Monday, April 20, 2015

Two-hundred is the magic number: The imminent arrival of next-generation battery could finally slay EV 'range anxiety'

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It is a number that is the holy grail of electric motoring – 200 miles of emission-free travel on a single charge. The distance from New York to Washington; from Miami to Orlando; or from Los Angeles to Las Vegas. The stride-length that marks out the pleasures of road-tripping across the USA. But unless you're the cash-flush owner of a Tesla Model S, it's a number likely banished from the 'distance-to-empty' metric on your dashboard.

Of course, that shouldn't really be a barrier to EV ownership. Not when over 99% of the nation's car journeys are less than 70 miles, a distance most mid-range EV models can cover with consummate ease. The thing is though – that last one-percent really does matter. Drivers may only occasionally need to push beyond one-hundred-mile mark on any one trip, but the ability to do so conveniently – wherever and whenever you choose – is a powerful part of the appeal of owning your own car.

Give me more range, now

That's true even among EV owners. A survey last year by the Center for Sustainable Energy (CSE) showed that Nissan Leaf drivers would like to see the range of their non-polluting motors trebled to 200 miles. It is a shortfall that many believe is hindering EVs from achieving mass adoption. The good news, however, is that the quest to deliver on that much-desired number is really beginning to hot up. In fact, you could take the flurry of recent announcements on extended-range models as heralding the era of the 'battery wars'.

The spur to innovation in battery technology has been the emergence of upstart Tesla. Following on from its success in the high-end of the EV market, the Californian car-maker is looking to push its famously long-range (but expensive) EVs down into the mid-range market, with the Model 3. Reducing battery cost is critical to Tesla's goal of mass market dominance.

Sliding towards the price-performance sweet-spot

That is why Tesla has jumped so eagerly into the role of battery manufacturer, partnering with Panasonic to construct a 'gigafactory' in the Nevada desert. The company is hoping that improved lithium-ion battery technology, coupled to manufacturing batteries on a larger scale than ever before, will bring the EV battery sliding down the price-performance curve – and into the electric car of the every-man.

But the established automakers are not sitting on their hands. And standing behind many of them is a growing giant of the battery-tech world – Korea's LG Chem. It already furnishes its lithium-ion cells to 13 of the top 20 global car-builders. Like Tesla and Panasonic, though, LG Chem believes it is evolution, not revolution, that will deliver on the 200-mile battery.

Enter the pouch

Chief executive of LG Chem, Prabhakar Patil, told the WSJ back in August that its new batteries are formed from flexible lithium-ion pouches. They are making use of an improved chemistry to increase their energy density, while better battery management is knocking prices back. These batteries would enable a new generation of low-cost, long-range vehicles within the next 2 years, he said.

Now GM has joined the fray with their plans for the Chevy Bolt, promising a 200-mile roaming successor to the Volt. Many believe that the battery technology to deliver on that promise will come from LG Chem. Then there are plans from Ford and Nissan to bring their own two-century-topping models to market by 2018.

Push and pull

This is the date that all of these eager grail-seekers have in mind, as they surge forward on their quest for the 200-mile battery. The year 2018 is when a fistful of populous U. S. states will ramp up requirements on manufacturers for the provisioning of zero-emissions vehicles – and when federal rules on emissions are being tightened.

So between the push of regulation and the shining lure of mass-market dominance, the next chapter in the saga of the electric car is undoubtedly approaching fast. What remains to be seen is who will be lifting the long-sought-after chalice – and who will be cast down as also-rans. Time to turn the page.

Martin Leggett is a freelance writer from the UK, who specializes in writing on the strategic impact of environmental issues. After a 10-year sojourn as an analyst at Brady plc – a Cambridge-based provider of services to commodity investment banking professionals – Martin set himself up as self-employed writer at the beginning of 2010. Since then he has written for a number of environmental websites and companies– including cutting-edge clean energy startups and has been one of the principle journalists for green news website, The Earth Times.

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Go tail-pipe free, and the benefits are shared: How the low-costs of EVs actually extend to one and all

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For Parisians traveling in City of Love last week, any feelings of benevolence towards fellow citizens may have been in short supply. Thanks to a week-long build-up of smog under windless skies, the city's administration was forced to introduce a license-plate lottery for its commuters. Odd-numbered plates, and you were in. Even, and you had to leave the car at home.

