David Hochschild — California and the Dawn of the Clean Energy Era


David Hochschild

On Wednesday, October 24, David Hochschild, a commissioner on the California Energy Commission, delivered some hopeful news about the progress California is making to reduce climate pollution. His talk, sponsored by Acterra, took place at the Foster Art and Wilderness Foundation in Palo Alto and was titled, “Sunrise from the West—California and the Dawn of the Clean Energy Era.”

Hochschild was appointed by Governor Jerry Brown to the California Energy Commission in February 2013 in the environmental position. A longtime solar energy advocate, he worked with San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown to put solar panels on public buildings, and cofounded the Vote Solar Initiative, an organization advocating for local, state, and federal solar policies. He served as executive director of a national consortium of leading solar manufacturers and worked for five years at Solaria, a solar company in Silicon Valley.

Hochschild’s goal now is to “bring light in dark times,” when the national government is going in the opposite direction from what we need for clean energy development. He believes that California can show the rest of the country—and the world—how it’s done.

First, he showed how predictions of the growth of solar and wind were way too low. While the line on the graph for the prediction of solar implementation barely moves up, the actual installed solar generating capacity jets up at a steep angle.

On a different graph, going down in exactly the opposite direction, is the line representing the value of the top four coal companies. They have lost 99 percent of their value in recent years.

“It’s the beginning of the end of an era,” said Hochschild.

Hochschild disparaged the long history of subsidies to the oil industry—which are still going strong with no end date. Meanwhile, the much smaller subsidies for solar have short time spans.

“This causes a tilted playing field,” said Hochschild. “We’re wasting money propping up the oil industry.”

California’s economy has grown, as has its population, but the state’s emissions have gone down, except in one area—transportation. But with the passage of SB 100 with Governor Brown’s signature in September, the state is on track to reach 100 percent clean energy by 2045.

Hochschild explained that the 100 percent number represents “clean” energy, which is still being defined, but would not include nuclear. To get there, we will need to have diversity in the portfolio, including wind, solar, hydroelectric, geothermal, and others.

“For years, skeptics have said that moving to clean sources of energy would ruin the economy, drive up unemployment, and raise energy rates, but it hasn’t,” he said.

California actually leads the rest of the U.S. in renewables installed but has had 46 percent economic growth while over the same period the U.S. has seen 35 percent.

“Because we set energy standards, we use half the energy that the U.S. uses,” said Hochschild. “These old arguments are just wrong.”

Hochschild said that as a large market, California can affect manufacturers’ decisions on what to build. For example, our standards on the energy efficiency of TV sets saves consumers $1 billion a year, but the effect is magnified because companies choose to incorporate those standards into their products for everyone.

Three light bulbs

One easy way to save energy is to switch to LED light bulbs from traditional incandescents, which are being phased out. Starting on January 1, 2018, stores in California were permitted to sell the incandescent bulbs they had in stock but couldn’t order more. As it is, customers are embracing LED bulbs, which cost a little more (prices have been dropping) but last 20 to 25 years and use 80 percent less energy than incandescent bulbs.

Newer LED bulbs are available in a soft white and other shades, so they feel more familiar, emitting a warm glow. The compact fluorescent bulbs, which tended to have a harsh light quality, have faded away now that LEDs have taken over.

Topaz Solar Farm

Topaz Solar Farm in California

Hochschild displayed images of large solar farms in the California desert that are producing vast amounts of electricity. The technology is improving so fast, he said, that they were able to incorporate improvements into the panels and the installation process mid-project.

The major computer and software companies, such as Google and Facebook, are all signing on for 100 percent renewable energy. Hochschild showed an aerial view of Apple’s massive donut-shaped campus, covered with 17 MW of solar panels.

The list goes on. California has the world’s second-largest lithium-ion battery plant (behind Tesla’s giant Gigafactory in Nevada). California leads the nation in energy from biomass, too.

Block Island

Block Island Offshore Wind Farm in Rhode Island

Offshore wind farms are developing—we saw the Block Island offshore wind farm in Rhode Island – the first one in the U.S. Offshore farms are easier to construct in the East, Hochschild explained, because the Atlantic shoreline is shallow, while the Pacific’s drops off. However, there is a new way of creating offshore wind energy in the Pacific Ocean by installing floating platforms for the windmills, tethered down to the sea floor. There are some significant benefits.

“Offshore wind installations out at sea are not only invisible from land, but more important–the wind blows more of the time out there—60 percent versus 35 percent on land,” said Hochschild. “And because it blows at different times of the day from the times when the sun is shining, it can offset times when solar panels aren’t generating electricity,” he added.

Offshore windmills are more expensive to install, but with greater capacity, they catch up by generating more energy.

