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?

 

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Green Mobility in Portland, Oregon

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On a three-day trip to Portland, Oregon this week, I had a chance to witness some ways that the Rose City is moving toward a cleaner transportation future.

To start out, my trip into downtown from the airport was on the Trimet electric train system. The Trimet Max Red Line docks steps away from the baggage claim area, and for $2.50, you can sit in a clean, comfortable chair and look out the picture windows at the Oregon scenery. It was clear and beautiful my first day, but, naturally, became gray and rainy later. But that was pretty nice looking (and smelling) too.

Once I stepped off the train onto the street, I walked the several blocks to my company’s Portland office. Along the way, I passed four things that told me that Portland is working hard on going green.

I walked past the Forth Mobility showroom. Forth is set up to give people a chance to learn about and test drive electric vehicles, including the Nissan Leaf and Chevrolet Bolt. On my way out of town, I dropped in and chatted with Sergio, who showed me the displays, which included a sample of wall-mount charging stations and a screen folks can use to determine which EV would work best for them.

A couple of blocks further, I spotted Electric Avenue (see photo, above). This brightly painted spot at PGE (Portland General Electric) headquarters, sports six charging stations–Level 2 and Level 3. Located near Forth, it’s a good one-two punch for EV awareness and use.

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Along the tree-lined streets, which were beginning to display some autumn-colored leaves on the ground, I spotted two ways to drive around without owning your own car. ReachNow is BMW’s car-sharing service. I saw the logo on the sides of Minis and BMWs wherever I went.

Tucked into other spots were the Car2Go vehicles, which feature cars from BMW’s German rival–Mercedes-Benz. I spotted numerous Smart EVs, along with the smaller Mercedes-Benz crossovers and sedans.

In 10 minutes and six short blocks, I got a sample of Portland’s efforts to reduce traffic and greenhouse gases.

On my first night in the city, I rode in a car on the way to my old friend’s home in suburban Gresham, and there was lots of traffic. These efforts in Portland should help congestion, as well.

To top off my trip, on my return to the East Bay, I rode BART’s airport shuttle and the regular BART line most of the way home. The electric vehicle future is now.

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.

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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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Bolt EV Ride to Coastal Marin County

Taking a drive on a Sunday afternoon has been a favorite pastime for generations. It’s extra special, though, in a Bolt EV, particularly along the beautiful roads of California’s Marin County.

Yesterday, my wife and I jumped into my nearly-fully-charged Bolt (233 miles, with the A/C on), and headed north and west. Of course, the first part of the trip was pure freeway, so we listened to Sirius XM on the Bose stereo and cruised along. Once we got over the Richmond/San Rafael Bridge and onto Sir Francis Drake Blvd., we turned off the tunes and began winding our way along the scenic back roads.

There’s a section that flows through the redwoods, and that’s an especially memorable experience in a pure EV, where there’s no engine noise or vibration to distract you.

We stopped at Point Reyes Station, where we ate lunch in a favorite spot, the Station House Cafe, and then browsed the Point Reyes Bookstore and art galleries, where we bought new treasures–and even ran into an old friend. Behind the stores are open spaces like this.

Pt Reyes Station

When we decided to continue to Bodega Bay, we asked Siri to take us there. He (my wife’s Siri is a British man) told us it would take two hours (we didn’t believe him) and directed us an unfamiliar way. Lucky for us, we kept going, because we ended up along the narrow little peninsula between Tomales Bay and the Pacific, in a place we had never been before.

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After cruising silently for several miles along some rather bumpy roads, past some huge bulls (each alone) and some groups of cows, we passed the dairy itself, and finally, pulled up at McClure’s Ranch, which consisted of a few work buildings, a house, and a path to McClure’s Beach.

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We drove down to the beach parking lot to use the advertised facilities and looked at a trail heading down towards the ocean. When folks coming up the McClure’s Beach Trail seemed unwinded–and not big-time hikers–we decided to walk down there ourselves.

