Care and Feeding of Battery-Electric Cars

Why aren’t there more battery-electric vehicles on the road? After all, they’re cleaner than clean (especially if you ignore where the electricity that charges them comes from) and they are a driver’s dream -- quiet to the point of silence, comfortable and, perhaps surprisingly, fast. But they do have an Achilles’ heel: Batteries are very, very expensive, and they wear out, so replacement involves yet more expense. That’s why the makers of hybrids, plug-in hybrids and the new battery-electric vehicles are very careful about the way they treat those batteries.

Like babies, batteries don’t want to be too hot or too cold. They prosper best when things are just right. To that end, the all-new Ford Focus Electric, which debuts in the U.S. late next year and in Europe in 2012, will be powered by an advanced lithium-ion battery that uses liquid that is heated and cooled to help maximize battery life.

The nickel-metal hydride batteries used in vehicles such as the Toyota Prius like to be coddled. However, the nurturing required by the Prius battery is nothing in comparison to that of the lithium-ion-battery systems that will be used in vehicles like the Chevrolet Volt electric car and the Ford Focus battery electric. Thermal management is critical to the success of all-electric vehicles, because extreme temperatures can affect performance, reliability, safety and durability. Ford chose an advanced active liquid-cooling-and-heating system to regulate the temperature of its lithium-ion-battery packs, which are designed to operate under a range of ambient conditions. You might think of it the same way you think of coolant running through your engine and into the radiator. 

“All-electric vehicles do not have a conventional engine on board, so it is critical we maximize the performance of the battery under various operating temperatures,” says Sherif Marakby, director of Electrification Programs and Engineering at Ford. “Active liquid systems are more effective than air systems at regulating lithium-ion-battery temperature. As a result, the active liquid system on Focus Electric will play a key role in providing our customers with the best performance possible.”

Of course, your car’s coolant doesn’t run through the radiator when it’s at rest. But in the Focus Electric, the active liquid-cooling-and-heating system automatically preconditions the battery-pack temperature during daily recharging. When the vehicle is plugged into the power grid, its system will be able to warm up the battery on cold days and cool it down on hot days.

How does it actually work? The active liquid system heats or chills coolant before pumping it through the battery-cooling system. This loop regulates temperature throughout the system against external conditions like the 100-degree day or minus-10-degree night. On hot days, chilled water absorbs heat from the batteries, dispersing it through a radiator before pumping it through the chiller again. On cold days, heated water warms the batteries, gradually bringing the system’s temperature to a level that allows it to accept energy efficiently and provide enough power to get up that next hill.

“Extreme temperatures impact a battery’s life and performance, making it crucial to have an effective cooling and heating system to regulate temperature for these demanding applications,” says Anand Sankaran, executive technical leader of Energy Storage and HV Systems at Ford.

Of course, using an active system like this is more complex than relying on ambient conditions to do most of the work. But as we move toward the first sales in years of electric vehicles from major manufacturers, engineers are finding they can’t achieve the durability customers require without going to greater lengths.

Giving Satisfaction: Detroit Tops Auto Industry Customer Satisfaction

If your competitors are faltering, does that mean you’re getting ahead? That’s a question domestic automakers may be asking themselves, as customer satisfaction with their automobiles has shown resilience despite an overall decline for the industry, according to a report released last week by the American Customer Satisfaction Index (ACSI). Automobile satisfaction dipped 2.4 percent from an all-time industry high to a score of 82 on ACSI’s scale of 100, but Ford and General Motors held steady. Moreover, Ford’s Lincoln-Mercury and GM’s Buick nameplates took the lead in customer satisfaction for the first time ever. Things were not so rosy for Chrysler, which saw two of its three divisions at the bottom of the heap.

“It was not long ago when Detroit’s products were clustered at the bottom of the industry. Although very few automakers improved this year, the domestic ones are either steady or have lost less in customer satisfaction compared with international competition,” says Claes Fornell, founder of the ACSI and author of The Satisfied Customer: Winners and Losers in the Battle for Buyer Preference. “In this sense, the near future looks good for Ford and General Motors. Satisfied customers tend to do more repeat business, generate good word-of-mouth and don’t require greater price incentives to come back.”

Even though customer satisfaction with most domestic and foreign automakers declined in 2010 as the recession brought potentially poorer service, U.S. brands showed the smallest drop. Japanese and Korean brands fell the most. The drop in satisfaction with import brands put the U.S. slightly ahead of the Japanese and Koreans for the first time since 2000.

“Although the near future looks promising for General Motors and Ford, at least in a competitive sense, the near term for the economy does not look bright,” says Fornell. “Labor markets show no sign of improvement, financial markets are edgy and consumers are cautious at a time when more household spending would be desirable. Even though ACSI is at a high level, the trend is not upward. Increasing customer satisfaction, rising disposable income and greater consumer confidence would probably be necessary to bring about more spending.” 