Regarding employment, there are 86,400 solar workers in California. That’s more than the workers in every other energy industry. And, it’s growing, as solar installations are increasing, reaching about a million in California.

Hochschild believes that the best plan for clean energy would be to electrify all services and run them off a clean grid as we reduce use of natural gas. He talked about how much natural gas is used in homes today for furnaces, stoves, water heaters, and some dryers. But some new homes are being built without gas lines at all.

“It saves $3,000 right away by not having to run the gas pipes,” he said.

The good news continued. One hundred percent renewable energy will power the state’s high-speed rail system, when it’s built. California institutions have taken $6 trillion out of investments in fossil fuels.

Hochschild compared the fossil fuel industry methods now to the tobacco industry in the 1950’s. Service personnel during World War II were given cigarettes as part of their rations, building lifelong habits. Advertisements showed celebrities like Marilyn Monroe smoking, and even a doctor. Hosts smoked on TV. About half of the population were cigarette customers then.

“The industry was selling cigarettes and also doubt about the health risks,” he said, comparing it to the way fossil fuels are denying climate change today. “But with rigorous campaigns and limitations, such as placing warnings on the packs, removing cigarette ads from TV, raising the age to buy cigarettes, and increasing taxes, smoking is at about 15 percent now, and is heading down. We need to do the same thing with the fossil fuels industry.”

Electric vehicles are part of California’s plan to reduce CO2, and the state adopted the Zero Emission Vehicle Action Program in 2013. In January, Governor Brown signed Executive Order B-48-18, which sets goals of building 200 hydrogen fueling stations and 250,000 electric vehicle charging stations for 1.5 million EVs by 2025. The goal is 5 million EVs a year by 2030, which means that 40 percent of new vehicles would have to be EVs by then.

Per the ZEV Action Program’s website, in 2017, 5 percent of vehicles sold in California were EVs. There are now about 474,000 EVs in California, so there’s a long way to go to meet the goals, but sales are increasing, and Hochschild thinks it will accelerate.

“100 percent clean energy is solvable—but it’s not a silver bullet—it’s silver buckshot,” Hochschild said. “It is a combined effort of developing clean energy sources, increasing battery storage, lowering demand, and creating a regional grid,” he added. He also said that it’s likely that the first 80 percent of the way will be easier, while the last 20 percent could be more challenging.

So, although things look dire, California is leading the way, and will be doing a lot more in the future.

Acterra is a San Francisco Bay Area 501(c)(3) nonprofit based in Palo Alto that brings people together to create local solutions for a healthy planet.

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National Drive Electric Week 2018

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Since 2011, a national electric car event has been held every year. Originally called National Plug In Day, it later expanded to become National Drive Electric Week. It’s actually nine days long, as it includes weekends on both ends.

This year, I participated in two events. First, I hosted one at work for fellow employees, and later, I attended another, larger event, where I let people drive my 2017 Chevrolet Bolt EV to experience electric motoring firsthand.

Marketo Event, San Mateo, CA

Marketo hosted its second annual National Drive Electric Week event on Thursday, September 13th. The weather cooperated, and the event went off without a hitch, although attendance was lower than anticipated. It’s understandable, though—people are working!

NDEW Marketo Bolt

Me with my Chevrolet Bolt EV–now an NDEW show veteran.

Display cars included three Tesla Model 3s, a Tesla Model X, my freshly washed Chevrolet Bolt EV, a Nissan LEAF, a Volkswagen e-Golf, a BMW i3, and a Chevrolet Volt. One of the Model 3s was available for rides.

Allyson Gaarder from the Clean Vehicle Rebate Project showed attendees how they could receive California rebates for buying a variety of electric cars.

Vehicle owners gave attendees a tour of their cars and enjoyed talking with each other about the pleasures of electric motoring.

Nissan supplied some swag, including water bottles, mini backbacks, pens, and tiny fans that attach to your phone. Attendees received a red token good for a $5 discount at the adjacent food trucks.

Acterra Event, Palo Alto, CA

On the last Sunday of Summer, Acterra, the Palo Alto environmental nonprofit, hosted its third annual National Drive Electric Week event. Acterra’s mission is to bring people together to create local solutions for a healthy planet, and they always put on a great show.

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Nissan brought a fleet of LEAFs for show and driving.

EV enthusiasts shared their favorite electric rides with eager attendees. Booths provided information about rebates, vehicle charging, and a solar energy vendor presented solar options. Allyson was there with her booth and California rebate information. Event sponsor Nissan brought a small fleet of new LEAFs for show and drives.

I watched the parking lot fill with Chevrolet Bolt EVs, BMW i3s, Nissan LEAFs, Tesla Model 3s, and even a low, sleek Fisker Karma. One guy brought his now rare Honda Fit Electric, and there was at least one tiny Chevy Spark EV and a cute little Fiat 500e.

