Polestar2 — Go EV the Scandinavian Way

By Steve Schaefer

Clean, simple, and with the Golden Gate Bridge in the background.

If you see a Polestar2 parked along the street or hear it roll silently by, you’re forgiven if you don’t know what it is. You will notice that it’s a handsome, premium-grade midsize car that looks like a tall sedan (it’s actually a hatchback).

The secret is that Polestar is an electric performance brand from Volvo and its Chinese owner, Geely Holding. It was established in 2017 and is based in Gothenburg, Sweden, where Volvo has been for a long time.

I enjoyed a long weekend with a Polestar 2, and it certainly makes a great first and lasting impression in a market segment that is starting to grow—and will soon be full of choices.

The car is a “2” because it was preceded by the “1,” which is an electric performance hybrid GT, with a six-figure price tag and a limited output of 500 units per year over the next three years.

A High Tech Customer Experience

If you’re thinking, “this sounds like a Swedish Tesla,” you’re getting the idea. By taking what could be “Volvo’s EV model” and breaking it out as a standalone brand, Volvo and Geely are promoting exclusivity while creating a high-tech customer experience. From my experience, it’s working.

The Silicon Valley Polestar Space is the latest place to see the new vehicles.

The vehicles will be sold online, and also shown off at strategically located “Polestar Spaces,” where you can browse in a minimalist, Danish modern showroom with non-commissioned salespeople to help you and get a feel for the cars before placing your order. There are already Polestar Spaces in New York City and Los Angeles, and there are now two in the San Francisco Bay Area. The newest Polestar Space just opened in Silicon Valley, at the Westfield Valley Fair at 2855 Stevens Creek Boulevard. There’s a second location in Corte Madera, in Marin County.

Polestar also offers a convenient home delivery and service program, allowing customers who live within 150 miles of the Valley Fair Space, which includes those living in San Francisco and the Monterey Bay Peninsula, to have a new car delivered to their door, as well as complimentary roundtrip transportation for future servicing. 

Good Looking Lines

The Polestar2 makes a fine first impression, with its smooth flanks and chiseled edges, open mouth with black-square-filled “grille,” and slices of taillamps at the rear. The Polestar logo looks like two boomerangs and is not at all like the familiar Volvo ironmark.

In a world obsessed with crossovers and SUVs, this is a car that looks like a tall sedan but actually provides hatchback practicality, including a fold-up panel for grocery bags that includes hooks and a strap.

Keep those groceries from spilling.

Test Runs on Freeway and Back Roads

I tested the car with two trips—one primarily freeway and the other on my local, beautiful back roads. In each case, the car acquitted itself athletically and in great comfort, as expected and hoped. The freeway jaunt was to San Rafael, in Marin County, which meant open freeways, bridge crossings, and a short test loop through town, where I showed off the car’s rocket acceleration to my son. A BMW owner, he is a possible future Polestar buyer, which made this a demo ride and reinforced my positive impressions.

Backroad jaunt showed sharp reflexes and taut steering.

The backroad jaunt is where I recently took the all-new Ford Mustang Mach-E—a competitor—and the Polestar2 showed its sharp reflexes and balanced handling around the bends. EVs benefit from a low center of gravity, and the 2’s steering was taut and the assist felt natural. I later found the screen on the center panel where you can configure the performance settings and saw that it was set up for “sporty,” which made sense. I guess I was driving “sporty” on the freeway, as well.

Plentiful Power

The Polestar2 is a potent beast. The Launch Edition features two motors, one up front and one in the rear, powered by a 78-kilowatt hour battery. This all adds up to 408 horsepower and 487 pound-feet of torque, good for a pulse-raising zero-to-60 run in under five seconds. Range is 233 miles, which is good, if not the best in the market.

The Polestar 2 features one pedal driving—a favorite of mine and many other EV drivers—where thanks to regenerative braking, you use only the accelerator to move forward or slow down (even to a full stop). Of course, the brake pedal is right there when you need it, but in normal driving you can ignore it. The car offers three drive modes for regenerative braking (Off, Low, Standard), along with on or off settings for creep mode (acts like a “normal” automatic). It could stop and go with pinpoint accuracy with the “Standard” setting.

High Tech Infotainment

As an EV, the Polestar2 is a silent traveler, and the time on the road gave me the chance to test what is the world’s first in-vehicle application of an infotainment system powered by Android with Google apps and services built-in. As the setup was done already, all I did was say, “Hey, Google, play Bluegrass,” and the friendly female voice said, “I’m choosing Indie Bluegrass from Spotify,” and that was that. I also tested Google for navigation and asking for my home address produced a large map on the center screen and turn-by-turn voice directions.

Inside, the Polestar2 shows its Volvo origins. The lines are drawn with a brilliant, clean, and slightly cold aesthetic, and materials are matte and, according to the press info, it’s a fully vegan interior with the WeaveTech fabric and reconstructed wood trim. The ambiance isn’t overtly luxurious, but the traditional super supportive Volvo seats are right there with multiple adjustments and the fat, leather-wrapped wheel is nice to hold.

The 11-inch center panel screen is smaller than a Tesla’s, but Polestar parent Volvo has developed a beautiful and practical touchscreen interface. The home screen is quartered into maps, Phone, Driver Performance, and Music, but you can swipe to lots of different views, including the settings pages, where you can configure your driving experience.

Charging and Efficiency

Enquiring minds always want to know about charging. I used my solar-panel-powered Level 2 (240V) home charger, but if you’re on the road and want to top off quickly, DC fast charging takes about 40 minutes to get you to 80% at 150 kilowatts. It’ll take eight hours to refill the battery from 0 to 100 percent using Level 2 charging (perfect for overnight or a workday). If you just plug in to standard a 120V household outlet, you’d better give it 22 hours. That’s pretty normal for 2021.

The EPA gives this all-electric car ratings of 96 City, 88 Highway, and 92 Combined for MPGe (Miles per Gallon electric). Use that number to compare with other electric vehicles. Of course, the EPA “green” scores are 10 for both Smog and Greenhouse Gas. Any emissions for an EV come not from a tailpipe but from manufacturing, transportation, and how the electricity to move it is produced. These should diminish as more and more of the grid uses power from renewable sources, such as solar and wind, and as the manufacturers themselves use green energy—some, including GM, already do.

High tech treats include the absence of a start button. Just carry the chunky key fob in your pocket and walk up to the car. Open the door and sit down. Pull the stylish ring-shaped shift knob into D or R and the car moves. Leaving is the same thing. Put it in P (Park), open the door, step out, close the door, and walk away. You can press “Lock” on the digital key fob if that makes you feel more secure.

This is a premium vehicle, and the window sticker shows it. My test car, in “Moon” metallic, started at $59,900, and with $1,200 extra for the paint and $1,300 for destination (it’s shipped from its Chinese factory), came to $62,400.

Competitors

And this brings up a point. Who’s the customer, and what makes the Polestar2 stand out? The obvious direct competitor is the Tesla Model Y (if you want the hatchback capability) or the Model 3. Teslas have the advantage of the supercharger network, at this point, although Polestar is affiliating with ChargePoint. Tesla offers the same kind of minimalism as the Polestar2. I haven’t yet driven a Model Y, but compared to other Teslas I’ve sampled, the Polestar2 feels like a traditional car, with a more elaborate instrument panel and a more developed interior design language.

One new and more affordable option is the Mustang Mach-E, but the personality difference is substantial. If the Polestar2 is a Tesla for Volvo enthusiasts, the Mach-E is a first EV for muscle car fans. With its exuberant styling inside and out and leftward running horse logo, the Mustang is competitive with the Polestar2 only in its EV performance.

Matching the Polestar in power and range is the Jaguar I-PACE. However, the base S model is already $10,000 more expensive than the Polestar2, although the interior ambiance is a bit fancier. The Audi e-tron is another luxury competitor, but I haven’t had any seat time in it yet. Mercedes-Benz is rolling out its EQ models and that brand has huge luxury equity. Ones to watch include the upcoming BMW i4 and recently announced Kia EV6, but you can’t buy one of those yet. New electric vehicles like the VW ID.4 are worthy but can’t touch the Polestar2 for sheer performance. 

