Autos Part 2: Carmakers Slow to Adopt New Battery

  • The powertrain of the Chevy Volt. This concept image shows the lithium ion battery pack running down the center of the vehicle. (Image courtesy of GM)

Car companies are making plenty of promises these days about future
cars that will save you gas. To make them happen,
automakers are counting on a new kind of battery. They’re called lithium ion
batteries. These batteries could bring about a revolution in automobiles.
In the second part of a two-part series on green cars, Dustin Dwyer reports it could take a while for the revolution to get
here:

Transcript

Car companies are making plenty of promises these days about future
cars that will save you gas. To make them happen,
automakers are counting on a new kind of battery. They’re called lithium ion
batteries. These batteries could bring about a revolution in automobiles.
In the second part of a two-part series on green cars, Dustin Dwyer reports it could take a while for the revolution to get
here:


Lithium ion sounds like a complicated term. And you don’t necessarily need to know
what it means. But it might help to know that you already use lithium ion batteries every
day:


“It’s being used now in video cameras, personal phones, it’s in iPods, it’s in a lot of small
electronics and in, of course, laptop computers.”


That’s Jim Hall. He’s a consultant to the auto industry. His company is called 2953
Analytics. Hall’s had some experience working on battery powered cars. He says lithium
ion batteries are attractive because they can store a lot more power than the batteries in
today’s hybrid vehicles, and Hall says in the race to get lithium ion batteries into cars,
there are two leading companies: General Motors and Toyota.


They have different approaches to getting the batteries ready, but they both depend on
contractors outside the company to figure out the complicated chemistry. Hall says the
problem is right now, they need a breakthrough:


“And the breakthrough could come from an entirely different source. It could be from
another company that neither company is dealing with. It could. That’s the thing with
breakthroughs. You can’t predict how and when they happen.”


As we mentioned, battery engineers have already invented ways to make lithium ion
work in small things like cell phones, laptops and power drills. But it’s not as easy to
make the batteries work for something big, like a car.


Hall says one problem is cost. Lithium ion batteries are expensive. Another problem is
heat. The more energy you store in a lithium ion battery, the better the chances that the
battery could become unstable. If it becomes too hot, the battery could explode. That’s
already been a problem in some laptops.


Bob Lutz is the Vice Chairman of General Motors. He says his company has already
solved the heat problem with lithium ion batteries by using a different chemistry than
what’s in laptops:


“We’ve cycled ’em in hot rooms, maximum discharge rate, and cut out the cooling system
to simulate a cooling system failure in the car, and we’ve had a temperature rise of maybe
eight degrees centigrade, I mean, just not enough to worry about.”


GM expects to put the batteries in test cars and start running them on roads late this
spring. The goal is a lithium ion powered hybrid car named the Chevy Volt. It will go
forty miles on battery power alone, before a gas engine has to kick in. Lutz says he has no
doubt that the Volt will be ready to go by mid-2010, but officially, GM has not
set a production date.


Toyota says it’s also shooting to have the technology ready by 2010. But no other
automaker will even mention a date for lithium ion batteries. Not Ford. Not Honda. Not
Chrysler. Chrysler President Tom Lasorda says there’s a reason for that:


“When you’re trying to predict when a technology is going to be ready for mass market,
it’s very tough. Because you don’t know what the surprises might be.”


In the next few years, you can expect auto executives to make a lot of references to
lithium ion batteries. And basically anyone you talk to in the industry says these
batteries are no doubt, the next big thing that will save you gas.


The question is when. When will lithium ion batteries actually be in your car? Maybe
2010. Maybe a lot later. No one can really say for sure.


For the Environment Report, I’m Dustin Dwyer.