It's a type of road-space rationing that's become common in many Latin American cities, and which has recently spread to Asia and Europe. Thanks to ever-growing urbanization and burgeoning car-ownership, it only takes a stilling of the wind for dangerous levels of pollutants to ratchet up. High levels of fine-particulates, ozone and volatile organic compounds have been linked to everything from breathing problems to heart disease and cancer.

Legacy of ill-health

It's one of those often-unacknowledged costs of driving gas-burning cars – a legacy of pollution and ill-health whose effects spread far beyond the car's owner. It's been calculated that each year as many as 1.3 million people die prematurely in cities across the globe from such pollution. That number is around 53,000 in the U.S. according to a recent MIT study. Such negative costs placed on the rest of society certainly don't figure in the ticket price of a new car purchase. But if they did, the cost equation would shift significantly in favor of the electric car (EV). EVs famously have zero tail-pipe emissions.

Looking at the cost of ownership of personal transport from such a global perspective is an approach increasingly being driven by policy-makers. And while putting numbers to such an emotive cost as people falling ill or dying early can seem crude, it does put perspective on the numbers game,
so often indulged in, when comparing EVs to their ICE brethren.

Exhausting $4 billion a year

One study that has attempted to quantify these kinds of 'external costs' was conducted in 2013 by the Natural Resource & Environmental Research Center at the University of Haifa. They gathered up all the negative impacts imposed by tail-pipe emissions on wider society for three countries – France, Denmark and Israel. Their model indicated that replacing the whole vehicle fleet of a country like France would save the economy over $4 billion a year in costs, from reduced air emissions alone.

At the level of the individual car, that works out to some $3,000 you could avoid placing on everyone else, just by driving an EV, over the course of 10 years.  There are other more subtle avoided costs from using EVs too – such as a reduced 'heat-island effect' from cool-running EV motors – as well as the huge scope they have for providing services, and stability, to a radically-changing electrical grid.

Then again, a more obvious and immediate benefit was apparent for Parisian EV drivers last week. Each time the city has imposed its license rationing in the face of high pollution, a select few have been given the green light to go, whatever their license plate number. Hybrid and plug-in EV drivers, it seemed, had no need to catch the bus.

Martin Leggett is a freelance writer from the UK, who specializes in writing on the strategic impact of environmental issues. After a 10-year sojourn as an analyst at Brady plc – a Cambridge-based provider of services to commodity investment banking professionals – Martin set himself up as self-employed writer at the beginning of 2010. Since then he has written for a number of environmental websites and companies– including cutting-edge clean energy startups – and has been one of the principle journalists for green news website, The Earth Times

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Can You "Really" Afford An Electric Vehicle?

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We are told climate change calamities around the world will range from food shortages to increasing desertification, resource wars to famine, and extreme weather to rising sea levels. Most of these changes are already occurring, and with many, we are already seeing the affects.  If there is any chance to slow down, stop, or even reverse these consequences, it will require major changes - changes that we can control. Eliminating the need for fossil-fuel-burning internal combustion engines and replacing them with clean, electric-powered vehicles is one of the quickest and easiest changes that we could make. Driving an EV could lead to a reduction in both noise and air pollution, cleansing our cities, and ultimately creating a healthy, more productive environment.

In order to make this happen, the rubber has to hit the road, and we, or our fleet managers, have to actually buy these new electric vehicles. As we look at the sticker price, our eyes tend to bulge out as we think to ourselves, “on second thought, maybe I’ll wait a couple years for the price to come down." So much for saving the planet.   

Altruism, or, the act of spending a bit more to make you feel that you are creating positive change in the world is one thing, but purchasing a car can be a big financial decision for many of us. More often than not, it is one of our larger life investments. Understandably, the majority of society may be price-sensitive or on a strict budget when it comes to a car purchase, and this forces many of us to look for the best deal that is out there. An electric car is about $15,000 more than the equivalent gasoline car, so how does one justify that cost?  

Looking beyond the MSRP will allow for a better understanding of an electric vehicle’s full value.  EVs generally have a much lower cost of maintenance than gas-fueled cars and this can more than make up for their higher purchase price. There are also government incentives - both state and federal - that also bring down the overall cost of the vehicle. Below is a sampling of both electric and gasoline car prices for roughly equivalent cars (MSRP from maker website, no options selected).

