Going Green at the 2017 WAJ Media Days

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Every spring for the last 25 years, the Western Automotive Journalists (WAJ) has brought together its journalist members and manufacturers (and their cars) at a scenic location with a racetrack. The goal is to evaluate a variety of cars on the road and the racetrack, network, have fun, and get a good story, too.

As I have for almost every year since the first event back in 1993, I attended with anticipation. And, as I have for at least the last dozen years, I roomed at the hotel with my buddies Jon and Carey. However, as I’m increasing my focus on green vehicles, I tried to concentrate my energy on environmentally responsible options.

I Drove my All-electric Chevrolet Bolt EV to the Event

For the first time ever, I drove my own car to the event. My 105-mile trip to Monterey, California was in my own Chevrolet Bolt EV. With my two pals in tow, what could be more environmentally sensitive than to carpool in an all-electric vehicle? It kept one old gas car and one motorcycle off the highway entirely.

The Bolt EV is a roomy compact hatchback, and it fit us and our gear without a problem when I folded down one of the rear seats.

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Always interested in checking the accuracy of the car’s range, I took before and after photos of my instrument panel.

In my driveway, it looked like this, with 251 miles of estimated range (about the best it’s ever looked, by the way):

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When we pulled into the hotel, it looked like this:

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The 105-mile trip lowered my estimated range by 113 miles–pretty nice for an all-freeway trip at 65-70 miles per hour. And, of course, the ride was smooth and quiet all the way. We had similar mileage on the return trip.

PG&E’s New Plugin Electric Hybrid Charging Trucks

138 miles should allow a return trip without a recharge, but that would be cutting it close. And, I planned to drive out to Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca and back, too. So, I was very fortunate to get to use PG&E’s new portable charging truck to top off my battery the night I arrived.

These amazing new trucks are completely self contained and can charge multiple vehicles at a time. The one I used was the smaller one, which required setting up charging stations, but the larger, 19,000-pound model we used at the event locations had direct cables from the truck to the vehicle, and included quick-charge capacity. The trucks, which themselves are Diesel/electric hybrids, will save a lot of energy as they’re used for their normal duties (see below), and with their onboard generator, can power up vehicles that need it. Here’s the smaller truck I used at the Monterey Tides hotel:

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Note the charging bollard standing there. The orange item is a grounding sheet that Jim Larson of PG&E installed underneath it.

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Here’s the control panel.

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At the racetrack, the trucks charged multiple cars at a time. Here the Chrysler Pacifica Hybrid minivan (the only one on the market!) and a Chevrolet Bolt EV get charged up.

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Here are more details from PG&E’s press release about these fantastic new trucks:

Pacific Gas and Electric Company (PG&E) and Efficient Drivetrains Incorporated (EDI) will showcase the utility industry’s first plug-in electric hybrid (PHEV) drivetrain Class 5 work bucket truck featuring 120kW exportable power that can be used to shorten or eliminate planned and unplanned outages.

PG&E partnered with EDI and Dixon-based Altec Industries, to develop this vehicle, which was designed, built and tested in the heart of California at EDI’s plant in Dixon. The vehicle features up to 50 miles all-electric range before switching to hybrid mode and 120kW exportable power, capable of powering 80% of the transformers in PG&E’s service area. The truck also features Altec’s electric worksite management system, which allows all onboard equipment including the boom, climate control and tools to be operated off of battery power, eliminating the need to idle the engines of the trucks while at job sites. These vehicles will reduce emissions by up to 80% when compared to conventional fuel vehicles.  PG&E estimates that each EDI truck will save the utility over 850 gallons of fuel per year. PG&E has deployed this technology in class 3, 5 and 6 platforms and currently operates 12 of the units.

I Drove Two Hydrogen-powered EVs Back to Back

Eager to start out green, I drove the two hydrogen cars right away–the Toyota Mirai and the Honda Clarity Fuel Cell. The third hydrogen vehicle on the market, Hyundai’s Tucson, wasn’t there, but these two midsize sedans represent the bulk of today’s very small segment, and are quite similar. Both feature weird styling, hundreds of miles of range, a reasonable lease price, and an undramatic driving experience. They feel like Toyota and Honda versions of the same car.

I drove the Mirai first. I had spent an hour with this vehicle before, driving a limited course in residential San Francisco. I was eager to get it out onto the highway and let it loose a little. The Mirai was introduced in 2014, while the Clarity goes back to 2008. However, this second-generation Clarity came out just a few months ago.

