Saturday, July 26, 2008

About those gas prices

There's been a lot of talk lately about lowering gas prices. It's all about quick fixes because, hey, there's an election in November. You've heard the cheap sloganeering too. Drill Now! Pay Less! It's speculators! Let's release oil from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve!

I know it's tough out there. People can't afford to drive to work. Not everybody lives in town where there's mass transit. Maybe the loan on the SUV is upside down. Maybe they already cut back on extra trips or didn't take the usual summer vacation roadtrip and still can't make ends meet.

Let's say we did get some short term relief in gas prices, and you knew it was temporary. What would you do with the breathing room in your budget? Would you plan wisely for the future? Find housing closer to work, maybe something smaller or better insulated to save on heat? Buy a more efficient car?

Or would you keep doing everything exactly the same as before and resume going broke when your borrowed time ran out?

Sunday, February 10, 2008

On Efficiency and Safety - Part 2

"Auto racing, bull fighting, and mountain climbing are the only real sports ... all others are games." - Ernest Hemingway

I'd be a little more inclusive than ol' Hemingway, but I think you get the idea. Sports have the risk of injury or death. That's what makes a sport different from a game of monopoly or driving the minivan to the store. That's why people don't take bicycles and motorcycles seriously as transportation. People who commute to work on bicycles and motorcycles are hardcore enthusiasts who assume the increased risk over driving. Motor scooters have a friendlier image and are more accepted as transportation, but in reality, they're about as safe as motorcycles- you share the road with all that traffic just like a motorcycle, but you don't have the challenge of controlling a high performance vehicle. Sometimes, image is everything.

It doesn't have to be that way. In Europe and Asia, lots of people ride bicycles and motor scooters for trips around town, but I'm still cracking the code of how to encourage that culture here.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Prius Outsells Explorer for 2007

This from the Financial Times earlier this week:
Americans bought more Toyota Prius hybrid petrol-electric hatchbacks last year than Ford Explorer sports utility vehicles, the top-selling SUV for more than a decade.

The change of fortune, buried in US vehicle sales data for 2007 and unthinkable a few years ago, will find an echo at this year's Detroit auto show, which starts on Sunday.

By itself, this story is just symbolic since the car market is bigger than just the Explorer or Prius. Still, it's a sign of the times. It's about time that the idea of truck-based SUV as family car gets consigned to the dustbin of history. I remember when the SUV fad first took off in the early 90's, they were still sold as offroad vehicles for the rugged outdoors person. You could tow a boat, drive to the ends of the Earth, and do all kinds of rugged outdoor things that the dowdy minivan family down the street couldn't do. We know what happened to that. Nobody drove those 4x4's offroad (ok maybe 1% did). The justification for SUVs devolved into a kind of rugged urban assault vehicle for the security moms.

Now, let's look at the good news/bad news behind the story.
While Prius sales soared 69 per cent last year, demand for the Explorer was less than a third of its 2000 peak. Many Americans are replacing truck-based SUVs with crossover vehicles, which are built like cars, thus offering a smoother ride and better fuel efficiency. Toyota began selling the Prius in North America in 2000, the same year Explorer sales reached a record 445,000 units.

Good news: Prius outsells Explorer
Bad news: We still buy a hell of a lot of big SUVs

Annual Explorer sales may be 1/3 of their 2000 peak of 445,000, but that's still over 130,000. Sales of other large SUVs are holding steady, thanks to hefty discounts.

Good news: Car-based crossovers replacing truck-based SUVs
Bad news: Crossovers aren't all that efficient (and it validates the popularity of the SUV body style)

Maybe I shouldn't complain so much about this one. Crossovers give a good boost in economy over similar size SUVs. The EPA's website is a good place to research this. The Ford Explorer 4WD gets 13 MPG City/19 MPG Hwy and 15 MPG combined. Compare that to 18 MPG combined for the Ford Edge AWD or Taurus X AWD, both crossovers, and compare that to 19 MPG combined for the Taurus AWD, the sedan twin of the Taurus X. Crossover also refers to a whole gamut of vehicles, including such small efficient cars like the Toyota Matrix (29 MPG combined) and Ford Escape Hybrid (32 MPG combined).

As always, YMMV (your mileage may vary). The Mazda CX-7, a platform twin of the Ford Edge, has been reported to get as little as 14 MPG, as tested by the leadfoots at Car and Driver.

The last bit about validating the popularity of the SUV body style is mostly aesthetic. I don't like to get caught up in appearances or flaunting certain badges as eco status symbols. Still, the tall SUV style body hurts efficiency because of weight and aerodynamics. Since crossovers are built off the same platform as sedans, it's easy to find exactly how much you lose in efficiency. You decide if it's worth the extra room or not.

Thursday, January 3, 2008

On Efficiency and Safety - Part 1

This is the first in a multi-part series on efficiency and safety. Aside from mass transit, efficient vehicles are small, light vehicles. One of the complaints about higher CAFE standards was that small cars are unsafe. Ironically these complaints came from many of the same people who derided airbags and helmet laws as the "nanny state". Americans just associate size with safety. It's partly legitimate and partly psychological. So on to Part 1.

Wired magazine has a cover story this month on the Automotive X-Prize, a contest that awards a $10M prize to the team that builds the best car that gets over 100 MPG. One of the featured vehicles is this, the Aptera Typ-1.