This was a popular event. Altogether there were 70 vehicles, representing 15 makes and models. More than 260 people registered and vehicle owners and fleets conducted more than 520 rides or drives!

The beauty of these events, which Acterra hosts year-round, is the chance to learn about and sample multiple EVs in the same location, away from aggressive salespeople. With EVs, the owners are often more knowledgeable about the cars than a typical dealership employee, and they can certainly talk about day-to-day life with a plug-in vehicle.

This event is both a car show and a ride-and-drive. Although it’s a little annoying to have to to readjust my seat and mirror settings when the day’s over, and having strangers drive your car can be a little nerve wracking, I like to let attendees get a personal feel for what driving an electric car is like.

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Luckily, all the people who took the wheel of my car were competent, responsible motorists, so I didn’t have any worry the entire afternoon. With high demand, I was busy non-stop.

In most cases, I took the people for a ride around the short test loop, and then had them drive it. I felt it would make them more comfortable, and it let me explain the features first. Luckily, the Bolt itself is pretty straightforward and controls are where you expect them.

People were surprised at the Bolt’s spacious interior, especially the generous headroom. One 6-4 gentleman pulled the seat all the way back and then forward a little! My drivers were also impressed with the video camera rear-view mirror, which gives a wider, clearer view than a regular mirror.

When driving, my guests were fascinated by the low or high brake regeneration. If the transmission lever is in “D,” when you lift your foot off the accelerator, you keep rolling along, like with a normal automatic. In “L” mode, as you lift up your foot, the electricity flow is reduced, slowing the car. This lets you do “one-pedal driving.” It’s a wonderful way to maintain extra control of your car while generating extra battery power and saving your brake pads.

At 4 p.m., we assembled inside the Acterra offices for the official launch of the newly renamed Karl Knapp Go EV program. Knapp, a beloved Stanford science professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering, promoted electrified cars and motorcycles for many years, and has been an inspiration to many. We had some food and drinks and watched a short video about Karl. Sadly, Professor Knapp is ill and was unable to attend.

After the reception, I gave three more people rides, so I was one of the last to leave. It’s fun to share your EV, and I hope all of my drivers will go out and get their own! Electric cars are the future, and soon there will be many more choices.

National Drive Electric Week is presented by Plug In America, the Sierra Club, and the Electric Auto Association. Sponsors include the Nissan LEAF (Platinum), Clipper Creek (Silver), and eMotorWerks (California Regional).

My Chevrolet Bolt EV at a Year and a Half

Bolt 7-8-18

Today marks the exact halfway point of my three-year lease on my 2017 Chevrolet Bolt EV, and the report is positive. I’ve accumulated 13,920 miles and have seen consistent range of 200-plus miles through the whole 18 months. Most of the time it’s between 220 to 230 miles, even with the heat/AC turned on. Other than a couple of minor glitches in the entertainment system, which haven’t reappeared appeared lately, the car has been trouble- and service-free. It has never gone back to the dealer, although I’m supposed to get the tires rotated.

What’s also been completely consistent is the silent, smooth trips I’ve taken, and the ability of the car to accommodate whatever I want to carry. That means an upright bass, two bass guitars, an amplifier, and multiple stands and cords for gigs with Fault Line Blues Band. I do not frequent places like the Home Depot or Costco, but if I did I’m sure I’d have no problem carting home loads of whatever I bought.

I did run into a situation a couple of weeks ago where the Bolt’s 238 miles of range was insufficient. I needed to drive 300 miles (each way) to Arcata, California to attend the Humboldt Chamber Music Workshop at Humboldt State University. For a story on my happy week there, please see this story on Medium.

In any case, I surveyed the route online and found nothing much available for charging, so I borrowed a vehicle from the press fleet and pressed on. It was the gas-powered Ford EcoSport, a small crossover that occupies the bottom slot of Ford’s six-vehicle SUV menu. It did the job fine, but so would my Bolt–if the charging infrastructure was more developed. Here’s the EcoSport story

What I recommend for anyone considering an EV is to think carefully about how often you need to take a trip of more than the range of your car. In my case it’s perhaps two, maybe three times a year. That means that I can still drive all-electrically nearly all the time and then just borrow or rent a hybrid or gas-powered vehicle for those rare times when it won’t do the job. It sure beats burning fuel all year long just so you can have one car that does everything.

If you can’t do this, then a plug-in hybrid is still a reasonable choice. Just look for the most electric range you can get. The Bolt’s sibling, the Volt, does a fine job of enabling local driving with its 53-mile EPA battery range and carries an engine that kicks on when it’s needed to change the battery. That way, you’re free to go anywhere. The downside is that you still have an engine, radiator, oil, etc. to deal with like in an ordinary internal combustion engine (ICE) car. But driven mostly within the battery range, it’s essentially an electric car.