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The Mirai wears exaggerated versions of Toyota’s current styling elements. The front scoops help direct lots of cool air to the components under the hood that convert hydrogen to energy (and water) and the electric motor. The tail of the car is somewhat sad looking. However, the interior, featuring the sweeping panels seen also on the Camry and Prius, feels more conventional.

The Mirai runs quietly, but unlike battery-powered EVs, lacks the wealth of torque you’d expect, so performance is leisurely. But the main story here, as in the Clarity, is that the technology is futuristic but the driving experience is ordinary. Maybe that’s a good thing.

The new second-generation Clarity, my second ride of the day, is also an odd-looking beast.

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The giant scoops up front, sliced semi-skirted rear wheels, and overstyled tail continue the hydrogen car strangeness. But–this car does look like a Honda, so maybe the assumption is that both of these cars reflect “the future” of their respective brands, like vehicles in a movie set in 2035.

As in the Mirai, the interior is less strange than the exterior. My main memory is of artificial plastic wood trim and alcantara on the dash and soft seating. Nothing else really stood out.

Both test cars had more than 200 miles of range on the odometer when I drove them. Range isn’t as much as an issue with hydrogen cars, since you can fill them up and drive like a gas car, and they can have 300 or more miles of range on a five-minute fill-up. The issue is finding a place to do it. There are very few hydrogen stations in California right now. If the infrastructure isn’t built out, it will likely remain a very marginal technology.

You can help promote  this new technology by leasing one these cars. Toyota’s deal is $349 a month with three years worth of free fuel. You also can buy the car for $57,500. The Clarity leases for $369 a month; there’s no purchase option. They also have a free fuel offer.

There are many differences between these two cars, and I’d like to cover them in a separate article. The bottom line is, you can drive either for essentially $350 a month total–and be part of the future.

Chrysler Pacifica is the Only Hybrid Minivan you can Buy

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I got a chance to spend 20 minutes or so driving and riding in the new Pacific hybrid minivan. While I’ve tested the regular model recently (full story soon for my newspapers and websites), this one provides more than 30 miles of pure EV driving. As a new model, it’s really nice to drive in any case, but with electric power, it’s much more efficient–and, of course, quieter. It climbed the hills of the Laureles Grade test run without getting breathless, although the engine did have to chime in to get it done. I’m looking forward to a week-long test soon, and that story will appear here in stevegoesgreen.com.

Zero Motorcycles – Green on Two Wheels

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I am not a motorcycle rider, but I spent time talking with three of the friendly and knowledgeable people from Zero Motorcycles, purveyors of electric two-wheeled transportation. I also heard a presentation from the company’s new CEO.

Sadly, I wasn’t able to test one–I don’t have a motorcycle license, and even off the street, you needed one to ride. I’ve always thought that part of the “fun” of driving a motorcycle was the sound, and watching other journalists test these gave an eerie sense of somehow not having the soundtrack on. But not only are these bikes apparently great fun, but they are a lot more comfortable without the vibration. The company builds a portfolio of models for different purposes in a range of prices, so best to check out their website for details. I’m half tempted to get my M1 license so I can give one a test ride.

Automotive Steel is Evolving for Efficiency

At the formal dinner on the evening of Day 2, our keynote speaker was Dave Anderson, Senior Director – Automotive Market from the Steel Market Development Institute. Dave told us about modern steel and how it’s changed over the years in automotive applications. I learned a lot. We hear a lot about “high strength” steel these days, but what does it all mean? Apparently there are hundreds of kinds of steel, and depending on its chemical makeup and processing, it can be extremely strong or very flexible–or possess other qualities, as needed. Making auto components out of different types can reduce weight while enhancing safety. Although the steel industry is smaller in the U.S. than it was years ago, It’s still a big factor in automotive industry–and the SMDI wants to keep it that way.

The Rest of the Cars

With dozens of cars available, I had to sample some others, and I did burn some petroleum doing it.

The Jaguar F-Pace is the brand’s first crossover SUV, and it was impressive and powerful.

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On the other side of the equation, the Toyota CH-R, originally meant to be a Scion, was small and quirky on the outside and drove like a nice small Toyota should.

