Author Archive

Prius Marching, Not Charging, Towards the Future

Despite sales slump, new model could revive Toyota hybrid.

by on Mar.02, 2009

Third-generation Prius needs to charge up a hybrid market that's nearly collapsed.

The third-generation Prius needs to charge up a hybrid market that has nearly collapsed.

Toyota had its share of electrifying announcements this year, in keeping with the green glow automakers are trying to shine on an otherwise gloomy season. Many headline-grabbers were cars you literally do need to charge up, from GM’s Cadillac Converj concept to Toyota’s own FT-EV electric minicar.

With the 2010 Prius, however, Toyota shows it isn’t flinching in its steely-eyed march toward annual sales of one million plug-free hybrids globally “by the early 2010s.”

Contrasting with the claims that lithium is right around the corner, Toyota’s flagship is staying with tried-and-true nickel-metal hydride batteries. That’s in keeping with Toyota’s cautious plans for 500 plug-in hybrids to be leased late this year for “market and engineering analysis,” as the company states. Regardless of how hard some rivals charge toward plug-in propulsion, Toyota marches steadily forward with what might now be called conventional cordless hybrids.

It’s not a march without stumbles. Total U.S. Prius sales barely tallied 159,000 this past year, compared to 181,000 in calendar 2007. The drop was most precipitous over the past few months as falling fuel prices coincided with the collapse in the economy, credit and car sales overall. The 12% year-on-year decline in Prius volume was not as bad as the 18% decline market wide. The slowdown is enough to have some wags wondering if hybrid technology will get no farther than a small, granola-fed plateau rather than climb the hills of real growth. (more…)

Design Sustainability and the Race to Green

Pasadena Art Center summit features car design experts a green racer girl.

by on Feb.27, 2009

Chevrolet Volt: Wishing will make it so?

Chevrolet Volt: Wishing will make it so?

The Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, California is a storied institution that has brought forth numerous automotive styling luminaries, including Wayne Cherry, J Mays, Henrik Fisker and Chris Bangle. For the past several years, the Art Center has hosted a Sustainability Summit that explores the role of design in addressing key environment challenges.

Among the Center’s graduates is Bryan Nesbitt, General Motor’s vice president of design for North America, who opened a panel discussion of what might lie around the many curves ahead on the road to sustainable mobility. Perhaps predictably, that panel — which included Bill Reinert, manager for advanced vehicle technology at Toyota USA, and John Waters, president of Bright Automotive and formerly of GM’s EV-1 team — didn’t agree on what’s just around the bend, let alone farther down the road.


Obama Commitment Challenges Auto Makers

Speech outlines a hopeful and potentially helpful agenda.

by on Feb.25, 2009

Is Obama’s auto vision a mere academic dream or actually production possible?

Is Obama’s auto vision a mere academic dream or actually production possible?

In what some observers are calling this year’s real “state of the union,” President Barak Obama challenged Congress and the country to join in a national recovery effort. While he covered many areas as he ranged from criticizing the nation for short-term thinking to trying to inspire a collective effort, several of the president’s points bear on the auto industry. One of these was indeed a finger directly pointed at auto makers, or at least some of them.

“As for our auto industry, everyone recognizes that years of bad decision-making and a global recession have pushed our auto makers to the brink,” the president says. While noting that government should not “protect [auto makers] from their own bad practices,” Obama commits his administration to “the goal of a re-tooled, re-imagined auto industry that can compete and win.”


New CO2 Rules Are Mixed Blessing for Automakers

Benefits of one national standard may come at cost.

by on Feb.24, 2009

New Rules Would Limit CO2 emissions.

New Rules Would Limit CO2 emissions.

The White House energy and climate czar, Carol Browner, has just given the clearest indications to date that the Obama Administration plans to press ahead on both regulating CO2 emissions under the Clean Air Act and on developing a stronger program for reducing emissions from cars and light trucks.