In summing up, as I’ve stated before, the Bolt EV has filled my needs so perfectly and pleasantly that it has become “my car,” rather than an object of journalistic attention. I keep a notepad in the car but only use it to write down interesting music I hear on my SiriusXM channels and custom license plates I see that I think might amuse my wife. This is good news, because other than the range limitations mentioned above, and availability of a place to plug in at home or work, there’s no reason why you can’t live happily with an EV.

Note: You may wonder why I haven’t posted a story here since April 16th. Other than my Bolt being completely familiar (nothing new to report) I have written seven stories on other vehicles and published them in the San Leandro Times, Tri-City Voice, and Clean Fleet Report. Please visit these sites if you want to read me regularly (All the EVs, hybrids, and alternative fuel cars end up on Clean Fleet Report).

More soon.

 

Mazda MX-5/Miata – My Indulgence

Mazda_MX-5_IPM1_SRC_US_2017_CUT42_019_FrontqtrIt’s great for your health to eat lean chicken and sautéed vegetables every day. But sometimes you want a big, juicy hamburger. The MX-5 Miata is an automotive treat that I’ve loved for 26 years.

Over the last couple of years, I’ve been focusing my automotive attention on cars that are easier on the environment —hybrids, plug-in hybrids, and particularly, all-electric vehicles. I even ordered my own Chevrolet Bolt EV, which has been my personal car for more than 14 months. I believe that electric transportation is the future, and I’m eager to be part of it and promote its adoption.

Sometimes, however, a car has a special place in your heart, and even if it’s powered by petroleum, you have to get some time behind the wheel. The Mazda MX-5 Miata is mine. I’ve driven fourteen of them since I started testing cars as a journalist back in 1992. They are shown in chronological order in this post.

My first Miata test car came, like the others, through the automotive press fleet. This was a revelation, because although the car had been out since 1990, I hadn’t had any contact with one. The moment I sat in it and then took it out on the road, I remembered the wonderful British sports cars of my childhood. I was riding in my father’s Austin-Healey again, on a warm summer evening with the sun still out, going to get some ice cream. Sigh.

When that first Miata arrived in my driveway, I had already started my habit of photographing myself with each of my test cars. My first test convertible, this is also the first car photo that showed me in the driver’s seat—the best spot to be in.

1992There’s nothing quite like driving an open car, and in the Miata, all you do is drop the top and go. Ever since day one, you can unlatch the top and just flip it behind you. Although later models have introduced power tops and a couple styles of folding hard tops, you’ve always had the open-air option.

1995It’s amazing how many things there are to smell as you drive—most of them interesting or pleasant. Yes, there are diesel buses, livestock, and trash fires, but I also remember food from restaurants, freshly baked bread, and newly-mown grass. You also get to sample every possible kind of music blaring out of fellow drivers’ windows—or they may be driving topless, too.

1997Mazda’s little million-selling sports car provides direct connection to the road, with steering, close-ratio manual shifting, and responsive braking. I’ve tested models with the manual six-speed and the automatic, and vastly prefer the former. With its short little lever and feeling of being connected to actual gears, you can’t beat it. In my most recent week-long test car, I was stuck in a 2 hour and 10-minute traffic jam on the way home from work, and even in those conditions I’d rather sample the silky manual six than an automatic.

1998It takes some dexterity to get yourself into the low driver’s bucket set, and some strength and care to extricate yourself. I can still maneuver OK, but at nearly 65, I take it easy. My wife has no love for these roadsters, but that’s my fault. When I had test Miata number one, I insisted she climb into and out of it late in her pregnancy with our son. She’s never forgotten it, and she was equally unimpressed with the 2018 model.

2001Miatas have their fans—lots of them. There are race series for them, and I have spoken with many owners over the years. In fact, while testing this new model, I ran across a colleague with a green-and-white ’91 that was still rolling along. Another colleague, who owns a nicely-preserved ’94 in the limited-edition Laguna Blue, asked for a ride, and I was only too glad to oblige. He was impressed by the new car’s acceleration from the little 155-horsepower 2.0-liter engine (with 148 lb.-ft. of torque). With the manual six, the soft-top Miata weighs in at just 2,332 pounds, so that’s enough to generate excitement, if not speed records.

2002Riding low takes a little getting used to. Once you’re inside, there feels like enough room, but when you look out either side window, it’s likely directly at someone’s wheel. When you look out the windshield, you’ll see rakishly canted fenders, in the latest Kodo Design theme. The hood cut lines are cleverly hidden beyond the curve, so you don’t notice them from the cabin. The hood gently rises at its center over the engine compartment.

