Personal Log  #625

June 23, 2013  -  June 29, 2013

Last Updated: Weds. 8/28/2013

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Audience, cues.  This was posted as a follow-up to the discussion on that thread: "All this means is that Toyota will have to take cues from their competitors and decide which way they want to market their vehicles."  I was happy to add:  Hence the delay of the nationwide rollout.  Volt made it quite clear that high-capacity plug-in hybrids won't be accepted by the masses anytime soon... low sales, even with tax-credit and price-slash incentives.  There's obviously a market for them, but that category is a niche for enthusiasts rather than a solution for the mainstream.  It's a long-term effort that leave a massive product-gap in the meantime.  Toyota is well positioned to fill in that gap.  Prius PHV is an augmentation of the existing platform.  The under-utilized 60 kW traction motor gladly gobbles up the extra electricity the bigger battery provides.  It's not a paradigm shift either.  Consumers easily understand the capacity increase and plug pushes MPG quite a bit.  They'll enjoy the EV mode as they do now with Stealth mode... because it's a Plug-In Hybrid.  Much of the current struggle Volt is dealing with was self-inflicted.  That sounds like a harsh assessment, until you realize that also means there is an opportunity for self-correction.  GM will take cues from its own mistakes to reach the audience it couldn't on this current attempt.  The catch is, they must be clear about who the vehicle is intended.  The cue to us from supporters was the "Who is the market for Volt?" question continuously being evaded.  That unwillingness to answer was a dead giveaway audience expectations were not being met.


Audience, dying.  That question of "mainstream" stimulated constructive discussion.  That certainly was a welcome change.  But then again, the staunch antagonist that had been harassing (more than just trolling, personal attacks) those on the big Prius forum has vanished.  The assumption is that he was banned.  Whatever the reason, not being there anymore makes civil exchanges of thought & observations much easier.  The first example was this question: "Is the prius slowly dying?"  It came about from seeing some well known Prius owners trying out Volt and Tesla.  Being well aware of how a mature technology is often labeled as "obsolete" by competitor enthusiasts, I responded with this:  Knowing your audience is vital.  Seeing some enthusiasts or supporters switch to something with larger battery & motor doesn't represent anything with respect to ordinary consumers.  That's why there are different grades of vehicle.  It's also why claims of "shortcomings" don't actually make any difference.  If you're simply looking for an improvement over the regular Prius, the PHV undeniably delivers.  It's not attempting to be an EV, which is why direct comparisons to a plug-in like Volt don't make any sense... they clearly aren't intended to appeal to the same audience.  BTW, what speed is the traditional vehicle dying?


Dead Giveaway.  Some don't take defeat well.  They attempt to alter goals & definitions to make it look like they are still doing ok.  We see that as desperate.  I made that quite clear when the question of "mainstream" was asked yet again:  For over a decade, the measure of "mainstream" has been a minimum of 60,000 per year (5,000 per month).  That is how the Iconic Prius was gauged.  It met that volume criteria and enraged those who attempted to label it as a "stop gap" solution.  In fact, that is the very reason why GM set the Volt goal of 60,000 for second year sales and stated production capacity of 120,000 would be available for the third year.  Knowing that large automakers, like Toyota, Ford, and GM, each sell a number of models of traditional vehicles easily exceeding 5,000 per month, it only makes sense to measure hybrids the same way.  After all, the point is to replace those traditional vehicles with hybrids.  The fact that this information conveniently gets forgotten and re-asked on a very regular basis is a dead giveaway there's an effort at play by some to undermine.  We are being overwhelmingly clear & concise: 5,000 per month.


Next?  It's really difficult to see what will happen next.  The end of May, unsold new Volt inventory available was about 9,100.  As of this moment, it's shown to be 8,245.  Based on those numbers, it looks like even just matching May's sales of 1,600 will be a problem.  Despite the $4,000 price-drop, sales didn't increase.  In fact, they did the opposite.  GM's decision to build what they wanted to sell rather than what was needed is clearly backfiring.  Sure, the system itself is winning awards, but what the heck is the point of that?  GM consumers are still buying their traditional vehicles instead.  Mission not accomplished.  GM has a long-running "over promise, under deliver" reputation.  How do they avoid falling into that same trap again?  With so much pressure to overcome the shortcomings of this generation, telling people they will and false hope leading to unsupported hype like it did last time is very easy.  Being realistic about expectations doesn't attract headlines.  Dealing with lots of unsold inventory makes a bad situation even worse.  What's going to happen?


