Driving Directions: Getting There Green

The Chevy Volt's Price: Check the Subsidies



New Research on Electric Cars Suggests Eager Drivers

ibm's electric car survey

IBM's survey finds widely differing opinions among drivers and auto executives. (IBM graphic)

Will the fossil fuel era essentially be over by 2020, at which point electric cars will attain market supremacy? The crystal ball is pretty cloudy on that point, but IBM's Institute for Business Value (IBV) is the latest prognosticator to weigh in on the issue. And it sees some bumps in the road.

IBM actually conducted two studies: In addition to polling 1,716 auto owners, it also talked to 123 auto executives who should know what they're talking about (but may not when it comes to electrification).

think city

The Think City, captured at the new factory in Indiana, offers 100 miles of range. (Jim Motavalli photo)

According to the IBM survey, a fifth of American consumers (19 percent) are either "very likely" or "likely" to consider an electric-only car for their next purchase. And in a break from other data, 30 percent said they would consider buying an EV that gets only 100 miles per charge (the basic standard). And 30 percent said they'd actually be willing to live with less than 100 miles. In some earlier surveys, consumers said they'd expect their plug-in to offer 350 miles of range.

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6 Standout Green Cars from the 2011 Detroit Auto Show

DETROIT - The Detroit Auto Show, which proudly proclaims itself "International" and "North American" (after all, Windsor, Ontario is just across the river) was pretty green this year. It could hardly help it, since 2011 is the year that the green cars finally hit the road. Finally, the electric cars on the show stands are actually in production, facing a verdict from the public. (There are 7 electric cars available in 2011.)

Here's a look at some of the most interesting new green cars featured at the show.

The Chevrolet Volt

2011 chevrolet volt

The plug-in hybrid (the company prefers "range extender") Chevrolet Volt made a big splash, winning the North American Car of the Year award. The Volt, like the University of Connecticut women's basketball team, has had a winning season – it's on everybody's best list. The electric Nissan Leaf and Hyundai Sonata hybrid were also-rans.

The Ford Focus Electric

Also hitting the road soon is the Ford Focus Electric, which offers 100 miles of range from lithium-ion batteries. The car was actually debuted a week earlier in Las Vegas at the Consumer Electronics Show, but it got another big welcome in Detroit. (See The New Ford Focus: An Electric Car, with Apps.)

Ford isn't talking volume about the Focus, and we don't know the marketing plan yet – the car has youth appeal, but it will likely be priced out of the Fiesta generation's reach. Nonetheless, the Focus bristles with user-friendly cellphone apps and helpful dash displays (blue butterflies spell out remaining range). Ford also finally found a home for its 2012 plug-in hybrid: It will be based on the C-Max, a small but versatile Europe-derived five-seat minivan. Some 500 miles of range is planned. (The Ford Fusion Hybrid, Ford Fiesta and the Ford Escape Hybrid both made the most fuel-efficient cars list for 2011.)


Detroit Auto Show's Car of the Future Is Loaded with Green and Convenience Features

DETROIT--I have seen the car of the future, but it will only go if you push it. The car, showcased at the Detroit Auto Show, is the ie:3 and it's Johnson Controls' non-mobile platform of technology you are likely to see on cars by 2015. How about a drop-in recharger bin for smart phones, speakers integrated into the headliner and a fabric cover for the dashboard that allows a great amount of storage in what is usually dead space.

Johnson Controls makes everything from the lead-acid Sears Diehard batteries in many cars today to the lithium-ion pack in the S400 Mercedes Hybrid (through the Power Solutions division), and it also produces a whole host of interior technologies with every major automaker as customers.

johnson controls ie:3

The Johnson Controls ie:3 is a showcase for green, lightweight technology. (Jim Motavalli photo)


Ford's Better Idea: An Electric Car, with Apps

ford focus electric

The new Ford Focus electric: Range anxiety is one reason for a plethora of charging apps. (Jim Motavalli photo)

LAS VEGAS – The car is king in Vegas, especially the stretched limo variety. This is one of America's most pedestrian- and transit-unfriendly cities, with huge, wide boulevards that make you scared to cross even on the green. On the strip, everything is miles apart, and routed through a casino so you miss no opportunities to waste your money. The monorail is great as long as your destination is a casino. (The stations are right next to the slot machines.)

The car is also king at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES), which I'm attending. Automobiles have become mobile platforms for every app under the sun, and all of them are on sale here. I admired one such device, a small battery-powered circle that resembled a Star Trek phaser, but was capable of heating and cooling an idle car's interior to 75 degrees. Why didn't I think of that? The entrepreneur was named Booker T. Washington, Jr., and he was indeed descended from that civil rights pioneer.