2006The original Miata featured a simple, plain interior, with the right proportions but no attempt at luxury touches. Its black plastic was well crafted, but not fancy. There were silver rings around the gauges, though, a tip of the hat to the cars of yore. There was a tachometer in the middle of the instrument panel, where it resides to this day. Cloth seats were standard.

2010The car has grown more and more elegantly designed over the years, with sculpted door panels and the neatly trimmed interior fittings. Beautiful metallic accents on the steering wheel, transmission surround, air vents, and door handles lend an upscale air. The Kodo Design theme blends a flow of soft curves and edges across the doors and dash. The center console not only gives your arm a resting place but sits above the driveshaft that conveys the engine’s power to the rear wheels—just like in those old-fashioned MGs, Triumphs, and Austin-Healeys.

2011My 2018 test car, as mid-level Club model, had some significant extras. The Machine Gray paint, a serious shade, added $300 to the tab. I personally would prefer red or blue. The car has come in a variety of colors over the years. One especially nice setup one combined British Racing green paint with a tan leather interior.

2014My tester flaunted a dark red cloth top—a no-cost option. The big upgrade, however, was the Brembo BBS Recaro package, at $4,470. It transformed the car inside and out, with gripping Brembo disc brakes, black BBS custom wheels, and gorgeous and supportive Recaro racing seats in a soft alcantara suede. These buckets are heated, and feature speakers in the headrest, which aids hearing while on the road with the roof lowered. I took a phone call using Bluetooth and was a little surprised to hear my caller’s voice behind me, but it was certainly easy to understand him.

2016The little roadster is economical, with EPA numbers of 26 City, 33 Highway, and 29 Combined. I averaged 31.4 mpg in a week that had much too much commuting and too little back road running. The EPA Green numbers are a disappointing 3 for Smog but a solid 6 for Greenhouse Gas.

2017You’d think a little car with a cloth top would be a drag in the rain, but I felt cozy and safe, and the raindrops on the insulated top created a great atmosphere. And, unlike its European forebears, the MX-5, assembled in Hiroshima, Japan since its birth, doesn’t leak.

2018 softIn an era of basic cars starting close to $20,000 and mid-level Toyota Camrys approaching $30,000, the Miata’s price doesn’t seem out of line. My Club-level test car started at $29,155, but with extras and delivery, hit $35,240. A 2018 MX-5 Sport with no extras will set you back just $26,185. The original car debuted at $15,000, but had a lot fewer features, and that was 28 years ago! Interestingly, demand was so high at first that early adopters were paying $5,000 or more above sticker to get the cars.

2018 RFConsumer Reports has given the Miata high praise over the years and ranked the 2017 model at 79 – a fine score. Owners have reported better than average reliability, and with the amount of affection the little car generates, they care for their babies. You’ll see plenty of all four generations on the road. The car magazines love it.

At the Western Automotive Journalists Media Days (photo above), I had the chance to drive my 14th MX-5 Miata. It was an ’18 RF, with the folding hardtop. In my brief drive, I never dropped that top, but I enjoyed the same feeling of intimate control as I looped down from the starting point – Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca – and took the car up the Laureles Grade. Hard or soft top, top up or down, it’s a joy to row through the manual six-speed’s ratios. And this car flaunted the new Soul Red Crystal paint, which shows up on the inner door panels, too. Lovely.

So, while I happily focus my testing on cars with batteries and plugs and motor along in my smooth, silent, clean Chevrolet Bolt the rest of the time, the MX-5 Miata holds a special place in my heart. It has remained great—and even improved over the years, becoming (by far) the most popular sports car ever.

EVs, Hybrids and Green Events of 2017

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For 2017, I decided to focus my attention on hybrid and plug-in vehicles. Over the 12 months, I tested 35 cars, of which more than half – 20 – were either full EVs, plug-in hybrids PHEVs), or hybrids. About half of the cars were hybrids, and a quarter were EVs or PHEVS. This was a big change, as for the last 25 years, I’ve driven a car a week (52 a year).

My EV focus was enhanced when I began submitting content to www.cleanfleetreport.com in addition to my newspapers in 2016. I also rejuvenated this blog, which I had originally filled with impressions of the Fiat 500e that I borrowed for the first quarter of 2016.

The centerpiece of this new EV emphasis was my 2017 Chevrolet Bolt, which I leased on January 8 and have put nearly 10,000 miles on over the year, much of it during those weeks when I wasn’t driving a test vehicle.

I also ventured into covering events, including National Drive Electric Week, during which I hosted an event at my office and I attended two other ones. At the Cupertino NDEW event, I met Greg Bell, who introduced me to Acterra, an organization that promotes EV use and other environmental efforts. I attended two Acterra events where important speakers delivered valuable content, which I captured in two articles that appeared both in my blog and in Clean Fleet Report—and on Acterra’s website as well. At the end of the year, I sampled Gig Car Share, a ridesharing service that uses Ridecell software.