Time will tell with the Polestar brand, but the Polestar2 is competitive and hits all the right buttons. The next model, the 3, will be a coupe marketed between the 1 and the 2 in price. There is also the stunning Precept concept that is slated to appear sometime in the future. For more affordable EVs, the Volvo brand has big plans to expand its lineup, and already offers the XC40 Recharge crossover.

It’s an exciting time to be an EV shopper, and it’s just going to get better.

VanMoof Expands its e-Bike Network to 50 Cities

By Steve Schaefer

Service hubs will provide test rides, check-ups, and repairs.

VanMoof, the Dutch builder of sleek, high-tech e-bikes, boasts more than 150,000 riders worldwide. Taco Carlier, co-founder and CEO, has just announced at SXSW 2021 the company’s plans to provide top-level service for their riders. VanMoof will expand its worldwide presence from eight to 50 cities, including American cities Los Angeles, CA, Portland, OR, and Washington. D.C.

The new network is not just a blossoming of modern, angular showrooms. The plan is to build out a network of state-of-the-art service hubs and certified partner workshops over the next six months. Along with a more intuitive app support and remote diagnostic solutions, this enables the brand to provide excellent service for their bikes around the world.

“The goal is to provide the best possible experience to our riders—no matter where they’re located,” explains Taco Carlier.

I got to test a VanMoof e-bike myself back in July of 2020, from the showroom in San Francisco. Wearing my mask, I received a touchless store demo and then got to see for myself how helpful the pedal assist was when riding up San Francisco’s steep hills.

The upscale but understated bike is a valuable and highline item, so keeping it in perfect running condition is important to its owners. When you’re spending a couple of thousand dollars on something, you want to be well taken care of. VanMoof has experienced “hypergrowth” as a result of a global boom in e-bikes, tripling sales over this last pandemic year.

Top level service around the world.

Cities with brand stores will include Amsterdam, London, Berlin, Paris, New York, San Francisco, Seattle, and Tokyo.  The 14 service hubs will offer test rides, check-ups, and repairs. The more than 60 carefully selected certified partner workshops will receive special training to work on VanMoof’s S3 and X3 bikes.

Cofounder Ties Carlier, Taco’s brother, reminds us of the bottom line:

“Reducing our reliance on cars and instilling the confidence to change-up your commute habits requires a robust service fallback for your new ride. Only then will we reach a critical mass turning point that transforms our cities.” 

See VanMoof’s website for more details.

The Dutch Cycling Embassy Reaches out to the S.F. Bay Area

By Steve Schaefer

The Netherlands — 17 million people and 23 million bicycles.

Cycling is a great way to reduce automotive traffic, especially in crowded urban settings. The residents of the Netherlands are experts and want to help other nations understand the benefits of cycling, build out cycling infrastructure, and ride safely. To do this, they have established the Dutch Cycling Embassy.

“The Dutch Cycling Embassy is a vast network of public and private organizations from the Netherlands who wish to share their expertise on building what supports the Dutch cycling culture to those interested.”

I recently attended an interesting online presentation by the Embassy. The initial portion included an introduction by Chris Bruntlett, the Embassy’s Marketing and Communications Manager. Derek Taylor of Goudappel also spoke. This was followed by a choice of three simultaneous breakout sessions; I attended one on the design and building of cycling infrastructure.

Some Impressive Dutch Two-wheel Stats

The Netherlands is the number one country in the world in bike ridership. This nation of 17 million residents owns 23 million bikes—more than one per person! They take five million bike trips each year, averaging about 621 miles per person. There are 202 cities and towns where bike share actually exceeds car share (for trips shorter than 4.7 miles). And today, 18 percent of bike trips are by electrical assist, and 26 percent of all miles ridden are by e-bikes.

What helps it run so well is that cycling is incorporated into the public transit system. Half of all train trips begin with a bicycle ride to the station. The Embassy’s slides showed vast bike parking facilities there.

Safe, plentiful parking is essential for mass adoption of cycling. Photo: Goudappel.

Goudappel Coffeng

Derek Taylor, the Mobility Analyst and Business Developer from Goudappel Coffeng spoke.

Goudappel Coffeng is a Netherlands-based company with 60 years of mobility planning experience and currently has 250 experts on staff. Their slogan is “Mobility Moves Us” (Mobiliteit beweegt ons). Derek lives in the San Francisco Bay Area and understands what’s relevant to the local community.

The Netherlands, the world’s transport-safest country, has a balanced modal share—30% car, 30% public transit, 30% bikes, and 10% pedestrians (or other). And it’s fully integrated, too, with residents using a single card for local, regional, and international travel.

One card for all transit systems. Photo: Goudappel.

Derek described the similarities between the Dutch Randstad Economic Region and the Bay Area. The Randstad encompasses the four largest cities in the Netherlands, which are located in the western part of the country. The four cities are Amsterdam, Utrecht, Rotterdam, and The Hague. This maps fairly closely to the Bay Area, which includes the cities of San Francisco, San Jose, and Oakland, and all the places in between.

The Randstad comprises four major cities in the western Netherlands. Photo: Goudappel.

A huge difference, though, is that the Bay Area uses a lot more cars! For comparison, the car to non-car ratio in Amsterdam is 30/70 percent while it’s 88/12 percent in San Jose—utterly the opposite. How do they do that in the Randstad?

The answer is, they take an integrated approach to mobility planning, land use planning, considering the urban form, buildings, and special design. Dutch cities have even created some car-free zones.

A good way to remove cars is to make it easy to live without them, so there is a hierarchy of travel modes, all integrated:

  • International high speed trains
  • Interregional – Intercity trains
  • Metropolitan – metro, light rail, commuter rail
  • Local – trams, buses, cycling

The Bay Area doesn’t have this kind of integration, and there’s really no land-based international travel. As it is, about 7.7 million people live in the Bay Area, and the area has the fifth largest GDP in the U.S. In a challenge for cycling, 33 percent of Bay Area residents work in a different county from where they live, and 75 percent drive to work. According to Derek, traffic congestion has increased 80 percent since 2010, especially at high travel times, and its growing rapidly (in non-pandemic times).

Many people live within 1.25 miles of an existing rail station (BART and CalTrain) and could possibly cycle to the station and take transit if it were set up for it. Derek talked about catchment zones, which have 5% of the land but 51% of the jobs and are good transit hubs. So, for example, the Salesforce Transit Center in downtown San Francisco is ideal, and commuters could bike to the train stations and go to work from Salesforce (or even in it—it’s the tallest building in San Francisco). This of course is in the world after COVID-19 is under control.

The E-Bike Design and Planning Breakout Session

The three speakers in this session taught me a lot about how cycling infrastructure decisions are made and how those beautiful Dutch bike paths and structures get designed and built.

Kennisplatform Crow

Kennisplatform Crow is an e-bike design and planning company in the Netherlands. Hillie Talens, Project Manager, talked about how Crow considers the user’s perspective in design decisions.

The Netherlands has a road classification system that helps develop guidelines for safety.

  • Motorways (no bicycles)
  • Access roads
  • Distributor roads (to connect them)

Hillie discussed five safety principles that Crow considers when designing cycling paths and structures:

  • Functionality – It does the job as well as possible
  • Homogeneity of mass, speed, and direction – moving at the same speed helps avoid accidents
  • Recognizability of road design and predictability of the road course and road user behavior – signage is consistent and placed consistently
  • Forgivingness of the environment (physical and social) – help eliminate problems by allowing room for errors and enough space for safe passage
  • State awareness by the road user

Crow considers five main bicycle infrastructure requirements:

  • Coherence – The system is complete, connected, and consistent, and cyclists have no trouble finding their way. Bicycles combine well with cars and public transit and offer route choices
  • Directness – Eliminate unnecessary detours and allow for a constant speed with a minimum of delays
  • Attractiveness – Include variety and surprise, activities along the route, positive stimuli for all of the senses, and to keep bikeways clean, whole, well-tended
  • Safety & Health – Mix bikes with cars when possible and separate them when necessary for low speed and volume and provide alternative parallel pathways for high volume.  Consider infrastructure and land use, such as location of schools
  • Comfort – Provide a smooth surface (concrete/asphalt), minimal stops, protection against the weather, avoid steep slopes, make sure there’s enough space (abreast), avoid sharp curves, and design for a speed of 20 mph

Other factors include positioning bollards marked with reflective material, streetlighting, keeping vehicles out of bike paths, and providing enough bike parking spaces.

