Personal Log  #527

August 28, 2011  -  September 7, 2011

Last Updated: Sun. 9/11/2011

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At This Point.  A variety of new plug-in concepts have already been revealed, in advance of the big autoshow kickoff in Europe next week.  Each takes a different approach, in part due to patent restrictions.  They'll offer different motor sizes & batteries too.  The most unexpected has been one from Volvo, where they'll actually be taking the long-ago abandoned thru-the-road approach.  These reveals tend to imply the automakers are now paying much closer attention to the growing interest in plug-in offerings.  Adding an electric-motor as an independent propulsion device with no connection whatsoever to the engine or transmission especially emphasizes that.  Put another way, we can say at this point promotion has already shifted to battery-pack capacity and electric-motor power.  How else would consumers distinguish differences?  For example, that Volvo will have 70 horsepower available for electric-only driving; the plug-in Prius will have 80.  Both are plenty for maintaining a cruise on the highway.  More is overkill, only used for heavy acceleration.  The kWh capacity is even easier to understand; it represents the electric-only potential (with the understanding that range itself will vary greatly).  More can be better, but even a small pack will still deliver a significant efficiency improvement.


Halo Effect.  There's pretty much unanimous agreement that this is what Volt is currently achieving.  When even the enthusiasts don't argue that Volt works as enticement for the sales of other GM vehicles rather than being the vehicle of choice itself, there isn't much more to say.  The topic of discussion of when this will change is emerging, when the purpose of traditional vehicle replacement will actually take place.  I stated the situation this way:  Think about the dealer/salesperson perspective, having a demo model available but none in inventory.  Why bother with a Volt sale, knowing the customer will pester them for months while waiting for delivery?  It's so much easier to sell a Cruze, a wide variety available for immediate purchase.  And what if the financing for the much more expensive Volt doesn't actually come through?  Think about waiting for months, then not getting loan approval.  All that effort for nothing.  This is very much the "halo" effect that GM wanted all along.  They claimed that's what Prius did for Toyota, but refused to acknowledge how many Prius were actually being sold.  Way back in 2004 when the anti-hybrid campaigning got really bad, worldwide annual sales had already exceeded 120,000.  When will Volt reach that, especially knowing GM is also pushing eAssist at the same time?


8-Speed Transmission.  By adding 3 more gears, Dodge will be able to increase efficiency of their automatic Charger highway MPG from 27 to 31 and the city MPG from 18 to 19.  Adding complexity to a transmission already more complicated than a hybrid for so little of a gain is truly amazing.  But that's the desperation of keeping traditional vehicles from dying... especially guzzlers like that.  Of course, even with a combined estimate of 23 MPG, how much demand will there really be for it?  I suspect more and more of the old-school muscle cars will end up becoming even more of a niche.  Heck, there's even worry that the sleek sport look of Cadillac ELR could potentially draw sales away from Corvette.  Times are definitely changing... but not without resistance.  What other attempts to keep classics alive will materialize?  How much will people be willing to pay for that?  When will the market tip in favor of electric motors and fewer gears?


Engineering Tradeoff.  Delivering a vehicle for mainstream consumers with the intent of high-volume profitable sales means a careful balance of design.  Simply producing more won't address shortcomings beyond lowering price.  If the engineering choices didn't fulfill business need, you're stuck with something uncompetitive.  Tradeoffs are a normal part of the process.  Many aspects of design, like speed, power, size, cost, weight, efficiency, reliability, etc., are common decision factors.  Altering one usually means one of more changes as a result.  This is why vehicles differ so much.  Adding a plug further complicates matters.  Finding a balance is a challenge.  This was the hope for Volt by enthusiasts, even though the "vastly superior" mindset clearly didn't address need.  Only now are they seeing the consequences of that.  For example, that purity of EV propulsion sacrifices efficiency after battery depletion.  Using direct-drive instead increases efficiency, but that breaks the aspect of purity.  The sacrifice also reveals itself when running the heater in winter.  What's so wrong with a tradeoff?  After all, the very nature of a hybrid is the flexibility to seek out a balance.


Oil & Gas.  The price of a barrel of oil closed at $86.45 this week.  It's been in the upper-80's for quite some time now.  That's where it has seemed to settle, in this time of much uncertainty.  That has put the price of gas during the holiday weekend at $3.89 per gallon.  Interestingly, none of that seems to be getting much attention anymore.  The "boil a frog" effect has been confirmed.  People simply get use to dealing with higher prices.  What happens with oil & gas is so far out of their control, they just accept it.  The result has been a migration to smaller vehicles.  The larger guzzlers of the past are becoming an astonishing part of our history.  Future generations will be shocked how much those were pushed as the best choice for American consumers.  Ages ago, that was easier to understand.  But to fight hybrids a decade after their introduction didn't make any sense.  In this time of portable electronics being so common, why would technology to improve efficiency through the use of a battery still be resisted so intensely?  The plug-in hybrids will tip the balance.  Seeing a model of Prius routinely deliver +75 MPG will draw attention back to the concerns of oil & gas dependency and consumption.