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High Tech, High Voltage Cars

  • Mechanic Mike Beukema just opened his own shop, Enviro Auto Plus, after working as a Toyota mechanic for 18 years. He specializes in fixing hybrids. He says there's a pretty big learning curve, especially when it comes to dealing with the high voltage battery. (Photo by Rebecca Williams)

These days, hybrid gas-electric vehicles make up just a tiny fraction of total car and truck sales. But that’s expected to change. With higher gas prices…
demand for hybrids is
going up. And car companies are stepping up their hybrid production. But there’s a shortage of people who know how to fix hybrids. Rebecca Williams reports some mechanics are getting a crash course in hybrids:

Transcript

These days, hybrid gas-electric vehicles make up just a tiny fraction
of total car and truck sales. But that’s expected to change.
With higher gas prices… demand for hybrids is going up.
And car companies are stepping up their hybrid production. But there’s
a shortage of people who know how to fix hybrids. Rebecca Williams
reports some mechanics are getting a crash course in hybrids:


Mike Beukema’s been a mechanic for more than 18 years. So he’s seen
cars change a lot. But opening the hood of a hybrid car… that pretty
much changed his life:


“This car just fascinates me altogether so that was the perfect fit.
When it came out, I says this is what I want to be all about!”


He loves the technology. He loves that every time you hit the brakes
you recharge the car’s battery. He loves all the little computers that
tell him exactly what needs fixing.


But there’s one thing that took some getting used to:


“The whole issue of safety was freaky at first because you almost
didn’t dare work on them because they were letting you know exactly how
dangerous it was.”


It’s dangerous because you can get zapped by the high voltage battery.


“These have circuit fuses in ’em at 15 amps – there’s plenty of power
there. Not something you want to mess with.”


You can actually get electrocuted.


Mike Beukema’s got experience with hybrids. He worked at Toyota when
the first generation Priuses came out.


Beukema says the high voltage batteries are pretty intimidating for the
professionals, let alone backyard mechanics. And to really know what’s
wrong with a hybrid system, there’s a big thick manual you have to
read. And c’mon, who wants to read the manual?


Beukema says all this means working on hybrids is a pretty big shift
for mechanics. He says at this point most people who know how to fix
hybrids work at dealerships. There aren’t a whole lot of independent
shops that can fix them. That could be a problem if you like to shop
around to save money on car repair. Or if you break down in the
middle of nowhere.


That’s why, here and there, hybrid classes for independent mechanics
are popping up.


Kurtis LaHaie teaches auto tech classes at Macomb Community College in
Michigan. He recently started hybrid classes here. Today, he’s got a
room full of high school auto tech teachers.


He’s holding their attention… even after lunch.


“Too many volts, too many amps, you’re being cooked, literally inside.”


Then he pulls out the face shield and the big orange gloves.


“Now, as a technician, we’re going to need some new tools. These are
lineman’s gloves – people up on telephone poles? That’s what they wear.
That’s what we’re going to wear, same thing.”


LaHaie says electricity can get through even a tiny pinhole in the
gloves… so you have to be careful.


There’s also a big shepherd’s hook you’re supposed to have on hand.
Just in case you have to save your buddy from being electrocuted by a
live battery.


Joe Hart had his eye on that shepherd’s hook. It’s not the kind of
thing that helps sell a guy on hybrids:


“I’m an internal combustion guy, a technician, but you’ve gotta embrace
change and you’ve gotta accept the fact that we’re going to move from
an oil society at some point and I want to be there when it happens, I
want to be ahead of the game rather than trying to catch up.”


Hart might not have much of a choice.


Instructor Kurtis LaHaie says even new internal combustion cars are
getting more complicated. Let alone hybrids:


“If you don’t keep up, you’re going to fall by the wayside. The old
backyard mechanics, they’re very hard to maintain these cars, they’re
very sophisticated. This is just the next level for them to get into.
There’s room for everybody but I think the guys who take the lead in
this, especially now, will take the lead in the future and will do very
well.”


(Sound of grandfather clock chiming)


Mechanic Mike Beukema is hoping that’s true. After a long career at a
dealership, he’s just opened his own shop specializing in hybrids.
Right now, it’s a little lonely for him.


“I’m the service writer, the person that answers the phone, the person
that fixes your car, and person that collects your money – so I am, I
guess, everything here right now.”


