Battery Electric Cars: Ready for a Comeback?

You may well have seen Chris Paine’s documentary, Who Killed the Electric Car? In it, politicians, Big Oil and auto manufacturers are taken to task for sabotaging California’s Zero-Emission Vehicle mandate and destroying the consumer market for battery electric cars. The end of the General Motors EV-1 is portrayed as the death knell for electrics in general.

If you ask one big automaker (Nissan), though, the electric car is anything but dead. In fact, Nissan is hoping to leapfrog all others with its upcoming all-electric, battery-powered car, called LEAF, which is set for launch in 2010. Nissan has towering goals for its electric-car strategy, including a long-term target carbon dioxide reduction of 90 percent. The Japanese auto manufacturer, now operating in tandem with Renault, is not alone in believing that such a target is impossible without a serious influx of battery electric vehicles, because conventional vehicles, no matter how clean, produce carbon dioxide.

So do hybrid and plug-in hybrid vehicles. The LEAF is the first salvo in what Nissan refers to as a “holistic” approach to energy use and transportation. Battery electrics like LEAF are zero-emission vehicles, and they enable the use of electricity derived from various sources, including oil, natural gas, biomass, nuclear, wind, wave action and hydroelectric. Critics argue that the vast majority of today’s electrical-generation stations are not zero-emission, but Nissan asserts it is doing its part as an automaker by building cars that are zero-emission no matter where their power comes from.

To succeed, the Nissan LEAF must accomplish two exceedingly difficult objectives. First, it must win acceptance as a consumer product. That is hard enough for any model in the increasingly crowded marketplace, but it is especially difficult for a vehicle that will only be able to travel 100 miles on a charge of electricity before its battery bank’s power is depleted. Nissan is doing all it can to reach that critical mass of numbers by pricing the attractive five-passenger hatchback at about the same level as an equivalent gasoline-powered car. But the more difficult feat will be convincing a large portion of the buying public to go electric. Since a goal of the effort is to reduce the spread of greenhouse gases, which some link to global climate change, critical mass is necessary for success. If the LEAF and other electrics don’t command a lion’s share of the global car market, they will have virtually no effect on stemming potential climate change. They may tag their owners “green,” but they won’t save the planet.

Drivers of the new LEAF will discover that the experience is much better than they may have guessed. A push button turns it on, and a console-mounted selector allows you to choose whether the car moves forward or backward. No gears or shifting are necessary because of the flexibility of electric power. Acceleration is reasonably brisk thanks to the immediate torque from the 80 kW electric motor that drives the front wheels, and top speed is said to be nearly 90 mph. With its lithium-ion batteries mounted under the floor, the low center of gravity offers a smooth ride and good handling, though the low-rolling-resistance tires aren’t designed for ultimate roadholding.

An odd but perhaps necessary adjunct to electric driving is the fact that with the LEAF, and likely other electric cars to follow, the batteries will not be included -- as in toys and games of yore. Instead, Nissan plans to lease the integral batteries to owners of the car with a monthly charge for use. Even with this cost factored in, overall driving cost should be less than with conventional gasoline-powered cars. So the consumer is again being tantalized by the rebirth of the electric car. But the question remains: Will 100 miles of range be enough?

Consumers Catch Clunker-mania

It is hard to judge the success of an effort after its first few days, but if the initial results are any indication, the Car Allowance Rebate System (CARS 2009) -- more commonly known as Cash for Clunkers -- is a certified hit. It has created huge amounts of traffic on third-party Web sites and manufacturer Web sites, and most important, in dealer showrooms. In addition, it has also proven to be the impetus for incremental sales, something the auto industry is in desperate need of as it tries to keep the wolves from the door. The important question remaining to be answered is one that can be expressed in movie box-office terms: Does it have “legs”?

It is too early to tell, but it’s hard to argue against the first-blush results of the federally sponsored program. Spurred by an unprecedented amount of advertising and marketing efforts from car manufacturers struggling to get potential buyers off the couch, the CARS 2009 program has resulted in a flood of inquiries and a strong stream of traffic. Early results also indicate that many of the consumers taking part in the program are not typical new-car buyers, which means the sales “were not going to happen anyway” -- one criticism of the program. Many of the vehicles that came in during the first full weekend of the effort were not-so-Golden Oldies from the previous millennium. One can presume that current owners/drivers of a 1996 Ford Explorer, 1995 Dodge Ramcharger or 1991 Jaguar XJS would not be prime candidates for new-car ownership given other circumstances, but there they were, waiting for their piece of the government pie as the program drew its opening breaths.

