Personal Log  #530

September 23, 2011  -  October 2, 2011

Last Updated: Mon. 10/03/2011

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Product Diversity.  Over the past few days, there has been a discussion going on about product diversity.  Those on the big GM forum don't feel the massive efficiency gap between Cruze in the 30's for MPG and Volt with a 35-mile plug capacity is a problem.  In fact, they insist GM has their business well covered without any other offering.  No 50 MPG cordless vehicle is needed, despite other automakers currently striving for that.  No plug-in with a smaller capacity is needed either, despite other automakers already planning that.  Battery price will just miraculously come down to a competitive & profitable level in just a few years.  How would that help only GM and none of the other automakers?  And what the heck will they sell to those who won't have a place available to plug in?  From a vehicle cost perspective, how could they simply ignore the $30,000 level?  To say nothing is needed in that price range is very risky.  They teach the necessity of product diversity in basic economics.  Hasn't anyone in that group of enthusiasts taken business classes?  Are they all engineers only?  Even the daily blog for Volt is more open-minded about the benefits of variety.  Oh well.  Their response isn't much of a surprise knowing the pressure awaiting from the Septembers sales results which will be revealed tomorrow.


Clueless Comments.  Sometimes it's scary to read comments people post on all-audience general-news websites.  Articles about hybrids attract a ton of them.  The misconceptions run amuck.  Propaganda is abundant.  Then there's the regurgitating of assumptions where clearly no research was done, like... battery replacement & cost... dead-weight on the highway... they are all tiny, slow, and dangerous... a traditional compact will deliver equal efficiency... those systems are all more complex than an automatic transmission... the price of gas will never climb any higher... diesel is just as clean & efficient... owners never get anywhere near what the EPA estimates state... owners only purchased a hybrid for green privileges or to make a statement... hybrids are really just glorified golf carts... that aerodynamics make them look ugly (despite the fact that sport cars share similar angles)... that the lack of shifting and subdued engine is a shortcoming (despite the fact that luxury vehicles strive for the same thing)... and so on.  Obviously, people respond to instinct more than insight.  Fortunately, there are quite a few owners now contributing comments to dispute the insanity.


Hybrid Market.  It's the final day of September and monthly statistics will soon be available.  The variety of articles published and threads created on a variety of forums all discussing Volt sales have fallen by the wayside... knowing price is simply way out of reach for the typical consumer and reliance on tax-credits is unrealistic.  Now, it's looking at the overall hybrid market.  With gas at $3.49 per gallon and the economy struggling, we're back seeing marketshare of just 2 percent with half of them being Prius.  In other words, the concern of "too little, too slowly" applies to the other hybrids as well.  We knew automakers would continue to improve traditional vehicles, each now offering some type of ECO model.  That means a struggle to compete.  For Prius, the result will be a larger more refined offering from the v model and a smaller more efficient while also less expensive offering from the c model.  So even without the plug-in, there's a clear effort to diversify from Toyota underway while others are still just introducing their first.  Of course, the perspective of marketshare we hear about always disregards what's happening in Japan, where Prius is the top-selling vehicle.  It doesn't take into account the new hybrid Camry either.  Needless to say, the pressure is on.  Change is required.  Resistance to it is a very real problem.  Too bad consumers don't put any worth in the SULEV and PZEV emission ratings.


Underwhelming Hybrid.  Seeing 36 MPG highway advertised for the new Buick LaCrosse with eAssist (generation 2 of BAS) may be enough to catch attention with a 30-second television commercial, but the 25 MPG city listed in the fine print doesn't exactly scream efficient... neither does the 29 MPG combined.  With estimates like that, it sure makes you think underwhelming.  Looking at the interior space available for passengers, it's not much more than what Prius v offers.  The cargo room for v is more than double what LaCrosse offers, a massive difference.  The official MPG estimates for v are now available too.  They are 40 highway, 44 city, and 42 combined.  That begs the question of what consumers expect from a hybrid.  With a $26,400 base, the price of v is so much less, it will be a compelling draw.. obvious competition, yet that aspect still hasn't been acknowledged.  Having a base price of $30,820 for LaCrosse means it must compete on other merits.  But then again, some of the efficiency from v being lower than the regular model Prius comes from offering a nicer ride.  So, that aspect of of competing has been addressed too.  What are consumers wanting to consume less really looking for?


