Personal Log  #532

October 8, 2011  -  October 15, 2011

Last Updated: Sun. 10/16/2011

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On-Paper verses Real-World.  New hybrid offerings are stirring new interest.  We are getting people without any hybrid background trying to figure out how the various designs actually work.  That leads to lots of assumptions.  It's way too easy to over-simplify driving conditions.  Some routine situations are entirely overlooked too.  To complicate matters, many are unfamiliar with the abilities & limitations of both electric-motors and batteries.  You end up repeatedly having to point out their on-paper calculations don't work out that way in real-world situations... and these are typically people who are sincerely trying to learn how it works.  Just think of the trouble which comes from those not wanting to be constructive... like some Volt enthusiasts last year dismissing impact use of the heater would have.  It's quite a challenge to achieve some type of usual understanding.  Heck, most people don't even know what the MPG is that their current vehicle actually delivers.  Fortunately, the upcoming plug-in Prius should appeal to the typical consumer, even if they know very little about hybrids.  Only a basic understanding followed by a test-drive using EV is all it will take to entice.  Still being relatively affordable and not requiring anything beyond a common household outlet will make the purchase decision a compelling one.  Seeing the real-world data, that resulting MPG displayed on the dashboard, is what will finalize the deal.  That's something the competition will have more of a struggle with.  Their differences will be harder to justify due to them being more extreme.  You get a very well-rounded design from Prius.


Dropping Temperatures.  It was 46°F this morning.  Summer is long gone.  In a few weeks, the reality of snow will become apparent.  Efficiency is obviously dropping.  Staying above 50 MPG is hard enough with warm-up taking longer.  Combine that with winter-formula fuel, you get a taste of what's to come.  True, Prius is way more efficient than basically everything else out there when it comes to dealing with cold extremes, but the transition from hot Summer days is a noticeable contrast.  Fall can be quite pleasant.  I actually enjoy the seasonal change, despite the routine denial of each already having ended.  I'll admit, acceptance is always a bit of a tussle.  Dropping temperatures leave a lasting impression.  The ritual occurs each year.  Ultimately, it really does give you something to look forward to.  This Winter could be a very long one though.  The wait for delivery of my plug-in Prius will make it seem like forever.  Spring will be a momentous occasion.  As things begin to thaw, I'll be discovering more about what a plug added to the system has to offer.


Energy Policy.  The presidential election games are well underway.  Energy policy is a political pawn.  That's nothing new.  It's been the topic of debate for decades.  The thing that's different now are the choices we have available.  Simply opening up more land & water for the purpose of extracting non-renewable resources which result in carbon & smog emissions makes no sense.  Yet, when they say it will create jobs, people listen.  Unfortunately, the people don't hear those pointing out alternatives will create jobs too.  A plug-in hybrid will use less gas and the electricity can come from clean & renewable sources.  Instead, one of the leading republicans is vowing to eliminate subsidies for them and their EPA regulation support.  How is that a good thing?  Now that we have these choices, what in the world will our children think of us for even considering such a destructive path?  Progress doesn't come from just doing more of what we had done in the past.


Electric Attitude.  My first encounter with a television commercial for the electric-only Mitsubishi vehicle was last night.  Formally called MiEV, now it's just "i".  The highlight of was seeing $21,625 stated as the price.  In fine print there was: "MSRP of $29,125 less federal tax incentive of $7,500".  They clearly addressed the price concern.  No other detail was provided though.  Driving range and charging time have become the two other big concerns for electric-only vehicles, for consumers.  For business, you can add the concern about competition from the tiny gas-only vehicles.  This is why I like the approach Toyota has been taking.  A plug-in hybrid providing a modest battery-pack size while still providing outstanding MPG afterward is a "best of both worlds" configuration.  Offer it competitively priced, you've got the formula for mainstream appeal.  With an overall driving range of around 500 miles and a charging time of just 3 hours using a standard household outlet, why wouldn't that attract consumers?  With both plug-in hybrid and electric-only choices on the way from Ford, watching the market attempt to draw interest from middle-market certainly is going to make 2012 a year to remember.  The attitude toward using electricity for transportation is changing.  What will be embraced by the masses is now the question.


