conclusion: The drop in EV residuals is not a death sentence, but not a good sign. Residual values can change, as this drop shows, but the Leaf and the rest of the industry will need to show some sustained strength, as in substantial sales not propped up by lease deals and price drops.  It’s far from a sin in the auto industry to discount models or offer incentives to move them, but because electric cars (and plug-ins and hybrids) are a new segment and still viewed somewhat skeptically by the industry, they have more pressure to be competitive. Remember, it took several years for the Prius to achieve a sales status where it was seen as anything other than a West Coast novelty, and now it sits among the top 10 of all cars in sales – after only 15 years on the market. This is a marathon, not a sprint.

Related Stories:

How To Find the Best Price For An Electric Car

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Top 10 Markets for Electric Cars

Top 10 Markets for Electric Cars

Nissan Leaf, EV, Carlos Ghosn

Nissan Leaf Is Selling Well in Some Cities

The Nissan Leaf was the best selling plug-in car in July and has just lost the lead for the year-to-date electric car sales to the hot-selling Tesla Model S, another pure electric. It’s fair to say that where the Leaf is selling well, electric cars are selling well. So, when Nissan shared a list of the top cities for Leaf sales, you can bet that’s where you’ll find Teslas – and Ford Focus Electrics, Mitsubishi i-MiEVs, Fiat 500es, BMW Active-Es, Chevy Spark EVs, Smart EDs, Toyota RAV4 EVs, Honda Fit EVs – and all of the EVs coming on the market in the next couple years.

Not coincidentally, this is also where the EV charging infrastructure is being developed the fastest. In fact, in many parts of California, the popularity of electric cars has so far outstripped the ability of the charging infrastructure to keep up with it.

Empirically, this is true, skewed somewhat by the fact that several manufacturers are limiting the availability of their electric cars to states following California’s Zero Emission Vehicle Mandate, which places the majority of them in California. That explains why four of the top sales cities for electric vehicles are in the Golden State. What is interesting is that no cities show up from the so-called Section 177 states that follow California’s ZEV mandate.

Beyond four cities in California, the other cities for top electric car sales are ones with either a strong environmental focus (like Seattle, Portland and Honolulu) or ties to manufacturers (like Nashville, where the Nissan Leaf is now manufactured) or having strong local incentives (Atlanta and St. Louis). Here’s the list:

  1. San Francisco

    san francisco,electric cars,EVs, EV sales

    San Francisco-#1 in EVs

  2. Los Angeles
  3. Atlanta
  4. Seattle
  5. Portland
  6. Honolulu
  7. San Diego
  8. Sacramento
  9. Nashville
  10. St. Louis

We suspect that the four California cities would be in the Top 10 for most electric car sales. The recent prices wars for EVs have focused on California and some manufactures (such as Fiat and Honda) have already announced their limited production runs are already sold out, which should add to the burgeoning electric car population in the state. California benefits from the manufacturers’ discounted prices, strong (though shrinking) state financial incentives and the powerful access to the HOV (high-occupancy vehicle) lane with a single driver. The value of the latter incentive is strong, as seen in other cities as well, but in California it has been cited historically as worth as much as $2,000 on the price of a vehicle (the citation was from the time was HOV lane access stickers were sold out for hybrids such as the Toyota Prius). A similar time could come for electric cars as the market expands, but that could take several years at current sales rates.

Other cities bubbling under the Top 10, according to Nissan, are Chicago, Denver, Washington DC, Dallas-Ft. Worth and New York City. None of these are surprises since they are some of the more populous cities in the country and all tend to have good incentives for electric cars.

For more reading on this subject, check out:

How To Find the Best Price for an Electric Car

Top 10 Best-Selling High-MPG Cars for Jan-June 2013

Top 10 Electric Cars You Can Buy Today

The Top 10 Electric Cars You Can Buy–Finally!

The Top 10 Electric Cars You Can Buy–Finally!

Tesla,Model S,EV

Tesla Model S Sales Hit Mark

For all the twists and turns that the auto industry undergoes, it looks like 2013 will be a clear milestone for electric cars. There are caveats, but we’ll deal with them later. The point here is to look at how far we have come and note the arrival of the electric car industry. It’s no longer a model or two, but a substantial variety of vehicles from major manufacturers from which the EV-conscious consumer can choose. Even with some drop-offs, by this summer we’ll have at least 10 all-electric EVs to choose from; sorry, plug-ins, if you have an internal combustion engine you can’t make this list. This is for the hardcore – consumers who want to divest their transportation of the direct use of fossil fuels.

Some of these models are available in limited numbers or in limited locales (there’s one big caveat), but they are almost all from major manufacturers, backed with warrantees and dealer service. And this group, while small now, is destined to grow exponentially in the coming years as the market builds. For now, 10 EVs represents an achievement. Here’s a run-down what’s on the market now (or very soon) as well as some we’ve lost and some new entries due next year.

1. Tesla Model S – You have to start with this model. Though priced in the stratosphere, it was one of the best selling EVs of the first quarter of 2013 on the strength of solid reviews and pent-up demand. Its sales propelled Tesla into cash-flow positive territory and backs up its goal of selling 20,000 units this year.

2. Nissan Leaf – One could make a good argument that this car should be the first mentioned in any EV list. It was the first mass-produced EV on the market and streams into 2013 with both a lowered starting price as well as new high-end features. The combination appears to be working as sales hit a new high in March 2013, a trend that Nissan hopes to extend throughout the year as its has shifted production of the car and its battery pack to the U.S.