Among the individual auto nameplates, the industry winners include:

  • Ford’s Lincoln-Mercury division, which led the pack with a one-point jump to an ACSI score of 89, its highest ever
  • GM’s Buick, unchanged at 88, was second in the overall rankings
  • BMW (?1 percent), Mercedes-Benz (unchanged) and Cadillac (?3 percent), all tied at 86
  • Toyota’s recall-plagued Lexus division was down five percentage points, at 85

And at the other end of the spectrum:

  • Chrysler’s brands dropped below the industry average, with the Chrysler division down 5 percent, to 80
  • Dodge was down 4 percent, to 78
  • Jeep was at the bottom, falling three percent, to 77

A year ago, amid the global recession, discounting and the government’s Cash for Clunkers program helped many brands reach their highest satisfaction levels ever. A smaller customer base saw an increase in value for money, but this has not been sustainable across the industry.

Several automakers all dropped sharply this year from all-time highs set in 2009:

  • Honda (?5 percent, to 84)
  • Hyundai (?4 percent. to 82)
  • Volkswagen (?6 percent, to 81)
  • Chevrolet (?4 percent, to 80)

The same goes for Cadillac, Lexus, Chrysler and Dodge, which all declined from record-high scores last year.

Of the few nameplates that held steady or improved, Nissan made the biggest gain, up 5 percent, to match the industry average at 82. GMC also improved, but less markedly, up 2 percent to 84.

The American Customer Satisfaction Index, founded at the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business, is a national economic indicator of customer evaluations of the quality of products and services available to household consumers in the United States. 

4 Steps to Finding the Right Mechanic

Do you have your hair cut by the first barber you see? Do you let just any doctor give you your annual physical or deliver your family’s babies? Do you choose the first contractor who walks in the door when you’re going to do that big remodel?

If you answered no to these questions, we have to wonder why so many people aren’t nearly as discriminating when it comes to choosing a mechanic. After all, your car is both an important asset, and when service is done incorrectly, a potentially lethal weapon. You and your family rely on your car and on the safety of the equipment it offers. If your tires, suspension, brakes, lights, etc., are not in the proper operating condition, your life and the lives of your loved ones could be at risk.

With this in mind, you should search out a mechanic in the same way you’d search out a primary care physician. Don’t just pull a name out of the phonebook or off the Internet; do your due diligence so the mechanic you choose will give you the most for your money -- while at the same time helping ensure that your family is safe. If you’re doing it right, it’s a multistep process that doesn’t have to be painful but does have to be purposeful. And once you find a trusted mechanic for your family’s cars, you’ll have peace of mind that will be with you for years.

Here are some steps to help you find the right mechanic:

1. Ask around.
Your friends and family have probably had good experiences with technicians, and some will have had horror stories as well. Listen to both and act accordingly. Even in these Internet times, word of mouth from someone you believe is the best way to find a good auto mechanic. 

2. Read reviews online.
Word of mouth is often key, but one good experience with a mechanic doesn’t mean that every experience with her will be good. Some people might just not realize they’ve been had yet. And often, a mechanic might be perfectly adequate for one kind of job -- say an oil change or tire rotation -- and utterly unsuitable for a bigger, more complicated job. This is where the Internet can be so helpful. Jump on a search engine to seek out additional information about the mechanic or auto shop pointed out to you by a friend. Some national and local sites specialize in consumer reviews of services, so why not check those out? At the same time, be aware that the shop itself might be writing many of the reviews you come across.

3. Check for certifications.
Another element of your research should involve professional associations. The National Institute of Automotive Service Excellence (ASE) certifies mechanics with an extensive battery of tests in various areas. The effort to get certified and stay certified is intense, so you can rest assured that mechanics who hold the industry certificates know their stuff. But that doesn’t mean that mechanics who aren’t certified might not be equally competent. Some are so busy fixing cars that they don’t take the time to get certified or to keep their certifications current.

The other side of the certification coin is to examine a mechanic’s record with the Better Business Bureau and with state and local consumer protection agencies. One or two complaints likely represent nothing more serious than a few sorehead customers who might never be satisfied. A pattern of complaints by consumers, on the other hand, is obviously a giant red flag.

4. Get a diagnosis.
Finally, talk with the mechanic. Get a gut feel for his competence by asking him to diagnose the problems you’re having with your car. If the mechanic seems to have all the answers, be wary. Most experienced technicians know that today’s vehicles are so complex that it’s not possible to find a quick, completely accurate diagnosis simply from hearing symptoms. Instead, a competent mechanic will likely respond with a short list of possible causes and fixes. In the final analysis, your impression on the honesty and ability of a prospective mechanic is critical to your peace of mind and your family’s safety.

2011 Model Year Holds Great Suspense

Car industry experts are on pins and needles waiting for the beginning of the 2011 model year.

Why? Because the 2011 model year will see the introduction of the Chevrolet Volt, the first “range-extended” electric car, and the Nissan LEAF, the first battery-electric car from a major manufacturer since the controversial General Motors EV1 began its ill-fated run in 1996.

In an era when most cars are boringly conventional, both LEAF and Volt are very unconventional. How they’ll be perceived and how they sell have giant implications for the future of the automobile business.