Compares.  Responses to the automotive enthusiasts magazine reviews are annoying.  I thought that nonsense of the past was just an unpleasant distant memory... apparently, not.  It looks like we are seeing this history repeat again.  Ugh.  Though, it is actually a good sign.  Seeing that they cannot avoid including Prius in compares means their obsession with speed & power is again being threatened.  Normally, they wouldn't be caught dead even mentioning a middle-market offering.  Vehicles intended for the mainstream are not what their audience ever cared about.  They were the voice of niche.  Being uncommon was what they thrived (and profited) on.  Prius most definitely does not fit that mold.  Yet, it's getting attention anyway.  They feel threatened by change and left out by not including to.  Doing that increases circulation of their publication as well.  So, that's what we are seeing... again.  This was my response to the content itself:  The short-sighted compares are troubling.  When has the one-size-fits-all approach ever worked?  Connect a battery with the capacity of Volt to a vehicle using the larger HSD configuration.  What happens?  Reduce the capacity of Volt's battery to make it affordable for the masses.  What happens?  What about the overall emissions?  What about the reality that Volt is smaller inside than Prius?  There are so many problems with comparison, it difficult not to address the reality of cherry-picking.  What will replace traditional vehicles?  Isn't the point to become mainstream, not to win trophies?


E15 Fear.  Were seeing more of it.  Minnesota made the switch to E10 years earlier than everyone else, so it was quite educational to read about the fears people from other states would post.  We already had evidence there wasn't anything to be concerned about.  Supposed horrors stories coming from the E10 rollout nationwide never actually materialized.  It turned out to be just fine.  Seeing a label or warning about E15 is a simple case of liability.  If they tell you not to, there won't be any argument about later about warranty coverage... which has uncertainties even there's no ethanol involved.  Think of the contaminants that come from air & oil already.  For that matter, what about those additives coming from gas-station brands?  Why accept greater exposure when you don't have to?  What evidence is there that going from E10 to E15 represents a tipping point?  For that matter, what would actually happen?  There isn't anything backing up the claims.  Reality is, ethanol can be derived from waste.  Economies of scale will allow us to transition from the current crop sources the majority still use.  Some people are fighting that change without evidence to support it.  The effort is to spread fear to impede the progress.  That's really disappointing.


0.7 Miles.  To my intrigue, I saw something quite unexpected today.  When the SOC (State Of Charge) level indicated 27 percent, the EV estimate distance displayed 0.7 miles.  That seems perfectly normal, quite expected in fact.  However, that only happens when driving in EV mode prior to depletion.  What happens when driving in HV mode following depletion?  Living in Minnesota and not having taken the PHV to any of the extreme altitude changes from our remote river-valley cannons, I didn't know the answer.  My guess is after a few miles of decent, the regen would reflect a build of EV miles.  What happens in minor situations?  In my case today, the engine had started up just prior to a climb up my tiny valley.  Though small by most people's standards, the climbing to the summit is pretty nasty on a bike.  Sunsets from up there are spectacular though.  Anywho, the act of warming up a cold engine, even on a climb, results in the generation of electricity.  That meant I reached the top of the hill with 8 bars for HV mode.  Rolling back down from there to my house, what would happen?  Turns out, nothing.  Even though the SOC said 27 percent, no EV mile value was displayed.  The system is programmed to just present that as "full".  Getting to confirm that today was nice.  It keeps the interface simple... and will raise the curiosity of owners new to the exploration phase of ownership.  Educational stimulation like that built into the design is sweet.  There's just enough to compel the curious to dig deeper to learn more about what's actually happening.  Gotta like that.


Carbon Emissions.  For awhile now, I've been referring to the refusal to acknowledge the obvious growing problem we have related to climate change as the "flat worlder" perspective.  The rather blatant rise in water-level in our oceans and the increase volume of water being precipitated is a clue something has changed.  Evidence of other aspects, like storm frequency & magnitude is much more difficult to nail down.  But with respect to the water, we have gathered enough data to see a new pattern emerging.  That in itself should be enough to be taking the reduction of carbon emissions seriously.  It isn't necessary for dramatic change (yet).  But the flat out dismissal that anything at all needs to be done is absurd.  Denial to that degree is a terrible thing to do to our children.  Imagine how ashamed they'll be when they find out we didn't bother, even though we had the technology.  To not is try is a horrible was to lead-by-example as well.  How are developing nations, like China & India, going to address climate change if we don't?  If we have already implemented & refined solutions, they are far more likely to begin using them too.  But to just say the world is flat...  Needless to say, I was thrilled when President Obama used the very same reference I've been using.  We all know that cleaner electricity is possible; however, the effort to clean emissions from coal consumption to generate electricity has been faced with intense resistance.  That's been part of the problem with EV acceptance.  Dirty electricity has a very negative impact on promoting them as green.  The same problem is being to get attention with respect to plug-in hybrids now too.  It's a situation we must finally deal with.  The cost of reducing carbon emissions is far less than the massive expense our children will face decades from now if we don't.