Speaking to reporters during a National Governors Association meeting over the weekend, Browner said that the Environmental Protection Agency is in the process of reevaluating its obligations about whether or not to treat CO2 and other global warming gases as official “pollutants” that would trigger regulatory action. Quoted in a Dow Jones Newswire story as saying that EPA “will make an endangerment finding,” Browner’s statements have sweeping implications for not only the auto sector, but also for power plants and any other industry that emits greenhouse gases.


Where’s the next Bob Lutz?

It takes gut instinct, whether you're building muscle cars or green machines.

by on Feb.17, 2009

Lutz with the original Chevrolet Volt concept vehicle

Lutz with the original Chevrolet Volt concept vehicle

For years, the auto industry’s biggest complaint about fuel economy standards was, “You can’t make us build cars our customers don’t want to buy.”

Of course, getting customers to buy their cars — or enough of them, anyway — has been a cause of Detroit 3 anxiety for some time, even when fuel economy pressure was minimal. Lutz’s job at GM was to put the passion back into the product, and at that he had some success even though larger forces were inexorably bearing down on the Detroit 3 and now the entire industry.

Announcing his retirement recently, Lutz remarked how he felt that his talents weren’t the right ones for the times, which bring much greater pressure to reshape cars for lower fuel consumption and CO2 emissions. that the new situation “doesn’t really play to my greatest skills, which were perhaps more in the intuitive, emotional area with sort of a sense for what the market would want.”

In reality, intense customer-oriented skills will be crucial more than ever. The difference is that they’ll have to be applied with a much different understanding of what the car can be about. It’s not Lutz’s talents that are passé; rather, it’s his attitudes about what’s important and what will come to be — indeed, is already starting to be — valued by a new generation of car buyers.


Is GM on Least-Cost Road to Fuel Efficiency?

Dire situation requires balancing short, long-term.

by on Feb.12, 2009

Bye-Bye Bob: Lutz with GM CEO Rick Wagoner

Bye-Bye Bob: Lutz with GM CEO Rick Wagoner

General Motors is in a race for survival, with every day bringing news about the drastic steps it has to take. Rick Wagoner faces the toughest job any corporate leader has ever had to face. Even if he succeeds in saving the company, he’ll still be remembered as the CEO in charge as GM slipped from its 75- year perch as the world’s largest automaker.

Federal loans will buy GM some time and next week the company has show Uncle Sam a restructuring plan for how it will get itself back in the black. It has to do so while also revealing how GM intends to meet the higher fuel efficiency requirements that ramp up to a 35 mile per gallon fleet average by 2020. Every penny counts and then some. So if any company has to rethink its product planning with cost efficiency and fuel efficiency both in mind, it’s GM.

Each week, however, seems to paint a bleaker picture, including upcoming new layoffs of 10,000 at GM. That follows on the news that the company’s storied Vice Chairman, Bob Lutz, will soon step down from his role heading up product development as he looks forward to retirement by year end.


Greener Ethanol a Step Closer to a Pump Near You

Nation's largest ethanol supplier has cellulosic pilot plant up and running in South Dakota

by on Feb.09, 2009

poets-projectThe holy grail of renewable fuels is a commercially viable process for converting cellulosic materials into convenient, combustible liquids that can power cars and trucks. The longstanding challenge is breaking down cellulose into smaller molecules that can be re-assembled into ethanol or other fuels.

Cellulose is the stuff of which plants are mostly made, and it’s comprised of a long, tough chains of sugar-like compounds that God created (or nature evolved, if you will) for the express purpose of resisting breakdown.

With their multiple stomachs, cows break down cellulose just fine. The problem is that they (more specifically, the enzymes in their guts) are rather slow about it compared to the rate at which it needs to be digested to supply any meaningful portion of the 160 billion gallons of gasoline we guzzle each year. Those enzymes and the biorefining processes that use them are still quite pricey compared to what it costs to refine petroleum, unless oil gets (and stays) much more expensive than it is today.

Nonetheless, progress is being made. A notable development was recently announced by POET Energy, the nation’s largest ethanol producer. POET has taken its cellulosic ethanol process out of the lab and into a pilot plant now up and running in Scotland, South Dakota, a small town about an hour and a half southwest of Sioux Falls.


