Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Solar Car-Charging Comes to New York - Wheels Blog - NYTimes.com

This is what happens when technology provides you with a button that posts links to your blog. I don't think I have even read this article yet but I just had to press that button and see if it would work. I remember there were a lot of pretty green pictures there. And it is The New York Times. And charging your car with sunlight, if any, seems like a good thing. New York is already, surprisingly, one of the greenest cities in the US. Mostly because it's small, crowded, and very difficult to drive a private car in. Let's keep the pressure on for solar charged-passenger sharing-dynamically routed taxis.

Solar Car-Charging Comes to New York - Wheels Blog - NYTimes.com

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Saturday, August 8, 2009

We're all driving clunkers now.

Hanging out in our office the last few weeks you would have heard an amazingly diverse number of viewpoints on the government's Car Allowance Rebate System or Cash for Clunkers as the media has hyped it. Gear heads pull out pictures of 15 year old BMWs and long orphaned Alfa Romeo Milanos lined up on death row and lament the cruel chemical death awaiting them. Some even produce shaky videos of the deed and post them to youtube. Auto sales people tell tales of deals lost when they were unable to navigate the clerical obstacles one might expect from a Federal program. Republicans on the radio spin it as evidence that a national health plan is doomed. Industry pundits predict that today's boom is only the prelude to another slump. No one seems happy and yet 250,000 deals blew through the first billion dollars in less than a week.

The view from here is that the program has worked pretty much as designed. There is no doubt that local car dealers were in a bad way the last few months. A burst of activity like this will keep some of them on their feet for a little longer. Maybe the sales would have been made in the near future anyway but new car buyers are generally pretty well heeled. If the object is to encourage spending and increase consumer confidence with some positive economic numbers, then getting vetted buyers to open their wallets now is probably a good thing. Putting some big ticket items into local sales tax coffers will be welcome news to most cities. Collectors are not likely to miss all of those 12 year old Explorers and Cherokees. Their former owners certainly won't. And while the average increase in fuel economy is only about 10%, any move in that direction is positive.

Looking soberly at the automotive mind set it seems clear that even a 100% increase in fuel economy won't save the planet. In fact if those cars existed they might make the problem worse. Nothing like a 10mpg SUV to discourage unnecessary driving. What we have is a design problem. Collectively were rooted in the pre WWII romance of the automobile as magic carpet; a dream that reached it's fruition in the Interstate Highway System and an America that moved to the suburbs. But there's no magic left when the carpet moves from dream to necessity. We live in a culture designed around the automobile as appliance where for most people, most everywhere, living without one is tedious, time consuming and difficult. Until that changes were all driving clunkers.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Suzie New-Beginnings

And the winner of the Northwest Ohio Hatchback Smackdown is:
The Suzuki SX4

Here is her report.

Those of you that have been following my recent posts have heard me whine about the tragic caricide of my beloved CRV, Maggie. After much advice from my car expert brother, Phillip (thank you so much) and lengthy internet research, Justin and I set out today to look at and drive some cars. The Chevy Cobalt rental I was driving was making some scary rattling noises and smelled like something might have died in it recently. So off we went to Toledo. We looked at the Honda Fit, Pontiac Vibe, a used CRV, a Suzuki SX4, and did a driveby of a Scion . Even though in my heart I an a Honda girl, I had to admit that the Suzuki was a better buy for the money. It's basic... but not basic with a built in navigation system and cruise control. After much haggling with John who insisted on calling me "Sweetie" over and over (almost a deal breaker) We reached a mutual agreement on a price. After a phone conversation with Phillip( while the vultures circled around the office door) John came back with an even lower interest rate and Yes Phillip they did throw in the floor mats. it is a comfortable ride good handling and we got 30 miles per gallon on the way home. My nephew who is a deputy sheriff in an adjoining county stopped by shortly after we got home to get his 1969 Dodge Charger that he has been storing in our pole barn. Jerry gave it a very close inspection a short spin and was impressed with it's performance. He said he particularly liked the "arrest me red" color. I still miss Maggie. But, since driving must go on I think Suzie will be a good addition to our family.

By the way, initially the salesman drew up a deal that came up with a payment of $269. After the phone call described above (during which he was pacing nervously, no doubt chanting the mantra "Please don't bail, Please don't bail.....) the payment came in at $245. Under budget. About the only trump card a buyer has is the ability to walk away from the deal. It never hurts to stick to your target price and be prepared to walk. In this market you will get a call back. Pam had also done enough research that the sale price didn't start out in the stratosphere and come back to merely shocking.