We were rewarded with splendid views and the incredible quiet of total escape from modern toys–other than the phones we pulled out to photograph our surroundings.

Here’s a shot from the trail on the walk down.

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And after a fairly short, but mostly downhill climb, we arrived at the beach itself, overcast but not cold.

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On the beach, we found this amazing giant piece of driftwood.

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On the way up, we saw a herd of tule elks, for whom that area is a protected refuge. We even heard the bellowing voice of the male, with his huge set of antlers. A couple of miles along the trip home, we came upon the herd, where my wife shot this photo, right from the car window.

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What a great trip in my Bolt EV. After the drive back, I still had almost 100 miles left, too. This trip wouldn’t have been possible in an old low-range EV, and it surely wouldn’t have happened if we’d taken the short way instead of letting Siri give us the directions.

Some photos above by Joy Schaefer, the rest by the blogger.

 

My Chevrolet Bolt EV – A Six-Month Update

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Today, I’ve had my Chevrolet Bolt EV for six months! Here’s what it’s been like living with an all-electric car with few limitations.

With a 10,000-miles-a-year lease, I’ve been careful to not drive my car every day.  The odometer stands at 5,113 today, halfway through the year, so I think I’m in good shape. Note: The 201-mile range shown below reflects my trip home from work after charging, so it’s not at the 225 that it was when I started out.

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During this time, I’ve tested a number of other electric and hybrid cars, which you can see by going to Clean Fleet Report. I have more on the way, including the latest VW e-Golf and BMW i3, both of which have greater ranges (but are still not in the Bolt’s territory).

I recently had a chance to interview Brett Hinds, Ford’s Chief Engineer for electrified powertrain Systems. It was connected with a screening of the new film, The Third Industrial Revolution, about what we need to do over the next two generations (and on) to help preserve life on Earth from climate change. It’s based on a 2011 book by Jeremy Rifkin. I proudly presented Brett with my card, with a photo of my Bolt on it.

Regarding electrical range, in the cold early months of 2017, I was getting 205, maybe 210 miles on the range meter for a full charge. I was a little disappointed. Now, however, I consistently see 230 or 240 miles, or around 4.0 miles per kWh. And, I’ve noticed that the estimates the car gives me are pretty close to real-world.

Of course, I drive conservatively (it’s the only thing I do that way). I don’t stomp on the accelerator (don’t call it “the gas”) and I use the Low (L) setting all the time, with strong regeneration, so much of my braking happens without the brake pedal. “One pedal driving” is a real thing with an all-electric car, and it’s great fun when commuting. You can place yourself exactly into the available space without any braking at all. It’s a skill–perhaps even an art.

The car certainly looks the same. No significant wear and tear to the outside that I can tell. I did pick up a chip in the windshield quite early, but with a quick fix at Safelite it hasn’t become more than an occasional sparkle in the corner of my eye when the sun shines a certain direction.

Inside, the floormats are no longer pristine, and the rear cargo area has proven to be easily marked by amplifiers and guitar cases. I use a little pad I made out of a workout mat if I feel like lugging it from my downstairs office. But the rear hatch is easy to access for musical instruments and various stuff. The gossamer-thin rear cargo shield works great for hiding my “trunk” but comes off in a flash and takes up virtually no space. The rear seats fold down easily, and when they are in place, hold adult passengers comfortably.

My Bolt has passed the granddaughters test. Before I ordered it, I needed to be sure I’d be able to drive 85 miles to my granddaughters’ house and back. When I’ve done so, I’ve returned with 40 to 50 miles left to spare!

I drove my car to the Western Automotive Journalists annual Media Days event in April in Monterey–about 100 miles away. I was able to use one of their generator trucks to fill up for the trip back. I didn’t need to visit any charging stations there or along the way.

