Though we have all become accustomed to China as a major net exporter of goods to global markets in recent years, in the automotive world, China’s burgeoning domestic car market inspires all the major global auto companies to compete vigorously for a piece of the action.
The size of the Chinese market is set to grow hugely in the near term, which explains why veteran companies like GM and Ford, along with leading European car makers, are keen to establish a significant footprint in China, especially since their own domestic markets are likely to remain flat. In doing so, they will be forced to go up against China’s own manufacturers; who themselves are keen to lead in green automotive technologies. And here is the dilemma – if foreign auto makers want to enjoy generous green-tech incentives to sell into China, they may be required to hand over their intellectual property. Will they be prepared to do this?
When auto makers get serious about developing a performance car, they invariably take a trip to Germany’s fabled test track, the Nürburgring Nordschleife, to gather data to engineer a true drivers car. The track is a popular test ground since it offers 40 left-hand bends, 50 right-hand bends with extreme gradients to fully put a vehicle through its paces over its 20.8 km length.
“The ‘ring”, as it is sometimes known, has been the preserve of petroleum powered racing and sports cars since it opened in 1927, and short lap times around the track are badges of honor and a measure of a performance car’s prowess. Now, electric vehicles are being put through their paces here too, and Toyota Motorsports Group just attained the electric vehicle lap record with their P001 EV.
There’s a disturbance among listeners of North America’s satellite radio service. Last Tuesday, without warning, monopoly satellite radio provider, Sirius XM, pulled BBC Radio 1 from its channel line-up, replacing programming with an info-loop explaining they were “making way for a new channel.” Devotees of Radio 1 were not happy.
Why did Sirius XM do this? Who asked them to make way for a new channel? and why didn’t they advise listeners before the switch went into effect? Reasonably, former listeners expect answers to these questions – after all, Sirius XM is a subscriber based service. Surely, unlike commercial radio, which is answerable to advertisers, Sirius XM should be answerable to its subscribers – but alas, no such luck. The company is providing no answers or transparency over the decision – and transparency is surely fundamental to good customer care.
Auto companies with electric vehicle offerings are increasingly taking the opportunity to build links between their vehicles and renewable energy. Perhaps in response to those who say (incorrectly) that EVs do nothing to help mitigate carbon emissions – due to a prevalence of coal-fired electricity generation – manufacturers are forging strategic partnerships with solar companies to shore up the environmental case for the electric car.
Last month, GM announced a substantial investment in Sunlogics PLC, and in combination with this partnership, will deploy solar canopies at Chevrolet dealers in North America. The canopies will power-up Chevrolet Volts on dealer lots, with any residual power produced going towards offsetting the dealers’ energy needs.
This week, Ford has announced they will team up with SunPower Corp, under their “Drive Green For Life” program, though they will take a different approach than GM as to how they will promote solar. Ford will be introducing an all electric Focus this year, as well as the C-Max Energi plug-in hybrid in 2012, and their approach will be to offer customers the option to purchase a rooftop solar system for their home at the point of vehicle purchase. As this Fast Company article humorously reports, when buying your car you may be asked, “Would you like some solar with that?”
I’m going to make an assertion here. Any car enthusiast is, by definition, a fan of the BBC show Top Gear. Unless of course, such a person hasn’t seen it, and to that individual I say, check it out on BBC America sometime, you’ll love it!
The show has gained so much international acclaim that the franchise has spawned an Australian and US version. The reason the show is so popular is that it’s pure entertainment. Take the most exotic cars, throw in a few well known celebrity guests, undertake any number of “do-not-try-this-at-home” antics, then combine it all with some well-crafted videography, and you’ve got a winning formula.
But remember, it’s really all just entertainment. It’s not about being fair and balanced.
This is because any story they tell only works providing it meets one of two imperatives – excitement or humor – preferably both at the same time. Enter the Nissan LEAF, and the producers decided to serve the humor imperative.