It might seem odd that Ford chose to debut its long-anticipated electric version of the Focus at the CES show instead of at the big Detroit show next week, but its presentation leaned heavily on onboard apps that keep track of and maximize the car's charge. Ford has partnerships with Best Buy's Geek Squad (to install chargers), Microsoft (for an app that charges during low utility rates), MapQuest (to find charging stations) and others. The Focus, with a 23-kilowatt-hour battery pack, will go about 100 miles on a charge – though the specific range was never mentioned from the stage. If it was 300 miles, CEO Alan Mulally, in full charm mode, would have mentioned it.

Related: 7 Electric Cars Available in 2011

What he did talk about was the quick recharge time – just three hours, "half the charge time of the Nissan Leaf," the company said. That is indeed something to crow about. 

The electric Focus five-door hatchback is a global car, built on Ford's C-car platform that also has diesel and gasoline Focus variants. This is just one arm of Ford's electric strategy. I went by Ford's booth and saw the Transit Connect, a homely electric vehicle that I've long championed. Brad Probert, Ford's program manager, told me the small electric delivery vans have already been delivered to Southern California Edison, AT&T, the Canada Post, the New York Power Authority and others. But the numbers are distressingly small – just 30 vehicles worldwide so far.

Probert told me that Ford's goal is to sell 1,000 of these commercial vehicles annually (it goes to Europe later this year), but that still seems like very small numbers for a very versatile delivery vehicle that actually has prospects of reducing the cost of corporate fleets. The aim is also rather low for the Focus. Mulally didn't talk numbers in Las Vegas, but I've heard the company say that initial numbers for the electric Focus will be just 3,500 to 5,000 annually. Again, a very cautious approach to a car introduced with such fanfare and glitz in a city known for such.

Also coming from Ford is a plug-in hybrid, but we've heard very little about that one lately. Among the big questions are which platform it will ride on. It could be an Escape, but Ford isn't confirming that. One thing we do know – the electric Focus will be wired.


2010 Was a Mixed Bag for Green Cars

toyota prius in front of golden gate bridge

What to make of the fact that, in 2010, the bestselling vehicles in America were two pickup trucks, the Ford F-150 and the Chevrolet Silverado? The Ford (a sales leader for more than 20 years) racked up sales of well over half a million, and made a 28 percent jump from 2009. The Silverado and its sister model, the GMC Sierra, together did 499,929. That's a million trucks!

For the year, U.S. auto sales reached 11.6 million, which looks relatively good (certainly compared to 2009), but then you are forced to realize that something like 18 million cars were sold in China last year. And it was still the second-worst sales year in almost 30 years.

If you're looking for a green trend in American car buying, it's hard to spot it in these results. Sales of crossovers have largely supplanted that of big, less efficient SUVs, but there's no huge swing to hybrids and economy cars. The best-selling car in 2010 was the Toyota Camry (327,804 sales), trailed by the Honda Accord (311,381). The best seller in Japan is the Prius -- the company sold 315,000 of them on the domestic market last year.

The Prius is Japan's biggest sales success in two decades. We "get" the Prius, too (and that's why they're expanding the lineup with a minivan), but the Japanese pay twice as much for gas.

The common wisdom is that the return of $4 a gallon gas will cause another swing to fuel sippers (as it did in 2008), but it's $3.25 at the corner filling station now without raising too much excitement. It will be interesting to see if the Detroit Auto Show, which I will be attending next week, is as green as the last two years--or will those F-150 sales loom large? My guess is that the electric vehicles (EVs) are here to stay.


Smith Electric Trucks Could Transform U.S. Shipping

smith electric

Smith makes medium-duty electric trucks, and it has the market to itself. (Smith Electric photo)

Amazingly enough, dairy products in Britain are delivered by electric trucks called "milk floats," and have been for ages. A 90-year-old British company called Smith Electric makes those trucks, some of which have been on the road for 20 years or more. A fleet of 5,000 or more Smith trucks is working in the UK.

But Smith Electric Vehicles is British no more: On January 1, its Kansas City-based American subsidiary will complete a 51 percent buyout, leaving 49 percent in the hands of the UK-based Tanfield Group. That's good news, because Smith Electric is on a roll in the U.S. The company has developed a special niche – medium-duty electric box trucks – and it has orders for more than 200, including 176 for Frito-Lay and 41 for Staples. Other launch partners include Coca-Cola, AT&T and PG&E. They've all bought trucks, too, but CEO Bryan Hansel won't say how many.

