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Episode 917 – Chu Changes Mind on Hydrogen, Volvo Seeks N. America Partner, Ghosn May Retire

June 22nd, 2012 at 12:08pm

Runtime: 8:07

When U.S. Energy Secretary Stephen Chu first took office in 2009 he was not a very big fan of hydrogen fuel cells but things have changed, including the secretary’s stance on hydrogen. Volvo says it’s looking for a partner in North America within the next five to six years to produce vehicles. Nissan-Renault CEO Carlos Ghosn is considering retirement before the company’s next mid-term review, which is five years away. All that and more, plus we head down to Smyrna, Tennessee to pay a visit to Nissan’s sprawling manufacturing campus in this week’s Autoline This Week preview.

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Welcome to Autoline Daily. I’m John McElroy and here’s the news.

PRICE OF OIL TO REMAIN LOW
Fascinating oil forecast from the analysts at Raymond James. They point out that oil prices have dropped $20 a barrel recently, to around $83 on the West Texas Intermediate price index. That’s thanks to the weak global economy and soaring oil production in the United States. They’re predicting that the WTI price will drop to only $65 a barrel next year. And even 10 years from now they don’t see it going over $80. If they’re right, that’s really going to throw a monkey wrench in the sales of hybrid and electric cars.

FUEL CELL FLIP-FLOP
When U.S. Energy Secretary Stephen Chu first took office he was not a very big fan of hydrogen fuel cells. His rationale was that the technology was too far out there, that it would not be a significant player in the transportation sector for at least two decades. He even cut federal funding for the fuel-cell research by nearly 60 percent! But 2009 is not 2012. Things have changed, including the secretary’s stance on hydrogen, as you’ll hear in this exclusive interview with Autoline.

Secretary Chu also mentioned another one of hydrogen’s big advantages – refueling time. It’s WAAAAAAY faster to top-off a tank with a liquid fuel than it is to charge a battery, no matter how advanced the chemistry is.

VOLVO SEEKS PARTNER IN NORTH AMERICA
Automakers continue to team up to cut costs for developing and producing vehicles. Now Volvo says it’s looking for a partner in North America. According to Bloomberg, the automaker is talking with a couple of carmakers but declined to name them. Volvo says it needs a partner within the next five to six years to produce vehicles and that building its own plant in North America is unlikely. The Swedish automaker says it’s open to partner with any automaker and would prefer one that will share development costs on small cars.

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GHOSN CONSIDERS RETIREMENT
Well we knew it was inevitable, but Nissan-Renault CEO Carlos Ghosn could be on his way out in the next five years. Ghosn, 58 years old, is considering retirement before the company’s next mid-term review which is five years away. Possible replacements could include Renault COO Carlos Tavares and Renault CFO Dominique Thormann.

Speaking of Nissan, coming up next, we’re going to sit down with Bill Krueger, the vice chairman of Nissan Americas to talk about what they are going to do to really ramp-up sales of the Leaf when their new plant opens in Tennessee at the end of the year.

AUTOLINE THIS WEEK
On Autoline This Week we headed down to Smyrna, Tennessee to pay a visit to Nissan’s sprawling manufacturing campus. In the following clip I sit down with Bill Krueger, the vice chairman of Nissan Americas, to ask him what they need to do to boost sales of the Nissan Leaf.

U.S. assembly of Nissan Leafs and battery packs should come online at the end of this year.

And that wraps up this week’s reports, see you back here on Monday.

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31 Comments to “Episode 917 – Chu Changes Mind on Hydrogen, Volvo Seeks N. America Partner, Ghosn May Retire”

  1. Chuck Grenci Says:

    It’s time (beyond time) to fix our transportation infrastructure e.g. roads, bridges, Interstates, etc. What better time to increase the national gasoline (fuel tax) while, for a fairly long time forward, oil will be cheap(er). I don’t really like more taxes but I also know that if you want to have a ‘party’ (a great transportation system) you’ve got to pay for it. The public has almost gotten used to 4 dollar a gallon gas, add a dime to the tax (it will quickly be assimilated) and fix the mess that’s out there.