Mobycon

Mobycon is an independent consultancy firm based in the Netherlands. Their interdisciplinary team includes urban designers, planners, economists, and social scientists who are well versed in applying Dutch transport expertise around the world. Lennart Nout, Manager of International Strategy, guided us through their presentation.

Mobycon wants to make the world less dependent on the car. In the Netherlands, people cycle not only on short city trips but do some long-distance commuting, too. That means investing in bicycle highways, not just bike paths along existing roads. Research has found that providing designated bike lanes helps get more riders to take short trips. Mobycon is working on a fully segregated bicycle highway in Los Angeles.

Like Hillie, Lennart mentioned three different types of roads, which they label flow, distribution, and access. Mobycon has found that creating low-traffic residential neighborhoods unlocks high bike use. Motorists are willing to drive shorter distances at slower speeds within them, which is safer for cyclists. You can plan out a neighborhood where you can get where you need to go in six minutes. Lennart showed an example of how, in Barcelona, they put the cars on the outside of “superblocks” and the cyclists inside.

Bike Minded

Bike Minded is located in Rotterdam, the Netherlands. Their goal is co-designing a bicycle friendly world by creating e-bike infrastructure. They are concerned with signage and technical elements such as bridges. Company founder Maurits Lopes Cardozo was our guide.

E-bikes are growing steadily in the Netherlands. From 2% in 2004 they now are fully 42% of bicycle purchases. With reduced effort, more people can use them, and it enables higher travel speeds, which makes longer trips possible—and has an effect on urban planning. It could have a large impact in the Bay Area, too.

Pedal assist used to be for seniors and people who had difficulty riding a bike, but now, they are used by many other people, including for delivery and even schoolkids.

Maurits described two types of cyclists—practical and recreational—and says that both types would be willing to switch to e-bikes. Practical cyclists are everyday cyclists: commuters, people carrying cargo, or students going to school. Recreational cyclists are of all ages, are often e-bike users, and enjoy riding for sports and fun.

The two cycling types have different needs, but it all requires good infrastructure. While the main cycling network in town can be on asphalt streets, there are some fast-cycling regional routes for longer distance commutes. Maurits talked about three hierarchies of cycling: basic, main, and fast.

  • Basic can share streets at slow speeds
  • Main have a separated path—red-painted asphalt in the Netherlands
  • Fast-cycling routes are not for cars, and are for longer commutes and recreational rides

However, for those longer trips, there are often barriers, such as highways, rail and utility corridors, rivers, and canals, which divide neighborhoods. Car-dominant intersections are a problem, too. So, Bike Minded plans and designs ways to surmount these barriers. For example, the amazing Hovenring in Eindhoven, is a circular cable-stayed cycling bridge that floats over the highway. Maurits showed us the Los Angeles River Bike Path, and the City of Davis’ bike infrastructure projects.

The Hovenring is a bicycle interchange in the sky. Photo: Bike Minded.

The ideal situation is to integrate cycling seamlessly with other transport networks, and that sometimes is not parallel to the car network. Minimal contact with other modes is much safer. That’s why Bike Minded likes roundabouts in place of intersections, such as in Beukelsdijk in Rotterdam. They are much safer and keep all traffic, cars, and cycles, flowing smoothly.

The Last Word from Chris Bruntlett

Chris Bruntlett, based in Delft, the Netherlands, uses his knowledge and passion for cycling to share what the Netherlands has to offer with other locations around the world.

Per Chris, regular unassisted bikes can be part of the picture, but e-bikes are transformational.

“Switching just a fraction of automobile trips to the electric bicycle could save societies billions, addressing myriad problems such as obesity, congestion, air quality, noise pollution, and road safety,” he said.

However, there are three major barriers to realizing these benefits: lack of infrastructure, lack of storage, and the up-front expense. That means e-bikes won’t be used in large numbers without creating safe places to ride and park them and providing incentives to make it easier to buy one.  

“This seemingly limitless potential to transform our cities and towns won’t be fully realized without additional support from both the public and private sectors,” Chris said.

So, the best things you can do now are to join like-minded people and organizations to push for change, lobby your elected officials, and if all else fails, run for elected office yourself. And, of course, go get your own e-bike.

New US Postal Service Trucks Should Be Electric!

By Steve Schaefer

Not attractive, and should be electric!

I read last week that the US Postal Services had selected a bid to replace their old trucks with new ones that are gasoline-powered. I believe that this is a big mistake. President Biden has stated that he wants to electrify the government fleet, and this is the time to do it with the USPS trucks.

EVs make perfect sense for a stop-and-start daily route vehicle. There’s no reason to replace them with updated versions of 20th-century trucks. While an individual may worry about taking their car, which is usually used locally, on an occasional long trip, this would never be a concern with a vehicle that drives a local route every day. And who wants trucks spewing pollution in our neighborhoods when it’s not necessary?

The familiar old trucks need replacement–with electric vehicles!

The current fleet has been around for three decades, so whatever we do now will be with us for a long time, so we need to choose wisely and make the investments we need for the future. If we buy gas trucks now, they would continue as gasoline vehicles for a long time, even when most of the auto and truck fleet has transitioned to EVs.

The announcement about the Next Generation Delivery Vehicle (NGDV) from defense contractor Oshkosh Defense, states that these vehicles could be converted to EVs later. However, that is not practical and would likely never happen. Vehicles that are designed as EVs use a different kind of platform, since they don’t need gas tanks, large engines, radiators, and even transmissions. It makes more sense from a technical and a financial standpoint to build them as EVs in the first place.

Now is also the time to create the infrastructure to support these electric postal vehicles. It can be done as the trucks are phased in, with charging stations in the lot and solar panels on the post office roof to feed them.

What You Can Do

When I heard this news, I immediately wrote to my two senators and my congressman. You can go to their websites and fill out an email template to communicate that you want electric postal trucks. It takes five minutes.

I also looked up the Department of Transportation, where Pete Buttigieg is now the secretary. I didn’t find an easy email address, but you can call them at 202-366-4000 or send them a letter at:

Pete Buttigieg, Secretary of Transportation

U.S. Department of Transportation

1200 New Jersey Avenue, SE

Washington, DC 20590

Moveon.org is circulating a petition that you can sign.

The most important thing is to invest in electric postal trucks at the beginning, and we’ll have vehicles that fit in with the electric fleet of the future, will be part of an overall climate strategy, and be much more economical to run for years to come.

I’ll be following this story as it unfolds.

BMW Takes the Middle Path to Electrification

By Steve Schaefer

BMW EVs — note upcoming i4 in the middle, MINI in the foreground.

The auto industry has been slowly transitioning toward battery-powered transportation, but each company has its own way of doing it. BMW, which jumped in early with the all-electric i3 and plug-in hybrid i8 in 2014, has been slow to move to pure electrics, but now offers plug-in hybrid options on several popular models, including the midsize 530e sedan and X5 xDrive45e crossover, which I recently tested.

Three Different Paths a Company Can Take to Move Towards Electric

Before diving into the two Bimmers, let’s look at the different ways that car companies can approach the gasoline to electricity transition, from all-in to not quite ready yet, or the middle path. I’m just hitting high spots here to make the point.

All-in is how Tesla, a California startup, has done it since day one. First, they electrified a small two-seat sports car on a borrowed Lotus platform. Then, they took what they learned and introduced their mass market flagship Model S sedan. The smaller, more affordable Model 3 sedan and Model Y hatchback followed, putting Teslas—every one all-electric—into the hands of a much wider clientele.