Denying The Past.  As time progresses and goals become unrealized, rather than accepting the situation, we get denial of them ever being an expectation.  Price, range, efficiency, emission-rating... you get the idea.  It's been quite a rollercoaster ride for Volt enthusiasts... lots of ups & downs.  I could imagine how frustrating that would be, especially with Prius remaining so well on track.  Wanting to forget all that is the obvious reaction.  Oddly, denying the past could actually be a good thing though.  Without any resistance, it certainly makes moving on much easier.  However, there is one legacy item remaining still.  It's the definition of EREV.  They coined it to make the design standout as superior.  Unfortunately, the production vehicle didn't actually fit what they had defined.  Attempts are now being made to alter that meaning.  So rather than deny, we get spin.  Whatever the case, it ends the same anyway.  Consumers see the vehicle for what it does, sometimes completely unaware of what enthusiasts hoped it would do.


Driving Appeal.  Many automakers use the "fun to drive" appeal for advertising, but rarely ever describe what that actually means.  Though, there are television commercials still which demonstrate the totally unrealistic sliding sideways ability.  Isn't that something you want to avoid doing?  Anywho, thinking about the plug-in Prius, what's the one big complaint that CVT type vehicles get?  It's the fact that you don't get any noticeable feedback when accelerating hard.  In a traditional automatic, you get an impossible to miss downshift thump.  But with a gearless vehicle, nothing.  However, the plug-in Prius is different.  You can be surprisingly generous with the pedal up to about 50 mph in EV, smooth & quiet.  Speeding up beyond that will start the engine if your foot is too generous.  And of course, if you drop the pedal to the floor, it will start sooner.  Seems to me, drivers will like that sudden roar of an engine coming to life.  Isn't that the kind of feedback you'd want from a request for aggressive acceleration?


Brand Labeling.  We keep hearing how much potential "Voltec" will demonstrate years from now and how outdated "HSD" already is.  Yet when confronted with a request for detail, those individuals attempt to divert attention rather than provide a response.  The GM supporters have been are trying to portray Toyota's approach for offering a plug-in hybrid as a dead end, inferring that it's impossible to ever increase motor power or battery capacity.  How sad is that?  It's no different from the vague anti-hybrid efforts of the past.  They claim something can never be done but do everything in their power to avoid any actual discussion why they believe that.  So rather than technology labeling, using words like "obsolete" to describe a status, we are now getting brand labeling to declare superiority.


Range Anxiety.  After all these years of hearing how Volt is so superior to everything else, today an EV model of Spark was announced.  What the heck?  Of course, it was obvious from the start how short-sighted that anti-EV promotion was.  We even knew about an EV model of Cruze being tested for markets outside the United States.  It never really made any sense intentionally cutting off business opportunity like that.  But then again, all the "40 mile" range campaigning turned out to be counter-productive too.  And a great example of self-undermining was the "gas free" driving motto, which never was an accurate description for Volt.  GM is very much an automaker sending mixed messages still.  Anywho, it will only be available in California and is planned to be such low-volume (around 2,000 per year) that it will be difficult to call it anything but a niche.  So, most people will only know Spark from its traditional counterpart.


October Expectations.  We have the expectation that orders for the plug-in Prius will begin sometime next week.  There were over 42,000 people who expressed interest on the priority registration website.  That should make things quite interesting... and a nice distraction, considering how crazy the situation has been from Volt recently.  The expectation for sales in October was summed up this way by GM's president: "So, our availability of the Volt this month will be close to 4,000 units."  Naturally, some of us immediately wondered how that could be, if the production-rate is still at 2,500 per month.  It doesn't add up if Volt is really selling as quickly as they can be produced.  Whatever the case, that quantity is profoundly higher than September's best-ever monthly sales of 723.  Obviously, GM would like to draw attention away from the plug-in Prius.  So, it's entirely possible that inventory was staged to provide high inventory at a time when it really counts.  Needless to say, this particular month is one that will be considered significant in the early history of plug-in vehicles.  After all, it's not like Nissan is going to remain quiet now that over 15,000 Leaf have been sold worldwide.


