Navigant Research Blog

Chevy Volt – Your Electric Miles Driven May Vary

— November 17, 2009

Just as your mileage varies by where and how you drive, so might the performance of the Chevrolet Volt plug-in hybrid’s batteries.

The batteries in the GM vehicle due out in a year (November 2010) will have at least 10 years of life, according to company representatives who briefed the media on Tuesday. But vehicle owners who live in temperate climates are likely to see their batteries last much longer.

According to Andrew Farah, Volt chief engineer, after many months of tweaking battery cells (provided by supplier LG Chem) to optimize performance and lifespan, the lithium ion manganese spinel chemistry has been finalized. While customers will be be guaranteed 10 years of satisfactory battery performance, Volt owners in Arizona or Michigan may get considerably less out of their batteries in the long run than someone who lives in more temperate areas, such as the Pacific Northwest or Bay Area.

“10 years is the target life, but depending on where you live, you could see significantly more than that,” said Farah. “In more benign conditions — if you do more city driving — and if you are in a more temperate area, the battery would last significantly longer.”

When exposed to extremely high temperatures for extended periods, some lithium ion batteries (such as the chemistry GM chose) will lose storage capacity. So parking an electric vehicle in desert heat for hours at a time would slowly reduce the amount of energy that can be stored, which eventually translates to fewer miles driving in between charges. “Local weather is important,” said Farah.

GM will be very careful in rolling out these first of their kind production vehicles so that they can monitor vehicle performance and expectations. Battery suppliers whose products give any indication of underperforming may find themselves losing customers. The automotive OEMs are likely to multisource their battery contracts so that they could switch suppliers as needed.

GM has also signed off on the charging equipment that will come with the vehicle. The charge unit is recommended for ground fault protection (GFP) to prevent vehicle owners from getting shocked in places where moisture may be present.

A strong negative reaction by consumers to any model could jeopardize demand across the board for plug-in hybrid and electric vehicles. Automakers will proceed with caution, and may delay product launches if any uncertainty about reliability or safety presents itself in final testing.

The company has assembled 300 battery packs so far and has tested them without any cell failures, according to the company. GM will start taking delivery of the production cells in the beginning of 2010, and is expected to ship its first Volts by the end of the year.



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Vice President Joe Biden Reveals Fisker’s Aggressive Product Plans

— November 6, 2009

Before last week, Fisker Automotive was known to be building two plug-in hybrid electric luxury vehicles: the Karma S and Karma convertible. In September, the Department of Energy announced a $528.7 million loan to Fisker to build plug-in hybrids in the U.S. Fisker announced that this would be for bringing the Karma to the U.S. (currently will be assembled in Finland) and about two-thirds of the loan would be for “Project Nina”. Until last week, Fisker was keeping mum on “Project Nina”.

Last week, Fisker announced that with the DOE loan they would be purchasing a currently empty assembly plant in Wilmington, Delaware (a former GM plant building roadsters for Pontiac and Saturn). The photo op was attended by Vice President Joe Biden.

However, what got even more attention was when during the event Vice President Biden announced that Fisker would be building sedans, crossovers, and coupes at the plant. Many were left wondering if Biden had just revealed the future plans of Fisker.

Apparently, he had. Fox News confirmed with Fisker that Biden had actually revealed the future plans of the automaker. He also revealed that Project Nina would result in 100,000 vehicles being built in the U.S. per year (and that the new sedan that “looked like a four door Ferrari”). Fisker also announced that the Project Nina plug-in hybrid vehicles would be more affordable than their current luxury offering (they are aiming for $40,000 or less). These new product plans (at least for the moment) appear to be poised to steal the thunder from their oft-compared start-up rival, Tesla.

Don’t expect any quick response from Tesla though. In fact, I’m sure if Fisker had their druthers, Biden would not have mentioned the new sedan and crossover quite yet. In the highly competitive world of automotive design and production, product plans, technology, and prototypes are carefully guarded secrets.

This revelation shows that Fisker has big plans, and is planning to hit the key vehicle segments to achieve the kind of volume they need to be profitable. Now comes the long wait for the product to actually arrive. The first plan for the new plant is the Project Nina sedan planned for 2012 or 2013, and that will be followed by moving production of the next generation Karma in 2016 to the plant. Between 2012 and 2016, it sounds like we should expect to see a crossover and a coupe.

So, if VP Biden is to believed, by 2016 we should expect to see a wide range of products coming from Fisker in Wilmington, ranging in price from $40,000 to the high-end Karma in the $80,000-$90,000 ballpark.



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Tata Nano Spurs Competition, But at What Cost?

— November 6, 2009

Tata Motors has a success on their hands in the tiny car called Nano. They recently increased production by 20% and have sold the first 100,000 units before they are even built. The Nano is the world’s cheapest car and was designed for India where it sells for 100,000 Rupees (a little over US$2,100), but the plan is to expand the market including selling it in Europe in 2011. Tata is building a new plant that will be able to crank out 250,000 Nanos per year, and it is signing contracts with other companies to build the Nano under their brand.