Realistic Outlook.  The upcoming plug-in market is filled with uncertainty.  Supply is too low to determine how much interest there actually is.  We know that GM will sell every Volt it makes, simply because there's enough initial rollout demand in each state and the discounted prices from each of the over 3,000 demo model will attract buyers.  But all that relies heavily upon tax-credit availability.  In the meantime, the plug-in Prius will be entering the game.  Toyota already has a well established reputation with it.  In fact, the only thing new design aspect is the plug itself.  The fact that the electricity will enhance EV abilities currently available is easy to understand.  So, it's quite likely that even initial sales will include more than just enthusiasts.  The strongest market for Prius isn't here either.  In Japan, it's the top-selling vehicle.  Prius supporters are expecting Volt to fade into the background as Toyota & Nissan lead the way with Ford & Hyundai making plans to join in.  Clearly, Volt wasn't the overnight success leap-frogging technology it was hyped to be.  What is a realistic outlook for it?  Being competitive means some type of compromise to deliver a lower price.  After all, carrying double the cost of the most popular traditional vehicle won't easily allow it to replace mainstream production & sales.


Aftermath.  It looks like August was the month where the general perception of Volt turned unfavorable.  Those attentive to detail, looking beyond the outrageous price, saw that GM was scrambling to improve engine efficiency & emissions.  The choice to abandon a specialized engine and use the same basic one as Cruze was obviously a rush to meet the originally promised delivery date without contributing to an even higher price or risking reliability.  There's fallout from earlier marketing too; that anticipated 40-mile range clearly didn't address the realities of winter.  Most of that is just enthusiast bickering though.  What really matters is sales.  They've been underwhelming.  And now as availability expands from the highest demand markets to the rest of the country, envisioning an aftermath where Volt has become a niche due to the popularity of Cruze and the Prius is quite easy.  There are a few die-hard enthusiasts still believing this particular model of Volt is about to take the market by storm though, as with this rather ironic example:  "So .. tell me .. what other company is building anything that come close to the Volt.. it's been a year.. the Volt is all alone.. and you think GM is doing something wrong?  GM is working on gen two while all others are scrambling to get something out to compete with gen 1.  I think GM has done the best of any company.. they didn't rush the Volt out.. they did it right."


Terribly Wrong.  That's the way one observer described Volt sales, after finding out only 302 were sold in August.  With 550 produced the second half of July, you'd think the number would be higher.  Whatever the case, it sure sets up September to be an interesting one.  This was my take on the situation:  Two-Mode hype died shortly after rollout began, when shortcomings of expectations became apparent.  Sales sputtered along following that.  Sound familiar?  2,400 Volt were produced in August.  Supposedly, there are many consumers waiting for delivery still.  If true, we should see that entire inventory accounted for in the next month's sales results.  With only 3,172 purchased so far this year, that would represent the massive increase enthusiasts have been claiming would finally happen.  That doesn't seem likely, especially with 21,807 sales of Cruze in August.  Coincidently, details of the production model plug-in Prius will be revealed in just 2 weeks.  Think about the impact that will make.  If nothing else, it should stir quite a response from those holding out for a miracle from Volt.


How It Fares.  I was quite curious what was actually meant from this statement: "It will be interesting to see how the upcoming Prius plug-in hybrid fares against the Volt and Leaf."  Hopefully, I get something informative in response to my reply:  What is the criteria?  We already know that affordability was given a much higher priority than Volt.  We already know that both engine efficiency & emissions are better than Volt.  Overall efficiency is the combination of gallons & kWh based upon real-world data.  Actual consumer consumption results differ from estimates, especially when it comes to plug-ins.  So the upcoming reveal won't provide that information.  Sales are the ultimate measure of success, since the purpose of the technology is to become the mainstream replacement of traditional vehicles.  Leaf competition does pose a challenge for gauging interest.  It's easy to imagine that being a popular option for 2-car households, where the other vehicle is used for the more demanding travel.  So it doesn't reach as wide of a market as the potential for Prius.  Of course, there is always the measure of perception.  The quantity & intensity of negative spin from the competition could provide a good indication of how worried they are after getting detail about the production model of PHV.


