It was a very good year … for green cars, even though sales weren’t what advocates — and the car companies — had hoped to see. Total to-date Nissan Leaf sales of 18,000 in the U.S. (and 46,000 worldwide) aren’t setting the world on fire. The company wanted to sell 20,000 a year in the U.S. alone.
But it’s a start, and the incredible buzz over Tesla’s Model S (winner of car of the year awards from both Automobile and Motor Trend) proved that plug-in cars can get hearts racing and purse strings loosened — even when prices start at $57,400 (before federal credits).
Here are some learning points for me in 2012:
It’s a gas. Propane-powered cars seem to make sense to me, because it’s relatively cheap to set up stations, and the fuel (gas grill-friendly) costs $2 a gallon and is liquid without needing to be under high pressure. We don’t yet have many refueling centers (outside the South, California and Canada), but that’s also true of every other alternative fuel. There are 160,000 gas stations in America, and it’s hard to beat that.
Range anxiety, what’s that? Last week, in the midst of a winter storm, I visited the first beachhead in Tesla’s East Coast Supercharger network. At rest areas on both sides of I-95 in Milford, Conn., Tesla has set up — free to users — 480-volt fast-charging stations. There’s another one in Wilmington, Del., and technically that makes possible a Boston-Washington run in the Model S, which has official 265-mile range. Tesla has a network in California and wants to wire the whole country with these chargers, which will eventually be solar-powered. This doesn’t end the problem of wondering if the EV will make it to grandma’s house (only the Model S can charge on a Supercharger, and Tesla’s network is still skeletal), but it does point the way forward in an agreeable fashion.
Crowdsourcing the car. I’m very impressed by what Local Motors is doing. The start-up is using the power of online communities to not only decide what kind of cars it should build, but also to improve the design once one has been selected. That makes it possible for small, local factories to produce vehicles that are right for that region, optimized via suggestions from informed and energized community members. Local has produced one vehicle, for off-road desert rallies, but it’s working on an electric. I think I’ll have some thoughts on that one.
“Taxi!” It’s still unclear if electric cars can make effective taxis. The only such fleets now are in China, and a bid to run Nissan Leafs in suburban Virginia may not get off the ground. But hybrid taxis are a huge hit everywhere, especially in California, where some early ones (the Ford Escape and Toyota Priuses) have run up trouble-free mileages of 300,000 or more. The green car taxi fleets were dealt a legalistic blow in New York, which is thronged with metered hybrids now (thanks to enthusiastic backing from Mayor Mike Bloomberg). But the courts ruled that the city couldn’t dictate mileage, so New York’s Taxi of Tomorrow will be a roomy, non-hybrid Nissan.
Where’s my jetpack? Maybe at some point we’ll evolve beyond the multi-passenger automobile and make personal transit the standard. It’s been a dream for decades. Jetpacks are actually already here, though with some limitations. The Jetlev R200 is impressively capable, though it also has to be tethered to a moving boat (via a 30-foot line) because it uses a constant stream of water for its hydraulic power. That’s more like a toy than a commuting device, but it’s still fun.
“Look, Ma, No Hands!” Tech trade group IEEE thinks that self-driving cars will be 75 percent of on-road traffic by 2040. Momentum is really building, and the technology (promoted by Google, GM, Audi, BMW and others) is progressing rapidly. “I believe that the technology is here,” Dr. Azim Eskandarian of George Washington University told me. “Cost is an issue, but it’s not a show stopper.” The trend coincides brilliantly with the anti-driving trend clearly emerging among millennials. They’d rather sit in the back and play with their cellphones. “
Clean cars are here to stay. The re-election of President Barack Obama cements tough fuel economy standards in place through 2025. EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson is leaving, but it won't change much — her successor will be equally green. Mitt Romney isn’t going to ride to the rescue and undo it all. And the Obama administration is working closely with California (approving an important waiver earlier this work) to support its zero-emission car quotas. No automaker can ignore the California market, which is why we have “compliance cars” (low-volume electric programs) from such automakers as Ford, Chevrolet, Honda and Toyota.
I could go on like this for pages, but you’re probably itching to abandon your mouse and go party. So let's skip over electric delivery trucks, $9 cardboard bikes, biofuels for the military, and a host of other stuff. May the Force be with you in 2013.