It’s been a while since my last post, but I haven’t lost any interest in Saab. There hasn’t been too much exciting NEVS news (public at least) to share, and there hasn’t been a whole lot of exciting EV news to report. The fact that Saab is investigating production of the ICE (Internal Combustion Engine) version of the 9-3 is exciting and welcome news, but doesn’t change the fact that its parent company is still primarily interested in electric cars. As I’ve read through comments the past few weeks, it’s clear still that some don’t see a viable market for electric propulsion in its current stage. I’m not writing this post to try to change their minds, only here to show those who understand the role it will play in the future of automotive technology relevant stories affecting the current leading players Saab wants to compete against.
While this is a long post, I find that I often cover a lot of ground that I see commenters on other articles confused about. There’s a lot of juicy info in here to bring everyone up to speed on the good and bad in the EV world, so it’s probably worth reading the article and the links provided if you care about this stuff. To make it a little easier to digest, I’m breaking it into sections about each subject. Truth be told, it might as well be 5 separate articles, but heck it’s the weekend so enjoy!
I’ll admit, the main reason I even had enough inspiration to post today is because I saw a Tesla driving in my mom’s neighborhood outside Buffalo this week. For two seconds I thought it was a new Ford Fusion, then a Jaguar XF, and then I realized quickly that it was something I’d never seen before, a Model S. It looked sexy, and it was fast – 55 in a 30 mph zone fast. For frame of reference, watch it smoke this Mercedes Benz E63:
I was immediately envious of the guy driving it, not only because he’s one lucky SOB to be the among the first to own one, but because the silent whooshing car he was driving was not only sexy, it’s literally revolutionary under its skin. I had a moment looking at it go by where I felt like I was really witnessing something remarkable, like watching the Concorde take off or seeing a brand new Ferrari drive by for the first time. There’s something special about seeing a car that is first of its kind in so many ways in person, in your own neighborhood. When you see one yourself driving down the street for the first time, you’ll know what I mean. If Saab can bring an EV to the table that can compete with the Model S but at a lower price point, I think it would instantly change its image as a dead brand.
Telsa has as strong a connection to their customers as any brand out there and so far their owners seem about as passionate a community as Saab fans, if not more as you’ll read in this article. Tesla is working to improve their sales process as their VP of sales George Blankenship recently noted in his blog. As a new company, even their sales operation is still in beta, and as such are constantly tweaking it to be more consumer friendly. Since nearly every function of the car is electric or determined by software, they can remotely roll out software updates to tweak settings on owners cars to work out glitches instead of instituting huge recalls (like for door handle or touchscreen errors). He also admitted that they reached a milestone in December of a production capacity of 20,000 cars a year, which puts them into the black. In other news, Tesla recently placed in the top ten of Consumer Reports brand perception study. Not that I agree with its findings, but it’s a pretty good sampling of how the general public feels about the quality, design, and technological innovation that Tesla is capable of. It’s amazing considering they’ve only delivered a few thousand Model S sedans so far.
While Tesla has had great success with initial Model S sales, leading the EV pack in January, I’m much more interested in how consumers will feel about it after the first 13,000 preorders have been filled. Many of the luxury customers buying the car will be cross shopping it against conventional cars like the 5/7-series, A6/8, and E/S-Classes which obviously are much better supported by a hundred year head start of gasoline based economy infrastructure. If the superior handling, speed, and features of the EV can sway enough customers, they may be able to leverage their way to their goal of releasing a sub $30K model as their next major release. By then the combination of higher energy costs and government incentives will probably heat up the EV segment into a much more competitive by the Saab releases the EV2.
Quick griping, if you don’t like getting political, skip this section…I read a lot of comments complaining about government intervention into the automotive space to encourage conservation of resources and less reliance on gasoline, stating that the market should determine the winners and losers. The only problem with that logic is that market forces in the car world have been heavily determined by government policy towards energy, with oil subsidies, tariffs, tax breaks to auto makers, union regulations, among others having shaped its history. In the early days of the automobile, electric cars were just as relevant and plentiful as gasoline powered cars. The advent of mass production from Ford promoting their ICE Model T, the discovery and subsequent dominance of crude oil in Texas coupled with the government’s subsequent desire to rapidly industrialize were all short term fixes with huge long term consequences. The sheer dominance of early auto giants like GM effectively killed off electric transportation, and while systems like electric streetcars were almost entirely privately funded, gasoline powered cars got to ride on roads paid for exclusively by tax payers. Long story short, while some commenters like to complain about how tax incentives for electric cars are unfairly changing the rules in electric vehicles’ favor, we need to remember that decades of history of corporations lobbying the government has led to the current state of the industry. There’s no denying that electric propulsion offers more pathways to sustainability than fossil fuel. Not only will it inevitably lead to not only a greener planet with less government spending to deal with the waste products of ICE, but also disturb the volatile political crises created from an economy dominated by middle eastern interests.