I have to say that the Suzuki was my favorite going in. I would have liked to get a report on the Saturn Astra but it's lack of AWD and the future of Saturn were probably deal breakers from the get go. I'm not surprised that Pam and many others remarked on the good looks of the car. The SX4 is a joint venture of Suzuki and Fiat. The styling was done in Italy with Suzuki providing the AWD drivetrain and engine in this case. It also appears as the Fiat Sedici and is available with a selection of Fiat's nice turbo diesel motors. It is one of the few examples of a joint venture that I hope to see more of in the future.

The one weak point of Japanese cars until recently has been the ergonomics for American sized people. Europeans on the other hand understand how to build a smaller car for a bigger person. They just have trouble building engines and transmissions that are as reliable and easily maintained as their Japanese counterparts. Anyone who has owned a newer Volkswagen is aware of this. The current chaos in the automotive market in the US is going to force more joint ventures of this type and I think that's a good thing.

Fiat is already a master of this type of collaboration. As I've mentioned before, the new owners of Chrysler also have current or historical joint ventures with Ford and General Motors. So what can we expect in the new Chrysler lineup? Most of the buzz is about this car.

The Fiat Nuevo Cinquecento (New 500), here in Abarth performance trim. This has been a very successful car in Europe where it is marketed against the more expensive BMW mini. I like this car a lot but it won't sell to a broad audience and certainly is too minimal for family use. However Fiat has other options available that meet these needs.

The Fiat Bravo
The Fiat Grande Punto

These are the cars most ready to go to market here. Fiat also owns Alfa Romeo and Ferrari but these won't add much to the balance sheet. They also have quite advanced diesel technology and a number of other small SUVs and people carriers. This will be a good lineup if gas prices rise to the $4/gal. level again but they lack the bigger platforms Americans have traditionally favor. What will arise in this segment is anyone's guess but the current collaborations make me hopeful.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Facing the end

The end of the automobile comes in many guises. Some people choose to live in a post automotive world for moral or social reasons. Some, like Boulder's Ryan Van Duzer have never even driven a car. He is about to set off across the US on a 3 speed cruiser bike. Many others are trying to wind down their car habit by biking and walking more. For most of us, a car is a necessity for daily life. Until communities are designed to be navigated by something other than cars we're going to need some motorized transport.

Sometimes the end comes with a whimper. The $7 Accord went that way two weeks ago. I had an opportunity to buy a small Subaru wagon and I couldn't in good conscience pass it on to anyone else. 20 years, even in Colorado's rust free climate, is a long time for a car. Honda is one of the better manufacturers when it comes to supplying parts for older cars but even they get disinterested after a quarter century. Eventually the list of little things that must be fixed adds up to a good down payment on something newer.

In my sister's case the end came with a bang. She pulled up behind a municipal dump truck that went into reverse and crushed her 2000 CRV.
This sort of unplanned and unavoidable end is the hardest on people. If you need a car for work as she does you have to get going on a replacement process immediately and without the luxury of much research. You are tempted more than usual by emotional rather than informed decisions that can be costly in the long run. Pam knows she can afford a payment of about $250 a month and is hoping that her insurance will give her $5000 or more for her 9 year old 200,000 mile car. Using the payment calculator at Edmunds.com that gives her a budget of about $17,000 including sales tax. A tricky price range given her need carry a lot of gear for her job and her preference for 4 wheel drive. Since her payment is based on her average reimbursement for mileage fuel economy is a big issue too.

The list of new cars that fit the criteria and the budget is pretty short. Used cars are a good value but always involve a more complicated search. You have to find one that looks good and then have it inspected to see if it really is good or you have to assume some risk. After a long discussion we came up with these candidates. Starting with the new car choices:
Suzuki SX4
A Japanese made car that is often overlooked. Probably the value 4 wheel drive alternative in the market. It has a well deserved reputation for durability and gets reasonable gas mileage in the mid twenties for most people. The dealer network is a little thin but available incentives make it a terrific value. It comes in under budget. I think it's worth a look.

Saturn Astra (aka Vauxhall Astra by Opel)
Pretty much the same MO as the Suzuki but without 4 wheel drive. It's European genes should make it the most comfortable car in the mix. The uncertain future of Saturn make it more of a risk. Still, Opel cars are enjoying a good run in Europe right now and odds are that someone will be sure to continue to market them in the States. This wouldn't be my pick for a 20 year car but given that my sister will drive it 20,000+ miles per year and lives in Northwest Ohio it won't have to be.
Honda Fit
Doesn't have 4wd but heck it's a Honda. It does come in at the budget limit though with the most Spartan interior. I'll be interested to see how these fare in the test drive phase.