Prius Evolution.  We know the ability to drive 100 km/h using only electricity has been available since 2003.  But until recently, doing that would have been extremely expensive and not all that efficient.  Switching the battery over from NiMH to Li-Ion and adding a plug makes a big difference.  The catch was and still is, a major priority has always been to deliver a vehicle for the masses.  Looking at the information we have so far about the PHV model, the intent to produce in high-volume is overwhelmingly clear.  True, price is still a bit higher than that will currently allow, but the industry appears poised to deliver affordable lithium batteries.  That leaves us with a design ready to take advantage.  In other words, the system is setup to allow the battery switch without needing to change much else.  That leaves some scratching their heads though, surprised to discover so much untapped potential has existed for so many years already.  They weren't expecting such an easy next-step evolution approach.  These were my plug-in observations I posted today:  I suspect the kW/hp values we've seen matching the current battery output are correct.  That means the traction motor is still being underutilized without the engine also contributing electricity.  There are 4 sub-packs within.  I get the impression they behave like the current battery we have now, but offer much greater overall capacity and I bet they can tolerate the burden of sustained depletion better.  They should make thermal management easier too.  Software monitoring operating temperature could swap them in & out much like servers do to keep memory from getting too hot.


Most Bang For Your Buck.  I wondered how long it would be until an article focused on "most bang" would be published.  From the opposite extreme, for years we had to tolerate praise for Two-Mode raising guzzler efficiency from mid-teen's to low-20's.  That did indeed result in a significant reduction of consumption per vehicle.  But overall, so few were actually sold that the impact was negligible at best.  It's that opposite extreme being focused upon now, consumption of the masses.  On the high-end of efficiency, there is a reality called "diminishing returns".  That's where spending more returns proportionally less.  In other words, just as this article stated about large plug-in packs, they: "are underutilized when the battery capacity is larger than needed for a typical trip".  This is why Toyota ended up delivering a 15-mile capacity.  That entire pack will often be used, allowing for maximum return with a price minimized to appeal to an extremely wide base of consumers.  It will only cost taxpayers a third as much (compared to Volt) to provide a credit incentive to each purchaser too.  That's a big deal for a government trying to cut expenses to control a growing deficit.  And with an end result of bumping up efficiency beyond 75 MPG for all those who purchased that plug-in hybrid with a modest capacity, the overall impact will be anything but modest.


Lukewarm Reception.  Speaking of deja vu, I got a kick out of reading this today on the big GM forum: "I have been reading the 'reception' at PriusChat - for both the Prius v and the Prius phev - and your superlative efforts to counter the *not even* lukewarm reception over there for the phevs."  He was expected an overwhelming embrace, some type of awe-inspiring instant acceptance... which makes sense, if you make a lot of assumptions.  But we've seen this before.  Reaction isn't what you'd expect.  I pointed out:  That's when knowing an audience is so important.  They reacted the very same way when the 2010 was introduced.  Already having purchased and grown accustom to the older model makes embracing the new one awkward.  So, you really can't gauge reception on them alone.  It's the consumers who have been waiting for an even greater efficiency improvement, especially for short-trips, that will show the excitement... but not until after real-world data becomes available.


Deja Vu.  A member on the big Prius forum posted what is quickly becoming apparent to those of us who remember the past.  A decade ago, Toyota offered a hybrid for the common person.  Enthusiasts revolted, clearly not happy that a vehicle intended for the mainstream was getting so much attention.  Only their limited quantity vehicles are suppose to do that, not something which potentially could become part of the crowd.  Having a vehicle intended to be produced in high-volume for middle-market price was against their fundamental beliefs.  So, they fought it everyway they could.  We saw attempts to undermine in so many different forms, it was remarkable Prius survived.  That became a strong confirmation of its value.  The nonsense we had to put up with back then was truly amazing.  There was an antagonist to contradict each and every thing worthwhile.  I became intrigued & amused.  How could they act so desperate?  Well, we now get to watch that whole process play out all over again.  Of course, this time we already know the answer for that desperation.  The plug-in Prius is the right balance of improvement & affordability.  We'll watch it become mainstream too, just like the regular model did all those years ago.