Gasoline equivalent
Chevy Spark
·       Spark EV 1LT - $27,645
·       Fast Charging $750 option
·       Spark EV 2LT - $28,035
·       Spark 1LT Manual $14,865
·       Spark 1LT Auto $15,920
·       Spark 2LT Manual $16,265
·       Spark 2LT Auto $17,360
Chevy Volt
·       2015 Volt $35,170
·       Cruze ECO Auto $22,195
·       Cruze 2LT Auto $24,095
Kia Soul
·       Soul EV $33,700
·       Soul+ $18,690
Nissan Leaf
·       Leaf SV $32,100
·       Leaf SL $35,120
·       Versa SV $16,330
·       Versa SL $17,960

Making up for this price premium means finding at least $15,000 in ownership cost savings by going electric. Let’s take a look at a few ways we can find those savings outside of the dealership.

Tax credits:  The U.S. government - both federal and state - incentivizes electric or plug-in hybrid vehicle purchases with both tax credits and cash payments. For passenger cars, the Federal credit is calculated based on the battery pack size. This will top out at $7,500. For commercial fleet vehicles, the Department of Energy has a host of credits available for fleet owners. Additionally, many state governments also give credits and incentives on top of the federal programs. 

Where does that leave our price premium? $15,000 - $7,500 = $7,500 remaining, or less depending on your state’s programs

Fuel cost savings: Unlike the tax credit, the fuel cost savings is a true cost-of-ownership savings.  Electricity used as fuel for a vehicle is cheaper than gasoline on a mile-for-mile basis. The more you drive, the more you save. This makes it very attractive for fleet owners whose vehicles tend to rack up a lot of miles.  For passenger cars, the EPA makes it easy, publishing figures on the Monroney label.  The BMW i3 has been cited as the most efficient electric car on the market, which gets more miles per kiloWatt-hour than any other passenger car. This is estimated to save $5,250 in fuel cost over 5 years at the average of 15,000 miles per year of driving and $3.50/gallon for gas.  While gas is currently roughly $1.00 cheaper than this in some states, we’re already seeing it steadily on the rise once again, and the trend is not expected to stop anytime soon.

That brings our price premium to:  $15,000 - $7,500 - $5,250 = $2,250

Maintenance: While the cost of car maintenance is more difficult to calculate, it is another area of potential savings. Unlike gas-fueled cars, electric cars do not need oil changes, spark plugs, catalytic converters, transmission flushes, etc. Regenerative braking also means using fewer brake pads.  Even though electric vehicles require some maintenance, it does not add up to the amount of maintenance that is needed for gas or diesel vehicles.

A 2013 AAA press release claims that a typical gasoline sedan has $0.61 per mile maintenance costs or $9,151 per year.  The and Kelley Blue Book sites both calculate the total cost of ownership, but their figures don’t come close to each other nor to the AAA figures.  The savings claimed by Edmunds and KBB is about $500 over five years.

There is reason to doubt that figure in oil changes alone; Jiffy Lube charges roughly $45.00 for its lowest tier oil change. At the bare minimum, of changing out your oil twice a year, over five years, you’ve already hit  $450.00, not accounting for tax. Additional anecdotal evidence from EV owners is that the savings in maintenance costs are drastically higher than this.  Even fleet owners with electric trucks see a significant maintenance savings. This is partly due to a surprising benefit:  where diesel trucks will go for maintenance 3 times a year, electric trucks only require two maintenance periods a year.  That means they remain in service for more hours per year than the diesel trucks. 

Because there is a lack of reliable figures on maintenance cost savings, it is hard to add this figure into our savings calculations, but we can safely say it’s at least $500, putting our calculations at $1,750 ($2,250-$500).  Realistically though, the figure could be much lower; depending on actual fuel cost savings and actual maintenance savings, we could be paying for the entire price premium (or more).

Time savings: As they say, time is money.  How this applies to electric vehicles is that they save us time in two ways: 

1) By charging the EV at home and work, the driver is always assured of a full tank when they leave home or the fleet depot.  So long as their travel fits within the vehicles range, they don’t have to go out of their way to stop at a refueling station.  That’s unlike the gasoline vehicle drivers who have to go out of their way to find, and stop at, a gasoline station every 300 miles or so to refill the tank.  Let’s estimate that being worth about 10-30 minutes a week.

