The Tesla Model 3 has Arrived

After the long wait, Elon Musk’s crowning achievement is nigh: the arrival of an affordable, mass market fully electric car. And by all accounts, it is a stunning accomplishment. In his grand announcement in Fremont, California on July 29, Musk publicly delivered the first 30 cars to their new owners, mostly Tesla employees.

So, let’s break down some of the obvious points of interest for car enthusiast and would be Tesla owners. Clearly, the stick price and range top the list, with design and feature specifics coming after that. The Tesla Model 3 will have 2 versions, the ‘Standard’ battery with an estimated range of 220 miles for $35,000, and the ‘Long Range’ battery at 310 miles and $44,000. Look out Mercedes and BMW, your job just got a lot harder. I would include the Chevy Bolt here as well, but it just isn’t a fair fight. To be sure, the demand for the Model 3 will be significant, which will put a lot of pressure on the production schedule for the coming year, and any hiccups could quickly derail the party for Tesla. And new buyers are still going to have to wait a long time before they get their new Model 3, and American consumers are not a patient bunch.

Here is the rundown of the two versions:

 

Standard Battery

Long Range Battery

Cost

$35,000

$44,000

Range (Est.)

220 Miles

310 Miles

Charge Rate

130 miles in 30 minutes

170 miles in 30 minutes

0 to 60 MPH

5.6 seconds

5.1 seconds

 

Not surprisingly, the design is leek and smart, and will solicit the envy of just about everyone. There is a premium option for $5,000 that will include premium sound, premium display, and an all-glass roof.

Luxury Car?

Some people will balk at the all-in price of a fully loaded Tesla Model 3. A long range option with the premium package will bring you to $49,000, which is really competing with higher end BMWs and Volvos. And if zero emission and US car manufacturing isn’t all that important to you, you might not be as we were. The folks at The Verge were not.

Safety

A safety test with perennial safety stand out Volvo S60 also shows that the Tesla is a safe car to drive. The impact of car wrecks are coming under increasing pressure from critics and safety boards, and the Model 3 checks this box. Expect some of the advertising and marketing to contain messaging about safety contained in this review by Bloomberg

While we have not yet driven the Model 3, we’re pretty sure people are going to love it and pay up for a place in line for a late 2018 delivery. The next batch doesn’t come out until later this year.

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Is Propane the Fuel of the Future?

In many parts of America, gasoline prices have shot up to $4 per gallon or more -- and that rapid increase has had the predictable effect of prompting many consumers to take a second look at alternative energy sources. One of these – propane -- has a long and positive history as a transportation fuel, but it has been often ignored in the hype about “the hydrogen economy,” gasoline-electric hybrids, and dedicated electric vehicles. Even ethanol, which will be the subject of next week’s feature, has received much greater attention than propane. But now there are signs that the worm is turning and that propane’s considerable virtues as a transportation fuel will finally be more widely recognized.

Interestingly enough, it was a recent speech by President Barack Obama -- who is generally seen as a strong electric-car proponent -- that has given the propane backers new hope. The president outlined a variety of goals, including the importance of securing America’s energy supply, saving consumers’ money at the pump and creating a cleaner environment.

“We cannot keep going from shock to trance on the issue of energy security, rushing to propose action when gas prices rise, then hitting the snooze button when they fall again,” said Obama during a recent speech at Georgetown University. “It is time to do what we can to secure our energy future.”

Frankly, those who back propane as an alternative fuel think the abundant gas has the potential to help the president meet all of his goals. Ninety percent of the propane consumed in the United States is produced domestically. While you can count the number of hydrogen filling stations in the entire nation on your fingers and toes, thousands of propane refueling stations across the country make propane gas convenient and available. In fact, proponents claim there are more propane “autogas” stations than any other type of alternative-fuel station, although ethanol boosters may dispute that. One fact is indisputable: Propane is the only alternative fuel with stations in every state.

While propane has found the sledding tough in much of the United States, there are more than 15 million vehicles operating on propane worldwide. According to the U.S. Department of Energy, more than 270,000 on-road vehicles operate on propane across the United States. Of course that is a drop in the ocean compared to the number of vehicles that use gasoline or diesel fuel, but it does prove the viability of propane as a transportation fuel. Frito-Lay, ThyssenKrupp Elevator, Schwan’s, Red Top Cab and SuperShuttle are among the many companies that operate fleet vehicles powered by propane.

“The Department of Energy’s Clean Cities initiative and the White House’s newly announced National Clean Fleets Partnership share a common goal with the propane industry -- to introduce state-of-the-art technology that makes fleets more sustainable,” says Roy Willis, president and CEO of the Propane Education & Research Council (PERC). “In recent years, the propane industry has partnered with Clean Cities Coalitions to develop programs for propane autogas deployment projects, including vehicles and infrastructure.”