Right now the LEAF and the Volt are getting plenty of hype, but in reality, their volumes are likely to be small. Yet these are important launches for the two manufacturers involved. The Chevrolet Volt was a key talking point when the debate in Congress swirled around bailing out General Motors a year or so ago. While some claimed GM was beyond redemption, others pointed to the development of the Volt as a clear sign that not only was the company worth saving, but also that it might take the technological lead on alternative propulsion technologies -- if only it were given the chance. Now, given the chance, we will see whether the Chevrolet Volt is indeed a harbinger of the future or a dud.

Nissan didn’t drop into bankruptcy, but it has been widely criticized for being behind its two chief Japanese rivals, Toyota and Honda, in the alternative propulsion sector. So Nissan has decided to take the very bold step of launching a battery-electric car in America. This comes despite the fact that the LEAF’s limited range makes the car a questionable purchase for many.

What may be hidden under the hoopla and hype is the fact that both companies have designed and developed these cars for reasons other than sales volume. These cars’ true purposes include the enhancement of prestige and technological esteem. In addition, they are among the initial salvos in what will become an ongoing industry effort to meet the very challenging Corporate Average Fuel Economy standards that are set to begin arriving in 2016.

Will the Volt and LEAF sell in substantial numbers? Certainly the drumbeat of publicity has long since begun for both of them, and the early reaction of the automotive media has been positive. A close colleague who has driven early examples of both praised their technological sophistication and their driving proficiency. They are not just as good as conventional cars of the same size; they are in many ways better.

But the question that’s yet to be resolved is this: Will substantial numbers of consumers find value in these cars at the prices they’ll be asked to pay? That’s where the two technologically interesting models could fall on their pleasant-looking faces. While clearing the air and doing a tiny bit to ward off global climate change might sound just fine in the abstract, we’ll soon see if people are willing to pay for those attributes. 

10 Ways to Exercise Your Driving Muscles

Playing a computer game to keep your driving skills sharp as you age seems like science fiction, but it is one of several activities gaining attention as the population ages and older drivers fill the roads. Doing things as diverse as eating fish, choosing more challenging hobbies and playing catch can help aging drivers retain and actually improve their driving abilities, not to mention their overall cognitive abilities.

One of the most interesting of these avenues to greater driving fitness is a clinically proven brain fitness training tool that helps older adults reduce their likelihood of being in a car accident. Playing the gamelike, computer-based program “DriveSharp” for 20 minutes a day three times a week helps older drivers cut their crash risk up to 50 percent, stop 22 feet sooner when driving 55 mph and gain more confidence while driving at night and in stressful conditions, according to The Hartford Financial Services Group, whose insurance arm has a vested interest in keeping drivers safe.

“It is important for drivers to understand that they can take an active role in staying safe on the road as they age,” said Jodi Olshevski, gerontologist and assistant vice president of The Hartford. “We all have a responsibility to maintain our driving skills throughout our lifetime. “DriveSharp” is a research-based program that helps older adults think faster, focus better and react quicker on the road.”

About half of all adults surveyed by The Hartford believe older drivers can improve their skills to allow them to safely drive for more years, but drivers under 40 are least likely to believe there is anything an older driver can do to improve their skills to allow them to drive safely longer. The brain fitness survey also found that while more than 60 percent of adults participate in an activity with the specific purpose of improving their brain, adults 60-plus are the most likely age group to say they often participate in activities with the specific purpose of improving their brain.

In addition to the “DriveSharp” program, there are other activities you can engage in -- most of them free -- that can help you maintain and improve your mental fitness to perform critical tasks like driving:

10 Brain Fitness Tips

1.  Eat dark chocolate.
When you eat dark chocolate, your brain releases dopamine, a chemical that improves overall brain function and improves your memory.

2.  Eat fish.
Studies suggest that a diet rich in fish, especially fatty fish like salmon, can improve brain function.

3.  Play ball.
Throwing a ball up in the air and catching it, or better yet, trying your hand at juggling can improve your hand-eye coordination and has widespread brain health benefits.

4.  Rest up.
Getting a good night’s sleep is critical to brain function and particularly memory.

5.  Make your hobbies harder.
Take on something a bit more difficult than you’re used to. By putting higher demands on your brain, you will have to concentrate harder and re-engage your brain’s learning ability.

6.  Walk on a rocky road.
Scientists believe that walking on uneven surfaces like cobblestones improves the vestibular system of the inner ear, which plays a central role in balance and equilibrium and translates to better balance.

7.  Visit a museum.
Go on a guided tour and pay very careful attention to what you see and hear. When you get home, write an outline of the tour that includes every detail you remember. Paying attention and practicing remembering can help the brain pump brain chemicals that assist memory and improve brain function.

8.  Exercise your brain.
Use brain fitness exercises like “DriveSharp” -- they promote drivers’ ability to think faster, focus better and react faster. (The “DriveSharp” program is available at a discount from The Hartford.)

9.  Learn to play a new instrument.
Playing an instrument helps you exercise many interrelated dimensions of brain function, including listening, control of refined movement and translation of written notes (sight) to music (movement and sound).

10. Use your other hand.
While you may find it difficult at first, practicing an activity such as brushing your teeth with your subordinate hand can drive your brain to make positive changes.