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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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.

The Most Anticipated 2011 Cars

OK, the 2011 car-model year is not expected to set sales records. The U.S. economy is dragging like it has a bad cold -- and this cold is hanging on. Experts predict that U.S. car sales, which stood at a robust 16 million units as recently as 2007, will be lucky to total much above 12 million in 2011. With sales expected to be down at least 25 percent from the halcyon mid-decade years, you can bet there won’t be many parties in the halls of the big automakers this year.

But despite the sales doldrums that haunt America and reverberate worldwide, global automakers have put together some very, very interesting vehicles for your approbation (and purchase, for that matter). In fact, one might accurately state that the most-anticipated of the 2011 cars are among the most interesting vehicles launched in the past 50 years. Let’s take a look at them, shall we?

2011 Car No. 1: Audi A8
The go-to big sedans in the luxury segment have traditionally been the Mercedes-Benz S-Class and the BMW 7 Series, but Audi has changed the face of the competition with its new A8 L. The long-wheelbase sedan is being launched globally with five engine offerings, and while not all of them will appear in America, the 500-horsepower 12-cylinder engine will. What’s amazing about the A8 L is that it is a true driver’s car that still offers limousine-like amenities, like individual rear seats that can be equipped with ventilating and massage functions. You can also opt to equip your rolling recreational area with a table and refrigerator.

2011 Car No. 2:Chevrolet Volt
Certainly no domestic car model in decades has been as awaited as the Chevrolet Volt. One could make the claim that General Motors is still in business because of anticipation of this model -- a difficult halo to keep shiny. But the Volt does offer leading-edge technology throughout. The midsized sedan is electrically driven, but drivers don’t have to worry about running out of juice: Its onboard gasoline-powered engine keeps the battery pack charged. It will go about 40 miles on a fully charged battery, and then the engine kicks on. Although it’s eagerly awaited, it won’t be available across the U.S. just yet. Instead, the Volt will be available initially to Chevrolet customers in California, New York, Michigan, Connecticut, Texas, New Jersey and the Washington, D.C., area.

2011 Car No. 3:Ford Fiesta
The 2011 Ford Fiesta will test Americans’ desire for a premium small car -- in other words, a small sedan or hatchback that isn’t built to the lowest common denominator. The Fiesta is expected to deliver best-in-class highway fuel economy of up to 40 mpg. But its 1.6-liter dual-overhead-cam four-cylinder engine, combined with a six-speed automatic transmission and electric power-assisted steering, gives it a sporty feel others in the class lack. Its well-regarded SYNC® voice-activated communications system will also make it a world-class leader in connectivity. 

2011 Car No. 4: Nissan LEAF
What’s greener than a LEAF? That’s the question posed by the first all-electric car to come to the U.S. market from a major manufacturer in more than a decade. The bigger question: Will Americans accept a vehicle with a range of just 100 miles full recharge will cost less than $3, so on a per-miles-driven basis, the LEAF will be very inexpensive to operate. And the federal government will help with the purchase or lease side with a $7,500 tax credit. Oh, you wanted to learn more about the car? Rest assured it will be well-equipped with a variety of features, including an advanced navigation system and Internet/smartphone connectivity that will enable pre-heating and pre-cooling before it has to be recharged? One factor in its favor is that, in many areas, while the car is plugged in (a great way to maximize range). Safety features include electronic stability control, traction control and six airbags. And you’d be surprised at how much fun the LEAF is to drive.


Will Hybrids See a Resurgence?

Toyota has been putting plug-in versions of its fabled Prius hybrid into the hands of the automotive press. Meanwhile, General Motors is close to introducing its Chevrolet Volt, which also has plug-in capabilities. Does this signal that hybrid cars will finally climb from the doldrums that have beset them since the recession closed in?

Well, maybe. Certainly when Toyota brings its plug-in version of the hybrid car to market, it figures to generate some media buzz. And the Volt, while not a hybrid in the traditional sense, has much in common with the plug-in hybrid technology and should gain some serious coverage.  