The environmental impact of the world’s cheapest car has been debated mostly in terms of the number of vehicles that it could unleash on the world’s developing cities. The Nano gets about 50 miles/gallon, and is said to perform similar to a Prius in terms of CO2 emissions. This is largely due to its tiny two-cylinder 623cc aluminum engine (with a whopping 32hp). The concern is that the price now makes owning a private car affordable to millions of people who otherwise would not be driving a car.

While this all sounds very democratic and capitalistic, the Center for Science and Environment in India believes that 25% of the 50 million scooter riders in India could become car owners thanks to low priced vehicles like the Nano (others have estimated as much as 30%). That is an additional 12.5 to 14 million vehicle purchasers. That sort of number does not go unnoticed and Toyota, GM, and Nissan have all announced they are working on vehicles that will be priced to compete with Nano. For those who have been following the Nano, none of this is big news.

The real news came on Monday, when Nissan made a more detailed announcement that it will launch its small car in 2010 in India, Thailand, and China to compete with the Nano. The critical piece of this announcement included that Nissan will need to sell 1 million of these vehicles per year by 2013 in order to make the program profitable for them. That huge number would mean that “sales in Europe and the United States are also planned, possibly as early as 2011.”

This competition to bring millions of new customers to the market can be expected to have a few different impacts. First will be an increase in emissions, just from the sheer increase in tailpipes. Using the Prius’ CO2 emissions of 89g/km as a yardstick, 12.5 million more vehicles would equate about 1.1 million kg/km of emissions. Some of this will be offset by fewer scooters (families that can’t afford cars are often currently using scooters for transportation) many of which may actually get worse emissions due to older two-stroke engines.

The second impact may be an increase in gasoline costs as fuel usage increases in India. The main concern with this is that many of the families that now own these new vehicles may shift to running the vehicles with kerosene, which is generally cheaper than gasoline and has worse emissions than gasoline.

The environmental impact of this volume of vehicles will continue to be debated. However, the impact on traffic certainly won’t be. At the time when the Nano went on sale last year, the average speed during peak times in New Delhi was already 7mph. By adding an additional 12.5 million vehicles to the country on a whole, it would not be surprising to see an additional 150,000-200,000 vehicles in that city alone. Surely, an influx of that much traffic would slow the already slow 7mph to a crawl.

In the end, it will be up to individual countries’ governmental agencies to regulate this expansion of the auto market. However, it seems unlikely that they would put on the brakes, as automakers race to the lower end of the market.



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The Brammo “Shocking Barack” Tour

— November 2, 2009

Brammo is a startup company that has been getting some good attention for its electric motorcycle (they call it a powercycle) called the Enertia.

On October 13, a Brammo employee and one from their ad agency (Crispin Porter Bugosky) left Ann Arbor, MI to ride the Enertias to Washington DC in order to give one to President Obama. Here’s the official description from their tour website, shockingbarack.com:

“Our plan is to retrace the route of the automotive CEOs who went to Washington DC asking for government loans. But instead of looking for aid, we’d like to present President Obama with a homegrown solution to the transportation crisis. And instead of flying in a corporate jet, we’re riding Brammo Enertia powercycles….”

The end result is that the pair arrived in DC on October 26, but did not have a plan to actually deliver the vehicle to Obama and found White House Security less than receptive to two guys handing them the keys to a electric motorcycle. As a result, their last entry was them chaining one of the bikes somewhere in DC and mailing the keys to Obama. We’ll have to watch to see how that turns out for them.

The tour itself provided for some good opportunities to talk about the Enertia and Brammo along the way. So, in this respect, it seems to have achieved their goal of raising awareness. And, it did get the Brammo CEO Craig Bramscher invited to a meeting with the Energy Secretary, Steven Chu. Unfortunately, it also likely played into the fears of those who are not already EV advocates (or at least fans). The fact that it took the pair 13 days to make the 500 plus mile trip demonstrates one of the challenges of an EV motorcycle with 42 mile range (though perhaps it could have been done in a few less days if the drive was not focused on the PR effort). Of course, the Enertia was not designed to be driven on long freeway trips like this.

This kind of publicity event will help prove to many that Brammo’s electric Enertia is ready for mainstream America. However, a trip like this will also help cement concerns that others have regarding EV range. Additionally, with the price of almost $12,000, many will likely feel justified in their belief that electric vehicles are too expensive with too short range. This dichotomy in the market between those who think EVs are ready now, and those who think the technology is still lacking, is the challenge facing the entire industry, not just Brammo. I suspect that we’ll see plenty more of these types of road trips from manufacturers and charging station providers attempting to persuade the latter group that EVs are affordable and ready for mainstream America.



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