One person who was not surprised by the initial rush of clunker people was Rae Tyson, a key spokesperson for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, which has been charged with administering the CARS program. “I have to admit, we kind of expected this,” he told us. “In the process of setting up this program, we spoke frequently with our opposite numbers in Germany, where they have recently instituted a similar program, and when their program launched, it pretty much tied up the Internet for several hours.”

Tyson also predicts that the program’s $1 billion in government funding will run out well before November 1, the sunset date set by Congress.

“I wouldn’t panic right now,” he said. “You don’t have to run out and buy a car this weekend, but I would keep an eye on how much money is left in the program, and that’s something you can do on our Cars (.gov) Web site.”

So the signs that the CARS 2009 program will move the needle in a positive way are unmistakable. One underreported aspect of the program and the media hype surrounding it is that consumers are excited about buying cars again. In retrospect, the consumers who don’t qualify for the program may be as important as those who do. Why? Because consumers who get the car-buying bug do research on the Web and go into showrooms, and they are likely candidates to buy a new vehicle even if they find they don’t have a qualifying clunker. Sure, there is the chance that the buildup to the CARS 2009 announcement has led to a deluge of interest that won’t be sustained for the length of the program. But right now, the program is a very welcome breath of new life in the car industry.

Sell It Yourself or Trade It In?

“Should I sell my car myself?” I can’t tell you how often I’ve heard that question. Or its opposite number, “Should I trade my car in?” I wish I could give you a simple answer, but the fact of the matter is, there is no simple answer.

For some, selling their car on their own makes more economic sense than trading it in for a new ride. For others, taking the time and effort to market their current car is a losing proposition. Much of the issue revolves around how much you value your own time. If you don't figure out what your time is worth, you might well spend costly hour upon hour engaging in amateur salesmanship only to find you would have been better off trading the old boat in to the dealer where you purchased your new car. Or conversely, you might discover that selling your car yourself is more than worth your while -- perhaps in these days of tough economic times, it makes more sense than ever to try to wrest the most from the value of your vehicle.

To find the answer, we recommend doing a little math. What are night and weekend hours -- when you'll most likely be collecting phone calls and giving prospective buyers impromptu walk-arounds -- worth to you? Only you can determine that value, and once you've figured out the dollars-per-hour figure, then multiply it by, say, eight hours, as a reasonable estimate of how long it will take you to complete the requisite steps to selling a vehicle yourself. Let's assume, for the sake of argument, that your weekend hours are worth $50 to you; in that case, selling your car yourself will cost you $400 (8 times $50). But the return from that $400 expenditure of time and effort can be substantial.

Look at it this way: Let’s assume your goal is to sell your current 2005 model-year full-size car so you can buy another vehicle. If you trade it in and are astute about the negotiation process, the dealer will allow you $15,000 as the wholesale value of your vehicle. But if you sell the car on the open market, you may well reap $17,300 for the selfsame vehicle, or $2,300 more. So spending eight hours ($400) of your time to collect $2,300 seems like a good investment. Sure, you might further spend $100 or so in Internet listings, classified ads and signage, but after accounting for everything -- your costs and your time -- you still may be up by $1,800. Not bad at all.

Of course, knowing your vehicle’s worth before you decide to sell it on your own is a capital idea. The good news is that these days you can easily visit Web sites that can help you establish the value of your car. With that information in hand, you can negotiate a sales price that will be significantly above your target profit.

Will Hypermiling Catch on?

The world’s economy has tripped and skinned its knee. “Cost cutting” is the term of the moment. Even the profligate spenders in Formula One are trimming their expenses -- and even considering an expenditure cap. Motor sports the world over are looking for ways to give themselves something of a green veneer, and the average person is just trying to figure out how to save some money. The solution to both may come in a new redheaded stepchild of motor sports called hypermiling. No, it’s not racing, and it might be a stretch to call it a motor sport, but its practitioners are as serious about it as an F1 driver preparing for a grand prix.

Hypermiling is a new kind of motoring event in which cars are driven thousands of miles very slowly and carefully, proving that motor sports don’t have to be all about screeching tires, maximum revs and power slides. Quite the opposite, really: Hypermiling is all about driving smoothly, slowly and keeping momentum. Brakes are bad; coasting is good.