Broken Halo.  This is very interesting timing.  Remember the Prius smear campaign in early 2010, when there was a huge uproar about reliability?  The only thing ever found was a braking transition exposure.  There was a sensation of the car surging forward if you smacked into a large pothole while breaking really hard.  It was caused by the friction brakes taking full control as the regenerative portion disengaged.  The duration for that was roughly 700 milliseconds.  Toyota provided a software update to reduce it to roughly 200 milliseconds.  It was a situation blown way out of proportion.  We know that because the design had been that way for many years, yet it became a huge safety issue all of a sudden... right when Toyota's reputation had been called into question.  Suspicious.  You bet.  Anywho, a thread on the Volt forum was started today, with a few owners all reporting the very same thing.  What do you think will happen with GM?  They've downplayed many of the expectations up to this point.  Not to be cynical or cliché, but now that the shoe is on the other foot... which some would call karma. Needless to say, I've very curious how this particular dilemma is going to play out.  It's a great opportunity for earning trust; however, it could become a PR disaster if not addressed now that owners are pointing it out.


Halo Declared, part 5.  The differencing factor between a "halo" vehicle and regular offerings is the latter is what actually provides business-sustaining profit.  A niche won't accomplish that, only high-volume does for a large automaker.  Unfortunately, meeting that level of acceptance has become quite a challenge... hence the label.  Back when enthusiasts were expecting a Volt around $30,000 that delivered an unconditional 40-mile then 50 MPG afterward, there was reason to be hopeful.  Of course, for those of considered trolls, they didn't understand our doubt.  They just assumed it was some type of vendetta against GM being able to deliver anything.  After all, the production vehicle looks absolutely nothing like the concept they so heavily promoted, which required an abrupt redoubling of effort to gain attention quickly lost by such an unexpected change... not good for a vehicle destined to be a halo until the next generation.  Needless to say, the price, range, and efficiency all came up short for the 2011 model.  The much anticipated PZEV emission-rating for the 2012 never materialized either, as well as the ability to use E85.  With so many disappointments, it's easy to understand why the die-hard are on the defensive now.  And that's without even taking the plug-in Prius into account.


Halo Declared, part 4.  The CEO of GM has a different take on the situation, clearly stated in this morning's paper.  His focus for Volt is on cost reductions.  The expectation is that savings will start to occur about a year from now, when the production ramp up rate rises to 60,000 annual.  Nothing "halo" related was mention.  He just pointed out Sonic, Cruze, Cruze ECO, Cruise diesel, and Malibu with eAssist as efficiency choices available for GM customers.  Volt is simply another offering as far as he's concerned.  Not losing money is his focus.  Of course, then he went on to discuss charging infrastructure: "I grew up in Minnesota.  I don't know if you all have been in Minnesota in the winter, but you pull up to a parking spot, you can plug in and heat your engine block so it doesn't freeze up."  I responded to that with:  I live in Minnesota and have absolutely no idea how he could make such a claim.  There aren't any outlets here.  I've been looking.  Snow removable is a major problem.  Plows push snow exactly where an outlet would be located.  One reason charging-stations are expensive is because they must take this routine impact exposure into account.  Large metal poles buried in heavy concrete foundations are required for their support & protect against this.  Of course, even if you need have an old-school 120-volt outlet available, would you really use your own personal cord to access it?  And where would you place it to avoid water damage, since it gets warm when in use?


Halo Declared, part 3.  There is some surprise & disbelief from GM having admitted to Volt being a "halo" vehicle.  We all know sales haven't met expectations.  Drawing out doubt wouldn't have helped anyone.  The "wait & see" statements only harm credibility in the end.  Bringing those to a stop is a good move.  As an automaker trying to rebuild reputation, being upfront is an excellent way of earning trust.  I'm certainly pleased with the declaration decision.  Hype of the past was allowed to thrive because GM didn't speak up.  Now that they did, perhaps a more constructive approach will be possible.  Enthusiasts certainly weren't receptive to the idea of a shorter range Volt in the past.  But now that a Cadillac model is being positioned to take the place of the current configuration, a new model Volt could be configured to actually be competitive as a mainstream offering rather than be stifled as a niche.  Remaining unchanged would prevent it from being taken seriously in the same category as the plug-in Prius... which is clearly configured to appeal to the middle-market.  The base price of $32,000 is within reach of mainstream consumers.  The MPG boost provided by the plug is easy to understand too; this will make selling it much easier than a vehicle without any real promotion issues... the electric motor simply gets used more than in the regular model.


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