The State of the Tech

Alt Auto Expo 2015

Every year about this time, Santa Monica, California, hosts a gathering of vehicles that attempt to circumvent the mainstream tech of the gasoline-fueled internal combustion engine, and display a variety of alternative means of getting from here to there. From the beginning there was promise of White Night technology that would knock the king off his throne, or at least offer an attractive alternative. So far the conquering hero has not shown up, but there has been incremental progress.

The Big Boys Weigh In

The first Alt Auto Expo had dozens of start-up companies offering all kinds of electric vehicles and those powered by fuels other than gasoline, or combinations of different technologies. We were no doubt in good company then, wondering which, if any, would shake out in the coming years. The evidence is that there are now basically four approaches with a good chance of surviving. The evidence is that the major manufacturers are investing in each.

Volt and Its Copiers

Second Generation Volt – Plug-in Hybrids

Chevrolet is where General Motors has chosen to invest its considerable resources in the variation on the Hybrid theme. Unlike the familiar Toyota Prius, their Volt mated a gasoline-powered generator to a sophisticated battery-powered electric drive system that was said to employ more lines of code in its control software than the Space Shuttle.

In that model, the engine seldom actually drove the wheels, but mostly generated electricity to recharge the batteries that supplied electricity to the motors that drove the car. You could plug it in at night when rates were low, and if your commute was moderate, you could drive it for weeks without filling the gas tank.

Nu Volt

There is a definite family resemblance to the original Volt, but the new shape is sleeker, less blocky. Interior space is up, with a fifth seat belt in the center of the back seat, really just giving the two back seat passengers more room. They were not offering drives.

By increasing its electric motors’ torque, reducing the weight of the batteries and increasing their power density, making the internal combustion engine both lighter and more powerful, and reducing weight (down 200 pounds), Chevrolet has pulled the neat stunt of making its new Volt roomier, quicker, and more fuel efficient when running on gas, with longer electric-only range (up to 53 miles).

The new Volt is a true hybrid now, with the gas engine powering the wheels under more circumstances. This takes a load off the batteries under cruising, and allows each power source to operate in its most efficient mode. There’s also a new menu option that allows more aggressive regeneration on deceleration, making it a one-pedal car under many conditions, freeing the gas engine from recharging duties for longer periods.

From GM’s point of view, the most important aspect of the redesign may be that the car costs less to build.

The i3 from BMW

BMW started with a cleaner sheet of paper for their i-series commuter car. They made a serious commitment to sustainable production, with the industry’s most advanced carbon fiber facility, run on hydroelectric power at Moses Lake, Washington. New techniques allow production of the i3’s lightweight carbon fiber chassis without the astronomical cost previously practical only on single-purpose racing cars and six and seven-figure exotics.

i3 Interior
Attractive optional BMW i3 interior features natural tanned leather accents and cloth made from 100% recycled polyester. The picture makes it look more dirt-vulnerable than it is. You can’t get in or out of the back seat without the complicity of a front-seat occupant. 

No rain forest hardwoods here. That’s eucalyptus on the dash, a wood that’s practically a weed in Southern California, and they harvest it sustainably. Other interior finishes include the carbon fiber composite structure itself, and scrap carbon fiber used as trim.

The i3 is first a BEV (Battery-Powered Electric Vehicle) but it’s also available as an extended-range electric, with a two-cylinder engine borrowed from BMW’s two-wheel stable. With that engine, the range is extended from 81 miles for the BEV, to 150 miles with the gas engine. Since the demise of the Fisker Karma, it’s now the only vehicle where that engine never drives the wheels. The reason for the short range is that the car’s gas-fueled range cannot exceed its electric range under California regulations, lest it lose its zero-emissions status and cost BMW valuable zero emission credits.

i3 At 2013 LA Auto Show Press Drive

Dozens of BMW i3s lined up for press drives – without chaparones – at the 2013 Los Angeles International Auto Show. The cars are terrific commuter cars, lively and nimble, changing lanes seemingly by mental telepathy. 