The middle path recognizes that electric cars are not profitable yet, but companies like General Motors, Ford, Nissan, and Volkswagen don’t want to be left out in the future. Things started rolling about a decade ago, when Nissan bravely introduced the all-electric LEAF and GM brought out the clever Volt plug-in hybrid. Ford and VW electrified existing compact hatchbacks, replacing engines with motors in the compact Focus and Golf, respectively. There are other examples, such as Mercedes-Benz’s B-class EV and more recent offerings from Audi.

Things have moved forward for the mainstream companies over the decade. GM debuted the all-new Bolt EV four years ago, and recently announced its all-electric future, with some desirable cars in the works, from GMC/Hummer and Cadillac as well as the Bolt EUV crossover. Ford is debuting its beautiful and powerful Mustang now and has put a hybrid in the F-150 pickup, with a full EV version on the way. VW is finally rolling out the excellent ID.4 crossover. The Nissan Ariya crossover is imminent. So, there’s progress.

Another way to take the middle path is to avoid EVs but proliferate hybrids. Toyota has taken this approach, spreading its pioneering Prius hybrid technology across its model mix, including the Avalon, Camry, and Corolla sedans and RAV4 and Highlander crossovers.  

A few years ago, the Korean brands introduced the Hyundai Ioniq and Kona and Kia Niro models that let you choose hybrid, plug-in hybrid, or battery electric flavors. Both companies have recently committed to full lines of EVs over the next few years.

On the “just getting started” side you’ll find worthy manufacturers like Subaru and Mazda, who don’t have the cash to build an all-electric car. However, they can collaborate with big companies and join the party eventually, as Subaru has already done with Toyota on its Crosstrek Hybrid. Mazda has just introduced an electric version of its MX30 crossover, but it’s not available in the U.S yet. It will be Mazda’s first EV in America when it arrives.

BMW’s Plug-In Hybrids

Getting back to BMW, they have their plug-in hybrids and plans for new all-electric models, including the i4 sedan and iX crossover, and currently offer the iX3 small electric crossover in Europe. Today, you can contact your American BMW retailer and buy or lease a 530e or X5 xDrive45e plug-in hybrid. I drove both over the last few weeks.

Unlike Tesla, BMW has no identity to establish. Since the 1970’s they’ve built a reputation as “The Ultimate Driving Machine,” and while that may not really apply anymore, the brand still retains a lot of desirability and panache. So, while they slowly introduce new members of their electric “I” vehicles, they have taken popular models and cleaned them up a bit.

Both the X5 xDrive 45e and the 530e plug-in hybrids retain gasoline engines and the components that support them, like radiators, motor oil, and exhaust systems, while installing a motor, battery and an extra port to charge it. But unlike standard hybrids, which have small batteries that charge only when you step on the brake pedal, a plug-in hybrid lets you actively charge your car like an EV—for a limited range.

The 530e has an official EPA electric range of 21 miles; the larger battery on the X5 provides 30. What this means in real life is that if you’re willing to plug in your car  regularly, for most driving you can go electrically, since statistically, most people don’t drive more than 40 miles a day.

The upsides include lower CO2 emissions, smooth, silent driving, and no range anxiety. Once you get past the local electric range, the car converts into hybrid mode and uses gasoline or electricity as efficiently as it can. That means on a freeway trip, if you’re not in stop-and-go traffic, you’ll be using mostly gasoline, while in town, with frequent braking, you may be mostly electric, even if the electrons you put into the battery overnight are used up.

The X5 xDrive45e Crossover

Second generation X5 xDrive is more powerful and has more than twice the electric range.

My Arctic Grey Metallic test unit came packed with extras, making it a seriously luxurious ride. Inside, it wore the ivory White Vernasca Leather—“non-animal-derived “SensaTec” is standard.

The 2021 X5 xDrive45e is a second-generation model, updated significantly from the previous X5 xDrive40e. A more powerful six-cylinder turbo engine replaces the 2.0-liter four from the old car, and the battery doubles in size to 24 kWh. That means you get up to 30 miles of electric-only range vs. just 12 before (I saw the gauge read “32”). That’s significant, because it means  a lot more of your local driving will be electric-powered.

The combined horsepower, with the electric motor, is 389 horsepower, a bump of 81 from the old car. Torque jumps as well, to 443 lb.ft., a rise of 111. That lets the 5,672-pound hauler sprint from 0 to 60 in just 5.3 seconds.

It takes four hours to charge the battery from empty to 80 percent and 5.3 hours to fill it to 100 percent using a level 2, 240-volt charger. Using standard household current takes considerably longer (13.3 and 17.7 hours respectively). As a plug-in hybrid, it will never need an emergency charging stop while traveling.

The crossover comes standard with BMW’s Intelligent xDrive all-wheel drive system and an eight-speed Sport Steptronic transmission. It’s smart enough to adjust for your route and driving situation. The double wishbone front and five-link rear suspension are designed for comfort as well as traction when surfaces are less than ideal. The two-axle air suspension balances loads.

The interior looks rugged and luxurious like a BMW crossover should. It features Live Cockpit Professional, with 12.3-inch screens for the instrument panel and in the middle of the dash, where you can control all the sophisticated BMW driving and entertainment options.

My test week was during a quiet February, and with nowhere to go, I took no long rides. But, with its gorgeous chairs, crystal shift knob, and sparkling trim, the car felt quite posh when I did.

Three Drive Modes

Choices–I picked Electric, but Hybrid is the default.

There are three drive modes—Hybrid, Electric, and Sport. Hybrid, the default, electronically monitors the route and the road and selects the most efficient or performance-oriented balance of gas or electrons. Electric—my choice—is selectable from a center console button, and I had to do that every time because of the default Hybrid setting.

The car can go up to a law-breaking 84 mph on electricity alone, so short freeway hops work just fine. On longer trips you’ll end up in Hybrid mode. If, for some reason, you want to storm back roads for fun, the Sport setting keeps the engine on all the time for extra power.

Since this is nominally an offroad vehicle, you can set five levels of ride height. Although I had no need to use this, it could come in handy for clearance when you leave the highway.

Fuel economy per the EPA is 50 MPGe when you’re using electricity and it drops way down to 20 mpg with gasoline.

The X5 xDrive45e base prices at $65,400, but my tester, loaded up with numerous options, plus $995 shipping from the Spartanburg, South Carolina factory, came to $81,695. That’s a lot, but it’s a lot of car, too.

The luxury crossover segment is becoming highly desirable these days—low slung sedans are no longer the rage. This car, with its rugged but sophisticated styling and pretty much anything you could want, will fill anyone’s needs and then some. As a plug-in hybrid, if it spends most of its time on local runs and gets charged up regularly, it will function as an EV much of the time. But with all-wheel drive and a gas engine, it will take you to the ski destination of your choice painlessly.

The 530e Sedan

7th generation 5 Series offers a plug-in hybrid, gets some visual tweaks for ’21.

The BMW 5 Series has enjoyed a long and happy life in the BMW lineup. The 2021 model marks the seventh generation of the “executive size” sedan that debuted in 1972. Larger than the compact 3 Series and smaller than the grand 7 Series, it’s perfect for any driving occasion.

The 530e brings plug-in hybrid power. While both the standard 530i and the 530e have 2.0-liter gas engines, the 530e gets an electric motor with 107 horsepower and 195 lb.-ft. of torque, making the “e” more powerful, with a total of 288 horsepower and 310 lb.-ft. of torque. The “e” gets from 0-60 0.2 seconds faster as well, at 5.7 seconds.

While the EPA gives the 530i gas-only car fuel economy numbers of 25 City, 33 Highway, and 28 combined, the 530e gets 64 MPGe with electricity and gasoline and 26 miles per gallon with gas only. EPA Green scores are 7 for Smog and 8 for Greenhouse Gas.

The 12-kWh battery is tucked out of sight, but it does steal 4 cubic feet of trunk space, while adding weight that makes the 530e about 450 pounds heavier than the 530i.