In June, I wrote about whether the US was right to seek an exemption from the European Union’s Emissions Trading Scheme (EU ETS) for US airlines. The cap-and-trade scheme, designed to curb CO2 emissions, is being vigorously opposed by the American Air Transport Association, and a month on, it seems things are no less fractious, with the rhetoric from Capital Hill going up a notch.
Business Green reported that the Republican chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure committee stated this week, “This appropriately named EU ‘scheme’ is an arbitrary and unjust violation of international law that disadvantages US air carriers and kills US aviation jobs” adding “..the United States will not participate in this ill-advised and illegal EU program.”
Unsurprisingly, China isn’t pleased with EU ETS plans either. The country has threatened to retaliate, possibly by punishing European Airlines or even taking action against French aircraft manufacturer, Airbus.
Back in June, the EU Climate Action Commissioner, Connie Hedegaard, was reported here as having stated “Now is not the time to get nervous over legislation that has already been agreed. This was agreed by all 27 EU member states, by the European Parliament and by the European commission.”
With all sides digging in, it’s looking like this can’t end well, and could even tip things into a trade-war. But it’s worth taking a closer look at what is actually at stake here. Firstly though, an explanation.
Most people probably don’t give an awful lot of thought to how the things they buy actually get to them. But the reality is, pretty much everything we consume is touched in some way by a global and interconnected logistics industry that is truly behemoth. We are aware of package delivery trucks running about, but their presence is just the tip of an industry that by some estimates, constitutes as much as 10% of global GDP.
So, when you ponder that such a huge industry must use energy each time it moves goods around the planet, it is no surprise that businesses in the logistics game are keenly aware that efficiency and sustainability are not just factors of corporate responsibility, but business imperatives – the multiplier of small energy efficiency gains are just so tremendous.
UPS is certainly aware of this business imperative, which is clear from their 2010 sustainability report. The scale of the Atlanta-based company is quite impressive – in the process of moving 3.94 billion packages across more than 220 countries in 2010, they employed 400,600 people, operated 99,795 ground vehicles and 216 aircraft. While bringing in net revenues of $49.6 billion for the year, it seems everything they do, both operationally, and technologically, is to to chip away at inefficiency. So, where do they find incremental improvements?
General Motors made two announcements this week, both indicating a strong commitment by the company to solar energy.
On Thursday – GM Ventures – a General Motors subsidiary specializing in developing innovative technologies in the automotive industry, announced a $7.5 million equity investment in Sunlogics PLC – a specialist in commercial solar project development and installation. The funding will allow Sunlogics to open a corporate headquarters in suburban Detroit as well as a manufacturing facility in Ontario, and is expected to create around 300 new jobs.
Last week, the National Summit on Energy Security took place in Washington DC. Government, military and business leaders gathered to address America’s reliance on foreign oil. Part of the proceedings involved a war-game like simulation called the “Oil shockWave.” First run in 2005, the simulation serves to generate a number of destabilizing geo-political scenarios, forcing leaders to grapple with, and suggest solutions to, spiraling oil prices along with global turmoil that would likely ensue. According to this piece from the UK’s Guardian, the solution to any foreign oil supply disruption, from some quarters at least, is to default to drilling more domestic oil. This is, arguably, disappointingly unimaginative, and simply serves to address the symptoms, not the cause of our oil dependence.
In January, I wrote a piece for Triple Pundit prompted by President Obama’s State of the Union address, in which he outlined a goal to put a million electric vehicles on the road by 2015. I asked the question – is there is enough lithium supply to meet Obama’s EV goal? Since lithium-ion and lithium-polymer batteries are the preferred battery chemistry for the immediate future, this was an important consideration, and my conclusion was, that yes, there is enough lithium to reach the goal. This was based on known lithium reserves reported by the US Geological Survey (USGS), coupled with mining projections, indicating the manufacture of 4.5 million vehicles could be supported by 2020.