Times, as they say, have changed. A couple of years back, the world was gripped in an oil-availability crunch and an environmental weave of emotion that vaulted hybrids to the top of the list as a gotta-have-it technology. Gasoline prices had climbed to then-unheard-of levels, and the Toyota Prius was hailed as not only the answer to the current issues but a harbinger of an inexorable trend toward hybrids. Auto journalists around the world applauded Toyota (and Honda with its first Insight and Civic hybrids) for its pioneering hybrid efforts while chiding companies like General Motors for lagging the field in this virally important area. Many said a major switch to hybrids was inevitable.

But the last few years have been very unkind to hybrids. Ford Motor Co., General Motors and Nissan added hybrid models to their lineups, and Toyota and Honda supplemented their first hybrids with additional hybrid models. Several of those hybrids have already bitten the dust. If you believed the pundits who said that hybrids were going to take over the world, you were probably disappointed. Despite the addition of a variety of Toyota and Lexus models plus hybrid versions of several Ford Motor Co. vehicles, the Prius remains the predominant plug-in hybrid model, and its sales have suffered recently in the face of a deepening recession and relatively low fuel prices. Honda’s second Insight has largely laid an egg.

Fuel prices are creeping up again, and although interest in and sales of hybrids increase in correlation with fuel price run-ups, hybrids are still a long way from becoming a dominant technology. Despite the fact they’ve been around for years now, they’re still a long way from even reaching mainstream status.

So will the addition of the plug-in feature enable hybrids to become a dominant car type? The answer to that question seems like a firm no. Even with the potential development of much less expensive batteries, a plug-in hybrid drive system as we know it still involves more components than a conventionally powered car, and more components equal more cost -- thousands of dollars of more cost.

The ball, therefore, lands right in the vehicle marketers’ court. Can they convince new-car buyers that the benefits of plug-in hybrids -- significantly increased fuel economy, lower emissions, decreased use of fossil fuels and the ability to drive in electric-only mode for at least some distance -- are worth the additional cost that seems inevitable with the technology? It’s hard to believe that the answer will be yes, despite what is likely to be laudatory media coverage.

Voice Control for Driving Safety

Voice control can reduce driving distractions and promote driving safety.

How do we know?

A new Virginia Tech Transportation Institute (VTTI) study shows that drivers can minimize visual distractions by using voice-controlled vehicle systems like Ford SYNC instead of operating hand-held cell phones and tuning music systems manually. The study by VTTI was released in Detroit at the Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE) World Congress during a panel discussion titled “Human Factors in Driving and Automotive Telematics.”

In the new Ford-commissioned study, 21 drivers, ages 19 to 51, who were familiar with SYNC drove a Mercury Mariner while initiating a call, selecting music tracks and having phone conversations using the hands-free, voice-controlled system. For the purpose of comparison, the participants also completed the same tasks manually using their own mobile phones and portable music players in the same vehicle. The study concluded that drivers were able to dial and complete other tasks more quickly and with less eyes-off-road time when using voice-activated SYNC system. At the same time, drivers manually operating phones and digital music players steered more erratically and looked away from the roadway for longer periods of time.

“This study suggests that keeping drivers’ eyes on the road as much as possible is important for maintaining safe vehicle control, which is in line with recent naturalistic driving research,” said Shane McLaughlin, research scientist, Center for Automotive Safety Research, Virginia Tech Transportation Institute.

When study participants initiated a call, hand-held operation required more than two and a half times as many glances away from the road and more than four times longer in total eyes-off-road time than when drivers used the voice-activated system. For MP3 player song selection, hand-held operation required more than six times as many task-related glances than SYNC and took more than 10 times longer in total eyes-off-road time.

VTTI’s new study is consistent with the groundbreaking 100-Car Naturalistic Driving Study, completed in 2005 for the U.S. Department of Transportation. The study followed 109 drivers for one year and tracked more than 42,300 hours of driving data collected with over 2 million miles driven. It concluded that manually dialing a hand-held device while driving -- a task that requires looking away from the road -- was almost 2.8 times riskier than normal driving. The study also showed that talking and listening on a phone while driving has a similar risk to normal driving.