With that said, initiatives like California’s to have 1 million ZEVs on the road by 2020 and 1.5 million by 2025 are not only ambitious but represent a huge shift away from traditional way of doing business more interested in the public good than automakers profits. California wants to reduce transportation-based greenhouse gases by 80% of 1990 levels by the year 2050, first by requiring all major cities in CA to be ZEV (EV, PHEV, or Hydrogen powered cars), and have 100 hydrogen refueling stations. They are also trying to reduce or eliminate the government red tape, ahem, that it takes to build this green infrastructure. And they’re not backing down any time soon according to the Detroit News interview with chairman of the California Air Resources Board, Mary Nichols. She noted that,
“the mandate is actually rather lower in comparison to our hopes for EVs…it’s taken off a little slower than we hoped it would… It’s just going to take a little longer. We see enough good signs not to feel like we have to change course.”
Indeed, CARB initially required that 10% of car manufacturers fleets be ZEV by 2003, only to reverse that after significant lobbying. Then they stated a goal of 25,000 for 2012-2014, only to reduce that to the present 7,500. It’s nice to see them sticking with the plan now, and offering manufacturers a way to sell credits to other car companies (cap and trade), a plan originally endorsed by most conservative lawmakers until very recently.
Cold Weather and EVs
One obvious drawback to EVs is the effect that cold temperatures have on battery efficiency and capacity. To address this, GM made a short video to help customers get the best bang for their buck in the winter with their Volts. These aren’t exactly genius level tips– park the car in a garage if possible, preheat your car with energy from the wall charger instead of the battery, check your tire pressure and don’t overheat the cabin.
A more troubling account comes from the New York times, who recently tested out Tesla’s new East Coast supercharging infrastructure. You’ll remember we talked about these when Tesla announced them in the fall last year in California. The first two are in Delaware and Connecticut, as Tesla is trying to create a way for its owners to drive from Boston to Washington without having to pay for fuel. Alas, the cold temperatures reduced the efficiency of the battery pack, and despite the driver’s best attempts at hypermiling, the car almost didn’t make the trip.
After a short break in Manhattan, the range readout said 79 miles; the Milford charging station was 73 miles away. About 20 miles from Milford, less than 10 miles of range remained. I called Tesla again, and Ted Merendino, a product planner, told me that even when the display reached zero there would still be a few miles of cushion.
At that point, the car informed me it was shutting off the heater, and it ordered me, in vivid red letters, to “Recharge Now.”
I drove into the service plaza, hooked up the Supercharger and warmed my hands on a cup of Dunkin’ Donuts coffee.
If this is Tesla’s vision of long-distance travel in America’s future, I thought, and the solution to what the company calls the “road trip problem,” it needs some work.
The Tesla manager handling the drive noted, “It’s disappointing to me when things don’t work smoothly…it takes more planning than a typical gasoline car, no way around it.” And that’s just it, without the proper infrastructure, most of us agree EVs are going to be a second car only local proposition. That takes it out of the running for a lot of current Saab customers, but not all. The fact that it will be at least 3-4 years before most of us can get our hands on a new Saab EV is a blessing in disguise, so that the charging infrastructure can be built up enough to support better long distance travel.
UPDATE: Tesla CEO Elon Musk just conducted an interview with CNBC where he noted some discrepancies between the Times reporter’s claims and the vehicle logs, showing that he did not in fact actually charge the battery to max charge (like starting with a partially full tank), took a detour through Manhattan (which for any of you who have done so, know that’s slightly insane if you’re trying to make the drive). He apparently wasn’t driving the speed limit (mostly 65mph), but as the reporter points out, who drives the speed limit, especially in a Tesla? In any event, the story is more complicated than the Times reporter’s initial account.
The Times has since responded to Musk’s allegations in a statement denying his claims, to which Musk responded that he will publish the car in question’s black box information. I’m certain that Tesla will follow up, and we’ll see how they respond. While I can already hear the comments from many commenters about what a PITA it is to need to rely on only a few charging stations to be able to charge their electric car in 30 minutes or less for long travel, see my above statement about how I’m grateful electric Saabs won’t be on the market until the infrastructure is built out more completely, allowing a much greater range of charging options for long distance travelers.