However, it’s still the same 5 Series experience, except you can drive locally without burning gas! With 21 miles of range, the car functions as an electric car around town and for short freeway commutes. You can charge it up at home, at work, or while shopping at Whole Foods.

Option it Up the Way You Want it

My tester wore a brilliant Phytonic Blue Metallic and featured Ivory White Nappa leather within. BMW leather always smells nice and conveys a premium feel. My tester had a number of packages that added to the luxury and comfort. Driving Assistance Plus includes Extended Traffic Jam Assistant, which, as I am working from home, I didn’t get to try. The Shadowline Package adds extra lighting. The M Sport package brings performance and design upgrades, including variable sport steering, the M Sport suspension, special 19- or 20-inch upgraded rims, and an aerodynamic kit. The Parking Assistance Package would have made parking easy, if I had needed it. The Premium Package includes pleasures like a Harman-Kardon audio system and gesture control.

As with any BMW, you can go wild with optional features. My tester base priced at $57,200, but with options plus shipping came to an eye-opening $70,485. For comparison, the base price of the fossil-fuel-only 530i, pre-shipping, is $54,200, $3,000 less than the 530e.

All 5-Series models receive some subtle updates this year, including a larger, taller set of twin kidney grilles along with resculpted LED headlamps up front. Trapezoidal tailpipe finishers perk up the tail end. Inside, Live Cockpit gives you generous 12.3-inch instrument panel and dash center screens. This blends modern computer screen controls with some of the classic feel of the BMWs drivers have loved over the decades.

Most EVs, being silent, can surprise unsuspecting walkers. So, BMW offers Acoustic Protection for Pedestrians, which makes what BMW calls an “unmistakable sound” at up to 19 miles per hour to warn the inattentive.

The 530e does its electric driving subtly, but cruising in it in silence can put you in your happy place, even if it’s not for an extended time. But soon, you’ll be able to enjoy an all-electric midsize sedan from BMW—the i4. Stay tuned.

Ford Mustang Mach-E – A Horse of a Different Color–Electrified

By Steve Schaefer

Muscular heritage styling.

For an EV enthusiast—or any American car shopper—the Ford Mustang Mach-E is one of the most intriguing and important auto debuts in years. As an all-electric SUV, it’s as revolutionary as the original 1965 Mustang was in 1964 and points the way to the future, while intimately linking to Ford’s most iconic brand.

Origins

The original Ford Mustang, a low-slung sport coupe and convertible based on the compact Falcon platform, offered excitement and affordability, and was the right car at the right time. Hundreds of thousands were sold from the starting gun, invigorating Ford and creating the “pony car” segment.

Over the years, the Mustang has had its great and not so great moments, growing hulking in the early 1970s and shrinking down to Pinto size as a reaction to mid 70’s fuel shortages. It found its footing in 1979 with the form it would hold onto for decades, rounding out in the 1990s and surviving to this day. You can still get a reasonable model with a 2.3-liter EcoBoost Turbo or grab a V8-powered Shelby or other supercar variant.

The Mach-E is Different

But the Mustang Mach-E is different. It’s got four doors, for one thing (although the “E-latch” handles are hidden). It’s all-electric. While its length and width are comparable to the regular Mustang, it stands nearly 10 inches taller, and boasts 101 cubic feet (cf) of interior volume versus 83 cf for the coupe. Sitting in the spacious rear seat, I looked up through the panoramic glass roof and thought of how fun the Mustang would be for four people to take on a long trip.

E-Latch pops open when you approach the car.

Ford’s EV history is not impressive so far. They sold the competitive Fusion plug-in hybrid for years (particularly nice in the later design) with the Europe-designed C-Max minivan sharing the drivetrain. Ford offered a 76-mile-range Focus with a $40K price tag that was a California compliance car. The new hybrid version of the F-150 pickup has just arrived and I spent a week with it recently. But the Mustang Mach-E is a new milestone in the company’s movement into the electric vehicle future.

So, what makes the Mach-E a Mustang, and not just Ford’s first serious all-electric car? It’s styling and performance.

Surely there were prolonged and heated discussions in the Ford boardroom about “diluting the brand” but I believe that in the end, they decided to spend a little of their amassed brand equity in order to bless this car with everything they could muster to make it successful. People love SUVs these days and have no problem thinking of them as desirable, sporty vehicles. They are not the truck-based Jeep and International Harvester wagons that were around when the original Mustang debuted at the 1964 New York World’s Fair.

The running horse is inside and outside of the car–including this puddle lamp.

Mustang styling cues include a long and curvaceous hood, muscular sides with rear haunches, a Mustang face with piercing eyes (and a big filled-in grille) and, of course, those tri-bar taillights. There is the running horse logo, of course, seen on the nose and tail, inside on graphics and the screens, and as puddle lamps at night.

Famous tri-bar taillamps.

Unlike with the coupe and convertible, with the Mach-E you step right in, not down. The sporty bucket seats are covered in “Activex” – an animal-free “leather.” You sit in a typical crossover position, riding high. Legroom front and rear is generous, and headroom is amazing. Just a side note—the Mustang coupe is one of the very few cars that will not hold an upright bass. With the Mach-E, you could just drop the second-row seats and slide that bass right in, with nearly 60 cubic feet of cargo space. With the seats up, I filled the cargo hold (29.7 cf), with groceries on a rare venture out.

Electric Power

The Mach-E’s motor puts out 346 horsepower (428 lb.-ft. of torque) in the standard form and 480 hp (634 lb.-ft.) for the upcoming GT version, due this summer. With the silent powertrain, instant electric torque, and responsive steering through a fat leather-wrapped wheel, I had a blast taking the car on back roads as well as cruising through town. It feels strong and grounded, with the heavy battery pack providing the 64-inch-tall Mach-E with a low center of gravity for road-hugging stability.

Electric cars are rated by the EPA in miles per gallon equivalent—MPGe. The Mach-E gets 105 City, 93 highway, and 105 Combined. Compare these numbers to other EVs’s stats.  Weighing between 4,400 and 4,900 pounds, depending on battery size and rear- or all-wheel drive configuration, the new Mustang is not the most efficient EV, but it’s comparable to others of its size and purpose. Of course, the EPA Green scores are a pair of perfect 10’s for Smog and Greenhouse Gas.

The range between charges varies depending on battery size and the number of drive wheels. The rear-wheel-drive car with the standard 66 kWh lithium-ion battery gets 230 miles per the EPA. The 88-kWh extended range battery brings it up to 300 miles. Add all-wheel drive and those numbers drop to 211 and 270 respectively.

The liquid-cooled lithium-ion battery pack sits below the floor and between the axles in a waterproof case with crash absorption protection. That location, preferred for cars designed specifically as EVs, means interior volume is uncompromised.

One of the benefits of EVs is the ability to use one-pedal driving. This means you press on the accelerator to go forward and lift off to slow down using regenerative braking—even coming to a complete stop in some cars, including this Mustang. You can choose not to use it if you wish. I enjoyed one-pedal driving during my three years with my Bolt EV, and with a gearless car, it approximates downshifting with a manual transmission. It also means your brakes pads will last a long time—EVs are known for needing virtually no service.

Modern but Familiar Interior

Modern screen with classic Mustang cues.

The Mustang’s interior blends Mustang cues with the modern, simplified design made popular by Tesla. There’s a 15.5-inch vertical screen in the center of the dash that houses the latest version of Ford’s SYNC system, and it works pretty well, although it obscures the traditional twin-cove Mustang dash design.

Along the screen’s waist are a half dozen boxes that you can swipe and select for entertainment, information, navigation, tire pressure, and so on. Tap a box and the upper half of the screen fills in with easy-to-read information. Touch a spot on the top of the screen to open up a place to configure multiple setups. Ford promises over-the-air updates of its SYNC system, just like you-know-who.

Unlike Tesla, the Mach-E provides a small rectangular instrument panel behind the steering wheel, with a digital speedometer, a long blue bar displaying battery range (essential to monitor, impossible to miss), and a few other bits of info, like transmission setting. There’s also a tiny image of the car at the left above the range bar, and a humorous “easter egg”—it says “Ground Speed” under the digital speedometer. A head-up display appears in the windshield as well.