However, on June 30th, Fast Company ran “The Rush to Electric cars will replace oil Barons with Lithium Dictators”, which puts the lithium supply matter into a different context – less about whether there is enough, and more about whether we’re jumping out of the frying pan and into the fire as we move to EVs. Will it cause a shift away from the geo-political problems with oil to potentially equally difficult problems dealing with lithium producing countries like Bolivia, who are less than friendly to the USA? Re-framing the question as to whether or not an EV future requires we deal with dictators, I thought I’d take another look.
Sales figures for the Nissan LEAF and the Chevrolet Volt are being closely watched. Since both cars represent a new breed of vehicle, the relative success of either one may possibly represent the dominant technology for years to come. Whereas the LEAF is an all electric vehicle, the VOLT is a plug-in hybrid (more on the differences here), and as both cars have been on the market for a little over six months, early adoption rates might suggest which technology appears to have the edge so far. Alternatively, of course, sluggish sales of both might bring into question whether there is robust demand for alternative vehicles at all.
If we look at the sales figures for the first 6 months of 2011, we see the relative advantage currently falls to the Nissan LEAF, which has sold 3,875 units compared 2,745 units of the Volt. However, to pick a winner of the popularity contest from sales numbers alone, would be to mislead.
While the economy remains in the doldrums and job growth continues to stutter, the bicycle industry, at least, seems to have recovered from the woes of the recession. The National Bicycle Dealers Association details that in 2010, bicycle sales were up 15% over the previous year, bolstering the industry to $6 billion in annual sales.
This positive development is complemented by further bicycle-related good news reported in Fast Company, regarding the job creation effects of competing infrastructure projects. Recent studies show projects for building bicycle and pedestrian routes create more jobs than road building, indicating a nice synergy exists; provide more cycling facilities for a growing population of cyclists and stimulate some job growth into the bargain.
One of the key studies referenced was by the Political Economy Research Institute of the University of Massachusetts, entitled “Pedestrian and Bicycle Infrastructure – A National Study of Employment Impacts” and was released in June 2011. The main points and findings of the study are as follows.
Business Green reports that US Airlines, American Airlines, Continental and United, along with their trade association, the Air Transport Association (ATA), will file a legal challenge to a European law requiring all airlines flying into and out of the EU to pay a charge per tonne of CO2 emitted.
The US government opposes the law. Reuters quotes an Administration official as saying, “We clearly stated our strong objections to the EU plans on both legal and policy grounds,” during talks last week in Oslo. The news agency also marked this as the strongest public criticism of the EU carbon scheme to date by President Barack Obama’s administration, by taking the view that US airlines should be exempt from the new European law.
Europe’s ruling falls under the EU Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS), a cap and trade system which will require all airlines to buy permits for emitting CO2 over and above a certain limit. European Union president, Jose Manuel Barroso, has said the EU does not intend to withdraw or amend the directive, calling it an established EU law. As such, a potential stand-off is poised to take place over the law which goes into effect on January 1st 2012. But is it reasonable for America’s airlines to be bound to comply?
Intuitively, it would seem to be a good thing when a company has a band of loyal employees who diligently use the products they make over those of their competitors. Employees who “fly the company flag” show their solidarity by demonstrating a healthy belief in the collective mission to promote the products that they work long and hard to create.
But what happens when such loyalty engenders a myopic worldview, insulating employees from the realities of the competitive market in which they operate? The dangers of encouraging such a corporate monoculture is the subject of a Harvard Business Review article, that warns companies against “criminalizing” employees who move to the “dark side” by adopting competitor products.
A number of articles published this week paint a negative picture of electric cars based on a British study published earlier this month. The study attempts a comparative life-cycle assessment (LCA) of conventional, hybrid and electric cars and prompted “downer” headlines such as, “Electric Cars May Not Be So Green After All” and “More Bad News For The Chevy Volt.”
The report was undertaken by consulting company, Ricardo and was released by the Low Carbon Vehicle Partnership on June 8th. And contrary to the above headlines, the press release was considerably more upbeat, stating: “Electric and hybrid cars create more carbon emissions during their production than standard vehicles – but are still greener overall.” Since the headlines suggest a different view of electric cars than the press release, I’ll attempt an objective view of the report’s findings.