I think Smith is a good bet, because no other company is currently playing in the same space and corporate America is looking to green its transportation fleets. If that can come with lower operating costs, so much the better. Ford has its Transit Connect electric van, but that's much smaller than the Smith trucks, which can be up to 24 feet long. And if the trucks were any bigger, it would be impractical to electrify them-18 wheeler EVs are not likely with current battery technology....


Jay Leno Loves His New Chevrolet Volt

jay leno and chevrolet volt

Jay Leno admired the Volt long before he actually owned one. (Jay Leno's Garage photo)

When I visited Jay Leno's set in Los Angeles, the famous 1955 Buick Roadmaster (the car he courted his wife with) was parked in his private parking spot. But now it's back at the Big Dog Garage, because Jay has a new love: the Chevy Volt.

The $41,000 Volt, whose gas engine is mostly there to act as a generator for the electric motor, is a bold departure for General Motors, and it's finally gone beyond the talking stage to deliveries around the country. Jeff Kaffee, a retired airline pilot and the first customer to take delivery, was overwhelmed by TV camera crews, some from as far away as Japan. "I never thought I'd be participating in the rollout," he told me. "It was a thrill." Kaffee trained on 757s, and he says the Volt's cockpit reminds him of the driver's seat in big-league planes.

Obviously, Leno took delivery in a blaze of cameras, too. Since picking up his Volt at Rydell Chevrolet in Northridge, California late last week, he told me he's been spending as much time as he can behind the wheel, covering 248 miles in commutes to the studio as of Tuesday afternoon. And he's wildly enthusiastic.

"I'm impressed from a quality point of view," Leno said in a telephone interview. "I had a club date that was 60 miles away the other night, and the car just switched to gas when the electric was depleted, with no range anxiety, no problems -- the Volt just becomes a regular car, without any compromises. I really like the regenerative braking, too."


A Gulf Coast Solar Lifeline, Courtesy of Elon Musk, Tesla and SolarCity


SolarCity's installation in Coden produced 102 kilowatt hours the first day. (SolarCity photo)

There probably aren't too many Tesla Roadsters in the hardscrabble Gulf Coast fishing community of Coden, Ala., which has been hit hard by the double whammy of Hurricane Katrina and the BP oil spill.

Battered pickups may be the transportation of choice in unincorporated towns that, according to Zach Carter, an organizer for the South Bay Communities Alliance, crab prices were cut in half by the BP spill (when there were buyers at all), and they're still waiting for federal HUD money to rebuild more than 700 local homes damaged by Katrina.

Ana Chau of Bayou La Batre is one local resident who had her life ripped apart by Katrina, as this video attests:


Americans' Expectations for Electric Cars Are on Collision Course with Reality

I'm worried. Americans are kind of confused about EVs. There's a bit of a collision course in the offing between what people think about them and the on-the-ground reality. That's borne out in two recent polls.

American car owners told Consumer Reports that they're really concerned about cutting our dependence on fossil fuel. They don't like their gas dollars funding terrorists, which is something everyone agrees on, including the Tea Party. They're willing to do their part by purchasing a green car, too, but when they talk about their expectations it goes totally off the rails--they want far more than the market can deliver right now.

mitsubishi i-miev

The Mitsubishi i-MiEV is a zero emission plug-in car, but it's going to cost more than a Honda Fit, not less. (Jim Motavalli photo)


Electric Cars Are Being Showered with Love, But Let's Get Real about Numbers

ge wattstation

GE's WattStation is a stylish charger. EVs are rolling out, but the numbers aren't clear yet. (General Electric photo)

General Electric is convinced that EVs are going mainstream. Here are a few of its reasons:


Fiat 500 Review: Retro Economy, Italian Style

I'm fascinated by the new Fiat 500 Cinquecento, especially since seeing it in Italy last year, parked on the cobbled streets of Rome next to the classic 1950s 500 model it replaced. Add a baguette sticking out of the sunroof, and you have a classic European picture.

The 500 is a retromobile, and far smaller than Americans are used to. Will it save Chrysler, which desperately needs new product? The Fiat is coming to the U.S. early next year as a 2012 model, priced at $15,500. The fuel economy from the 1.4-liter engine hasn't been announced yet, but it's going to be in the 40s on the highway. An electric version with lithium-ion batteries is in the works, and may debut not long after the gas car. How you'll react to the car, and at that price, is a big unknown among car strategists.

Fiat 500

The Fiat 500: The picture makes it look bigger. Trust me, it's small! (Fiat photo)

The Volkswagen New Beetle was a huge hit in the U.S., but so was the original Bug--there was a nostalgia factor. The original Fiat 500 is as scarce on American roads as, well, let's just say they're as rare as Hummers in Berkeley. Fiat's obvious target is the very successful BMW Mini, which costs $5,000 more (and is also based on an icon that never made it in the U.S.) So maybe it doesn't matter if the 500 name doesn't set hearts aflutter.