Hard to miss that blue range bar, with Easter eggs.

The FordPass phone app lets you go without a key fob (a la Tesla). I tested it, and while the doors locked and unlocked (with an annoying several-second delay), I was unsuccessful at starting the car with it. In fact, with the fob inside my house, I touched the car’s Start button and a screen message demanded to have the fob nearby and started honking the horn! Surely this would get worked out if you owned the car. The app displays lots of helpful info as well, including charging locations, with 13,500 charging stations included in the FordPass network from third parties.

The multi-featured FordPass phone app.

Pricing for the Mach-E starts at $42,895 for the Select. My test car, the next level Premium in Carbonized Gray Metallic Paint with Black Performance Activex interior, had a base price of $47,000.  With the optional extended range battery ($5,000) and $1,100 for destination and delivery, the sticker said $53,100.

How the Mustang Competes

Certainly, the Mustang Mach-E, in its premium configurations, is aimed at folks considering cars like the upscale Porsche Macan and Audi e-Tron, but the big target is the Tesla Model Y. Both cars offer standard and performance editions and rear- or all-wheel drive. The Mustang sits on a 3.8-inch longer wheelbase than the Model Y but is 1.4 inches shorter nose to tail. It is an inch and a half narrower but stands a tenth of an inch taller. Weight is similar. So, the cars are essentially the same size.

The Tesla offers significantly better EPA green scores, but both cars are pure EVs. Interestingly, the EPA calls the Mustang Mach-E a “Small Station Wagon” and the Tesla a “Small SUV.”

How the Mach-E Takes on the Tesla Model Y

So, what DOES the Mustang offer? It’s style. The Model Y looks like other Teslas—pleasantly rounded, but subtle, with a grilleless face, generic-looking taillamps, and soft contours. The interiors are spartan Danish Modern in their sober restraint, with only a big, wide screen to interact with. The Mustang, however, is notably muscular, wears its traditional livery well, and inside, feels more like the cars we know and love.

A Mustang face for a new era.

This could be the Mustang’s most important role—using its emotional appeal to entice folks who admire Teslas but love the cars they remember and have enjoyed. Everybody knows what Mustangs are. Ford, who put America on wheels with the Model T, has had numerous other hits (1949 sedan, 1960 Falcon, Thunderbird, Taurus, Explorer) and a few misses (Edsel). This gives them more than a century of brand equity and tradition that Tesla can’t offer. So, if Ford can match Tesla’s performance and approximate the tech but offer more style and curb appeal, not to mention an expansive national dealership network, maybe they’ll bring new buyers into the EV fold. A successful Mustang Mach-E can then lead to more electric Fords as we leave fossil-fuel-burning cars in the dust over the next 10-15 years.

Fantasmo – Mapping Cities for Micromobility and Autonomy

By Steve Schaefer

Paris building face, as seen by Fantasmo’s CPS.

Micromobility—including scooters—is the latest quick and clean way to get around urban areas. But one big problem is managing where the fleets of shared scooters go and where they’re parked. Fantasmo has a solution—camera vision-based positioning. Fantasmo enables it by first mapping cities at the ground level, and then scooter riders use the camera on their phone to accurately record their exact position when it comes time to park.

A bit of history. When the first scooter fleets started operating in Santa Monica, California, riders took an end-of-ride photo that roughly placed their location. GPS was used to create a geofence in the city to say, keep scooters out of parks, but was not very accurate. When other cities started having scooter fleets, their biggest issues were bad parking and clutter and sidewalk riding. GPS mapping was too blunt of an instrument to monitor it effectively. Now, cities like San Francisco and Chicago simply require e-scooters to be locked to posts or signs to keep them out of the walkway.

Fantasmo’s technology solves this issue by providing the granularity to make accurate tracking of scooter parking possible. It will also come in handy for future applications, such as tracking delivery bots and use by the visually impaired.

Fantasmo is a seven-year-old US-based startup that’s backed by investors including Unlock Venture Partners, Freestyle Capital, TenOneTen Ventures, and LDV capital, among others.

The company recently partnered with major European micromobility operator TIER to map more than 85 cities through exclusive partnerships in Europe and the UK, including Paris, France and York, England.

Jameson Detweiler

I spoke with Jameson Detweiler, co-founder and president of Fantasmo, about his company and the software and hardware that make this possible. Educated at Drexel University in Material Science and Engineering, Jameson also has plenty of startup and leadership experience. He previously co-founded LaunchRock, an idea launching product, was founder and CEO of GreenKonnect, a human-powered search engine for the green building industry, and he co-founded LED lighting startup Summalux.

Fantasmo began as Fantasmo Studios. They were looking for the technology to create augmented reality games like Pokemon Go, which superimpose the game onto your actual surroundings. But it soon grew into much more.

“We wanted to combine alternate reality games with machines to better understand the real world and how to assist humans,” said Jameson. “We decided to focus on the next generation of mapping technology.”

Positioning from satellites, GPS is used by many applications, but the problem in cities is that buildings, trees, and other objects can block the view of the street. This causes inaccuracies when the signal bounces off of these objects. Fantasmo’s solution is to build a 3D map of cities at the ground level, collected using cameras and sensors similar to those found on EVs. Once a city is mapped, Fantasmo can determine someone or something’s position by pinning camera footage to that digital map using its Camera Positioning System (CPS)—an alternative to GPS.

“We can create a visual fingerprint from the surroundings, like a big QR code, and use advanced math to interpolate from the images,” said Jameson.

Fantasmo maps a city using the 22-pound Fantasmo Explorer backpack, which a Fantasmo employee wears as they walk down the sidewalks of the target city.

Mapping on foot with the Fantasmo Explorer backpack.

Fantasmo recently mapped 1,800 kilometers (1,118 miles) of Paris by foot, and is now working in York, with more cities on the way (under the TIER partnership). By taking the images from the sidewalk, it can target exactly where the scooters are at the end of a ride, when the rider uses their camera to take a few seconds of video images of the surrounding buildings.

The Paris project employed six backpacks, each shared by two people working shifts for a few weeks. The French capital enjoys high scooter usage, and with limited sidewalk space, has designated 2,500 mandatory parking corrals for them. Fantasmo mapped these areas first and will eventually map the entire city.

The high-tech backpacks are set up with shoulder and waist straps, like good backpacking gear. They bristle with two lidar “pucks” and six cameras, like the ones used on autonomous vehicles, and are a little like micro-sized, wearable Google mapping cars. After a couple hours of training, the employees follow their assigned missions for the day, using iPads to communicate with the backpacks.

A scooter corral in Paris.

Now, when a French scooter rider is ending their ride, they will use the TIER app to scan the surroundings for a few seconds and the app tells them if they are in a designated parking area, to an accuracy of 20 cm (just under 8 inches). If they are not, then they must move to one before they can end their ride. No physical infrastructure is needed.

Fantasmo manages the entire mapping project for a city for TIER or any other client. This means that they visit the target city and use their mission planning tool to draw the boundaries and create walking routes to cover the whole city. Once those routes are queued up, they can be assigned to the walkers. Fantasmo’s system monitors progress and can fill in any gaps that may occur.

Naturally, there are changes in a city over time, but the software can flag changes when riders use it, so new images can be taken, say, if a building is torn down. However, the initial backpack mapping creates a  “substrate layer” that doesn’t need much updating. The images use solid, permanent items like a building’s windowsills, so changes in signage, for example, don’t affect the accuracy.

“It’s a dynamic situation,” said Jameson. “We recently had to skip mapping a section in York because it was flooded,” said Jameson.

Jameson sees the future in self-healing maps, and the use of data from more sources.

“For the next generation, any device can take images, masking out personal data, and create a digital twin of a city,” said Jameson. “This will be good for autonomous solutions for micromobility, pedestrians, and cars.“

He also sees a time when the technology will live on the scooters themselves.

“We’ll know where the scooter is 100 percent of the time,” said Jameson. The scooters will be as smart as robots.”