Can Congress Spur Car Demand?

Maybe, but only sound economic basics can sustain a healthy industry.

by on Feb.06, 2009

uncle-sam-saysAuto sales are one way we take the economy’s temperature. Hot sales mean hot activity overall while an economic chill sends the sales-volume mercury plunging. But is putting a flame to the thermometer — subsidizing car sales in particular — a good way to re-heat the economy as a whole? Many policymakers hope so.

This week the U.S. Senate passed a measure, co-sponsored by Senators Barbara Mikulski (D-MD) and Sam Brownback (R-KS), to make interest payments on new car loans and state new car sales taxes deductible through the end of 2009. Offering her proposal, Sen. Mikulski said, “no matter how much government aid we give to the Big 3 auto makers, they can’t survive if consumers don’t start buying cars. That’s where my amendment helps.”

The sales crash was dramatic and it doesn’t look like things will pick up soon on their own. 2008 was the worst year since 1992, with a 13 million unit tally well down from the 16 million or more cars and light trucks that had been moving annually. Analysts project even worse sales in 2009.

The collapse is hitting all automakers as well as the nationwide matrix of suppliers and other firms whose fortunes are tied directly or indirectly to the car market. And with the run-up in fuel prices that peaked just as the financial crisis hit, the impact shattered the truck-dependent Detroit 3 worst of all.


Obama Orders Fast Action on CAFE and California Car Standards

Proposed CO2 rules could force a big mileage increase.

by on Jan.26, 2009

Would new CO2 rules bar big SUVs?

Would new CO2 rules bar big SUVs?

As anticipated in our preview post early this morning, President Barack Obama today made some quick moves on the auto industry’s two biggest energy and environmental issues. Although he’s not yet named a “car czar” to oversee financial aid and other federal activities on cars, Mr. Obama established that — whoever the czars or czarinas of his administration might be — they’ll all tow the line when it comes to advancing his agenda.

Signing two executive orders, the president handed one to his Secretary of Transportation and the other to his Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency. DOT czar Ray LaHood was directed to quickly finalize a new Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) rule for model year 2011, and EPA czarina Lisa Jackson was ordered to provide an expedited review of California’s request to regulate greenhouse gas emissions from cars.


Barack to Arnold: We’ll Get Right On It

Obama expected to announce swift action on California's request to regulate tailpipe CO2

by on Jan.26, 2009

CA Rules Would Limit CO2

CA Rules Would Limit CO2

It is being reported that on Monday President Obama will pledge a quick review of the Bush Administration’s decision last March to deny California’s request for a Clean Air Act waiver that would enable the state to put in place its stringent greenhouse gas emissions standards for cars and light trucks.

On the day after the inauguration, California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger wrote Obama with such a request, backing a parallel letter from the head of the state’s air resources board to incoming EPA administrator Lisa Jackson.

Mr. Obama ran on “change” and the expected announcements appear aimed at making it clear that his administration is serious in that regard. Although it may take some time for EPA to formally review and reconsider California’s waiver request, granting it would deliver on one of Obama’s campaign pledges. It would also represent a tangible step toward stronger climate regulation, one that the incoming administration can take on its own, without waiting for Congressional action.

Automakers have continued to strongly protest California’s stronger standards, arguing that a single, federal program regulating automobile CO2 emissions is much less costly. They point to Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards as the preferred approach.

The state of California, along with environmentalists, assert that the stronger standards are both feasible and cost-effective, and would result in greater emissions reductions that those from CAFE standards. (This writer testified in favor of the California standards when they were up for approval before the state’s Air Resources Board in September 2004.)

The new administration has also said it will move quickly to finalize new rules setting CAFE standards for cars and light trucks through 2015. A draft rule developed by the Bush Administration had been all but finalized in early December when the GM and Chrysler bailout pleas reached Washington. At that point, the Bush team put the rule on old, leaving it to be finalized by the Obama team. (more…)