Audi E-Tron Plug-in Hybrid

Audi went the more traditional (if that word can be applied to such a recent trend) approach of the plug-in hybrid. It loses its California zero-emissions credit because its total range is more than double its 30 mile electric-only claim.

Audi A3 e-Tron Blue

Based on the hatchback version of the well-received A3 hatchback, Audi’s plug-in hybrid does not shout its green credentials as loudly as the graphics on the demo car. Its power port is cleverly hidden behind the four-ring Audi emblem (below).

Audi A3 e-Tron Plug

Marketing strategy for the e-Tron appears to depend on the driving experience, rather than the environmental friendliness of the cars. The 1.4 liter internal combustion four-cylinder is rated at 150 horsepower, with a boost off the line from its 102 horsepower electric motor.

Although they claim a 157 mpg capability, the circumstances where that can be achieved are probably no more likely for the average motorist than those under which most drivers will ever see its claimed top speed of 138 mph.

Audi A3 e-Tron Interior

Audi’s interiors are sometimes held up as the standard of the industry in their respective classes. Nothing in the A-3’s cockpit inspires lavish praise, but in our short drive it functioned well enough, in a kind of Teutonically efficient manner. Not much can be deduced about the car’s driving dynamics from our drive around the Civic Center block.

All-Electric

Range, performance, price – choose two.

Bolt – With a “B”

GM is planning production of a new all-electric car for 2017. A concept car was shown next to the new Volt. It is expected to be a direct competitor to the planned “affordable” Tesla.

Chevrolet Bolt Concept

All that they would say about the Bolt is that it would have a range around two hundred miles and cost about $37,500 before government incentives are applied. It will share the Sonic architecture and speculation is that it will use the same motor in the Spark EV below.

The Big Boy in the electric-only universe, Tesla, does not maintain a presence at the Expo, although this year they did loan an S85D (the dual motor car, minus the Ludicrous option that gives it a claimed acceleration from zero to 60 in 2.6 seconds) to the Petersen Automotive Museum for display under their inadequate shade pavilion.

Chevrolet

Chevy had two BEVs at the show – one to drive and one concept.

Chevy Spark EV

Most closely resembling the Honda Fit, in the Packaging Wars the Chevrolet Spark EV seduces with power and torque.

Chevrolet’s Spark, when saddled with the standard 1.2 liter four cylinder gas engine, has little to recommend it other than a low price. Substituting a 140 horsepower electric motor and 121 kWh lithium-ion battery apparently transforms the car. (We did not drive it.) The secret is 400 (yes, that’s four followed by two zeros) pound-feet of torque. An EV that’s actually fun to drive, and doesn’t cost BMW bucks!

Range anxiety is always an EV concern. GM has partnered with other manufacturers to develop a charging system similar to Tesla’s SuperCharger, that allows a Spark EV to reach a full charge in twenty minutes. Range is EPA rated at 82 miles, but we spoke with an owner who claims his Spark EV has made two (gently driven) trips to Monterey (about 100 miles) with charge to spare. He says his  lease was $500 down and $50 a month. Perhaps we misremember.

Kia Soul EV

Kia Soul EV

With a claimed 93 mile range, the Kia Soul EV beats all the other BEVs save the Tesla, has a price comparable to other commuter BEVs, and scoots about as well as the Fiat 500 e (below). Charge times are about the same as other BEVs, but the Kia hides not one but two charge ports behind a sliding cover much like the Audi’s. Each works with a specific charging system, adding flexibility to reduce range anxiety.

Fiat 500e

The appeal of the Fiat 500s, including the 500e, is partly for their cuteness. The Kia soul actively courts that perception with its giant hamster ads. You can get more stuff in the Kia.

e-Golf

e-Golf

Performance, range, and price of VW’s e-Golf are competitive, with a bit of extra sparkle from its excellent driving dynamics.

Choosing an electric-only car is a tough decision. Reputation will play a large part in many buyers’ selection process. Will news of Volkswagen’s cheating on emissions with their award-winning diesel powered products harm theirs and Audi’s? Stay tuned.