Toyota Matrix with available 4wd and Scion XB before their recent redesigns would have made the new car list but I'm just not feeling the love for the new changes. The Matrix would also be pushing the budget envelope with 4wd and a comfortable trim level. Pam would be counting on a lot of help from her insurance company to keep payments at a comfortable level. As used cars the old models represent a good value. For those who drive less miles and want the car that is most likely to be supported for 20 years these might be the choices.

One thing that has to be kept in mind is that most post 2000 cars have little maintenance beyond oil changes and filters for 100,000 miles. A good thing if you are making car payments. The other side is that they usually have an expensive service list due at that mileage as well as a list of consumable parts like brakes and exhaust parts. If you buy a car with 75,000 miles or more you are going to be starting on these lists pretty soon along with the car payment. You will want to figure that into the budget.

So the used choices that will be under budget and good for the long haul:
Pontiac Vibe/ Toyota Matrix
Built on the same assembly line in the US they differ only in the body panels. 4wd is available but relatively rare which could lengthen the search time. Pontiac is also due for the chop at GM though that shouldn't cause too many problems. Lots of ex lease and rental cars out there but many are in a pretty pedestrian state of trim.
Scion xB
Another Toyota and the best example of a box big enough to fit just about anything. No 4wd is available and you'll have to do without cruise control though you may get a jack for your iPod that the Suzuki lacks. Like the Matrix/Vibe and Fit you will get the best gas mileage in the group at 30+mpg. Not a small consideration if you get paid by the mile. Of course if you drive a lot of miles every day you may not mind paying more to get a seat that is comfortable at the end of the day.

Test drive day is today. I'm waiting by the phone. Details will follow.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Detroit enters the Fifth Dimension

If you are a career auto executive in Detroit today you must feel like someone "electrified" the municipal water supply. Chrysler is now owned by a foreign automaker that hasn't sold cars in the US in over 30 years (FIAT). GM is busy divesting itself of just about everything but Chevrolet. Saturn is being sold to Roger Penske who is said to be considering filling the showrooms with Renault Samsung products which are actually Nissans built by South Koreans. Opel(GM's Euro Division) has been sold to Canadian parts giant Magna International. No one can guess where they plan to sell cars. Doesn't matter much since no one has any idea when Americans will start buying cars again and what they will want when they do.

Two days ago a municipal dump truck totalled my sister's beloved Honda CRV so she's in the market.She lives less than 100 miles from ground zero in Detroit but the Chevy Cobalt she got as a rental is making her cringe at the thought of buying American. Tata Motors of India is said to be thinking of bringing their "cheapest car in the world" Nano to the States if they can somehow cobble it into compliance with US safety standards. They already are partnered up with Chrysler's Italian owners to build Fiats under license in India. The Beat Goes On.

All this has me thinking about what the signature American car for The Great Recession might look like.Citroen (which along with it's partner Peugeot are about the only manufacturers not being mentioned in current US scenarios) once tackled this problem in post WWII France. They spec'd a car that would carry a family across the rutted fields to market without breaking the bushel of eggs in the back seat. It needed to be simple, reliable and affordable by nearly all. The result of this design exercise was the 2CV which sold without many changes for more than 40 years.

Of course a design like this looks silly to modern eyes but that's not the point. It met the needs of it's time in a radical and innovative way and at a price point that allowed a working family to afford and maintain a new car. It created jobs for French people while doing so. While it made for a very leisurely vacation to the mountains it would do almost everything else people wanted a car for quite adequately and at low cost. Besides, you can't really take much of a vacation if you have a cow at home that needs milking.

My fervent hope is that Detroit's current acid dream yields a vehicle that meets those same criteria, produces it domestically, and with the same lasting joie de vivre. American style.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Reading between the lines

Reading Thomas Friedman usually makes me mad. He seems like a futurist who's always trying to put the future back into the status quo box. Then patting himself on the back for being so prescient. And I've never quite forgiven him for coming to the conclusion that invading Iraq was a good idea either. Still he is a talented observer of what lies beneath current trends. His article from the Sunday New York Times had a lot to say to me between the lines.