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One of the hits of the day was the Alfa-Romeo Guilia, in powerhouse Quadrifoglia form. Out on the Monterey County back roads, it was a force, and many of my colleagues got to ride in it on the racetrack.

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I drove the unusual topless Range Rover Evoque convertible on an offroad course. Concentrating on moving slowly and deliberately over the uneven terrain was a nice palate cleanser from driving on the highway.

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I sampled the new, larger MINI Countryman, and it still felt like a MINI–but more luxurious. There’s a plugin hybrid version coming later this year that I’m eager to spend time with.

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A quick run over the hills in the sleek new Volvo V90 was a nice contrast to the MINI. Volvo has its act together, with premium amenities and beautiful styling. This is a wagon version of the new S90 sedan, which I recently tested.

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I found the new Honda Civic hatchback with a six-speed manual and had to take that one for a spin to row the gears. Although much larger than my 1986 Civic Si hatchback, it felt more like those old, fun Hondas of yesteryear. And it was white on the outside and black on the inside–just like my old ride. Note the gorgeous well-watered springtime countryside.

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I tested two Infinitis–the potent and luxurious Q60 coupe and the small, Mercedes-Benz-based QX30 crossover. The former was perhaps the best-looking iteration of Infiniti’s molten styling I’ve seen so far, and the silvery carbon fiber interior trim and white seats were a knockout. The little QX30 felt taut and fun during my brief ride.

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QX30

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Two compact crossovers that have been thoroughly updated got my attention–the Honda CR-V and Mazda CX-5. These direct competitors show why this segment is taking over from sedans. Solid, attractive, and relatively efficient, they were both steps up from their predecessors.

Honda CRV

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Mazda CX-5

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Lastly, I experienced the Navdy Augmented Driving device in an Audi Q7. This little marvel sits atop your instrument panel and provides a wealth of information and options through a head-up device.

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Controlled by a little wheel and button attached to the steering wheel, I could make phone calls, see map directions, read text messages, make musical selections, and much more. Easy to install, the unit attaches magnetically to its base, so you can tuck it away in a little cloth bag in your glove compartment when you park. The goal is to keep you connected without taking your eyes off the road.

Not Driven but Important

I didn’t drive it (mine is identical except for color), but the white Chevrolet Bolt EV went out a lot, and I talked with folks after they drove it to get their reactions.

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As always, the chance to meet and mingle with my old friends and our longtime and new automotive PR colleagues was invaluable. I look forward to following up my new relationships and taking some of the vehicles for week-long evaluations.

Toyota Mirai – EV Powered by Hydrogen

Electric cars are becoming commonplace, but if you really want to sample the latest technology, drive a hydrogen-powered electric car. That’s what the Toyota Mirai is. Mirai, by the way, means “future” in Japanese.

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I had a chance to spend an hour with a shiny white Mirai yesterday, and it was a very pleasant drive. In fact, it felt pretty much like a nicely turned out midsize luxury sedan.

But this is no ordinary car. It runs solely on electricity, but you don’t get the power by plugging it in. No–the power control unit, tucked under the prominent hood, controls energy from the fuel stack, which is located under the vehicle and manufactures electricity  chemically, like a battery.

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Fuel cells are an interesting and complicated subject I won’t delve into here, but in essence, you put in hydrogen and generate electricity to run a motor. The only byproduct is water–H2O. There’s a button on the dash where you can release the accumulated water, which accumulates at about 1/3 cup per mile. Somehow, in my test, we forgot to use this feature, but the experts who guided me told me that the water is so pure you could drink it (but it’s not recommended).

The Mirai looks a bit ungainly in photographs, but in person it stands strong and proud, wearing Toyota’s latest styling, also seen on the all-new 2016 Prius. No one can accuse Toyota of being plain vanilla anymore. The most noticeable feature from the front is the large “gills,” which I’m told allow more air into the motor area for the fuel cell to stay cool. They are also a different look, and believe me, are more compelling in person.

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The roof has a pillarless, floating look, seen also on the Prius and on a few other cars today, so it’s definitely the latest style. The proportions are masculine in their mass but feminine in their roundness (forgive the stereotypes), but I think the car could appeal to a wide range of folks.

Inside, the Mirai is curves and edges intertwined, with a luxurious feel. The door slams with an authoritative thunk. I learned that the Mirai is assembled in the same plant as the extremely limited and expensive LFA supercar, in Japan, by craftsmen who sweat every detail. The seats feature a complex, compelling stitch pattern, likened to aliens by my guide. They’re covered in SofTex, an artificial but pleasantly pliable leatherlike material.