  2. HtG Says:

    Don’t say it, John. Now that you got Stephen Chu to sit for an interview, you’re going to get Jen-Hsun Huang of Nvidia, noted car guy? I’m getting the vapors.

  3. Chris B Says:

    Nice to see the price of oil and gas coming down, but that doesn’t answer the oil-supply question. Does anyone reliable know, John? At some point soon, we’re going to need a viable renewable fuel to avoid any future global apocalypse, a la Mad Max.
    PS – I’d consider a plug in, but there is no place in my condo parking lot to re-charge it overnight. And getting our board to approve the necessary infrastructure change would be almost impossible.

  4. gmveteran Says:

    I agree with Chuck. We all want good roads and a gas and diesel tax is the way to do it and is the only way I am aware of that matches the amount you pay to the amount you use the roads. A dime would be a good start, but it should probably gradually increase over time to 40 – 50 cents. Not only will this help fix our roads, bridges, etc., but will help to increase sales of EV’s and hybrids. Even with oil and gas projected to be less expensive for awhile, this is not the time to ease up on our goal of becoming oil independent. We have sent enough of our dollars overseas for oil payments. Lets keep our money here in North America. If we significantly reduce our oil consumption, we could get all we need from Canada and our own domestic supplies. This would have a hugely beneficial effect on our economy.

  5. Chuck@GM Says:

    It seems to me that the gas tax was intended for roads, way back when, and not for the general fund as is now done in many states. Maybe they should get the fiscal house in order, and not raise taxes.

  6. HtG Says:

    Gas tax. I remember that it was red-baiter Richard Milhous Nixon who had the political credibility to make an opening to mainland China. Perhaps President Ron Paul can lead us into a higher fuel tax future.

    (please excuse the snark, family is coming over)

  7. MJB Says:

    With this oil forcast, the writing may soon be on the wall for electrics and hybrids… And what was that, John, you mentioned about a new Nissan plant about to open up in Tennessee? Umph!

  8. Al Says:

    Oil prices – a few months ago the same “experts” were predicting $5 gasoline. The only other job that you can be so wrong and not get fired is a weather man.

  9. Lex Says:

    The New 2013 Altima “Wouldn’t is be cool” commerical using the DNA theme is visually attractive and has denitely peaked my interest in the vehicle. Good Work Nissan!

    I have written before the Nissan Leaf should be offered with several different powertrain options: Pure EV, Conventional Hybrid, or simply with a Flex-Fuel ICE powertrain. This would broaden it’s appeal to consumers and gain wider acceptance and increase sales.

    The idea that oil will stay at $80 a barrel is unbelievible to me. If contradicts Supply and Demand economics. As the world’s population increases and all peoples seek the freedom of the open road vehicle sales will increase as also the demand/need for more petroleum based fuels to power these vehicles. There is only a finite amount of oil on spaceship Earth to supply this demand. I am not saying we will run out in the near future, however as demand increases so will the price of cruel oil.

  10. HtG Says:

    Keep in mind that Saudi Arabia is fighting a nuclear war with Iran. Saudi is keeping the price of oil low in order to break Tehran’s back. Nuclear theory trumps econ.

  11. jesse Says:

    TAX???MORE TAX???Not in this lifetime.The powers that be will take that money and blow it on something other then what it is intended for and then cry poverty.Oil at 80 bucks,gas at 3.50 a gallon??Another mystery of the universe yet to be solved…

  12. HilD Says:

    Cheap gas for the next 10 years ? Don’t believe it or the analysts at Raymond James. The only reason the bprice is so low is world wide demand is low due to an economic slowdown world wide. Watch what happens if the world wide economy recovers from recession. Same thing is true with the price of the excess of natural gas from fracking. When the economy recovers the the speculators will buy up supply until demand provides exceptional returns. Thanks Morgan Stanley,Goldman Sachs and all the other Wall Street sharks. They are preoccupied with unregulated derivative speculation at the present time.