Jameson believes that accurate positioning is a steppingstone to real autonomy in cities. Every device will be aware of itself, its location, and other vehicles, scooters, bikes, and people. And thanks to the shared mapping, it will be able to “see through buildings.” The goal is zero accidents and maximum efficiency. Fantasmo’s applications also work with mobile, auto, and robotics, so there are lots of exciting things coming.

When will the company come home and start mapping American cities? There are plans, and Fantasmo will announce them when it’s time.

Autonomy and micromobility are essential to the health of our cities, and Fantasmo’s mapping technology is in the middle of it, making it happen.

Moving Closer to the EV Tipping Point

GM and Biden Target 2035

By Steve Schaefer

The 2022 GMC HUMMER EV will make a big impact.

It was a week of good news for EVs and climate action, as General Motors and the new U.S. president announced ambitious plans to tackle global warming. Both set a goal fourteen years out, which, although it’s later than the often-cited 2030 target from the Paris Agreement, is a profound move forward.

General Motors Makes a Commitment

Years ago, Charles Wilson, President of General Motors, and Eisenhower’s nominee for Secretary of Defense, famously said, “What’s good for the country is good for General Motors. And vice versa.” Democrats on the committee focused on the vice versa part of the statement, but in the modern case, it may actually be true either way.

When GM first stated its intention to move toward electric vehicles and rolled out its vision of Zero Crashes, Zero Emissions, and Zero Congestion, I was skeptical. After all, this is the company that makes its money on gas-guzzling pickup trucks and Chevy Tahoes and has promoted Corvettes and Camaros. But they did introduce the worthy Bolt EV and were dabbling in green tech with the plug-in hybrid Volt before that.

With Tesla in their rearview mirror (or maybe now seen through their windshield!), one of America’s “big three” has officially put their bets on electric cars and has announced their plan to have a 100% electric fleet by 2035. GM will introduce 30 new EVs by 2025, including a new all-electric Hummer! They are developing a new flexible platform and the Ultium battery, which they will produce themselves. And they are putting $27 billion on the table to do it. With their long-established cross-country dealer network and factories in America, they have a good start.

Last night, I watched a recording of GM President Mark Reuss talking with Malcolm Gladwell at CES 2021 for GM Exhibit Zero. He said all the right things and laid out GM’s plan for 30 EVs by 2025 and all the rest. GM CEO Mary Barra has been quite forthright about the company’s plans, too.

Biden Steps Forward on Climate Change Action

Meanwhile, America’s new president put forward his plan, and it’s just what many of us have been waiting for. Immediately putting the U.S. back in the Paris Agreement and cancelling the Keystone XL Pipeline were signature acts, but Biden’s announcement of moving to an all-electric fleet was an eye opener. It goes along with California’s 2035 target of no new light-duty internal combustion engine vehicles sold starting in 2035. The Golden State has been leading the charge towards lower emissions for decades. It also fits nicely into GM’s plan.

Ford is Planning and Releasing EVs, Too

Ford Mustang Mach-E is arriving imminently, chasing the Tesla Model Y.

Ford is investing more than $11.5 billion in electric vehicles through 2022, and  zero-emission versions of some of its most popular nameplates are on the way, including the Mustang Mach-E, which starts arriving in dealerships this year, as well as a Transit Commercial EV and fully electric F-150 coming within 24 months.

The company previously announced its plan to use 100 percent locally sourced renewable energy for all its manufacturing plants globally by 2035. That means energy would come only from sources that naturally replenish – such as hydropower, geothermal, wind or solar.

However, as builders of America’s favorite vehicle for more than four decades, the F-150 pickup, Ford can have a big impact by putting an electric motor under its tall hood. And, leveraging the reputation of their most iconic vehicle, the Mustang, they have just introduced the category-bending, all new Mustang Mach-E, an all-electric four-door crossover that has the Tesla Model Y in its sights (with a heavy dash of Mustang traditional styling and performance). If these two pillars of Ford’s product line move the sales needle, Ford will be making an impact, too, and can start introducing more electrified vehicles.

It’s easy to see America’s two surviving American-owned car companies jumping in and writing big orders for all those electrified U.S. government fleet vehicles and making those American factories hum with green-tech jobs. It has win-win written all over it. Of course, making this huge transition will not be easy or instant, but the overwhelming weight of scientific evidence tells us we must do it now.

When Mark Reuss answered Malcolm Gladwell’s question, “Why now?” during the interview, he said it was because it was the right thing to do, and that he wanted a safe, healthy world for his three grandchildren. As a grandparent myself, I wholeheartedly agree.

Bold initiatives by corporations, states and national governments have proven effective in Europe and China, and now the U.S., under new leadership and in cooperation with its auto manufacturers, is approaching the EV tipping point. I have more faith now that we can and will make this happen. In the middle of the next decade, it will all seem like it was meant to be, and once-skeptical buyers will be sold on the new, cleaner, better technology. For now, I’m doing whatever I can to push us to and beyond the EV tipping point.


Aptera – Wingless Design, Incredible Efficiency

By Steve Schaefer

Like a wingless airplane.

In the growing world of EVs, the Aptera stands out, for its unusual design, incredible range, and the company’s plucky chutzpah. I attended a fascinating Zoom presentation by Jason Hill, the company’s designer, where he kindly provided details and shared his excitement.

Company History, in Brief

The company was founded in 2005 by Steve Fambro and Chris Anthony, but faltered and closed down in 2011. But—hope springs eternal, and after a circuitous path, Aptera rose again in 2019 under the original founders. They and their team worked quietly behind the scenes, including a painstaking redesign of the car as a full electric vehicle. In December of 2020 they introduced the Aptera 3 and announced a crowdsourcing campaign, which quickly generated 3,000 deposits from eager customers.

Jason Hill, Designer

Jason Hill remembers seeing the extremely aerodynamic original Aptera on the cover of Popular Science magazine. When the company restarted, the founders went looking for a designer, and through a friend Jason was offered the job.

Jason is founder and president of Eleven LLC, a design studio whose clients include Subaru and other automotive entities. He was the first designer at Porsche’s American design studio, working on the exterior of the Porsche Carrera GT show car.

“I support the vision of the efficiency model and what that means for mobility, transportation, and vehicle design,” said Jason.

Jason found that they had never really stopped working on the car, but he believes that now is the right time to produce it.

“The technology, processes, and general environment have caught up to where Aptera can be a leader in this space,” said Jason.

His task as designer is to mix the engineering with the aesthetics and uphold the company’s design ethos.

The Shape

Aptera means “wingless” in Greek, and is a great name for the car, because it really looks like a wingless airplane. The company likes to translate Aptera as “wingless flight,” but is not taking inspiration from the actual wingless flying insects to whom the term is applied.

Design Is at the heart of Aptera, as Jason explained in detail during his online session for investors, journalists, and other interested parties.

The car has room for two people, and the designer’s goal was to maximize vision, comfort, and the “reach envelope” for the activities inside the car.

“We wanted the perfect shape for aerodynamic functionality, low weight and a high level of design,” said Jason.

Packaging

The design goal was to tackle the question of housing both people and the powertrain, including the batteries. Jason says that for the Aptera 3 redesign, they started on the inside and worked their way out, rather than designing a perfect body and trying to fit the pieces inside it.

“We started with the base of batteries and balanced that with the needs of the shape for the best balance,” said Jason.

They put the batteries into smaller, higher-density packs, so they could fit them more precisely into the vehicle.

The overall design process, per Jason, is to seek the best advice, and not defer to a single decision or direction.

“If it fits, it goes that way,” said Jason. “Nothing is superfluous, and nothing is left out.”

That comes down to a “rightness” from having the best user functionality, where the reach to the controls, cupholder locations, materials, colors and finish have a premium feel but are cost effective to produce.  As seen in other EVs, recycled materials appear here, and per Jason, there’s a much greater variety of sources now from which to procure them.

The Right User Experience

Simplicity, elegance, and recycled materials.

No matter what the shape of a car looks like, most of the human interaction with it is inside, so it has to be right. Jason has given this much thought.