2) For those times when you do need to charge on the go, you can often find charging stations near your destinations.  For example, workplace charging is becoming common in many areas, as are charging stations in shopping centers and vibrant downtown districts.  Your time involvement in such scenarios is solely the 30 seconds or so it takes to plug in the car, no matter how long the recharge session takes.

Another way electric vehicle drivers can save time is by taking advantage of those states who allow unrestricted travel for electric vehicles in the HOV lanes. Many states are now giving passes to EV owners to travel in lanes normally reserved for carpools. Depending on the commute, it could be worth 30 minutes or more per day. That can add up to over 5 hours a week or 250 hours per year. What’s that time worth to you?  Those paid by the hour know exactly what their time is worth.

Summary: So are electric vehicles really more affordable than traditional cars? The remaining price premium we calculated, $1,750 or less, is really pretty modest and the realistic savings could be increased if, for example, you drive more than 15,000 miles a year.  The bottom line is that buying an electric car isn’t a fad or a foolish waste of money; between upfront government and state incentives, yearly tax write-offs, considerably less maintenance and no need to stop at the gas station thanks to home and destination charging, it seems clear that EVs provide an exceptionally greater value to the driver both in terms of money and time. So if you're in the market for a new car, the question shouldn't be can you really afford to buy an EV, but can you really afford NOT to? 

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

EVs for the 'every man: Time for the mainstream driver to embrace affordable motoring

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The concept that electric cars save their owners a fistful of dollars is a no-brainer. After all, even with gas prices hovering around $2.50 a gallon, a mile 's worth of EV charge still costs a third* less than the same distance from a gas tank. In fact the EPA reckons that a driver traveling 15,000 miles a year would save $1,000 or more by plugging in to the mains, rather than hooking up to the gas pump. But you'd be forgiven for not noticing.

Much of the media-focus on EVs lasers in on the latest top-of-the-range model to be wowing the auto shows – or the undoubted feel-good vibe from driving with zero tailpipe emissions. Call it the Tesla effect. Elon Musk has been so successful in redefining the EV around ground-breaking performance (and heart-breaking looks), that electric motoring can often seem outside the price bracket of the 'every man'.

This is a shame, as the second wave of electric motoring has recently delivered some truly affordable EVs onto the forecourt that are more than appropriate for the high school senior, entry-level employee, moms, dads and plenty of others outside of the top 2% tax bracket. Add to this a growing EV charging infrastructure nationwide, which is helping to turn the EV from electric car novelty plaything to a very functional family workhorse.

Let's run through a list of top-rated EVs that are sure to be as attractive in the wallet as they are in the showroom. 

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Let's start with the smallest, and quite possibly the cutest, of affordable EVs to make the cut – the Smart Electric Drive. The latest generation of this nippy two-seater has been around for a couple of years now. Not a huge seller in the US as yet, the Smart has seen several thousand unit shift in Europe. But with a sticker price of a shade over $19,5000 ($12,000 with tax credits) – and a range of nearly 70 miles – the Smart has potential to be the ultimate economy car for young urbanites across the US.

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Like the Smart ED, Mitsubishi's i-MiEV has a decent range (60 miles) and a jaw-dropping mileage equivalent (126 MPG anyone?). That, and an equally eyebrow-raising design that also has 'quirky' written all over it. Unlike the Smart though, the i-MiEV is a four-seater, and so could fit the bill as a first family car, electric-style. And with last year's price slash, you can get your hands on an i-MiEV for less than $24,000 ($16,000 with incentives).

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Cool as these two micro-cars are, if you're looking for an affordable EV that's better suited to Mr and Mrs Average Driver, then undoubtedly the Nissan Leaf calls for your attention. It's not just us saying so – over 70,000 of these plug-ins are now being driven across the US. The latest bottom range Leaf also finds itself firmly in the inexpensive price range –  at $21,000, once the federal incentive is taken into account.

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Lastly, and sneaking somewhat onto this list, is the Chevy Volt. While considered by many not to be a true EV (because of its relatively low range, at just 38 miles all-electric), the Volt is undoubtedly still a plug-in. And it has also managed to win a place in the heart of the nation's every-day family drivers – nearly 74,000 Volts were sold by January of this year. With an equivalent gas mileage of just a shade under 100 MPG, each of those Volt owners are likely to save $5,000 in gas over 5 years, according to the EPA.