GM Invests $40 Million in Clean Energy to Accompany Chevy Volt Rollout

LOS ANGELES--While the press was gathered in LA for the greenest auto show in recent memory, an event dominated by the imminent release of the Chevrolet Volt and Nissan Leaf, GM needed to demonstrate that its environmental commitment is deeper than a single very innovative car program (two if you count the 42-mpg Cruze Eco).

future chevy volt owners

Future Chevy Volt owners line up at the Los Angeles Auto Show: GM is burnishing its green image. (General Motors photo)

The company was basking in the glow of eco-celebrity: It won not one, not two but three green car of the year awards (from Motor Trend, Automobile Magazine and Green Car Journal). But it wanted even more positive press, so during the show's press days Chevrolet announced that it would be "offsetting" its carbon emissions with $40 million in funding for altruistic clean energy projects.

Mike Robinson, a General Motors environmental vice president, told me the $40 million will add up to eight million tons of carbon reduction (approximately equal to its 2011 car production). The company's investment will be in U.S. projects, encompassing local initiatives such as winterizing schools, renewable energy programs and broad-based conservation efforts.


At LA Auto Show, California Emerges as Epicenter of Electric Car Revolution

LOS ANGELES--The Chevrolet Volt was crowned as the Green Car of the Year here at the Los Angeles Auto Show, held in a city that is trying to be as encouraging to electric vehicles (EVs) as possible. California is the epicenter of the EV revolution -- probably half the electric and plug-in hybrid cars installed in the first year will be in this state, which has a unique combination of a lot of early adopters, great state incentives (including access to the all-important HOV lanes in traffic-clogged LA) and a climate that is kind to batteries.

coda sedan

The Coda sedan on the floor of the LA Auto Show. Plug in, indeed. (Jim Motavalli photo)

I drove from LAX to a Volkswagen green car event in a Volt, enjoying its combination of refinement, sophisticated electronics (GM's Rob Peterson and Britta Gross helped me use OnStar to download driving directions) and stellar green attributes.

I walked into the convention center as Los Angeles Mayor Anthony Villaraigosa was announcing a plan to streamline the process for installing a home charging system. The city is interesting in that it has the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, a city-owned utility, which makes it pretty easy to coordinate everything.

Southern California Edison and the Electric Drive Transportation announced a new website,, that is designed to help state consumers buy EVs. It has such features as a "Plug-In Car Rate Assistant" that estimates the cost of fueling an EV and its likely impact on your electric bill.

The site also has a virtual dealership that lets you see what's on the market -- nearly every EV to be offered in the next year will be for sale in California, including the cars on display at the show, from the Nissan Leaf and Chevy Volt to the Smart electric drive, Coda sedan (delayed for six months) and the Wheego LiFe.


Electric Cars Are the Hot Wheels at LA Auto Show 2010

volvo's recharge concept

Volvo's Recharge concept is a preview of its production plug-in hybrid. The company is getting serious about electrification. (Volvo photo)

It's shortly before the Los Angeles Auto Show, which has its press days Wednesday and Thursday of this week. I've skipped LA before, but not this year -- it's intensely green, and they're rolling out (and letting me drive a bunch of exciting electric, hybrid and plug-in hybrid cars). Normally, these companies would wait for the Detroit show in a couple of months, but there's just too much happening.

Here's what I'm all jacked up about:

Tesla. The pioneering green automaker will be bringing its converted Toyota RAV4 battery EV to Los Angeles, though I'm not sure we'll get to ride in it there. The car was put together well enough, apparently, for Toyota to greenlight it for production. The Toyota/Tesla relationship is deepening. CEO Elon Musk is in Tokyo, where he presented CEO Akio Toyoda with a special-edition Tesla Roadster. Both companies say they have much to learn from each other.

Fisker. The somewhat secretive automaker is finally showing off the first Fisker Karma produced on the production line at Valmet in Finland. That doesn't mean Fisker is giving rides in its groundbreaking chariot -- I hear that won't happen until December. The Karma is a plug-in hybrid with some similarities to the Volt, but it offers much higher performance -- zero to 60 in less than six seconds, and a top speed of 125 mph. Yet it also offers what the company says is "achievable annual average economy of 100 mpg," and carbon emissions of 133 grams per mile.


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Jim Motavalli

Jim Motavalli

Jim Motavalli is a senior writer at E/The Environmental Magazine, a regular contributor to the New York Times and author most recently of Naked in the Woods: Joseph Knowles and the Legacy of Frontier Fakery. read full bio.
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