This is not a comprehensive compiling of all the top stories of 2014 because that might take 3,500 words or so. Out of respect for International Attention Deficit Disorder Awareness Day (not sure when that is) I can’t ask ya’ll to read that many words.
So, here’s a few stories that are some of the biggies, and with that, remember, electrification of the automobile is not a sprint, it’s a marathon – but the day may be coming where we’ll see a tipping point.
As 2014 winds down and with 2015 about to unfold, alternative-energy transportation had ups and downs this year, but the trend is generally upward and more progress is in sight.
Looking at the most telling of markers – actual new car sales – hybrids fell back from 2013 levels while plug-ins climbed higher, and diesel passenger vehicles remained flat.
December 2014 sales are not yet finalized, but a solid indication for this year’s U.S. market can be seen by comparing the first 11 months of 2013 to those of 2014.
From January through November 2014, approximately 419,000 hybrids were sold compared to 460,000 for January through November 2013. Diesels by November 2014 were at 128,000 compared to 126,000 in November 2013; the single natural gas car – Honda’s Civic Natural Gas – dropped from 2,020 units in 2013 to 711 sales by November this year.
The big news for 2014 is for all-electric and plug-in hybrid sales. Through November 2013, the combined plug-in market had 86,812 units sold. This year it’s at 111,396 and that beats total sales for calendar year 2013 of 96,602. Individually, battery electric cars are at 55,396 through November 2014, and plug-in hybrids are at 51,490.
Regardless what gasoline might cost these days, or how much more plug-ins may cost over conventional cars, these vehicles are on the rise. Why? Global regulations are pushing automakers to innovate, consumers are catching on, and the underlying reasons for this remain, including the need to curb environmental consequences and petroleum consumption.
Following are 7 of 2014′s top developments and stories – mostly U.S. oriented, with global news included. We won’t declare which is more important, but all play into the broader picture with ramifications into the future.
BMW i-Series Launches in US
The i-series of sustainable BMWs actually began deliveries in Europe in 2013, but the i3 all-electric and range-extended city car launched May 2014 in the U.S. and quickly rose in the sales chart. Already through November the German automaker records 5,079 sales. This places it third behind the Nissan Leaf and Tesla Model S and it appears to be doing better here than in Europe.
In August BMW also launched the i8 plug-in hybrid sports car. Both carbon-fiber reinforced plastic-intensive cars have received a number of awards for design and innovation, but being a $135,000-plus sports car, the i8’s 100-200 or so monthly sales are in the league of the Cadillac ELR and the Porsche Panamera S E-Hybrid.
But beyond individual model results, a core issue is that a prestigious nameplate known for drivers’ cars has heavily committed to an environmentally oriented sub-brand with more models to come.
This symbolic gesture stands to promote competition and followers into the plug-in market, and that could be good for the industry.
Several Companies Promise Plug-ins
Included among these are Chrysler which says its first plug-in will be a Town and Country minivan next year and this, if done right, could be a big deal, filling a gap in the selection of available vehicles today, particularly for families.
Others who are working toward more plug-ins are Ford, which wants to expand its portfolio from the C-Max and Fusion Energi models with more plug-in hybrids and possibly a new EV. Another couple are Volkswagen – which this year launched its e-Golf – and Audi. Green car analyst Alan Baum observes also that Daimler, Cadillac, Hyundai, and Volvo are adding new plug-ins in the near term.
Improved Second Generation Volt Confirmed
Chevrolet’s Volt is the top-selling plug-in gas-electric car. Launched late December 2010 as a 2011 model, it’s an original that helped kickstart this major manufacturer plug-in market and has been surrounded by outsized drama and media coverage ever since.
Reports of unsustainable production costs for the sustainable energy car, and that General Motors might cancel it or water down the soup have gone forth. GM set fears to rest this year by teasing the second-generation car due for full revelation January 12 in Detroit.
Unfortunately, GM’s actions – or inactions – in other ways have themselves contributed to mixed messages. The automaker has let the Volt languish first by not marketing the present-generation Volt outside of California for the past couple years, and, analyst Baum notes, by reducing production this year which also has not helped sales.
Baum points out there is a theme here with GM which also launched the Cadillac ELR based on a 2009 show car using a due-to-be-replaced Volt powertrain for more than double the Volt’s price.
In any case, the new Volt offers hope. It may now seat five, will have at least 12-percent better efficiency, should be more spacious in the back seat, rides on a new platform, and no longer needs premium gas.
All-electric range and gas-only fuel economy are to be better, and the commitment has enthusiasts hopeful this will be a resurgence for the Volt and could lead to more “Voltec” variants eventually.
Affordable 200-Mile Range EVs on the Horizon
Tesla already promised before this year what is now being called the Model 3, but adding to the list of electric cars to be priced in the low-to-mid-$30,000 level with “200 miles” range could be a new Nissan Leaf as soon as 2016 and a new model yet to be revealed by General Motors.
This 30s/200 benchmark appears to be the next level for battery electric cars on the 1-3 year horizon and it’s a healthy doubling of today’s roughly 80-mile range first-generation EVs priced at the average new car level.