Turns out the real story is this great website. Makes you feel better just browsing it.

Yes, They Could. So They Did.


Published: February 14, 2009

So I am attending the Energy and Resources Institute climate conference in New Delhi, and during the afternoon session two young American women — along with one of their mothers — proposition me.

“Hey, Mr. Friedman,” they say, “would you like to take a little spin around New Delhi in our car?”

Oh, I say, I’ve heard that line before. Ah, they say, but you haven’t seen this car before. It’s a plug-in electric car that is also powered by rooftop solar panels — and the two young women, recent Yale grads, had just driven it all over India in a “climate caravan” to highlight the solutions to global warming being developed by Indian companies, communities, campuses and innovators, as well as to inspire others to take action.

>> This opening is perhaps to show that Mr. Friedman is feeling playful rather than pontifical-always a good sign- and willing to have the women with real vision show him a good time<<

They ask me if I want to drive, but I have visions of being stopped by the cops and ending up in a New Delhi jail. Not to worry, they tell me. Indian cops have been stopping them all across India. First, they ask to see driver’s licenses, then they inquire about how the green car’s solar roof manages to provide 10 percent of its mileage — and then they try to buy the car.

>>So did he take the wheel or not? I prefer to imagine him continuing his submissive role. Things usually work out better that way<<

We head off down Panchsheel Marg, one of New Delhi’s main streets. The ladies want to show me something. The U.S. Embassy and the Chinese Embassy are both located on Panchsheel, directly across from each other. They asked me to check out the rooftops of each embassy. What do I notice? Let’s see ... The U.S. Embassy’s roof is loaded with antennae and listening gear. The Chinese Embassy’s roof is loaded with ... new Chinese-made solar hot-water heaters.

You couldn’t make this up.

>>Yes. So fortunately the ladies have pointed out a rather telling metaphor FOR YOU!<<

But trying to do something about it was just one of many reasons my hosts, Caroline Howe, 23, a mechanical engineer on leave from the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, and Alexis Ringwald, a Fulbright scholar in India and now a solar entrepreneur, joined with Kartikeya Singh, who was starting the Indian Youth Climate Network, or IYCN, to connect young climate leaders in India, a country coming under increasing global pressure to manage its carbon footprint.

>>One despairs that these "hosts", expatriots themselves, have decided that it would be more fruitful to apply their energies in India rather than the US whose carbon footprint shadows the whole world. But put that aside for now. Enthusiasm like theirs is good for the world wherever it flourishes!<<

“India is full of climate innovators, so spread out across this huge country that many people don’t get to see that these solutions are working right now,” said Howe. “We wanted to find a way to bring people together around existing solutions to inspire more action and more innovation. There’s no time left to just talk about the problem.”

>>Of course here in the States we prefer to focus our discussion on whether or not the problem actually exists. No sense solving problems that aren't real. I'm beginning to see why you left!<<

Howe and Ringwald thought the best way to do that might be a climate solutions road tour, using modified electric cars from India’s Reva Electric Car Company, whose C.E.O. Ringwald knew. They persuaded him to donate three of his cars and to retrofit them with longer-life batteries that could travel 90 miles on a single six-hour charge — and to lay on a solar roof that would extend them farther.

Between Jan. 1 and Feb. 5, they drove the cars on a 2,100-mile trip from Chennai to New Delhi, stopping in 15 cities and dozens of villages, training Indian students to start their own climate action programs and filming 20 videos of India’s top home-grown energy innovations. They also brought along a solar-powered band, plus a luggage truck that ran on plant oil extracted from jatropha and pongamia, plants locally grown on wasteland. A Bollywood dance group joined at different stops and a Czech who learned about their trip on YouTube hopped on with his truck that ran on vegetable-oil waste.

>>We're still sort of looking at 2100 miles as a 3 day road trip and wondering if the minivan has enough cupholders. Better take the corporate jet! Imagine if GMs CEO had taken a Chevy Volt full of plans like this to the first bailout begfest. Things might have gone differently.<<

Deepa Gupta, 21, a co-founder of IYCN, told The Hindustan Times that the trip opened her eyes to just how many indigenous energy solutions were budding in India — “like organic farming in Andhra Pradesh, or using neem and garlic as pesticides, or the kind of recycling in slums, such as Dharavi. We saw things already in place, like the Gadhia solar plant in Valsad, Gujarat, where steam is used for cooking and you can feed almost 50,000 people in one go.” (See: www.indiaclimatesolutions.com.)