One interesting thing about it is that it drives like a car, but it has three wheels, two in front, one in the back. The Corbin Sparrow had a similar configuration except for being taller, narrower, and (dare I say) uglier. You get some weight savings this way, but mainly this cuts out a lot of federal red tape because three-wheelers are licensed as motorcycles and only need to pass the minimal safety standards of a motorcycle. I'm oversimplifying a bit, but it means it needs to have lights, mirrors, and to not fall apart/blow up while driving down the road. It's safe to say most car commuters aren't willing to assume the same risks as a motorcyclist, so the Aptera will have crumple zones and airbags, and they'll be crash testing it, but remember it's completely voluntary. No discussion of safety would be complete without considering Assumption of Risk. I'll have more on that next time, but for now, you can read the Wikipedia link if you want to skip ahead.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Downshifting a Notch

One thing about transportation policy is that licensing and regulation really define the market as far as what vehicles are offered for sale. I present to you today the iZip Express electric bicycle. It's a bicycle with a battery pack and electric motor. It basically lets any regular person achieve the performance of a Tour de France bicycle racer.

I suggest reading the review at the LA Times or checking out the Youtube clip above. The electric motor assists your pedaling so that you could easily maintain 15-20 mph. I haven't ridden one, but I suppose the feeling is like ET in the bike basket making your bike fly.

Since this thing is a bicycle, it has all the advantages and disadvantages of a bicycle, aside from the motor assist and the $3000 price tag. Advantages are easy parking, extremely high efficiency, and no licence, insurance, or registration needed. Disadvantages include sharing the road with cars, the whole theft problem, and the limited durability/puncture resistance of bicycle tires. The battery range of 31-62 miles is more than enough for any bicycle trip you'd likely plan around town, and at 60 lbs, you could ride it home on a dead battery if necessary.

Comparing this to gasoline powered transportation gets a little tricky because the closest competitors are really those lawnmower engined scooter boards which were pretty popular a few years back but are most definitely not street legal. The smallest street legal gas scooters are models like the Honda Metropolitan which costs $1,900, has a top speed of 40 mph, gets between 80-100 mpg, and requires registration and insurance. It also has a four stroke engine which makes it infinitely cleaner than the smoke-spewing two strokes of years past. In the end, I don't think it's a fair comparison, both because they're targeted at different markets, and because it's not fair to compare a new, innovative product intended for early adopters to a mature product like a motor scooter. The electric bicycle is simple enough that I could see someone building a bolt-on module to retrofit regular bicycles for a very economical price.

Update: One more note on prices. The $3,000 iZip Express is the top of the line model powered by lithium ion batteries. They also have more affordable models which cost $1,200 with NiMH batteries and $600 with lead acid batteries.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Energy Bill with 35 MPG CAFE

No big post today. I'm working on a story about EVs and driving range, so look for that soon.

So the news is, we passed an energy bill with a 35MPG CAFE standard by 2020, and Bush actually signs it. We had to toss requirements for renewable electricity and keep subsidies for oil and coal, but hey, better than nothing. Hooray. We'll need it. Future energy prices are anyone's guess, but there's a good chance fuel prices would've dictated 35 MPG cars in 2020 if CAFE didn't.

Sunday, December 9, 2007

Riding the Vectrix Scooter

So yesterday I was at the Cycle World International Motorcycle Show in Long Beach. It was nothing less than an orgy of internal combustion recreation. The demo rides outside the show filled up pretty fast, but I managed to squeeze in two test rides. One was a sweet KTM 690 Supermoto. The other was this, a Vectrix electric scooter (not me in the video).

Here's the rundown: 27hp, 462 lbs, 62mph top speed (governed), $11,000 (plus tax and registration, minus a tax credit in some states), NiMH battery pack. The range is 65 mi under ideal conditions. Expect about 40 mi in real world driving on city streets. It is freeway legal, but range drops drastically at freeway speeds.

Comfort, performance and cargo capacity are comparable to gas powered scooters of the same size (comparison chart below) but with no noise and no exhaust. It kept up easily with city traffic. It's a quality product with running gear sourced from the same manufacturers as what you'd find on a Vespa or Aprilia scooter, and it's on sale now. The demo riders loved it.

Now let's compare to the gas powered competition. Scooters in this size class are licensed as motorcycles and you'll need a motorcycle endorsement to ride on in most states. One comparable model would be a Suzuki Burgman 400.

Vectrix vs. Burgman 400
VectrixBurgman 400
Power27 hp32 hp
Range40 mi187 mi
Fuel EconomyN/A52 mpg*

* There are no official EPA tests for motorcycles. This figure based on real world tests.

Even accounting for the low cost of electricity and no engine maintenance costs, the Vectrix still costs substantially more. At this point, price and range are the only things holding it back. There are no compromises in power, comfort or build quality. You'll pay a little more than a gas scooter, but it's by far the most affordable and practical electric vehicle you can buy.

The show-goers were what you can call motorsports enthusiasts, more sophisticated and cosmopolitan than, say, the NASCAR or gun show crowd, but nevertheless a group diametrically opposed to the environmental crowd. It was brave of Vectrix to show their product to this crowd, and they made a good impression.