The only negatives I’ve had are electrical and intermittent. A few times, the audio display has simply refused to come on when I start the car. I found that turning the car off and back on (sometimes a few times) has cleared this. I’ve heard through the grapevine that there’s a software fix for this issue in early Bolts, but I haven’t had time to swing by my local dealership. They, on the other hand, have sent me multiple offers for service (that I don’t need)–including an oil change! Also, it sometimes takes three pushes to lock all the doors.

I joined the Chevy Bolt EV Owners Group on Facebook. I was one of the first members–there are now more than three thousand! There’s a local San Francisco Bay Area page and a Chevy Bolt Interest group too, but they have a lot fewer members. We share the joy of getting our cars and discussing the various pleasures and occasional issues.

I see Bolts on the road fairly frequently. Yesterday, I was following one on the way home and snapped this shot. I flashed my lights, but the young woman driving it didn’t respond.

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One of the most interesting things for me is that as I drive and enjoy the Bolt, I’m finding that I no longer feel like a journalist with it–I feel like an owner! And that’s a very different experience. Driving test cars weekly can be exciting and interesting, but it’s like living in a hotel. When I’m in my Bolt, I’m at home, and I feel like it’s a step into the future.

I ordered a ChargePoint level 2 home charger when I first got the car, but I haven’t installed it in my garage yet! Besides being an expensive job (I’ve been quoted many hundreds of dollars to install the $500 charger), I don’t really need it. I normally fill up at one of the dozen chargers at work, and if I need to top it off, it’ll give me about 50 miles overnight at home on household current.

Like every electric car, to varying degrees of course, the Bolt is quick off the line, and although it’s tall, it stays level on turns and has a supple suspension. Although I’d love to have a manual transmission, none are available–or needed–with an EV.

I still love my choice of Kinetic Blue, but I’ve seen the other colors and they all have their charms. The white is actually quite nice on the car, and the bright orange really makes a statement. I chose the light gray interior with white accents–in the top-level Premier with every option–so it feels very pleasant inside. The leather is wearing well, but, like the rest of the interior, is good but not at the exquisite level of, say, an Audi. For nearly $44,000 (minus fed, state, and PG&E rebates), it doesn’t feel like a luxury car. But the smooth, silent running is a joy, and the premium Bose audio system is very capable.

I’ve used Apple CarPlay a lot, which means I get my navigation from my phone. I also can use Bluetooth, but Apple CarPlay (with a USB cord) gives me the ability to do hands-free texting. Siri and I have spent a lot of time together (I’m mainly texting my wife.)

I’m excited about finally receiving my carpool lane stickers! Now, as an EV driver, I can use the carpool lane with a single occupant–and save half price on my bridge toll! Yesterday, this saved me perhaps 20 minutes on my commute to work, and the cheaper toll is always welcome.

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One annoyance is the small, short sunvisors that do not slide back to cover the side window. You can get blinded when the sun is to your left. I also am surprised that there isn’t adaptive cruise control, although I wouldn’t use it much.

For the National Drive Electric Week (September 9-16 this year), I will be participating in a local event, where I can show my car and give test rides. I’m also hoping to put together something at my office, where we EV enthusiasts number more than two dozen.

One real surprise for me is the lack of attention I get driving my Bolt. Nobody seems to notice that I’m in a multiple-award-winning, brand-new car. I think that Chevrolet intentionally went with mainstream styling, although it is certainly up-to-date. Perhaps folks think it’s another compact hatchback, such as the gas-powered Honda Fit. But I was hoping for more, since I love to talk about my car.

I’m looking forward to two-and-a-half more years of Bolt driving, but with a lease, I’ll be ready to trade it in for one of the many new BEVs that are coming from Audi, VW, Volvo, Ford, Jaguar, MINI, Nissan, and other brands. Or I may just keep it!

Going Green at the 2017 WAJ Media Days

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

PG&E’s New Plugin Electric Hybrid Charging Trucks

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

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

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

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Here’s the control panel.