Shoppers on the sidelines wanting to dive in with the second generation may not be disappointed, and it is possible other automakers posturing for later this decade could match or exceed this apparent near-term benchmark.
Fuel Cell Vehicles Ready For Prime Time?
Given there are only a dozen or so hydrogen stations in California, 40 total funded and to be in place by 2016, “ready for prime time” may be a bit generous. But, after years of hydrogen hype, it appears fuel cell vehicles are slowly coming into the public arena, and chest thumping has been heard that these are not destined to be compliance cars forever.
Since 2010 Honda’s FCX Clarity has been the lone lease-only, California-only FCV but this year it was joined by Hyundai’s global Tucson and next year Toyota’s Mirai – launched this week in Japan – will come next fall to Europe and California. Honda also announced a follow-up will come on the heels of the Mirai. Daimler too could have a car by 2017. It and its latest development partner Ford are looking to revealing more by then.
Analyst Baum observes however because hydrogen fuel cells are dramatically affected by California regulations giving the most “points” for fuel cells compared to other technologies, they do represent compliance cars, at least in the short- and mid-term.
Whatever the case, the plan, say automakers like Toyota is that’s only for now, and talk of national distribution following the slow roll-out of hydrogen stations is a goal into next decade.
Skeptics remain, but the news for 2014 is new fuel cell cars are here, and more are coming. This follows at seven major automakers joining forces and promising production viable cars or fuel cell systems by 2020, if not 2017.
Did they all come to this conclusion independently, or do they know something critics do not? This is not known, but the metaphorical hydrogen highway is under construction and may be here almost as fast as you can say “conspiracy theory.”
Tesla Gigafactory Announced
If Tesla’s gambit pays off, this $5 billion-plus battery factory agreed to in a high-stakes deal in September with Nevada may be the story of the decade.
It’s called the “giga” factory because Tesla wants to produce 50 gigawatts of energy storage annually at the 10-million square foot, 6,500 employee facility.
With this production capacity, Tesla wants to alter economies of scale and by 2017 through 2020 and beyond it hopes to be building many times the present 30,000 more or less cars it will this year.
The startup produces now the comparative boutique Model S, and only announced a more expensive P85D model this year which while cool, does little for the average Jane or Joe.
The Gigafactory could change all that, and will help project Tesla as a relatively larger manufacturer.
Pending models include the Model 3, Model X, possibly a pickup truck, possibly an ultimate sports car, and more. That’s the car side in brief, and Tesla CEO’s Solar City venture also stands to gain, and Tesla wants to build batteries for on-site energy storage.
Multiple Plug-in Sales Milestones
Last month also, Nissan sold its 150,000 Leaf globally in time for its fourth anniversary and it’s the top-selling electric car by far.
True enough, plug-ins have nowhere to go but up, but the same could be said of diesels and CNG, and these are not moving upwards like plug-in cars.
Could it be those battery powered vehicles actually make sense? Looks like it.
US Fuel Prices Plummet
America’s newfound boon of oil and gas from horizontal drilling and fracking has prompted giddy op-eds declaring U.S. energy independence, and they’re taking a poke at alternative energy transportation at the same time.
Stephen Moore, chief economist of the Heritage Foundation says the facts are not being widely reported, and U.S. drilling ingenuity is saving Americans $200 billion annually that doesn’t have to be sent to Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, etc.
The opinion piece adds American shale oil and gas fields may have “hundreds of years” of production capacity.
And it is a fact gasoline prices are at an all-time low as oil prices have fallen by 25 percent. This has put a dent in hybrid sales more than it has plug-in sales, observes analyst Alan Baum.
Further, internal combustion tech is also getting cleaner, and more efficient but the transportation sector still consumes 70 percent of U.S. petroleum and accounts for 30 percent of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions.
Alternative energy transportation exists for multiple reasons besides combating fuel prices. It’s also a question of the environment, emissions, and global market needs that drive the whole industry.
And while the “energy security” flag may be waved alongside the Stars and Stripes by those sympathetic to domestic oil producers, the U.S. military continues to patrol and protect oil rights abroad. Dollars are still being spent hand-over-fist for these foreign activities to protect the American way of life.
Electrified vehicles also enjoy 80-90-plus percent efficiency, whereas the best internal combustion engines might boast thermal efficiency in the high 30-percent to low 40-percent range – while wasting the rest of the fossil fuel energy as heat and emissions.
EVs are also quiet, effective, and energy storage – batteries – are due to improve as are production costs, and let’s not forget domestic and global regulations are not going away.
For the reasons mentioned and more, alternative energy efforts are ongoing and still relevant even if gas goes to 90 cents per gallon.
A key word here is sustainable. Electric cars use power from a grid that increasingly relies on cleaner and renewable energy. Work is underway to create long-term sustainability even if that’s in question, and gas is not painful to buy.
This is a fact. Where it all goes, no one knows, but cheap oil and gas is a major story this year, and stands to continue to affect consumer behavior and potentially policy as well.