This Week in EVs: Disaster Edition

It’s been a few weeks since my last TWiEVs post, but there hasn’t been much to cover. No matter, the biggest news in the world of automotive electric propulsion has really been flooding in this week (pun intended). Once again I’ve gathered some electric vehicle and battery news from around the net for SU readers to gain some insight into Saab’s new challenges.

Image from Jalopnik

Battery safety has been called into question this week after several Fisker Karmas and Toyota Prii (priuses?) spontaneously combusted after burning at port after being inundated by the storm surge of Superstorm Sandy. That same storm made getting gas an extreme headache for anyone with a car in downstate New York and northern New Jersey as many readers here can attest, we’ll look into how having more EVs might change that.

And speaking of EVs in North America, there’s some new studies out that show the US will actually lead plug-in sales in the next few years and that China will surprisingly not meet anticipated targets. Someone might want to tell those guys at NEVS they might want to rethink their Chinacentric model?

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This Week In EVs

Since substantive Saab news is hard to come by lately, and when it does emerge it’s about things like what if decisions regarding Griffins and the like, I figured I’d at least try to shine a light on the electric vehicle market. NEVS plans on focusing their initial efforts on an EV using Japanese technology (read: batteries), and as they conglomerate the parts necessary to commercially produce and profit from their first Saab, they will be struggling with the same challenges as competitors who have made their own solutions. It’s our attempt at SU to educate Saab fans and future new Saab customers about these engineering issues, EV advantages and disadvantages, and try to better understand the field so that when the new Saab EV emerges, we have a pretty solid knowledge base to draw from.


Here’s the top 4 videos to watch this week in the world of electric propulsion.

1. Drive magazine talks to the head of engineering for the new Porsche 918 Hybrid.

This is basically the proposal I had for the High Performance Saab contest that Swade ran a while back, except done if money wasn’t an option. A completely new engine with carbon fiber mounts, carbon fiber chassis, new battery tech, and some incredible software to make it all work are all highlighted in the video. If Saab could do the poor man’s version with lightweight metals, their own EV propulsion, and some sort of ICE (Internal Combustion Engine) motor or generator on board, and keep it under $40K out the door (with tax credits), I think we’d have a pretty solid car that most of us would die to own. Now, if they felt like building a limited run Aero-X as a showpiece for their new Japanese tech for $1,000,000+, I’m sure that wouldn’t be such a bad outcome either.

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What’s that Spaceship at the Rest Stop?

One of the more obvious obstacles to the adoption of EVs that Saab will undoubtedly face is long distance travel using Battery Electric Vehicles (BEVs). It’s the big reason why most companies to date are also focusing on including a motor generator on their EVs and thus building Extended Range Electric Vehicles (EREVs). But adding a conventional fuel powered generator onto an electric car adds cost and complexity, which changes the chemistry requirements for the battery and yields a much lower range than if the car were simply battery powered. Since NEVS has stated their intention of first going the BEV route with their first production model based on the existing Saab 9-3, it’s worth a look at one very interesting solution unveiled this week.

Tesla decided to go the pure EV route, and chose to deal with range anxiety in a pretty radical yet simple way. This week, Tesla CEO Elon Musk unveiled a network of spaceship-like stations dubbed Superchargers. Each station can charge four to six cars at a time, and costs about $250,000 to build. They’re charged by a high voltage power supply presumably pulls it’s power from the grid, with PV (solar) panels that feed power back into the grid to offset the load. At the moment only the Model S and future Tesla vehicles are able to take advantage of the superchargers. It takes about 30 minutes to fill up a car with 100kW, which is about enough for 3 hours at 60mph. Obviously that’s not enough for most SU readers, who want less than 10 minutes and 4 hours at 75mph+, but for first-of-its-kind technology that actually exists today, it isn’t too shabby. There are already a number of other companies with similar plans, Better Place, NRG Energy, Ecotality and Coulomb to name a few, but it’s obvious that Tesla will have a serious presence along highways in major urban areas very soon.

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A Tale of Two Electric Startups – Fisker

Now that NEVS’s purchase of Saab’s assets are complete, a clearer picture of their future plans is emerging. While none of us know exactly where the road will take the company, one thing is clear- with a business model based on electric propulsion, they will effectively be operating as a startup company. In a previous story, we looked at Tesla as an example of an automotive startup that has proven a successful business case exists for electric cars. I’d like to continue looking at the other gorilla in the electric start-up room, Fisker, and focus more on their own missteps, so that we can watch and hopefully sound the alarm if we see NEVS in a similar situation.

Their first model, a $100K+ roadster, enabled them to test out their battery and control systems at an almost break even level. But for their first volume model, they didn’t want to compromise– they wanted a game changing mid-sized sedan. Indeed, Tesla has reduced the development process of their Model S sedan to its most salient details in order to exploit the best out of what electric propulsion provides– we’ll look at those in future articles. And by every measure of achievement, they’ve succeeded in silencing their critics. The respected auto journalist Dan Neil lost his bet with Tesla CEO Elon Musk that the Model S wouldn’t come to market on time, and paid $1,000 to charity as payment. Tesla has forecasted profitability next year, less than a year after delivery of the first Model S, due mostly to strong presale demand. They’ve presold 12,000 cars, and will break even around 8,000- showing that if NEVS wants to succeed, they must follow a similar path and leverage the support and initially target people like you and every reader of SU to survive.

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The Future Isn’t So Far Away

As the sale of Saab’s assets to NEVS reaches a head this summer, it will be almost three years since its last sale to Spyker. Amazingly their ownership of Saab feels like a blip in that whole spanse, which was more or less plagued by scandals, production stoppages, and dramatic sales. Yet Spyker was able to initiate several structural changes not only to Saab’s model portfolio through the development of the Phoenix platform, but also structural changes to its work force and third party sourced engineering expertise with companies like eAAM, Vicura, ZF, and True Electric. Three years, and yet here we are, without a Saab to buy and with no real promise that we’ll ever be able to drive a traditional gas powered Saab off a new car dealer lot again.

So what could the next three years bring? Three years ago, Tesla introduced the Model S in a big media splash. The company’s founder, Elon Musk, an internet billionaire, risked his entire fortune on his two startups, SpaceX and Tesla. The former just launched the first successful commercial space flight to dock with the International Space Station, so it’s clear this man can multitask. Some think of him as a cocky arrogant prick, I’m not one of them– he’s a visionary who sees obstacles and blasts through them. We’ve seen the arguments against his company (especially in comments sections of websites including our own) lambasting the company as a fly by night and their first car, the roadster, as a rich man’s go cart. Well, that go cart’s inflated price didn’t hurt sales to those rich men, who in turn helped subsidize the development of their real first car of note, the Model S.

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