Beukema says with any luck, that won’t last too long. He sees his shop
getting big enough that he can quit fixing cars himself. His dream is
to hire guys fresh out of trade school and train them to be experts on
hybrids and other cars of the future.


For the Environment Report, I’m Rebecca Williams.

Related Links

Flex-Fuel Economy Questioned

If you plan to buy a new car or truck this
year, you might find some showrooms filled with
vehicles that run largely on ethanol instead of
gasoline. Car companies are pushing these corn-fueled vehicles as environmentally friendly.
Julie Grant takes a look at those claims:

Transcript

If you plan to buy a new car or truck this
year, you might find some showrooms filled with
vehicles that run largely on ethanol instead of
gasoline. Car companies are pushing these corn-fueled vehicles as environmentally friendly.
Julie Grant takes a look at those claims:


More people are considering buying cleaner, more fuel-efficient
cars now that gas prices and global temperatures are on the rise. The gas-
electric hybrids made by Toyota and Honda are becoming popular. And
American car companies are also jumping on board and offering alternative-
powered vehicles.


General Motors CEO Rick Wagoner has put much of his company’s stock in
ethanol:


“At GM, we believe that the bio-fuel with the greatest potential to
displace petroleum-based fuels in the US is ethanol, and so we have
made a major commitment here to vehicles that can run on E85 ethanol.”


E85 is a blend that’s 85% ethanol with 15% gasoline. GM’s not the only company offering cars that run on them:


(Sound of vehicle introduction)


Angela Hines is from Green Bay, Wisconsin. She’s taking notes as she looks at one
flex fuel car. The E85 only matters to her if it’s going to save her a
few bucks:


“I drive anywhere from 80-200 miles
a day for work, so yeah, gas is important.”


Gui Derochers is looking at a Chevy Silverado pickup truck:


(Grant:) “Does it matter to you that it’s a flex fuel?”


“I think it’s a good thing… flex-fuel. Particularly, we know there are some ethanol plants in Michigan coming, right? Isn’t
that what flex fuel is? Ethanol?”


Derochers works on engines and transmissions:


“You have to remember, I work for Daimler-Chrysler. But we have flex fuel as well. It’s a good thing. It’s wonderful.”


But not everyone thinks the move toward ethanol-fueled cars is
wonderful. Tadeusz Patzek is a professor of civil and environmental
engineering at the University of California in Berkeley. He says
ethanol is not cheaper and it’s not any better for the environment than
regular gas.


Patzek says each gallon of ethanol burned might emit less greenhouse gas
into the air, but you have to burn more fuel to go the same distance:


“So, mile for mile, emissions of CO2 are exactly the same for gasoline as
they are for ethanol. Because they are proportional to the energy stored in
the fuel.”


When it comes to gas mileage, Patzek calls claims that ethanol is any
better then gasoline an imaginary economy… and he’s not alone. When
Consumer Reports magazine tested a Chevy Tahoe that runs on gas mixed
with only ten percent ethanol, the truck got 14 miles per gallon. But
it got less than 11 miles per gallon when the ethanol content was
raised to 85%, as in E85. That’s a 27% drop in fuel economy with E85.


Consumer Reports concluded that to go the same distance, you wind up paying more than a dollar
extra per gallon on E85 then on regular
gas.


Patzek says it’s not a good deal for consumers or for the environment:


“You emit less because you have oxygen but you burn more, so it comes as a wash.”


Patzek says ethanol has other environmental costs. To grow the corn needed to make it, farmers have to use more fossil fuel-based fertilizers, tractor fuel, and then more fuel to truck the fuel to gas stations.


Even so, many scientists say ethanol still provides an energy benefit over fossil fuels and some auto engineers say ethanol cars
are just a stop-gap measure until a better technology comes along, but Patzek disagrees with that logic:


“So, you’re saying the following: why don’t we have a terribly bad
solution and call it a stop-gap solution because it’s politically
convenient. I’m saying is, if I’m an engineer, I have to, essentially, if I’m honest with myself and others, do I want a
better technological solution or do I want to say, let’s do probably the worst possible solution
that delays other solutions 10-15 years into the future… while the
world is running out of time?”