Hydrogen Power

For now, hydrogen power in cars means fuel cells. These are devices for converting fuel to electricity without burning it. Without going into detail, it’s basically exchanging ions, with hydrogen and oxygen on one side of the process and electricity and distilled water on the other.

Also for now, most of the hydrogen used in fuel cell vehicles comes from fossil fuel. Much of it was already being produced in the process of refining oil and making other products from natural gas, so it’s pretty carbon neutral at the current rate of consumption.

Getting that hydrogen to the people driving fuel cell vehicles is the issue. Several sources have come together to provide a refueling infrastructure for hydrogen-powered cars, but until those plans bear fruit, owning or leasing a Fuel Cell Vehicle remains a prospect for early adopters and the tech-obsessed.

The Toyota Mirai

Hyundai was the first major company to put a production fuel cell vehicle in the hands of consumers, but those Hyundai Tucsons are leased – and they weren’t letting us drive them. Toyota is the first to have confidence enough in their product to leave it in an owner’s hands for as long as the owner wants it, and to take their chances when they sell as used cars.

Mirai Inset

It’s one thing to say that a fuel cell produces nothing but distilled water, and quite another to watch it piddling onto the pavement behind the car (inset). Toyota’s Mirai is an electric car, motivated by electric motor like others. The difference is it makes its own electricity.

Mirai LF

Toyota says the evocation of a catamaran from the frontal aspect of the Mirai is deliberate. It comes from their desire to emphasize the “air in – water out” nature of a fuel cell. They still need a battery, and Toyota remains at least one generation behind the state of the art, with nickel-metal-hydrides instead of lithium ion or lithium polymer.  

The Mirai is about the same size as a Camry, though 2.5″ taller. They will be more than twice the price of that Camry, if it’s a hybrid, and weigh a hulking 4080 pounds. The motor produces 151 horsepower and 247 pound-feet of torque, roughly what Volkswagen was getting out of their 2.0 liter turbodiesel, before they were caught cheating on the emissions tests.

Our particular Mirai had no paper plate when our turn came up, so we got more ride and drive time than anyone else while we went over to Toyota of Santa Monica to get one. The result is that we observed that the car is much more solid-feeling than a BMW i3, but has a non-Toyota-like buzz on hard acceleration that is not present in other electric vehicles we’ve driven, except for a Volvo that was clearly too early in development for them to be letting us drive it. No doubt, when they first Mirais are delivered to customers, that buzz will be history.

So what’s the State of the Tech?

As stated at the start, there now appear to be four technologies that will be available to us when we go searching for a car that doesn’t just run on explosions and emit twenty-five percent of its fuel back into the atmosphere in the form of flatulence.

We predict that none of them is a real threat to replace the fossil fuel powered internal combustion engine for those who need one car for commuting, errands, and road trips, and who have average income – as long as gas stays under $6.00 a gallon.

For the next few years, expect the hybrid, and its heavier cousin the plug-in hybrid, to lead the way. The technology is mature and there’s an established market.

While installation of public charging stations accelerates, battery-powered electrics and those plug-in hybrids and extended-range electrics will gain favor.

Will private and public support remain strong enough to maintain the pace of installation of hydrogen refueling stations to tempt enough buyers/lessors to make fuel cells a viable business model?

We’re back where we were when these shows first stated that kind of question. We’ll be back next year to see if anything has changed.

CARMA is a publication of The OM Dude Press
a service of Options in Mobility
Author, Editor, Publisher, Reporter, Historian, Archivist: Dick Stewart.
All photographs are by the author unless attributed otherwise.

Click on the images to view more detail. If the cursor is a plus sign in a circle, clicking again will yield full resolution

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About carmacarcounselor

I'm one of those people that friends call "that car guy," except I've made it into a profession. Since 1988 when a friend found my help in choosing, finding, and negotiating for a new car was worth a fee, I've helped countless people, listening to their car questions and challenges, and helping with their car purchases, insulating them from the adversarial process that is the new car retail model today. Their word of mouth is my only publicity. My newsletter CARMA won the description "The clear crystal ring of truth" from award-winning automotive journalist Denise McCluggage. Now I'm going global!
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