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

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

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

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

I Drove Two Hydrogen-powered EVs Back to Back

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chrysler Pacifica is the Only Hybrid Minivan you can Buy

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

Zero Motorcycles – Green on Two Wheels

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

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

Automotive Steel is Evolving for Efficiency

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

The Rest of the Cars

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Q60

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QX30

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

Honda CRV

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Mazda CX-5

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

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

Not Driven but Important

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

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

Earth Day 2017 – Driving My Electric Car

IMG_8417This Earth Day comes at a time of significant concern for our home planet. Our new president, continuing in his belligerent, ill-advised way to work against the needs of our children and grandchildren, has appointed climate-denier Scott Pruitt as head of the EPA. He’s approving pipelines, reducing regulations, and we hear rumblings about backing out of the Paris accords. What can a concerned person do?

At times when the government isn’t cooperating, you need to act on your own. One of the things I do is to drive an electric car. On January 8, just weeks before the election of our frightening new leader, I took delivery of my  Kinetic Blue Chevrolet Bolt EV. As a journalist, I sometimes drive other cars to review them, but my goal for 2017 and forward is to test and promote cars with battery power–full electrics and also the many hybrid options for folks to drive electric part of the time.

Hybrid cars offer a way to slip into EV driving without risk, because you have a gas engine and an electric motor in the same car. Some come with a larger battery for storing some power to drive in a pure electric mode for a while. For example, the plug-in Chevrolet Volt has an EPA range of 53 miles in pure EV mode before a gasoline engine comes on to charge the battery. The hybrid Ford Fusion sedan delivers great fuel economy by blending its engine and motor to stretch out your fuel about twice as long. There’s a plug-in version that gives you about 27 petrol-free miles. Nearly every car manufacturer offers one or more hybrid today.

Until recently, driving a pure electric meant being constrained by battery range. Cars like the pioneering Nissan Leaf, despite their virtues, couldn’t make it past 80 or 90 miles before requiring a time-consuming recharge. Tesla turned that equation on its ear with its offerings, but they remain out of the affordability range for most people.

My Bolt EV, with its EPA-rated 238 miles of range, eliminates most, if not all, of that worry. Unless you’re planning a cross-country or California trans-state trip, you’re gold. I’ve proven that this winter by using my Bolt for commuting, visiting, and errands all over the San Francisco Bay Area–my home.

Now if I wanted a compact five-door hatchback and was OK with using gas, I may have selected a worthy car like the Honda Fit. It resembles the Bolt EV, but without the 964 pound battery and other amenities, it is a very modest investment, starting at under $17,000 including shipping. I also read yesterday that the new Alfa-Romeo Giulia sports sedan is the same price as the top-level Bolt EV–nearly $44,000. Which one would you pick?

There’s an element of sacrifice to spending that much on a compact (but roomy) hatchback from a mainstream manufacturer, but driving and living with the Bolt EV has been a real pleasure. It’s high enough to slide right in. The back seat is roomy for passengers, and it folds down to provide lots of space for the upright basses and Costco visits. The dashboard is friendly, colorful, and provides a wealth of the information you need. And I really like the interior and exterior styling, even if it attracts virtually no attention on the road.

But if you asked me, I’d say the best part remains the nearly silent, buttery smooth powertrain. I cruise down the freeway at 65 mph and listen to the Bose stereo on the way to work and the feeling is sheer bliss. Without the reciprocating pistons, you won’t feel vibration or hear any of the typical engine sounds. Slide the one-speed transmission into Low (L) and you can use your right foot to do “one pedal” driving that provides some of the feeling of control you used to get  from manual transmissions. Just touch the brake when you need it for sudden stops.

I like knowing that my car is contributing less to global warming than internal combustion engine-equipped cars, but doing it without sacrifice is even better. We Bolt EV drivers have an active Facebook page, too, with more than 2,500 members!

We have a long way to go–and not a lot of time to get there–but individual choices, regardless of what our temporarily derailed government says, can make all the difference. Today, I drove my EV on Earth Day. Driving it every day will help make every day Earth Day. Please join me.

Happy Earth Day.