In fact, it is in trucks rather than in cars that propane might find a firm and expanding role in fueling America’s vehicles. Light- and medium-duty trucks and vans fueled by propane are available from a number of industry-leading manufacturers, including ROUSH CleanTech for Ford Motor Company commercial vehicles and General Motors commercial fleet products through a partnership with CleanFUEL USA.

The major hurdle for the clean-burning abundant gas might be the prejudice some diehard environmentalists have against vehicles that burn any fuel at all. These all-electric proponents have previously had a likely ally in President Obama, but his most recent words on the subject seem to offer hope to those who think propane can be part of a national energy solution to pollution and the vagaries of foreign oil.

The Future of the Fuel Cell

Honda couldn’t have been more emphatic in its support of fuel cell vehicles at the recent Detroit auto show. 

In a press event there, Takanobu Ito, president and CEO of Honda Motor Co., called fuel cells the best solution for combating the creation of more carbon dioxide. But at the same motor show, a number of other manufacturers showed battery electric vehicles, the technology that seems to be the darling of the Obama administration. And make no mistake, the endorsement of a particular technology by the powers that be in Washington will have an increasingly important effect on what consumers eventually see in their driveways. Which begs the question: What are the attributes of fuel cell vehicles and why are they being put on the back burner in favor of battery electrics?

Are Fuel Cells Really Better?
Let’s look more closely at the desirable features of fuel cells. Unlike the typical gasoline or diesel automobile engine, the fuel cell doesn’t use combustion to create power. (In layman’s terms, it doesn’t burn anything.) Instead, it uses a simple chemical reaction to make electricity, which can either be used to power electric motors and electronic equipment or can be stored in batteries for future use. So what are the powers a fuel cell? Two of the most abundant elements on the globe: hydrogen and oxygen. It’s stuff that is pretty easy to come by, and the bonus is that when the chemical reaction takes place, the only byproduct is water in vapor (aka gaseous) form. All the residue spewed by current internal combustion engines -- the particulates, nitrous oxides, carbon monoxide -- that give environmentalists nightmares vanish with the use of fuel cells.

The Fuel Cell Challenge
As exciting as all this sounds, fuel cell-powered vehicles do have some hurdles to jump before they end up in your garage. If fuel cell vehicles are to have significant long-term impact in the auto industry, automakers and suppliers must successfully address several challenges that loom over the auto fuel cell industry. The most difficult among these challenges is low-cost infrastructure (read: fueling stations) and the two related issues of vehicle range and power density.

The infrastructure question is especially vexing: Conceiving and then building a new fuel-delivery infrastructure that could transport, store and dispense highly volatile hydrogen is a huge hurdle. Ultimately the solution may be the use of the current gasoline fuel dispensing system, since hydrogen can be manufactured onsite with a reformation process, perhaps powered by solar energy.

Obama vs. Fuel Cells

But the biggest hurdle in the short term might well be the fact that the current administration and its regulatory arms seem to clearly favor battery electric vehicles.  That is demonstrated by the fact that startup battery-electric companies like Tesla Motors have received millions in government loans. And if the industry senses that the government is pushing battery electrics, it is far less likely to fund a hydrogen infrastructure that is necessary for fuel cell vehicles to thrive.

So fuel cells offer many advantages, but those advantages could well be trumped by governmental policy that favors other technologies. The final chapter on this is yet to be written.

Alternative-fuel Vehicles Don’t Turn Consumers On

The general media loves alternative-fuel vehicles. Hardly a week goes by without another boosterish story about the day when we’ll no longer have to buy gasoline. At the same time, the federal government is on the verge of formalizing stringent Corporate Average Fuel Economy regulations that, by the way, put the onus on carmakers to sell them, so auto manufacturers are more eager than ever to build a market for alternative-propulsion vehicles. If they want to compete in the American market in future years, they are almost compelled to. So, as 2012 is set to dawn, the eyes of the auto industry are increasingly turning to alternative-fuel vehicles. A substantial number of them will be introduced at this week’s Los Angeles Auto Show, but the multibillion-dollar question is: Does the general public want to buy them? Increasingly, it seems the answer might be “No.”

A recent survey conducted by a major third-party automotive website points to this possibility quite clearly. Asked point-blank, “Would you ever consider purchasing or leasing a hybrid?” a resounding 45 percent of respondents replied, “No, I would never consider a hybrid.” In contrast, only 14 percent responded, “Yes, I am thinking about it.” While 14 percent sounds like a decently high number, saying “I’m thinking about it” is a long way from saying “I will definitely buy one.”