At Rajpipla, in Gujarat, when they stopped at a local prince’s palace to recharge their cars, they discovered that his business was cultivating worms and selling them as eco-friendly alternatives to chemical fertilizers.

>>The skeptical me wonders if maybe the prince's palace was the only place with a dependable 24/7 flow of electric current. Here in the US we all live like princes in that regard. But I shouldn't let that overshadow the fact that these other projects are the real heart of change. Not everyone on the planet is obsessed with maintaining their personal transportation.<<

I met Howe and Ringwald after a tiring day, but I have to admit that as soon as they started telling me their story it really made me smile. After a year of watching adults engage in devastating recklessness in the financial markets and depressing fecklessness in the global climate talks, it’s refreshing to know that the world keeps minting idealistic young people who are not waiting for governments to act, but are starting their own projects and driving innovation.

>>Perhaps because at a visceral level they realize that government will always be hopelessly behind the curve and too slow to react to the challenges that we now face. Imprisoned by what is politically possible. No use waiting for them, let's get on with it.<<

“Why did this tour happen?” asked Ringwald. “Why this mad, insane plan to travel across India in a caravan of solar electric cars and jatropha trucks with solar music, art, dance and a potent message for climate solutions? Well ... the world needs crazy ideas to change things, because the conventional way of thinking is not working anymore.”

>>Well young ladies, here at home we just aren't convinced we need that kind of crazy thinking! We can just pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off and start all over again. After all, it's worked quite well for the past 150 years or so thank you very much! If you must change the world make it the "developing world" if you please. We're happy the way we are ......... for now.<<

Friday, February 13, 2009

Sitting on top of the world

Over the last weekend I needed a pickup truck. A large pile of brush had to be hauled out of my driveway and my daughter had purchased a new bed which was located about 20 miles away. I called my friends at Enterprise and asked them to fix me up. I had no idea what they were going to come up with. When I arrived there was the latest edition of Toyota's Tundra with 4 doors and a V8. The very vehicle that I suspect has driven them to their first operating loss as a corporation; ironically while they climbed over GM as the world's largest automaker for the first time. In large part this is the vehicle that has brought them both places.

For years Toyota has been making slow progress into the large truck market, the one US segment that they had not conquered. For the past several years the full size pickups from Ford and Chevy were not only their most profitable vehicles but also their most popular, outselling Camrys and Corollas year after year. This was not lost on Toyota though their small pickups were no match and could not lure away the lion's share of sales. The Tundra was introduced in the early 90's but with V6 power and no track record was a weak competitor. In the last 5 years Toyota has spent billions on developing what amounts to an F150 clone, even spending millions in NASCAR truck racing to prove it's worth. Their efforts paid off and the sales of their big trucks began to really take a bite out of American truck sales in the last couple of years. Then of course disaster struck for everyone, the only difference being that Toyota had plenty of credible product to fall back on and the Big Three did not. Not that anyone has been buying automotive product of any sort lately.

I'd forgotten how comfortable a ride these big trucks can be. The ride was cushy on those big truck tires, even with 19th century cart springs at the rear and an empty bed. The interior was a vast expanse of silver and black plastic and the amenities of the hour, namely 8 well labeled cup holders (including six labeled for "capped bottles" or cans only!) and a way to jack your MP3 player into the powerful sound system that featured a fairly opaque array of buttons to browse through your personal music selections. It all provided the appropriate "floaty" ride comfort over most surfaces though the long wheel base made it prone to a strange sort of see-saw sensation over the expansion joints of a particular concrete section of I-25. I was delighted to find the lower seat cushion was finally made long enough for American legs, still a weak point of most Japanese product.When I filled it up to return it on Sunday it had used 6.8 gallons in 122 miles. Better than I expected but I hadn't really tested the V8 or ventured beyond 65mph and most of those miles had been on the highway. Daniel was nonplussed as you can see from the photo. He enjoyed climbing in and out of the tall unit though it was a bit of a struggle. You would certainly want to buy the optional step if your children under 10 were riding daily or you if you yourself were under say 5'4" tall. This may be the first Japanese user unfriendly Japanese vehicle.

All in all it left the impression of driving a relic from the past. A very good relic but one whose time had most certainly passed. Even with world class build quality and the latest in modern technology it was a sort of rolling anachronism. Toyota at least has the will and the resources to soldier into the future. For the American companies who built their business model on this sort of vehicle the permafrost has most certainly melted and getting any traction at all is uncertain.