  13. tony Says:

    Did you guys change the media format on your daily show? I watch ever day on my android phone and now I don’t get any audio with the video. Any suggestions would help.

  14. Kit Gerhart Says:

    I voted for John Anderson for president in 1980. Remember him? He proposed a 25 cent gas tax increase, at a time when gas was under a dollar a gallon.

  15. C-Tech Says:

    Whether Republican or Democrat, we will see an increase in taxes to cover the costs of these 2 wars, the bank and auto bailouts, and the necessary rebuilding of the U.S. infrastructure. It is a question of who’s ox get gored.

    Nice to see a technocrat make a reasoned decision and publicly back it up.

  16. cwolf Says:

    Speaking of oil; how bout the Cruze recall of 500,000 units? Oil sitting in the splash shield can ignite if it comes in contact with hot surface. What gets me is the claim it is a result of dripping fluids from an oil change. Give me a break!

  17. Jim Thykeson Says:

    For the nay-sayers on hydrogen, remember Hyundai will enter a hydrogen LeMans car next yr.! Audi and Peugeot have proven that clean, powerful, silent, diesel technology can destyroy gasoline in every category. The auto-companies have been the surrogatized fall-guy for ‘big-oil’ over in this country, as they continue to push gasoline. They don’t allow the blonde bimbo to parade in front of your TV every hr. on the hr. day after day trying to convince you that gas and coal are the way to go! In Europe, Royal Dutch Shell, Elf, and Statoil are led by the host countries wishes, not the other way around like here. For the health of the earth it’s ecological treason not to switch to the new fuels when you have right in front of you! I remember us bad-mouthing ethanol…hell! Brazil has become a ‘super-power’ because of it!

  18. Kit Gerhart Says:

    For hydrogen to be a viable motor fuel, we need a source of hydrogen, and we need an infrastructure to distribute it and fuel cars. If we had unlimited electricity from renewable sources, we could produce hydrogen by electrolyzing water, but you then have a fuel that needs to be in the very cold and/ or very high pressure liquid form to even beat the range of an electric car. Hydrogen may be a viable motor fuel someday, but not any time soon.

  19. pedro fernandez Says:

    #16, how many recalls have there been? this shows that it is not smart to buy first or second model year of a given vehicle, even my son’s FR-S has had a couple of minor but annoying issues which the dealer can’t even fix because they have not received instructions on how to do so.

  20. Kit Gerhart Says:

    I may have been lucky with my first year, third generation Prius. It is a late 2010 rather than an early one, which I think made a difference. I don’t know what they were, but I’ve heard there were some “issues” with early 2010′s.

  21. Bob in Atlanta Says:

    This week’s AUTOLINE THIS WEEK that John produced at Nashville/Smyrna, TN makes me want to take a close look at the new Altima. Nissan did a superb job in “evolving” the Altima design over the past several years. Both of my cars are of German manufacture, but I want to buy a USA-assembled vehicle next time. From what I saw on AUTOLINE the Nissan Altima will be tops on my shopping list.

    John: Nissan appears to have been very accomodating to you in making their top US people available to you. Have other foreign transplants been as open for interviews and insights into their US operations? For example: Kia in Georgia, Hyundai in Alabama, VW in Chattanooga?

    The Nissan turn-around story tells me that Carlos Goshn is on a par with Alan Mulally as a genius in the auto business. Your thoughts?

    Lastly: I believe engineering and design are the keys to a quality vehicle. By “design”, I mean styling – a vehicle that someone wants to own because of what its appearance says. By “engineering”, I mean can I take it apart and put it back together myself. When you work on a car yourself (routine maintenance) you come to understand the thought (or lack thereof) that went into its design.