One of the pioneers of hypermiling, Wayne Gerdes recently drove a Ford Fusion almost 1,500 miles on just one tank of fuel costing less than $40. To make the feat even more impressive, Gerdes didn’t drive the journey in some uber-friendly eco-buggy either: The Fusion was a standard 2.5-liter family sedan.

While the choice of car can certainly make a difference, the technique is the thing in hypermiling. The aim is to drive the car as far as possible on a single tank of fuel, as frugally as possible. That means no stereo, no air conditioning, no open windows and minimal use of the throttle. Tire pressures are inflated to their absolute safe maximum to reduce rolling resistance, and every fuel-saving technique possible is applied -- such as freewheeling down hills.

Even though the sport sounds like stuff that favors the proverbial little old lady from Pasadena -- though not her superstock Dodge -- Gerdes’ most recent run in his Ford Fusion was with a team of six, each taking shifts at the wheel. It could well be a world record, although, sadly, Guinness World Records representatives weren’t present to record the event. The fuel in the Fusion finally ran dry after 1,445.7 miles and 69 hours of driving. That’s pretty impressive fuel economy in anyone’s logbook.

While you might not be able to compete at quite the same level as Gerdes and his team, here are some basic tips for any wannabe hypermiler:

  • Accelerate as smoothly and as gingerly as possible given the demands of traffic behind you.
  • Brake as gently and as little as you can. Anticipating the traffic flow will help you achieve this.
  • Coast up to traffic lights and stop signs.
  • As you approach the top of a hill, take your foot off the accelerator. Inertia will allow you to crest the brow, and then gravity will take over, pulling you downhill.  Some hypermilers turn off the ignition as they coast, but this could cost you in steering and braking control, so we don’t recommend it.
  • Avoid bumps and potholes, which reduce forward momentum.
  • Install a fuel-consumption gauge in your car so you can track your performance.

Will hypermiling really take off as a motor sport? As a participant sport, it is already with us because the economy has turned many of us into de facto hypermilers, but we can’t imagine that an endurance contest featuring cars going very slowly for hours at a time will catch on as a televised sport. But then again, who could’ve thought amateur dance contests could rule the prime-time airwaves?

Cash for Clunkers Law Grabs Consumer Interest

Will the recently passed federal legislation that goes by the nickname “Cash for Clunkers” do much to aid the environment? Will it do much to limit our use of foreign oil? With all its environmentalist trappings, is it really designed to boost sagging new-car sales while the environment takes a backseat? You can argue those questions until the cows come home, but one thing is plain: The potential new-car buyers are very interested in the Car Allowance Rebate System, otherwise known as CARS. Enticed by the idea of the government offering them up to $4,500 for their gas-guzzling old car, they want to see if that dream can come true.

Market research and a scan of the general media makes that fact very clear. “Cash for Clunkers” is now on the radar screen of about three in four new-car buyers, according to a well-regarded consumer Web site. That is very good news for car dealers and car manufacturers, since the current market seems woefully in need of some sort of stimulus that will inspire consumers to buy. The serious buzz surrounding “Cars for Clunkers” could well be that stimulus, though there is the potential that consumers will be disappointed when they fully understand all the terms of the limited-time program.

One of the key facets of the program -- that the government will give vouchers worth up to $4,500 to owners of older vehicles toward the purchase of new, more fuel-efficient vehicles -- is pretty well understood. What is less understood is that the vouchers worth cash will go to the participating new-car dealer, not the consumer. Dealers are expected to pass on that largesse in the transaction price of the vehicle, but the question lingers: Will they? Car buyers are also much less aware of the other key element of the program: that the vehicles they turn in for the government bounty of $3,500 or $4,500 will be scrapped after they are delivered to the dealer selling them the new cars. Very simply, this means the cars will have no trade-in value. The voucher to the dealer -- $3,500 or $4,500 -- is all you get. This implies that dealers participating in CARS 2009 will have some explaining to do to customers walking in the door seeking to participate in the program.

On the positive side, a lot of consumers would like to partake in this program. That number might be perhaps as high as 25 percent, although it is almost certain that not nearly 25 percent of all new-car buyers meet the government criteria. For new-car dealers across the country who have suffered from a lack of traffic in the midst of this deep recession, that might constitute a half-full, rather than half-empty, glass. Not all of those who are interested in the program will find that the vehicle they own qualifies, but car dealers well know that increased traffic usually results in increased sales, because once the car-buying bug bites, consumers usually want to scratch the itch.