Patzek says the real reason American car companies are moving toward
vehicles that run on E85 is that the federal government rewards them
for it.


GM and the others get extra credit for meeting fuel efficiency
standards just for making cars that can run on E85, even if those cars
aren’t more fuel efficient.


Patzek knows he’s become unpopular among many farmers, engineers,
scientists and politicians who want easy answers. He wants people to
start reducing their energy-use rather than waiting for technological
magic bullets.


For the Environment Report, I’m Julie Grant.

Related Links

Green Auto Plants Going Main-Stream?

  • GM will build three new crossover SUVs at the Lansing plant. Production will start this fall. (Photo by Dustin Dwyer)

A new assembly plant from one of Detroit’s Big Three car companies is getting attention for its “green” qualities. Big Three automakers may not rank at the top of most environmentalists’ list for companies of the year. But some say the new auto plant is a sign that environmentally-sensitive manufacturing has finally gone main-stream. It’s not just because building green plants is the right thing to do. Really, it comes down to a different kind of green. The GLRC’s Dustin Dwyer has the story:

Transcript

A new assembly plant from one of Detroit’s Big Three car companies is getting attention
for its “green” qualities. Big Three automakers may not rank at the top of most
environmentalists’ list for companies of the year. But some say the new auto plant is a
sign that environmentally-sensitive manufacturing has finally gone main-stream. It’s not
just because building green plants is the right thing to do. Really, it comes down to a
different kind of green. The GLRC’s Dustin Dwyer has the story:


The first thing you notice about the smell of General Motors’ newest plant is how much
you don’t notice it. The plant smells like nothing at all. Not paint, grease or even that
new car smell. GM says it specifically selected materials for its new Lansing Delta Township
Plant in Michigan to limit indoor air pollution. And there’s a lot more to not notice about the plant.
Like how much space it doesn’t use.


On a tour with reporters, GM Environmental Engineer Bridget Bernal points out that less
than half of the plant’s 1,100-acre lot has been developed. The rest is left green, including
75 acres for habitat preservation:


“And basically in that 75 acres, we have a couple of pretty large wetlands, along with
some smaller wetlands. We have a rather large wood lot. And we’ve got a significant area
that’s being developed as native prairie.”


GM says it only planted native species on the site. And it planned ditches and culverts to
help filter water as it drains into other areas. A quarter of the materials used to build the
facility was recycled. The plant uses 45 percent less total energy than a traditional plant.
And, on the day GM gave reporter tours, it rained. Even that gets used. The water is
collected in cisterns, and used for flushing. GM says the plant saves a total of more than 4
million gallons of water per year.


Put together, all these elements were enough to win GM a LEED Gold Certification from
the U.S. Green Building Council.


Kimberly Hoskin is director of the council’s new construction program. She says she’d
been traveling a lot for work when one of her colleagues asked if she’d be willing to take
a trip to an event Lansing, Michigan.


“And I said, ‘Well, who’s it for? And she said, well, General Motors.’ General Motors, a
factory, is getting a LEED Gold Certification? Yes, I’ll go. Of course I’ll go. This is really
exciting.”


GM is not the first auto company to use green elements in an auto plant design. Ford’s
Rouge Plant in Dearborn, Michigan was built earlier this decade with a 10-acre “living”
roof that helped manage storm water runoff.


But Hoskin says, out of about 560 buildings in the nation that have been certified by the
Green Building Council, only five are manufacturing facilities, and GM says the Lansing
facility is the first auto assembly plant to get Gold, the agency’s top rating.


But for GM, the green elements of the Lansing Delta Assembly Plant aren’t just about the
environment. They’re about cold, hard cash. The lower energy use alone will save GM a
million dollars a year. That gives people like Hoskin comfort that the plant isn’t just a
public relations move by GM and it increases the chances that we’ll see more green plants
in the future.


Sean McAlinden is Chief Economist with the Center for Automotive Research:


“As we slowly replace our old big 3 plants, many of which are very elderly, they’re all
going to look like this. They’re all going to be green plants. In fact, some of them will
keep getting greener.”