While reading An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power, Al Gore’s second book (and movie), I saw a story about a man who changed careers in order to work in the green industry—and learned he was local. I later met with Wei-Tai Kwok over lunch and toured his company, Amber Kinetics, which manufactures energy storage devices.

I plan to continue my green vehicle and industry focus in 2018, with additional expansion into anything that contributes to a greener future—interviews, research, and more vehicle drives, of course.

Here’s an alphabetical list of the EV and hybrid vehicles I tested in 2018, with brief summaries. 

Note: These stories, except for a couple that aren’t written yet, are available on Clean Fleet Report.

Acura MDX Hybrid – A big cruiser, this car has significantly improved fuel economy, an incremental improvement over the regular gasoline model.

BMW i3  – Still odd looking (it grows on you), this car is a pure EV, but can be had with a small “range extender” gas engine. My tester had the extender, but I never used it. The ’17  upped the estimated range from 72 to 114 – a much more useful proposition.

Chevrolet Bolt EV – The Bolt is the first “affordable” pure EV with a truly usable 238-mile EPA range. I love mine, and have achieved more than 200 miles of range with no problems, other than an occasional glitch to the entertainment system (which recovered automatically). Motor Trend’s Car of the Year, among other honors.

Ford C-Max Hybrid – This European design is a comfortable and usable car, but lost some favor when its initial fuel economy numbers turned out to be overly optimistic. Its EPA numbers are 42 mpg overall, about double what the gasoline version of its sister vehicle—the Fusion—gets. The Energi model, which I didn’t test, has a plug and a larger battery for local all-electric motoring.

Ford Fusion Hybrid and Energi – This handsome sedan uses the same drivetrain as the C-Max, and offers both hybrid and Energi (plug-in) versions. I tested both. The hybrid averaged 41 mpg while the Energi got 101.4 MPGe, using nearly no gasoline at all.

Honda Clarity PHEV – This plug-in hybrid sedan is a brand-new effort from Honda. Initial impressions (I’ve had it two days) are it’s handsome on the inside, despite plastic wood trim, but a little weird on the outside. I got 43 miles of range with the initial charge, which was enough for a Saturday’s worth of errands. The Clarity also comes as a hydrogen fuel cell version (I drove it briefly at an event), and a full EV version with a disappointingly small 89-mile range. I plan to test these other two Claritys in 2018.

Hyundai Ioniq – I drove the full EV and the Hybrid versions of this all-new car. If you want a Prius or a Leaf but hate the wacky styling, this is your car. The EV has a stellar EPA rating of 136 MPGe combined. A plug-in hybrid is due in 2018.

Kia Optima PHEV – This handsome large/midsize sedan has a 27-mile EV range, so I used no gasoline all week to commute. Only when I ranged further did I dip into the tank, so I averaged 99.9 mpg during my test week.

Kia Niro – This attractive and right-sized crossover makes sense as a hybrid, and is now coming out as a plug-in hybrid. I drove the entry-level FE and top-of-the-line Touring. I got 43.8 mpg in the Touring and 48.2 mpg in the FE. There was about a $7,000 difference between them. A pure EV version would be a game-changer.

Lexus ES 300h – This traditional sedan adds a bit of luxury to the hybrid package. I earned 33.1 mpg during my test week, a bit below the EPA estimates. My option-packed tester listed at more than $48,000.

Toyota Camry Hybrid – I drove both the 2017 version and the all-new 2018 model. The ’17 scored a disappointing 28.9 mpg, but the ’18 hit 37.9 mpg, and is all-new, inside and out.

Toyota Highlander Hybrid – Toyota put its hybrid platform under a family-size crossover, and added some efficiency to it. I averaged 25.0 mpg; the gasoline model I tested a few years ago hit 20.6, so that’s a nice improvement.

Toyota Mirai Hydrogen Fuel Cell – Odd looking, but drives like a nice big sedan, although it’s not as big inside as it looks. Essentially an all-electric car you never plug in, you do need to fuel it, and hydrogen fuel is pricey and hard to find! But, if you lease one now, Toyota picks up your fuel tab for the three-year term (up to $15,000).

Toyota Prius Prime – This is the plug-in version of the latest Prius, and it slightly tempers the radical styling front and rear. Its 25-mile range is useful for all-electric commuting, while its hybrid personality lets you drive wherever you want to with no problems. I averaged 70.5 MPGe during my test week.

Toyota RAV4 Hybrid – As a compact crossover SUV, the RAV4 is positioned at the center of the car market now. As a hybrid, it has 28 percent better fuel economy numbers than its gasoline version.