That's more than enough to make its forecourt price of $26,000 (including incentives) reasonable indeed – and as good a candidate as any here for the every man's (and woman's) full consideration for their EV drive in 2015.

*Assuming an average US electric cost of $0.11 per kWh and an electric motor delivering 3.125 miles per kWh.

Martin Leggett is a freelance writer from the UK, who specializes in writing on the strategic impact of environmental issues. After a 10-year sojourn as an analyst at Brady plc – a Cambridge-based provider of services to commodity investment banking professionals – Martin set himself up as self-employed writer at the beginning of 2010. Since then he has written for a number of environmental websites and companies– including cutting-edge clean energy startups – and has been one of the principle journalists for green news website, The Earth Times

Thursday, March 5, 2015

Will Apple's 'Titan' reshape the curve for EVs?: iCar or no-car, Apple's move into the auto-sector could change everything

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It's sometimes said that when a giant whispers, the whole world shakes. So it was with the recent gathering hub-bub of rumors and leaks surrounding high-tech colossus Apple – tremors are still being felt across a whole industry. For the old-school, gas-guzzling auto industry, the rumbles were a worrying sign that long-held certainties might be about to be shaken to the ground. But for the burgeoning electric vehicle sector, the whispering-campaign around Apple and its EV plans has many asking – is the long-vaunted EV inflection point about to arrive?

Titan looms large

The rumor mill over Apple's possible rebranding of the humble car as the iCar started with talk of sensor-laden vans spotted in Hawaii, New York and San Francisco. Could these be experimental autonomous-driving data-gatherers, asked some pundits? Then the Wall Street Journal broke a story of Project Titan, a team of up to 1,000 Apple staff assigned the task of building an electric car.

Add to that allegations of a poaching war between Tesla and Apple – and suits being issued by battery manufacturer 123 Systems – and the direction of travel became clear. Apple really wants to shake things up in the world of personal transport.

It's a move that has raised eyebrows – and a few hackles – in the auto industry. A former GM chief executive has said that Apple's shareholders should be worried: outsiders to the industry underestimate the challenge of building, and then selling, cars, he said. Mercedes-Benz chairman, Dieter Zetsche, has gone so far as to call it a publicity stunt. But others say they are missing the point Apple might not be aiming to go toe-to-toe with the established auto-giants. It could be about to outflank them.

First music, then phones, now cars?

Firstly, that's because it will be throwing a brand synonymous with ground-breaking innovation behind the new age of the automobile – the electric car. Time and again, Apple has proven its ability to harness its loyal throng of tech-loving early adopters. They could single-handedly bend  the curve of EV adoption round its inflection point, and on to mass acceptance. And of course, the market leader at such a point would have plenty of traction to dominate EV sales for years to come. Just witness the dominance of over the smart-phone world that Apple achieved, after breaking new ground when it introduced the iPhone.

And secondly, Apple's concept may not be build and sell cars at all. With a slackening pace of car ownership among the young, some have proclaimed the need for a new business model – offering the car as a 'personal mobility service', rather than a product. Self-driving cars, intelligent fleet management systems, and the electric drive-train are the three technologies that might just make such a model viable, for a company with deep enough pockets. Enter Apple, with its famed $170b war-chest.

Either way, whether as direct sales competition, or subversive new upstart service, Apple undoubtedly has the capacity to push EVs into the mainstream auto sector. Intriguingly, that could see history repeating itself, with corporates once again in the van-guard. Just as the Apple microcomputer pushed forward the idea of every corporate employee having a computer on their desktop, the purported iCar could bring EVs into the corporate fleet – and charging stations to the workplace parking lot.

Martin Leggett is a freelance writer from the UK, who specializes in writing on the strategic impact of environmental issues. After a 10-year sojourn as an analyst at Brady plc – a Cambridge-based provider of services to commodity investment banking professionals – Martin set himself up as self-employed writer at the beginning of 2010. Since then he has written for a number of environmental websites and companies– including cutting-edge clean energy startups – and has been one of the principle journalists for green news website, The Earth Times