That’s good news for places where there’s a lot of auto manufacturing, but many people
are not ready to absolve GM of all of its environmental sins.


David Friedman is with the Union of Concerned Scientists. He says a green plant is nice,
but the real problem is still the product:


“Over eight times the impact on the environment when it comes to global warming is
once that vehicle leaves that plant. That’s the biggest step that we need automakers to
take and to improve the fuel economy of all of their cars and trucks.”


GM, and other automakers, say they are working to make cars cleaner. High gas prices
may force even more changes as sales of big pickups and SUVs drop off. Ultimately, car
makers’ profits could depend on building cleaner cars, just as keeping manufacturing
costs down will depend on having cleaner plants.


That could change the way auto companies think about environmental improvements
because going green will be about more than just doing the right thing, or protecting the
brand image. It will be about protecting the bottom line. What’s sustainable for the
environment will also be sustainable for the business, and both will show a lot more
green.


For the GLRC, I’m Dustin Dwyer.

Related Links

‘Greener’ Cars Won’t Save Us From Sprawl

Many feel that cars powered by fuel cells will save us from a future of pollution and rising oil prices. But Great Lakes Radio Consortium commentator James Howard Kunstler says there’s more to think about… he says it’s time to reconsider not just WHAT we drive but HOW we live:

Transcript

Many feel that cars powered by fuel cells will save us from a future of pollution and rising oil
prices. But Great Lakes Radio Consortium commentator James Howard Kunstler says there’s
more to think about and that it’s time to reconsider not just what we drive but how we live:


For quite a while now it’s been fashionable among the environmentally-minded to decry the
ownership of SUVs. This says a lot about what’s wrong with the conventional thinking of the
progressive / green crowd.


Would the everyday environment in America be any better if it were full of compact cars instead
of giant gas-guzzling Chevy Denalis and Ford Expeditions? I don’t think it would make a bit of
difference, really. We’d still be a car-dependent society stuck in a national automobile slum. The
problem with America is not big cars, it’s the fact that cars of all sizes have such an
overwhelming presence in our lives, and that driving is virtually mandatory for the ordinary
business of daily life.


Many in the anti-SUV crowd assume that we will solve our car problem with new technology,
like hydrogen fuel cells. Or that low-emission, environmentally-friendly hybrid cars will help to
usher in a sustainable way of life in America.


In fact, cleaner-running, higher mileage cars would do nothing to mitigate the degraded public
realm of a nation that has become a strip mall from sea to shining sea. They would not lessen
commuting distances or times. They would not reduce the number of car trips per day per
household. If anything, they would only promote the idea that we should continue living this way
– that suburban sprawl is normal and desirable, instead of what it is: the most destructive
development pattern the world has ever seen, and a living arrangement with poor prospects for
the future.


Why do we believe that better-running cars will save us? Because environmentalists are stuck in
a culture of quantification, just like their corporate bean-counter adversaries. It’s easy to count up
the number of carbon dioxide molecules in a cubic foot of air, and reduce the whole car issue to
good air or bad air. But air pollution or miles-per-gallon are hardly the only problems with car
dependency. The degradation of the everyday environment in general and of public space in
particular is at least as important, and is not subject to statistical analysis. It’s a question of
quality, not numbers.


In the age of austerity and global strife that is coming down the pike at us, we are going to need
walkable neighborhoods, towns and villages and public transit systems that are a pleasure to use.
Many of us pay premium prices to vacation in European cities precisely because they offer this
way of living, with great railroad and streetcar systems. Europeans still have cars, but they’re not
sentenced to own one per family member or spend two or three hours every day in them. It
would be nice to have these options here in the USA.


In the meantime, I really don’t care whether Americans drive Humvees or Toyota Priuses. Both
big and small cars are cluttering up our everyday world and wasting our lives.


James Howard Kunstler is the author of ‘The City in Mind: Notes on the Urban Condition’ and
other books. He comes to us by way of the Great Lakes Radio Consortium.