“Functionality—needs and wants—has to balance out,” he said.

For instance, the original interior design had a single screen with all the information on it, and three rear vision cameras. Jason says they can do better now. He listens widely to the words he hears from leadership and tries to match them to the vision.

“That’s exactly what I was talking about,” is what Jason wants to hear when he unveils a new design.

The Aptera is designed to accommodate most people, so it’s designed around the 95th percentile human—typically a 6-foot-2 adult male—and for short people too.

The design ethos is about engaging the driver and passenger.

“We wanted it to be free of hassle and clumsiness,” said Jason. So, there’s no key fob, and not a bunch of buttons and distractions. We wanted it to feel clean and luxurious, but not to be missing anything.”

Unique Interior Features

The Aptera features a center console cover, which incorporates a phone charger. There’s also a soft glovebox that sits on the dashboard, not in it. Drivers can store items safely in a backpack that lives on the back of the seat. The rear storage area will be convertible into a camper with a new tent feature that’s being designed with a “tent developer.”

“We wanted to give freedom of mobility and heartfelt limited use of resources—to go far using little,” said Jason. This includes traveling to out-of-the-way places.

The steering wheel started out quite square but has evolved into a more rounded shape. Jason paid special attention to how it feels in your hands, aiming for the right thickness and providing adjustability.

The rear-view mirrors use a video camera system, with high-fidelity feedback—better than a regular mirror. You can also select a standard mirror with a click. The regular rearview mirror is tied in with side cameras for a wider field of vision.

A Different Exterior

Cars are starting to use phone apps as your key—a la Tesla—and the Aptera adds something special—three round lights on the side near the upper part of the butterfly-style doors. They provide a visual cue for locking and unlocking the vehicle. The owner waves their hand over the door pillar and the lights  display sequentially upwards for unlocking and downwards for locking. The Aptera logo next to them remains lit all the time.

The Aptera looks a little like a stripped-down hotrod, with its exposed wheel linkages. The wheels are covered with wheel pans, which move with the wheels when turning. Design and engineering are working together to make sure changing a tire will be easy.

Solar Technology

The surface and dashboard top of this latest Aptera are covered with solar panels, laid out in an elegant diamond pattern. Jason found that turning the square panels at an angle allowed more of them to be placed on the car. These panels generate up to 41 miles of range per day, so since most drivers drive less than that, you could technically never plug the Aptera in. This would be the first EV to be able to claim that distinction.

Why Three Wheels?

Three wheels instead of four eliminates some weight while maintaining stability. Of course, having the batteries at the bottom of all electric cars provides a lower center of gravity, reducing the risk of turning over and enhancing handling. Jason said they will consider different wheel sizes and widths that are most efficient and also can adapt them for different markets.

Jason Sums it Up

“The process is so rewarding—to be part of setting goals and seeing their manifestation,” Jason said. “The style part is one thing but mixing it with efficiency is even better. This gives us freedom of mobility.”

Order Yours

Tempted to have one of your own? Aptera’s website claims up to a 1,000-mile battery range at the top level, with a  $44,900 price. The entry-level model, with a 250-mile-range, starts at under $26,000. You can get on the order list with a $100 deposit.

KoBold Metals Tackles EVs’ Biggest Issue

By Steve Schaefer

Climate scientists tell us we must limit the earth’s warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius to reduce the risks of various catastrophic events. To do it, we need to lower our CO2 emissions by half in the next decade and achieve carbon neutrality by 2050. Replacing our fossil-fuel-powered auto fleet with electric vehicles is crucial to success. This change will be difficult and take time, but there is one big issue—the mining of battery components—that has been EVs’ dirty little secret.

Kurt House, Ph. D, CEO/co-founder of KoBold Metals

KoBold Metals is a San Francisco Bay Area high tech startup, with Andreesen Horowitz and Breakthrough Energy Ventures, a climate technology fund backed by Bill Gates and Jeff Bezos, as major investors. KoBold has developed an artificial intelligence (AI) machine learning solution for the sourcing and mining of the precious metals used in our current batteries—lithium, cobalt, and nickel. I met with KoBold’s CEO and co-founder, Kurt House, Ph. D to discuss what they are doing and the impact it will have. House is a serial entrepreneur with an educational background in physics and math and a career curriculum vitae in energy—both oil/gas and sustainable energy. He is also an Adjunct Professor in Stanford University’s Energy Resources Engineering Department.

The move to EVs is accelerating, and major auto manufacturers like Tesla, GM, Ford, Volkswagen, Hyundai/Kia, Mercedes-Benz, and others, are stepping up new EV introductions. However, for mass production of EVs, we will need a mass of the battery ingredients. And according to House, there isn’t enough metal around now to build the initial stock of EVs.

“To beat global warming, we need to electrify everything,” House said. “And we need to do it all in the next 30 years, so we need to build renewable like mad.”

Per House, there are about 1.3 billion cars around today, of which only 10 million are EVs. That total could be 3 billion vehicles by 2050. That means a lot of these metals need to be mined now.

However, while the mining industry does find some new materials every year with traditional methods, it isn’t moving at the pace needed to provide the materials for the batteries in a short time frame. There has to be a better, more efficient way that’s also sustainable and ethical.

House says there are two approaches:

  • Spend more money
  • Do better with the same money

The second approach obviously makes more sense.

“We need to find ore systems that can be mined with minimal impact, in reliable jurisdictions,” said House.

Unfortunately, much of the known cobalt is in Congo, where it is highly concentrated, some of it right at the surface and some in deep mines. Workers, often children, can dig it up by hand and bring it in for a few dollars—which in the poverty of the area is enough to be an incentive. This is obviously not a good long-term plan.

“We are trying to create a diversity of supply,” said House. “Major OEMs and battery manufacturers would rather have a sustainable, ethical choice in where they source their materials.”

That’s where KoBold’s Machine Prospector technology comes in. Here’s what KoBold’s website says about it.

“KoBold’s Machine Prospector technology combines never before used datasets with conventional geochemical, geophysical, and geological data in statistical association models to identify prospects… KoBold’s technology accelerates exploration by efficiently screening large regions and makes our search more effective by identifying the most promising locations.”

This means that KoBold uses AI and machine learning to look at all of the data, from 80-year-old maps to satellite data, to find the most likely sites for drilling.

“It’s aggregated from all over the world and structured into universal data schemas that can be interrogated by our algorithms,” said House.

What they are seeking is “compositional anomalies”—large chunks of rock that can be mined. As an example, House said that if you drilled for nickel under, say, your house, you would probably come up with dirt with 70 parts per million (ppm) of the ore in it. To extract the nickel from that would cost 100 times the current price for the ore. They want to find where it’s at 25,000 ppm, which would make it very economical to extract and process the ore.

So, why hasn’t anyone done this before?

“They couldn’t do what we’re doing even 10 years ago,” said House. “We are standing on the shoulders of trillions of dollars of high bandwidth computing networks that enable us to spin up and spin down dramatically large computing resources.”

KoBold’s Machine Prospector technology first makes predictions about where the ore is concentrated, and then collects additional data that helps to decrease uncertainty. The goal is to quickly eliminate any places that have a low chance of success so that when they do drill, it’s much more likely to hit paydirt.

Today, KoBold has field campaigns on three continents. Unlike many software companies, they do not license their technology to other companies—they use it themselves and partner with companies to do the actual drilling when they have decided on a location. Some projects they own 100 percent, and some are partnerships.

So, what does the market look like and what’s the best plan? Because battery components are nearly 100 percent reusable, they allow for a circular economy, which fossils fuels decidedly do not. House says we need to get all the metal we can in the next thirty years.

“With a circular economy, the metal stays in the system,” said House. “Circular economies require full renewable energy, so we just mine a bunch for a few decades and then we’re done.”

The manufacturers building the coming fleet of EVs want to ensure they have enough precious metals for the batteries they will need, and the battery manufacturers do too. KoBold, by locating safe, accessible locations and providing focused, high-percentage, sustainable extraction methods, helps assure that we can convert to an all-electric fleet in time and with as little environmental impact as possible.