Contributing Authors.  This happens often, where a website publishes a review someone else wrote for some other news source.  When we encounter that, it's quite common to see the intended readers were from a different background.  Having different interests means what was pointed out was stated in different ways.  The different point of view stirs the pot, resulting in someone getting upset when words like "misleading" are used to describe what was written.  The publisher enjoys that, since it causes lots of comment posting.  I find the lack of constructive approach disturbing.  Today provided a great example.  The misleading part was Volt being described as never using the engine to directly provide power to the wheels, which we know isn't true.  But rather than get into the details of when & how, the enthusiasts simply downplayed the importance by claiming the intended audience wouldn't understand that anyway.  Of course, then it begs the question of why it was mentioned in the first place.  Anywho, what I got on them about that article was a fact listed was incorrect.  After all, who would be willing to argue against incorrect information?  Turns out, they will.  Even if there's a fact that's wrong, some just simply don't want to read anything but cheerleading.  I immediately got negative votes for pointing out that the 98 horsepower stated for Prius was only the engine value, that power from the electric-motor was excluded entirely.  134 was the combined value.  But that's too close to the 149 value for Volt, especially when you take into account Volt weighing 739 pounds more.  Needless to say, when an author contributes to another website, pay close attention.


Planning Ahead.  There are some Prius owners who see the PHV as a golden opportunity.  They already had an Iconic model, so there wasn't much of an excuse to upgrade yet.  Being able to plug-in changes that.  Some are already thinking about how this will affect their commute.  Like me, some have a variety of routes to choose from.  Having a button to toggle between EV and HV modes provides flexibility, allowing you decide when to take advantage of that extra capacity.  Reading about the effort to have "ChargePoint" stations installed at 2,200 parking ramps across the country really pushes the idea of recharging while at work.  Seeing two of those stations installed where I park has peaked my attention.  Of course, with an anticipated usage charge of $0.50 per hour, it would actually be cheaper to use gas instead.  Then there's the issue of recharging during peak hours.  But then again, the electricity here comes from natural gas.  And the point at this stage is to promote the technology, not go for the optimum approach yet.  My commute is simple too, though just a little beyond the 15-mile range estimate.  Here's what I posted on the thread discussing what others are planning:  My plan is easy.  On those days when I'll have the charging-station at the ramp reserved, I'll take the scenic route... which only has a top speed of 55.  So, almost all EV driving, both directions.  For others, it's a jump onto a 70 mph highway just a few blocks from my house in HV.  Then after 9 miles of that follows about 7 miles of 55 or slower... perfect for half EV there and half on the way back.


Twist & Spin.  How many times have those supporting Volt quoted the same old daily-driving statistic?  That particular survey is now 8 years old and only took a very small sampling of drivers into account.  Yet, we still hear that as the most prevalent reason for the size of its battery-pack.  And that's despite the reality of having shifted from total miles driven per day to just commute distance.  That was long before the effort to offer charging-stations at work began too.  Anywho, it continues to be the same old twisting and spinning we've seen before.  They're obviously stalling, hoping market favor will shift in the meantime.  But with this economy, focus entirely on "it's worth it" claims and a doubtful statistic isn't a good plan.  So, I responded with this in the now long-running debate thread on the big GM forum:  ENGINEERING has been beaten to death already.  BUSINESS is the topic at hand now. Sales are the focus.  It's others absolutely refuse to discuss and debate that.  Call the lack of economic concern marketing.  That won't change the reality that the choice of motor & battery size was a BUSINESS related decision.  If the masses don't want to call production outcome meaningful, they'll just discover the consequences the hard way.  Remember, Volt was configured based on BUSINESS decisions too.  That means they are subject to change in response to consumer reaction of the current offering.


$79.85 Per Barrel.  That's the lowest price for oil in quite some time.  It has put gas consumption in the United States now near a 10-year record low.  The economy is struggling.  The propaganda leading people to believe SUVs are safer is long gone.  There's nothing to justify guzzling anymore.  $3.49 per gallon really was the tipping point, despite the experts claiming gas would have to be much higher before this happened.  Even the sales of pickups are beginning to show there market peak is over.  So, what does that mean for hybrids?  No one knows in the short run.  With so many automakers scrambling to squeeze out a few more MPG from traditional vehicles, the investment in motors & batteries isn't considered a major effort yet.  In fact, even Toyota's upcoming family of Prius hasn't influenced the mindset of the majority... yet.  It's clearly coming though.  When the short run ends in a few years, everyone will look back at the cordless models of FULL hybrids as a baseline expectation.  The catch now is most still haven't realized the potential.  Seeing how easy it is to offer a plug and how much that plug boosts efficiency is far from common knowledge.  It's going to take quite a number of us providing real-world data before that gets taken seriously.  But by the time it does, those days of $2.99 per gallon for gas will be long ago memories.  Remember a decade ago when the price was less than a dollar?


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