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Kicking the Tires on the Latest Alt-fuel Vehicles

Here is a collection of the latest breakthroughs, stalls and updates in the quest for alternative fuel and power — including money for fleets to buy electric vehicles and one EV on sale that seems too good to be true.

October 10, 2011

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Photos by Joanne Tucker
The Mercedes B-Class hydrogen fuel cell vehicle.
Photos by Joanne Tucker The Mercedes B-Class hydrogen fuel cell vehicle.

“Green” automotive events are ubiquitous these days. Last week, conflicting schedules took me in a different direction than our own Green Fleet Conference, which has become ground zero for the fleet industry to gather on environmental concerns. But I did make it around the corner to Santa Monica’s modest Alt-Car Expo, which is always a good place to catch up on what’s new and green these days and kick the tires of some new product.

Last year, the Nissan Leaf and Chevy Volt were the hot new toys. In one year, those models have now become the standards everyone else compares themselves to. This year, a start-up EV manufacturer is in production with a series of new vehicles and metrics-busting claims. But first:

Are we still talking about hydrogen to power our cars?
Yes. Hydrogen funding is still recovering from the 2008 market crash and migration to electric vehicles. However, government funding is slowly ramping up again, and we can look to 2015 as a milestone on the hydrogen timeline. The Department of Energy’s goal is for manufacturer partners to sell production hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles.

From a pure technology standpoint, hydrogen is a superior way to power cars. Combustion happens as a chemical process, achieving 40 percent efficiency, while an internal combustion engine will only ever achieve 17 to 20 percent efficiency. The main challenges remain in cost of materials, specifically minimizing platinum content — a major barrier — and fueling infrastructure.

Chevy was giving spins in the fuel-cell Equinox, as was Mercedes with its B-Class f-cell and Honda with its FCX Clarity — all in heavy testing. The FCX Clarity is on its own proprietary platform; it’s a pretty slick looking four-door sedan.

Sales of fuel-cell vehicles will be similar to the rollout of EVs, in early adopter cities such as San Francisco and Los Angeles with the fueling infrastructure. There are actually four stations in Southern California that offer a high-pressure hydrogen fill. Fill time from empty is about six minutes. Right now, it costs $16 to fill up on about four kg of hydrogen for 200 miles of range. (Max range on test vehicles today is 200 to 250 miles.) The DOE expects that price to lower to $3 to $4 by 2015.

I often drive by the Shell hydrogen station in Torrance. I feel as though I should drop off an iPad loaded with all five seasons of Mad Men to the lonely station attendant because I never see anyone actually in there. The place sits silently waiting for the revolution to come. [PAGEBREAK]

The Transit Connect Electric dashboard.
The Transit Connect Electric dashboard.

How does the Transit Connect Electric drive?
The Ford Transit Connect Electric van was actually designed to look and feel like a regular TC, so there was no “shock factor” and “no uptick in education for drivers,” according to the Ford engineer who allowed us to take a spin. The interior is the same Spartan work van as the internal-combustion version. The fuel gauge on the instrument cluster has been replaced by a “true state of charge” battery gauge and the tacometer has been replaced by a range gauge. On the shifter, D1 and D2 no longer shift into lower gears, but instead into higher states of regenerative braking. D2 is enhanced regen, while D1 is maximum regen.

The Transit Connect shifter.
The Transit Connect shifter.

Unloaded, the drive was sufficiently electric-car peppy, more spirited than the gas-powered version. The weight of the battery adds about 500 pounds to GVW, which lowers the TC Electric’s payload from 1,600 lbs to 1,000. Other specs remain the same, so you still get the good use of 135 cubic feet of cargo space and the tight turning radius. Range is about 80 miles in the real world, which is just about standard for mass market electric vehicles right now.

Here’s where it gets tricky: MSRP is around $50,000, or about twice what a gas-powered TC costs. This may be prohibitively expensive for small fleets, though the price is expected to drop in two to five years based on production volumes.

No one said being a first adopter was cheap! A company called Quantum Technologies is marketing a plug-in extended-range hybrid kit for the Ford F-150. The system, in pilot testing now with production slated for October 2012, gives 35 miles on all-electric power. However, the battery system adds 650 lbs., which brings the payload down to 900 lbs. The system is available for $40,000. Ouch. Try running that up your company’s flagpole.

At least for the Chevy Volt, new buyers are getting a price break. The 2012 model is $1,000 cheaper than 2011 MY — that will still run $39,950, or about $46,000 loaded. You can lease one for $2,000 down and $350 a month.

Is there money for fleets to help defray EV costs?
Yes, especially if you’re a fleet in California. The California Hybrid Truck and Bus Voucher Incentive Project (HVIP) is giving out vouchers of $10,000 to $30,000 for the purchase of new hybrid electric and battery electric medium-duty trucks and buses. Vehicles with GVWs greater than 8,500 lbs are eligible, such as the Smith Electric vans, Boulder Electric vehicles, Kenworth and Peterbilt hybrids and the Navistar eStar van, among many more.

The Ford Transit Connect Electric has been added to the HVIP program and takes effect Nov. 1. The funds for HVIP are available to any public fleet or private that register the vehicles in California. 

For light-duty vehicles registered in California (including the Leaf and Transit Connect Electric), rebates of up to $2,500 are available through the California Clean Vehicle Rebate Project. The program has exhausted its funds for this year, but expects funding to become available again soon.

