Sunday, July 05, 2009

Any Color As Long As It's Black

Innovation! One cannot be forever innovating. I want to create classics. ~ Coco Chanel

Porsche says electric cars are not ready for prime time. Charging systems aren't adequate, batteries are too heavy, and so on. Of course, Porsche does happen to have a prototype floating around, but it's the same old story: 100 or so miles per charge, forever to charge unless you have a 220 outlet available, in which case it's only half of forever. What Porsche really means is that their own feeble attempt at an electric car isn't any great shakes.

Porsche does make a hybrid, the Cayenne, but it's a joke, getting a rousing 24 mpg (although this is considered a significant improvement over the 13 mpg the model usually gets. In this, Porsche matches the American auto makers who tout hybrids that get marginally better mileage while costing an arm and/or a leg more.

Only two manufacturers that I know of make for-real hybrids that are actually fuel-efficient and eco-friendly: Toyota with the Prius and Honda with the Civic Hybrid. [Truth-in-blogging notice: I own a Civic Hybrid.] Both are rated in the upper 40's for mpg's. The Prius gets its best mileage in short-hop, around town sort of driving, while the Honda is best for open road driving. The difference is in the way they use the electrical assist mode. Prius actually runs fulling on electric power in slower-speed, stop-and-go situations, while Honda uses it's batteries as a horsepower assist.

I've never driven a Prius, but I can vouch for the fact that I get over 50 mpg in my Civic, which is rated at 45/45 by whoever certifies those numbers on the sticker. That's because I drive 150 miles per day, 60% of which is on the freeway. Most of the rest is over a country road, that has no stops and light traffic.

By the way, no hypermiling techniques are involved in that. I suspect that if I was driving a Prius in it's best situation, I could do the same.

So, the first question is: Why aren't all the automakers providing hybrids, at reasonable prices, that can do at least 40 mpg?

When it comes to electric cars, the situation is even worse. The first electric car was built sometime between 1832 and 1839. You read it right; we're talking around 170 years ago. That's one hundred and seventy, one-seven-zero, almost two centuries ago. Electric cars were doing quite made for around 100 years before roads got to be good enough and gasoline engines got reliable enough for people to want to drive longer distances. And that was that until the EV1, first built in 1996 and off the roads by 2003. Fortunately, for the few of us who actually want to quit supporting Exxon executive bonuses, the Toyota and Honda hybrids appeared soon afterward.

So the second question is: Why haven't the automakers or even one automaker, started turning out electric cars at all ?

And, while we're at it, the third question is: Why hasn't any automaker made any serious attempt to produce hydrogen, natural gas, fuel cell, solar, or any other alternative fuel car with or without the back up of a gasoline-powered engine?

I have seen endless stories over the last five years about new battery designs that allow for quick charging and longer life. Five years ago, Honda announced a cheap way to produce solar cells. Yet we still talk about 100-150 mile range, 18+ hour charging times (at 110 volts), and ridiculously high prices when it comes to electric cars.

You wanna know why? Well, I'm gonna tell you why, buddy-row.

There's a story related by Robert Lacy in Ford: The Men and the Machine (1st Edition) that pretty well sums it up. In the first quarter of the twentieth century, automaking was an industry slopping over with innovation. Companies sprang up like weeds with new styles and new designs. But, the king of the hill was Ford, run by Henry Ford, who had created the assembly line, and produced the first affordable and reliable car, the Model T. Henry loved the Model T.

In 1912, when the Model T was four years old, some Ford execs decided that some updating was in order. So while Henry and family were vacationing in Europe, they put together a new, improved Model T which looked positively sleek compared to the boxy model they were currently providing. When Ford returned, the team proudly showed him their handiwork. Ford listened to them, then inspected the car closely, walking round and round it. After a pause, he tore it apart with his bare hands.


It took almost 20 years and a 50% reduction in market share for Ford to realize that maybe, just maybe, he should update the vehicle.

That is the attitude that prevails in the auto industry, pretty much world wide. There comes an occasional burst of activity, caused by one manufacturer finally realizing they've lost enough sales. But fundamental changes have come seldom, very seldom. We'd still be looking at fleet averages of 15 mpg if the government hadn't legislated better fuel efficiency in the 80's. The main reaction to that by the U.S. automakers was to make some very fuel-efficient (relatively speaking) cars and getting trucks and SUV's exempted from the fleet mpg calculations. In truth, there's been no improvement in fuel efficiency since the mid-80's.

The auto industry hasn't cared for innovation. Rather than spend the money on R&D, they spent it on lobbyists and marketing. And now, two of three are bankrupt, and the third ain't feeling so good. Oops.

Meanwhile, the oil companies that helped push them over the edge is laughing all the way to the bank because companies like Porsche are moaning that alternative technologies aren't practical or, excluding Honda and Toyota, are producing so-called over-priced hybrids that are overpriced while providing minimal improvements in mileage.

Just to show that the Japanese aren't immune from the disease, two years ago, Honda was planning to dump the hybrids. They have thought better of that idea.

Now, if they'd do something with those cheap solar cells they were promising ...

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