VW e-Golf – The Golf is a wonderful driving car, but the original e-Golf’s range was a paltry 83 miles. The new one, with minor styling enhancements and larger battery, is boosted to 125 miles, which is much more usable.

These are the events, interviews, and services I covered in 2017.

Western Automotive Journalists Media Days – This writers group, which I co-founded in the early 1990s, has a wonderful annual event that combines on-road driving, a day at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca, and a festive banquet. Auto scribes and manufacturer representatives connect and renew their assocations. I tested a number of EVs at this event and as always, had lots of fun.

Brett Hinds (Ford) interview and Third Industrial Revolution screening – Ford Motor Company sponsored a screening of Third Industrial Revolution, a film based on the book by Jeremy Rifkin. The film features Rifkin himself making the important points of this visionary tome to a young audience. Hinds is the Chief Engineer for Electrified Power Systems, and in our 1-on-1 interview he described what Ford has planned for the future.

National Drive Electric Week – This annual event’s purpose is to expose more people to the virtues of electric motoring by having owners show off their cars. As a Bolt driver, I hosted one at my company during the week, and attended two Saturday events, where I participated and networked like crazy. Sponsored by Plug In America, the Sierra Club, the Electric Auto Association, and the Nissan Leaf.

Silicon Valley Reinvents the Wheel – This annual event, cosponsored by the Western Automotive Journalists and the Autotech Council, is jam packed with speakers, booths, cars, and a lot of excitement. It’s a great place to network and learn what’s coming.

Opening of New Hydrogen Station in San Ramon – Hydrogen fuel cells in electric vehicles are an exciting but complicated technology. A big issue is infrastructure, so the opening of station #29 (of a planned 100) is a step forward. I used this station later when I tested the Toyota Mirai.

Steve Westly Acterra event – The former California Controller had a lot of positive things to say about the growth of sustainable power generation and the rise of EVs.

Carl Pope Acterra event – On his book tour for Climate of Hope, which he co-wrote with Michael Bloomberg, Pope spoke of the many challenges and successes of the move to a sustainable energy future.

Gig Car Share test – I heard about Gig Car Share while researching Ridecell, and sampled a vehicle while I was out getting a haircut. If you only need a car occasionally, it’s ideal. Just download the app and you’re on your way. And the cars have bike racks!

VW’s Iconic Past Meets its Aspirational Future

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Last night, my wife called me into the family room to watch a Volkswagen commercial. In it, a young couple is driving their VW Microbus through the sunny countryside, as it turns out, to Woodstock. Combine an iconic vehicle with an iconic soundtrack (Joe Cocker’s A Little Help From My Friends), on its way to an iconic event and the effect on me was breathtaking.

Everything was perfect–the hair, the 1969 Ford in the background, the look of joy in the eyes of the long-haired, bell-bottom-jean-wearing flower power enthusiasts. They stop to pick up a couple girls. During the also iconic rainstorm (with the famous standing couple recreated amidst the crowd) our Microbus owners offer sanctuary to several other people from the downpour. When it’s over, and the bus is stuck in the Woodstock mud, a few attendees happily push them free. Power to the people! I’m not sure what could be better than this.

I went upstairs afterwards and watched the commercial a few more times on my iPad with the headphones on. As the tears streamed down my cheeks I thought about how Volkswagen was using one of its greatest historical strengths (and one of my generation’s most powerful images) to try to rebuild trust after the Diesel emissions scandal.

It’s stunning, really, how this giant car manufacturer can hit all of my buttons. The cleverness and creativity of this ad is only equaled, perhaps, by the same cleverness and creativity that brought about the Diesel emissions scandal itself. But in any case, it worked on me.

VW has had great advertising before. Back in the 1960s, VW featured brilliant, self-effacing ads through Doyle Dane Bernbach that were perfect for the time. The little, cheap but efficient and reliable Beetle and its brethren were the perfect vehicle for the later 1960s alternative lifestyle practitioners. In fact, in 1969 they sold more than half a million Beetles.

Volkswagen, with its troubling present, is working to move forward by evoking both the almost sacred relationship many of us had with our basic VWs back in a time of social change and the hope we have for saving our planet with new technology. While they show us Beetles and Microbuses, VW is working to bring us an entire line of electric Volkswagens under the I.D. brand, starting in 2020 (a futuristic-sounding year).

There’s an I.D. Buzz all-electric concept vehicle out now that owes much to the Microbus. It appeared at the famous Pebble Beach auto show this year in Monterey, and also in the December issue of Automobile magazine, which I had just been reading a half hour before I was summoned to the family room. The clever folks at the magazine drove the futuristic yellow Buzz along with a gorgeous 1952 original model in a long, illustrated cover story.