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The instrument panel features the normal buttons and switches. The climate control uses the touch-sensitive sliders seen in a few other vehicles. Once you get used to them you can just tap to make adjustments. The steering wheel has the usual controls for accessories and speed control. The dash gives you lots of interesting information about how your Mirai is doing.

I peeked in the trunk. It’s tall and wide, but not as deep as a non-electric, since the hydrogen tank takes up a little room back there. No big deal, but you won’t pack any surfboards in there.

My ride was in the western area of San Francisco. I started up on 2nd Avenue and the car accelerated heartily, emitting just a slight whine. The sound is what you’d expect from an EV. I didn’t hear anything that sounded like a fuel cell, as it does its crucial work in silence, apparently. Brakes are nicely modulated, steering has a well weighted feel, and the car feels a lot like a Lexus, appropriate since it shares its platform with one. This is definitely much more car than a Camry or a Prius.

I wound through the San Francisco Presidio and down past Crissy Field, then climbed the steep Divisadero Street hill quietly and effortlessly. Then, I headed west again, returning to where I started, all too soon.

Hydrogen cars are likely to be part of the future automotive solution. If plug-in electric vehicles have a range problem, needing a recharge every 80-100 miles today (excepting Tesla), hydrogen cars have an infrastructure problem. They don’t have a range problem per se, with an EPA rating of 312 miles per tankful, but fueling stations are extremely scarce.

Toyota is investing in building up a network, working with companies such as First Element to set up stations throughout California. In the San Francisco Bay Area, there are a few, including one in Hayward, just a couple of miles from my home. I heard yesterday that there’s a station in Harris Ranch (near the Tesla supercharger) that allows San Francisco-to-Los Angeles trips, complete with a rest stop and a tasty meal. Toyota has 20 certified stations in California today.

An issue could arise if you took your Mirai out of state, away from hydrogen fuel and Mirai-certified service locations. Like driving a compressed natural gas (CNG) vehicle, fueling will be the issue. Take your other car to see Mount Rushmore.

How about if you have a mechanical issue with your Mirai? You must take it to a Mirai-certified Toyota dealership, which has the proper tools, service bays, and training to take care of the fuel cell. For ordinary things like brakes, you can go to any Toyota shop. There are eight certified Mirai dealerships in California–four in the north and four in the south.

So, what’s the price on this baby? I didn’t see an actual window sticker, but the retail is $57,500. However, consider this. You can buy or lease this car now. The current lease deal is $499/month for 36 months, 12,000 miles a year. Not only do you get California and Federal rebates, but Toyota is offering one of its own. And, as more than icing on the cake, Toyota will issue you a card good for up to $15,000 worth of fuel for the first three years. Service is included for that period too. So, lease the car and you essentially pay nothing but your lease payment for three years. Considering the competitors in the $57,000 range, such as Mercedes-Benz, BMW, and so on, it’s almost a steal.

Yes, as a Mirai driver you’ll have to think about refueling, and you may have to go out of your way. You can’t just pick up and drive to South Dakota on a whim. But, if you do have travel in mind, Toyota offers seven days a year of free rental of another vehicle. So, drop off your Mirai and take, say, a Highlander for a trip.

There are some questions. What will hydrogen cost when you DO have to start paying for it? Currently, it’s made primarily using natural gas, and costs $13-16 a kilogram. The tank holds 5.1 kg, so that’s $65-80 per fill-up. In three years, the cost could drop substantially.

Another issue is, just how environmentally friendly is hydrogen fuel if you need to use natural gas to make it? For now, natural gas is the easiest way, but there are numerous alternatives, including using waste to generate it. See the numerous videos on Youtube for much more information.

When Toyota introduced the Prius in 1996 in Japan (and 1999 in the U.S.), it was a bold venture, and the initial buyers were pioneers. Of course, those cars used regular gasoline, but still, it was a little bit of a risk. Now, in its fourth generation, on an all-new platform, the Prius leads the way in hybrids. Are you ready to be a pioneer, too? The Mirai is at the forefront. And, Toyota has opened its thousands of patents, so other manufacturers will be offering their own hydrogen fuel cell vehicles, helping to make the case for more fueling stations. It’s an  exciting time.