Just 4.4 kWh.  The importance of significantly reducing emissions & consumption in a reliable & cost-effective manner was a lesson learned a long time ago.  In fact, the first hybrid rolled out in the United States suffered from not meeting those goals.  Sure, the Honda Insight delivered great MPG, but the smog-related emissions were no different than traditional vehicles and the all-aluminum body & frame made the cost too high.  It was the "science experiment" the greenwashing always claimed the Classic Prius to be.  That wasn't actually what Toyota had delivered though.  Prius was intended to compete directly with traditional vehicles... which is indeed what ended up happening.  GM didn't do that.  Volt clearly is a niche.  In fact, it is still getting recognized that way.  Just today, the ranking from the Sierra Club put it at the top.  No one is talking about it being part of the mainstream anymore.  All hope of that has been postponed, abandoned until the next generation is rolled out.  Meanwhile, there's Prius PHV.  It actually is a mainstream contender without any modifications.  Toyota worked really hard to deliver a plug-in hybrid using a very small battery-pack.  They achieved their goal of 20 km using just 4.4 kWh.  That means when the cost of lithium-based batteries finally drops to the industry expectation for mass-market, Toyota will already have a well-proven system available.  Having real-world data already available from a wide array of owners is a very big deal.  There's nothing to change.  They keep selling it, but with a lower price.  That won't work for Volt.  The 16.5 kWh battery-pack is over 4 times more expensive.  (Remember, it is liquid-cooled instead of air.  That makes it even more expensive.)  A cost drop alone won't be enough to make it competitive with traditional vehicles, especially with a hybrid system (HV mode) not delivering MPG any better than one.  Enthusiasts didn't want to face that reality.  They thought by now, they'd be looking forward to the rollout of the first upgrade.  Instead, they are witnessing clearance prices.  In other words, they now realize how vital is was for the design to have placed a much higher priority on cost... a mistake they'll end up waiting years to be rectified.


Struggle.  Without Volt being the headlines from GM anymore, we're seeing more attention on the pickup market.  In fact, Chevy is capitalizing on that by launching an advertising campaign.  The new Silverado is well timed with the recovering economy and people's general loss of concern toward gas prices.  With a towing-capacity of 11,500 pounds and the reality that fact that 43,283 of the older model were sold last month, it seems as though there's a new breed of guzzler about to emerge.  Reading through a "first-drive" review of this next generation model, there's nothing but this single sentence mentioning efficiency: "It is rated at 16 mpg city/23 mpg highway with rear-wheel drive and 16/22 mpg with 4-wheel drive."  Unlike most reviews, this did not include observed MPG.  It makes you wonder who will be purchasing the pickups and how they will actually be used.  Will we see these as daily commuters like we did with SUVs?  It certainly does present challenges for efficiency improvement, like Honda's effort to rollout a new two-motor hybrid system.  Fortunately, we do still see Prius PHV as well positioned for those who are looking for an affordable package upgrade to Prius.  But Ford's attempt to do the same thing doesn't have the same advantage of there already being a popular model to compare with.  There is the reality of battery uncertainty too, which naysayers will attempt to greenwash about for years still.  Keep raising doubt.  Tell people there's plenty of oil still.  Support the high-profit vehicles.  It's a recipe for continued struggle.  Makes you wonder what the heck the Volt enthusiasts are thinking about now.


Gone.  Even that daily blog on the Volt website isn't about Volt anymore.  The discussions, debates, and arguments of the past are gone.  This is exactly the way things played out with the demise of Two-Mode.  The pattern is so remarkably similar, even that isn't talked about.  The design approach didn't reach the masses.  It did not reach mainstream sales volume by the end of the second year.  What we currently know as Volt has become a vehicle for those interested in unique historical opportunities.  There's no doubt the next generation model will be quick different.  What GM wanted to sell did not match what consumers needed... for that matter, what GM needed.  Thank goodness that is over.  Such a misalignment of priorities was a fiasco in the making.  The best we could hope for was a graceful conclusion.  Let this model fade away into memory.  So when the remake is rolled out, it won't have this ghost from the past holding it back.  In other words, rather than being "vastly superior" as all the hype had endlessly proclaimed, this new model will be a member on the team.  The true opponent was traditional vehicles, not other plug-in hybrids.  Hopefully, that lesson is learned.  Most likely, those enthusiasts of the past will remain silent about failed goals & reputation and will simply focus on what needs to be done instead.  After all, letting pride dictate decisions again will only set them down the same path again.


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