Tomorrow.  It's the last day of August.  That ends the final month for Volt sales without production details known about the PHV.  The increased volume from retooling should have bumped up purchase quantity.  An intense wave of defense will follow if that isn't what actually happened, due to the upcoming pressure of PHV.  All the time up to now was opportunity to take advantage of not from having any plug-in hybrid competition.  It's yet another example of how "too little, too slowly" really was something to be concerned about.  With the new plug-in model of Prius about to draw consumer attention, there is reason for Volt enthusiasts to worry.  Volt didn't capture the market by storm as it had been hyped.  Cruze ended up doing that instead.  Soon there will be a Prius which middle-market will easily understand the benefits of.  By plugging it in, MPG will be boosted.  How high is an obvious question that's difficult to provide a clear answer for.  But recognizing how a plug will improve efficiency is no big deal.  After all, it's an improvement countless people have already suggested.  How many Volt do you think were purchase in August?  What amount would indicate strong interest at this point?


Resurrected Threads.  A new pattern is emerging among Prius newbies.  It sure would be interesting to find out why this is happening now too.  Perhaps interest in the plug-in is drawing in an entirely new audience.  Whatever the cause, the resulting big-picture effect is still uncertain.  They are posting to threads on the big Prius forum which have been dead for many, many years.  It's rather bizarre seeing something long since forgotten suddenly getting attention again.  Newer members will respond to it as if it is recent, somewhat confused by the nature of the topic in some cases too... like the affect of ethanol on a Prius.  Way back in 2005, it's easy to understand how that question was a hot discussion topic.  All this time later, we've long since known the answer is it's a non-issue... but the newbie didn't.  Those responding to the post that resurrected the long forgotten thread sometimes treat it as if the question was brand new, happy to respond since they have an answer... which sometimes isn't actually correct.  It gets confusing, especially when multiple generations of Prius are involved.  Having so much history now makes the search feature a mixed blessing.  We now have to be even more attentive.


Too Few Miles.  Remember comments in the past from those who don't drive much?  Justifying a "hybrid premium" was difficult for those who drive well under half the average annual distance here.  PHV changes that.  Short trips will go from being the least efficient to the most.  Propulsion will primarily come from plug supplied electricity.  They'll be the ones reporting routine results in excess of 100 MPG.  Too few miles will see the greatest return.  That's a paradigm shift.  Worth of hybrid technologies will have to be re-evaluated.  Those who doubted the potential will vanish, of course.  Proof of the FULL hybrid design supporting the next logical step in electrification will be overwhelmingly abundant.  It was the flexibility of the system (hence the "full" label) that was argued as a wise approach for the mainstream.  Offering a variety of battery-packs in addition to the plug being optional provides high-volume production opportunity while keeping the business risk low.  Those who drive only a few miles to those who drive many will have choices available.  Watch for designs that are stuck in a "one size fits all" dilemma.  Those are the ones about to face growth challenges as automakers face MPG improvement mandates.


PHV Misleading.  Until recently, the source of undermining was the competition... especially from Volt enthusiasts, hence them getting so much more attention than other plug-in hopefuls.  That's changing.  I read this today in a long article pointing out shopping considerations for EVs and plug-in hybrids: "People who drive more than 13 to 15 miles a day might be better off buying a conventional hybrid or fuel-efficient gas-powered car and saving the premium they would pay for the plug-in and the expense of a home charging station."  That paragraph started with a "be careful" statement.  It mislead by implying people will have to purchase a charger too.  That's absolutely not true.  A benefit of the smaller capacity for the PHV model Prius was that using a standard household outlet would be practical for recharging.  In other words, without a charging station, it will only take 3 hours.  No extra expense required.  And even if you do routinely drive further, you'll still see a significant MPG improvement anyway.


Plug-In Hybrids.  The approach of portraying Volt as an EV has resulted in a growing number of owner complaints.  They couldn't see the backfire hitting so hard, so quickly.  In other words, the "40 mile EV range" has become a source of misunderstandings.  They brought this upon themselves, by refusing to acknowledge the reality that Volt is a plug-in hybrid. Much like cordless hybrids, there are different types.  So, it's not like consumers wouldn't consider resulting efficiency anyway.  But they wanted to market it as the engine only being an emergency backup instead.  That seemed an effective way to downplay the shortcomings of both its efficiency and emissions shortcomings compared to the PHV model Prius.  However, reading media reviews and posted comments, that's not the case.  People see Volt as a plug-in hybrid.  Measure of worth will be against the other upcoming plug-in hybrids, not pure electric-only vehicles like Leaf.


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