  22. Kit Gerhart Says:

    Like Bob of Atlanta, an aspect of design/engineering I always considered important was “design for servicability.” When I got my first GM car, an ’81 Citation, after starting work with GM, I was annoyed to find that the oil filter was crammed into the firewall and very difficult to access. I rationalized that there was at least a reason; that “iron duke” engine was originally used in longitudinal engine, rear drive applications, so the oil filter just happened to be on the back of the engine in the transverse application in the X car. Then, when the 1982 J cars came along with a new engine designed for that car, there was no excuse for the difficult oil filter access. To me, that was bad design, though some of my co-workers tried to defend it. Why was Chrysler, with a lot fewer resources, able to put the oil filter where it was very easy to access on their 2.2-2.5 engines?

    It’s funny that Nissan come up regarding design/engineering, but I remember a “bad design” story I heard on a car-related radio show (a local one in Florida, not Car Talk) a couple years ago. The guy mentioned that it was a ~$300 shop job to replace a headlight on a Nissan Altima, because it was difficult to access. This has nothing to do with the new Altima, or at least I hope not, but when I heard that, it stood out in my mind as bad design. He was probably talking about the Altima before the current, soon-to-be-replaced one.

  23. pedro fernandez Says:

    #22 right you are, every new design, whether it’d be a whole car or a major component should have a certified tech as an adviser to show these engineers what is the best design as far as servicing ease, I have seen cases where a tech has to remove motor mounts in a Chrysler minivan to get to certain components.

  24. pedro fernandez Says:

    Has anyone heard of issues with auto HD radios? my son claims the HD radio in his car does not give consistently good sound as he drives around, I always thought HD radio was supposed to eliminate those reception issues. I just hope it’s not another FR-S problem.

  25. cwolf Says:

    pedro,my radio works flawlessly,except inside most parking structures and under this one overpass,where some type of communication tower is also near. Bet this is an easy dealership fix.

    I saw my first Dart on the road. The front and back are good looking. As from the side view…well it could have been mistaken for a corrola,elantra,etc.. Actually kinda plain from the side. I didn’t think I’d see one of these on the road so soon!

  26. cwolf Says:

    On my treck to south Toledo and back,I paid attension to what the vacationers were/weren’t driving. Campers longer than 26 ft were pulled mostly by trucks;Fords and Rams were dominant,yet there was a good number of Suburbans looking as though they have been taken out of moth balls for the season. I thought it funny that the smaller campers were hauled by mostly by vans than a SUV. It was also understandable that the majority of vacationers were driving mid-size cars. Yet of the small ones,the Yaris,Cuze and Focus seemed very popular. Over the last week or so I’ve seen a growing number of Fiat 500′s on the road. More of them than the Mini,for a change!

  27. Kit Gerhart Says:

    #26,
    By smaller campers, do you mean pop-ups, or do you mean 20 foot rather than 30 foot. Also, by vans, was it E series and big Chevy/GMC, or was it Caravan/Sienna/Odyssey, etc.? Just curious.

  28. cwolf Says:

    Kit,I didn’t see many pop-ups. The new trendy 2 person type was about as popular as the 18-20 footers. The smaller vans towed these lengths. Funny.. there were more Caravans. I don’t think any car or van pulled anything longer than 20 ft. My whole commute to/from work is along vacation routes. When the season begins,it takes a lil’getting used to,but I have found by watching what is driven or towed is a good way to distract me from frustrations. On the pike I saw a Prius pulling a pop-up!

  29. cwolf Says:

    pedro: How’s the strorm”Debbie” down there? Hear some of you need a canoe more than a car!

  30. pedro fernandez Says:

    Not hitting this way at all, it is affecting west coast only, thanks for asking! BTW remember when full sized conversion vans were popular?

  31. Kit Gerhart Says:

    I would be interesting to know what mpg that Prius gets pulling the popup. It might be about half the normal mileage on the highway, but would still be better than most of the vehicles out there.

    I may be looking for a hitch for my Prius. I have a small tilt trailer I use occasionally, and my van, which I’m thinking of selling, is my only vehicle with a hitch. Since Toyota says not to tow with a Prius (in the U.S.), hitches are kind of hard to find.