But some of that logic might actually be counterintuitive as another times piece about Dutch EV drivers explores. While the article reinforces the anxiety many drivers feel about range, especially in cold, it also points out a study from Accenture which shows that drivers have learned to use EVs as a primary, not secondary car.
Drivers learned to figure out how far they could drive on a charge, overcoming what has been dubbed “range anxiety.” They started off cautiously driving straight from home to the office, knowing they could charge at one or both sites. Over time, they expanded their driving repertory, learning where to find charging points in garages and along highways — a smartphone app contains them all — much as people learn the locations of convenient A.T.M.’s. That task was made easier by the growing number of chain stores and restaurants offering parking spots with charging outlets, so that customers can refuel while they dine or shop.
Ultimately the article concludes that the nascent industry will need a lot of consolidation and smoothing out for most consumers to feel comfortable enough to buy an EV. But for those who do and who plan, it can be a rewarding purchase.
For more reading about range depletion in the cold, check out this piece from green car reports. As you’ll read in the comments section there, the consensus when buying a Battery EV is to go for a bigger battery, period.
Fast Charging Standards
At present, there’s a few different efforts to standardize the recharging infrastructure across the globe. In the US, SAE has come up with their own standard called the CCS (combined charging system or combo connector). It’s a variant of the J1772 connector) and is supported by every Western manufacturer you could think of, including the Europeans. In Japan, CHAdeMO DC is the main game, supported by Nissan, Mitsubishi, and Toyota. Recently, the European Commission Clean Power for Transport (CPT) left them out of their recommendation for an EU charging network involving something called the Type 2 connector by Mennekes.
Needless to say, they’re not pleased. I can only assume since NEVS has stated very publicly that they intend to use “Japanese technology” that the charging network they support is dependent on the CHAdeMO connectors. Although, China just released their own standard which is confusing the situation even more by introducing even more charging standards which NEVS will obviously need to support. The CHAdeMO association is quick to point out that it’s not a big deal to include their charge cords at EV stations, as “from a cost point of view, there are significant commonalities between the two devices of more than 80%, with the only difference relating to communication protocol and charging gun.”
Both connectors essentially connect to what is a 6.6 kW three phase charger with the option for faster charging at higher voltage stops (see RedJ’s comment for clarification), capable of rapidly recharging a car’s battery in a claimed 15-30 minutes. As I mentioned above in the Tesla cold weather supercharger debacle, the more stations, the more fast chargers, and the better the standards, the easier adoption of EVs will be.
While there will be adapters so that cars can use either charger, you obviously want to be able to have a global standard. Even Tesla uses its own proprietary connector. In any event, this imaginary conversation the writer from plugincars.com has from the two competing charge connector camps is pretty accurate for the debate going on about which connector should win out. So we’ve basically got Japan, the US, Europe and China (*and Tesla) all deciding on their own connectors. At some point, one will win. Just for the record and if it were my choice, I’d go with the combo connector if I were Saab. Fortunately, there are new stations which support both chargers like ABB’s Terra Smart Connect Duo, shown on the right.
VW’s EV Stragegy
In a very informative article from greencarcongress.com, they met with Volkswagen and Eaton executives at VW’s California Research Lab to discuss VW’s electrification plans. Needless to say, I think they’re dead on in terms of their strategy which basically states:
- either charging standard is easily supported, and if one wins out it won’t be hard to adapt existing stations
- charging will evolve towards single-phase AC, fast three-phase AC in Europe, DC charging up to 20kW, and public DC charging up to 86kW. Half of Volt users don’t even bother installing a Level 2 (240V AC) charger, and VW expects most plug-in drivers to be content with single phase overnight charging.
- batteries will continue to evolve, perhaps doubling capacity over the next few years.
- Even though China wants to rapidly increase their number of EVs, because of their reliance on coal, it won’t spur Greenhouse Gas (GHG) emissions (see their chart on the left). That said, SPG, Saab’s principal owner, is in the market of providing green electricity, so I could see a green sales strategy emerging and potentially a major advantage in case China’s government acts upon encouraging only green power as a source for EVs (speculating here).
- VW sees BEVs as second or third vehicles. (I tend to think that as cost savings are noticed by their owners, as was said in the NYT piece about the Netherlands, drivers shift their habits and use the cars as a primary car).
Swedish Automobile Fisker is looking for a Chinese savior, wait…
In a story that seems recycled from two years ago, Fisker has hired consulting groups to look for cash and sell of technology licenses or even parts or the whole company in China. I think I know how this story ends already. Maybe they could hit up Youngman?