3. Ford Focus EV – Ford’s leading electric-only model is not making a big dent in sales, but it is a clear indication of Ford’s intent to remain active in the plug-in segment, augmenting the better-selling Energi models.

4. Toyota RAV4 EV – Toyota has revived an electric-only RAV4 model (it’s first foray was in the 1997-2003 model when several hundred were produced and sold in California to meet the state’s zero emission vehicle mandate). The compact SUV features a battery pack developed by Tesla, but sales will be limited as the vehicle is being used only to comply with California ZEV mandate, much like the first version.

5. Mitsubishi i (or i-MiEV) – This diminutive EV from Mitsubishi was redesigned for the U.S. market and has garnered some sales, but continues to lag behind the competition.

6. Honda Fit EV – Honda’s entry into the EV market, like Toyota’s, is available in only limited numbers and only for lease, but sales don’t appear to yet be anywhere near the projected number the company is going to build. Reviews of the car indicate it acquits itself well.

7. BMW ActiveE – The ActiveE is BMW’s second round in the EV wars, following on the MINI-E. Although it is only available for lease, the vehicle’s performance in a short drive appeared to meet the BMW brand’s image. It features the powertrain that will be in next year’s i3.


Fiat & Smart offer small, fast EVs

8. Smart Fortwo ED – Mercedes is now on its third generation of the electric version of its two-seat minicar. They’ve jettisoned the Tesla battery pack of the second generation and replaced it with one from SB LiMotive (which also supplies the Fiat 500e and BMW i3) along with a more powerful electric motor. With its increased top speed, it appears the only thing holding this low-priced EV back is its small size and limited seating.

9. Fiat 500e – Just on the market is another small EV from Europe, an electric version of Fiat’s 500 model. Early reviews indicate it carries over the performance and image of the gasoline version of the car.

10. Chevy Spark EV – Due this summer is another small EV, this one from General Motors. Based on the company’s Daewoo-designed model, the Spark EV is going to be assembled in the U.S. Early reviews of the car have described a car that delivers substantial power for its diminutive size.

GM,Chevy,Spark, EV

GM’s Chevy Spark EV will be on the market this summer.

There you have it. Ten models offering a variety of configurations and price ranges, but all powered only by electricity. With a list like this, even with their limited availability, it appears we have passed out of the earliest phase of the EV and are steadily moving toward the category’s establishment as a permanent part of the automotive landscape.
Note that this is the EV-only list; it’s augmented by a growing list of plug-in vehicles, led by the Chevy Volt, that also promote the electrification of the automobile and move away from petroleum as a primary transportation fuel.

More to Come

While this group is impressive, there are more to come. Sometimes new model introduction timetables slip, especially when dealing with advanced technology, but these appear to be heading to market in 2014:
• BMW i3
• Mercedes-Benz B-Class Electric Drive
• VW e-Golf
Others are likely coming as well if the market begins to pick up momentum.


Without going back a decade to recall the first generation of modern EVs that came and went quite quickly (and not always with any sadness), it should be noted that several EVs of recent vintage are already gone, a measure of the brutal nature of the consumer automotive marketplace. The previously mentioned MINI-E is out of production as is the Tesla Roadster. The companies producing the Think City and Ford Transit Connect EV have gone into bankruptcy, followed most recently by Coda Automotive of Los Angeles.

Other similar stories you might like

Best Selling High-MPG Cars of March 2013.
Nissan’s Ghosn Bets on Electric Cars Winning on Emotion.
10 Best Green Cars on New List.

Actress Q’orianka Kilcher Drives a Zero-Emission Honda

Actress Q’orianka Kilcher Drives a Zero-Emission Honda

KilcherQ’orianka Kilcher was acclaimed for her starring role as Pocahontas in the 2005 film The New World. The National Board of Review awarded her Best Breakthrough Performance by an Actress. Ms. Kilcher was recognized as the Outstanding Actress in a Motion Picture by the American Latino Media Arts Awards.

Q’orianka Kilcher is now turning heads as she silently drives by in her new hydrogen fuel cell vehicle, the Honda FCX. Honda’s advanced fuel cell technology program has been praised by fleet users during the last five years, typically leasing the vehicles for $500 per month. Several fleets have allowed a number of drivers to use the vehicles by making them part of employee pools. Two years ago, the Spallino family became the first retail customers for a fuel cell vehicle. 17-year-old Q’orianka Kilcher is now the youngest customer.

Ms. Kilcher took the keys to vehicle in Hollywood. Nearby, she will find a number of places to fill the vehicle in the Los Angeles area. The station at LA Airport is public. Others are for community fleets with limited public access requiring authorization.

“The best way to demonstrate the importance of next generation vehicles like the Honda FCX is to put the next generation of drivers behind the wheel,” said John Mendel, senior vice president of American Honda.

Kilcher at wheel of Honda Fuel cell car“As a young person today, I feel it is important to take initiative toward seeking positive solutions and stepping up the quest toward clean energy and environmental preservation,” said Q’orianka Kilcher. “When I first started pursuing my dream of a zero emissions vehicle as my first car, it seemed like a pretty unrealistic dream. With Honda’s innovation and support, my dream of helping the environment became a reality!”