So the public is not really interested in buying a hybrid, but what about other green vehicles? There are other technologies that might break the hold that petroleum has on us. Well, it seems they’re not too thrilled with those either. Asked the question, “Which new high-mileage/green tech vehicle are you most excited about?” only 7 percent of readers picked hybrids and plug-in hybrids; full electrics drew an 8-percent response and, oddly, hydrogen/hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles drew a 15-percent positive response -- just as much as EV and hybrids combined. Of course, fuel cell vehicles aren’t even available for sale and probably won’t be for years. The big winners were essentially conventional vehicles. Clean diesels drew 20 percent excitement, and 40-plus-mpg vehicles garnered 32 percent. Some 18 percent, no doubt curmudgeons, said they were excited by “none of the above.”

So what’s the takeaway? The news media might believe that consumers want information about green vehicles. In fact, consumers might really want that info. But what audience members have collectively heard so far about alternative-fuel vehicles has not persuaded them that these cars are something a large number of people want to buy. A great deal of the initial consumer interest in alternative-propulsion vehicles might have stemmed as much from consumers’ desire to drive in the carpool lane as from solidly held environmental concerns. Equally important, as gasoline-engine technology improves efficiency and ups their mpg performance, consumers will see even fewer reasons to buy green vehicles.

The Fuel Cell

It seems like the proverbial magic bullet. Imagine if you will, an energy source that leaves no residue except some water and a bit of carbon dioxide. Nor does it produce particulates, nitrous oxides, carbon monoxide or anything else that might cause environmentalists to moan. Unlike the typical gasoline or diesel automobile engine, the fuel cell doesn't even use combustion to create power. Instead it uses a simple chemical reaction to make electricity, which can then be used to power electric motors and electronic equipment or stored in batteries for future use.

If all this seems too good to be true, here's a fact: fuel cells have been used in the U.S. space program since the 1960s and today they are used to provide reliable power for out-of-the-way hotels and hospitals that find it too expensive to tap into traditional electric power grids. So why hasn't the auto industry jumped on this technology long before now? Well, actually the industry has toyed with fuel cells for decades, but only in the last several years, with the bogey of having to market so-called zero-emissions vehicles mandated by law, has the industry become serious about employing fuel cell technology. Now, though, major players like General Motors, Ford Motor Company, Toyota and DaimlerChrysler are working overtime to bring fuel cell vehicles to the market.

A quick glance at the technology of the fuel cell: It's somewhat synonymous with a storage battery that doesn't require recharging. Like a battery, it consists of two electrodes around an electrolyte. Oxygen passes over one electrode and a fuel, hydrogen passes over the other, resulting in a chemical reaction that creates a flow of electrons (electricity), heat and a hydrogen-oxygen combination commonly called "water." Unlike batteries that "run down" after continuous discharge, fuel cells will continue to make electricity, heat and water as long as they are provided with oxygen and hydrogen. Unlike the typical vehicle engine, which converts energy stored in its fuel to usable power via combustion (i.e., "burning"), fuel cells chemically combine the molecules of a fuel and an oxidizer without burning, dispensing with the inefficiencies and pollution of traditional combustion.

In an era of constant tradeoffs, there seems to be nothing but an upside for fuel cell technology. But before you start whistling show tunes as you skip off merrily through a field of daisies, the technology does present challenges.

Perhaps the biggest challenge is the handling of the volatile element hydrogen. As proved in the grainy film footage of the explosion of the dirigible Hindenburg ("Oh, the humanity!"), hydrogen gas can be explosive. Given this, one trick in developing fuel cells that will work in vehicle applications is supplying and re-fueling the hydrogen. Various methods have been contemplated and tried, including cold storage of liquid hydrogen and various methods for storing hydrogen gas, but the most promising for real-world use seems to be the gasoline station on the corner. Gasoline (as well as other fuels) can be broken down to produce hydrogen, which can then be used in fuel cells.

Producing hydrogen from gasoline (or methanol or ethanol) is the job of a "reformer." The reformer is sort of an on-board "cracking plant" that separates hydrogen, which is a component of gasoline, from its other components. Of course, the use of an on-board reformer adds a great deal of complexity (and cost) to each fuel cell application. Further, building reformers that are compact enough for automotive use are problematical right now, though fuel cell advocates predict that obstacle will soon be conquered.

Even given the obstacles, reformer-fuel cell technology seems the most viable alternative for getting the technology into automobiles. Why? In the absence of reformers a whole new fuel delivery infrastructure would have to be created from scratch, and the costs of such an undertaking are staggering.

Global car manufacturers say fuel cell technology is coming. In fact, Ford Motor Company, which debuted what it called the world's first production-prototype, direct-hydrogen powered fuel cell late last year, says it is committed to offering fuel cell vehicles to customers by 2004. Other manufacturers are just as eager to be seen on this leading edge. But the internal combustion engine still has a great deal of life left in it. In fact, industry observers predict that gasoline-powered internal combustion engines will still power more than 50 percent of the world's vehicle fleet in 2050. Continue to tune in to DT to see if they are right.


--Jack Nerad

Jack R. Nerad, the co-host of the nationally syndicated radio program "America on the Road," usually runs out of energy around 10 pm.