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The commercial, by the way, is touting the company’s new People First six-year bumper-to-bumper limited warranty–another effort at trust building. The message is meant to hit much deeper, though, and it sure did with this baby boomer.  My first two cars were air-cooled Volkswagens, and I’m at the very heart of the target of this remarkable commercial.

The real challenge is whether Volkswagen can build enough business in EVs to make up for the loss of its Diesel cars–and reputation. Meanwhile, they just introduced the huge new Atlas crossover SUV to compete in that successful market segment. Back to the real world, where you have to make a profit selling what people are asking for. The Buzz isn’t due until 2022, which sounds like a long time from now. But 1969 was a long time ago, wasn’t it?

 

The Clean Energy Revolution Is Coming

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When you read about climate change in the news these days, it’s mostly about supercharged, destructive hurricanes, melting icecaps, and imminent catastrophe. Steve Westly, venture capitalist and former California State Controller, has a brighter vision. He shared it with a receptive group at an event hosted by Acterra at the Foster Foundation Gallery in Palo Alto.

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Westly, a lean, animated man who reads younger than his 61 years, knows his stuff and his audience. He presented images and data to show a world in which energy production is moving towards renewable solar and wind at a much faster pace than predicted. The transportation sector is on the verge of a massive, positive change to electric and autonomous vehicles.

Much as Jeremy Rifkin proposes in The Third Industrial Revolution, Westly is placing his trust in the younger generation of millennials to pull off the work we need to combat the climate crisis.

Westly grew up in Santa Clara Valley, before it was called Silicon Valley, when it was mostly farmland, Stanford University, and not much else. He witnessed the sweeping changes that transformed the valley into the place where much of the technology that can save us is now based.

Westly has been involved for years. He was a board member with Tesla when it was a few dozen people in a small warehouse and has seen much more since. He knows his numbers.

Carbon dioxide, CO2, is invisible, so it’s harder for people to get upset about it increasing, but air pollution is easy to understand. While the skies have largely cleared over the last 30 years or so, they are beginning to darken again, thanks to significant pollution wafting over from China – as much as 25 percent of what we breathe in California originates there.

That’s because to support their economic growth, in recent years China was on a massive coal plant building spree. Now, however, that is changing to renewable energy, as the Chinese people demand an end to the choking clouds of pollution that could kill up to 83 million Chinese citizens over the next 25 years. Now, the Chinese are becoming the green energy world leaders.

Per Westly, coal and nuclear are out, while solar and wind are on the way up—much more quickly than they were projected to rise. Coal is too dirty and nuclear plants are too expensive. Meanwhile, the price of wind and solar continues to drop steadily—it’s at a fraction of where it was—while natural gas, currently a popular energy source, fluctuates.

Storage of solar and wind generated electricity has been a problem over the years, since the sun doesn’t shine at night and the wind doesn’t always blow, but the storage price is dropping quickly. Westly presented a chart showing a steeply descending line, depicting a 35 percent drop between 2016 and 2017 alone.

Tesla Gigafactory

This drop is in part thanks to Tesla’s huge battery gigafactory in Nevada, which when complete will be the largest building in the world. Interestingly, this American plant has pushed the Korean LG and Japanese Panasonic/Sanyo battery makers to become more competitive, all to the consumers’ benefit.

Westly predicts affordable $25,000 electric cars in the next five years as part of a boom in these clean-running models. BMW, VW, and other companies are investing big time. It’s no longer going to be a small, fringe group, as EVs take over.

Westly says three things are going to make leaps of progress happen: The Internet of Things, where everything is connected; Big Data, with the ability to provide the enormous amount of data needed to make connected cars work; and a sharing economy. Together, these factors will contribute to the rise of the autonomous car in just a few years. It’ll be sooner than you think, Westly promises.

Westly is counting on millennials, with their different set of values, to lead the charge. They are now the largest population group, passing the aging baby boomers. Shared values of this generation include having a small carbon footprint, wanting a choice of connections, and having clean air, food, and water.

Other countries are already moving ahead with plans to dump the gasoline-powered car in the next few decades. Norway say it’s 2025. India, with its huge population, says 2030 will be it. Even England and France are talking about 2040 to sell the last petrol-powered car. The U.S. today is lagging, but, as usual, California is leading the way on its own.

Westly is sanguine on the possibilities of rapid, beneficial change to help combat global warming—with answers coming from Silicon Valley. The private sector, not the U.S. government, will lead the charge. It’s a very appealing vision.

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Acterra’s mission is to bring people together to create local solutions for a healthy planet. They put on worthwhile events and other activities in their efforts to get people involved in making a difference.

The Foster Foundation’s mission is to share artist-explorer Tony Foster’s powerful watercolor journeys to inspire reflection, discussion, and education about art, wilderness, and the natural world. Here’s a beautiful image of the Shiprock, New Mexico area, where I lived for a few years as a child:

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