But wait, there’s more! Consumers and fleets that own the Nissan Leaf or Chevy Volt looking to install an electric vehicle charge port can do it for free through the EV Project.[PAGEBREAK]

CODA: Finally ready?
CODA — the independent electric vehicle company that could — is still dangling the carrot of production with a December launch. No, it’s not déjà vu — two years ago CODA promised a limited release of the sedan by December 2010. But that was under a different management team. Last year at Alt-Car Expo, and in 2009, we got to ride along in the back seat of the all-electric sedan. This year we actually got to drive one. The latest version still has the look of an eastern European or Chinese boxy sedan, though the fit and finish — mostly on the interior — seems to have improved. The CODA’s shifter is now a unique dial wheel.

The CODA shifter.
The CODA shifter.

A few quirks haven’t been completely worked out for production, which we were told means adjustments to the green screen display on the NAV unit, better feel in the brake pedal and a change in the position of the acceleration pedal. The car isn’t as torquey off the line as other electric cars, though the torque does kick in at around 15 mph. The production vehicle will have a quicker ramp up, apparently. The shallow foot well on the driver’s side took some getting used to.

MSRP is in the mid-$40,000 range. Price point has always been an issue for this independent against the likes of the Nissan Leaf, which lists for $11,000 less. But what makes the CODA compelling is its range and charge time. CODA claims a range of up to 150 miles, which opens up driving freedom that the Leaf’s 80-mile range can’t touch. The CODA’s range is achievable in six hours on a 240v Level 2 charger. CODA achieves these beefed-up metrics with a larger battery (36 kWh, compared with the Leaf’s 24 kWh) that features a more advanced active thermal management system, unlike the passively cooled Leaf. We’re waiting for December.

No, it's not a smart car, it's the Wheego two-seater, all-electric car.
No, it's not a smart car, it's the Wheego two-seater, all-electric car.

CODA isn’t the only independent auto company that has sprung up to build and sell electric vehicles. We ran into Wheego at last year’s event, and they’re still around, which is no small feat in this new wild west of electric car making. Wheego is now selling their two-seat, full-speed electric vehicle for $33,000. A five seat crossover is planned. The Wheego can’t touch the Leaf in quality and it’s the same price, but for car dealers that want to sell EVs, here you go. The company has 25 dealers signed up across the country to date.

How do you manage an all-electric fleet?
We’ll find out by next year. In a fleet alt-fuel presentation, Camron Gorguinpour, who is overseeing the implementation of electric vehicles across the armed forces fleet, says that Los Angeles Air Force base’s fleet of general use vehicles will be 100 percent electric in 2012. There’ll be a lot to learn from that test case.[PAGEBREAK]

The Electric Motor Car pickup, on sale now and promising a top range of 200 miles.
The Electric Motor Car pickup, on sale now and promising a top range of 200 miles.

When will the really fast chargers arrive?
Level 3 chargers (more precisely named DC Fast Chargers) promise to charge up our electric vehicles in 25 minutes. There’s only one in America now. Apparently, there are standards issues to be worked out that already have been for Level 1 and 2 chargers. Charging point maker ECOtality is set to install more than 155 DC Fast Chargers in six regions in the U.S. next year.

How can an EV get a range of 200 miles on a 45-minute charge?
The biggest eye-opener at this modest show came from another independent automotive startup called Electric Mobile Cars. The company’s all-electric pickup truck is in production now, and you can have one in 90 days. The company is also selling a cargo van (a bit smaller than a Transit Connect) and a seven-passenger station wagon.

Model MSRPs range from $37,000 to $40,000. The goal is to produce 400 to 500 to sell by the end of this year, and 5,000 to sell in 2012. The city fleets of Dallas and Santa Monica have each purchased a truck. The vehicles have a top speed of 75 mph, are built on an “existing European chassis,” and are four-star crash test rated.

Here’s the eye-opener: the company promises a 200-mile range for its vehicles, or “160 miles loaded, and with a lead foot,” said David Taylor, the company’s president. What’s more, total charge time on a standard 120v household outlet is eight hours, or half the standard charge time.

It gets better. The company is selling a proprietary Level 2 charger that delivers a full charge in 45 minutes! How? The battery — sportily named the EVBX-1 — is the thing. The battery is not composed of lithium ion or nickel metal hydride, but is sodium-based, which offers “an amazing absorption rate,” according to Taylor. Even further, it’s completely recyclable and weighs a sprightly 380 lbs — the Leaf’s battery and control module weigh twice that. The EVBX-1 doesn’t get hot either; you can touch it while the car is running.

The company’s brain trust is based in Maine, and the vehicles’ final assembly is in Dallas. Taylor wouldn’t name the vehicles’ designers or engineers or the company’s backers, but said they are “auto industry veterans.” Interestingly, the company’s website says the vehicles were developed “with the help of highly specialized engineers and technicians from the US and EU/Romania.”

I’m still scratching my head on why and how the major auto manufacturers must have chosen the wrong technology for their batteries. I’m being only slightly facetious. I couldn’t find much press on sodium-based batteries, though General Electric is building a facility to test them. I couldn’t find much press about Electric Mobile Cars, either. Taylor said they’ve purposefully kept hush-hush until launch, which is now. These are bold claims that, if backed up by real-world driving, have set the EV bar one notch higher.

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Author Bio

Chris Brown

Executive Editor

Chris Brown is the executive editor of Business Fleet Magazine and Auto Rental News for Bobit Business Media. Through these publications, online newsletters, trade events and associations, Chris covers all aspects of the fleet world, including fleet management, manufacturer fleet activities, the fleet leasing industry, vehicle remarketing, rental industry news, car rental taxation and legislation as well as automotive environmental initiatives and trends.

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