November 29th, 2011 at 11:30am
General Motors is in full-blown damage control over reports that the batteries in the Chevy Volt caught fire after a crash test by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Japanese automakers are getting hammered by the strength of the yen, and things could get a lot worse. Mazda just introduced a new regenerative braking system called i-ELOOP. All that and more, plus John reviews the movie “Revenge of the Electric Car.”
This is Autoline Daily for November 29, 2011. And now, the news.
WHERE THERE’S SMOKE, THERE’S FIRE
General Motors is in full-blown damage control over reports that the batteries in the Chevy Volt caught fire after a crash test by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. GM says it had not finalized its protocols for handling batteries after a crash, which involves sucking all the electricity out of the batteries with a load cell. It’s like hooking up a giant light bulb to drain the battery. But did NHTSA follow any safety protocols following the crash tests? NHTSA will not say. Not draining the battery is the equivalent of not doing anything about a leaking gas tank after a crash test. Why will NHTSA not say if it followed safety protocols? I think there’s more to this story than has come out so far. When NHTSA starts talking, we’ll be the first to let you know.
YENZILLA (subscription required)
As we’ve been reporting here all year, Japanese automakers are getting hammered by the strength of the yen. But it could get a lot worse. Ward’s reports that the currency could hit 60 yen to the dollar, compared to 77 yen today. That would make Japanese factory workers more expensive than the Germans, and deal a crippling blow to the Japanese industry.
Speaking of Toyota, it will unveil a concept car at the Tokyo Motor Show this week called the Fun-Vii. The company says it hints at a not-too-distant future where people, cars and society are linked together. The Fun-Vii is all about personalization. Its interior and exterior surfaces are display screens that can be customized to show images or even messages. Stay tuned for more details on this futuristic concept.
WHAT’S IN A NAME?
Mazda is one of the few automakers shying away from hybrid and EV technology. Instead it’s focused on improving gas and diesel engines. Earlier this year the company introduced a family of efficient engines and transmissions it calls SKYACTIV technology. Now the company just introduced a new regenerative braking system called i-ELOOP, yep, that’s its name, which uses a capacitor to store energy from braking instead of a battery – a first in the industry. Capacitors can be charged and discharged faster than a battery and don’t deteriorate after prolonged use. Mazda says the system will appear next year and can improve fuel economy by 10 percent.
BABY GRAND? NO, BIANTE GRANZ.
And speaking of Mazda and strange names, the company just introduced a new minivan called the Biante GRANZ, which will make its debut later in the week at the Tokyo Motor Show.
ISOLATIONIST JAPAN, AGAIN
While there are some fascinating unveils taking place at the Tokyo show, the show is a shadow of its former self. Once one of the hottest auto shows in the world, it’s largely been eclipsed by other shows, especially in China. While the devastating effects of the tsunami and overvalued yen have played a role, I believe the real cause in the decline of the show relates to Japan’s trade policies. It has successfully blocked mass-market automakers from getting established there. Even though Japan is the third-largest auto market in the world, not one foreign automaker makes cars there. And so, if you can’t sell cars in Japan, why exhibit at the Tokyo auto show?
Should you go see the movie “Revenge of the Electric Car?” I’ll give you my take on the movie, right after this.
REVENGE OF THE ELECTRIC CAR
We usually don’t do movie reviews on Autoline Daily, but if it’s about an automotive topic, we’ll make an exception. So, is it worth going to see the movie “Revenge of the Electric Car?” In a word, yes.
A few years ago the director, Chris Paine, made a movie called “Who Killed The Electric Car?” It was a highly polemic diatribe against General Motors for pulling the plug on the EV1. This time around Chris Paine decided to focus on four men who he sees as the protagonists in the effort to bring electric cars into mass production. His heroes are Bob Lutz, then at General Motors, Carlos Ghosn at Nissan, Elon Musk at Tesla, and a guy named Gadget, kind of a backyard mechanic who is a neighbor of Chris Paine’s and converts semi-classic used cars into electrics.
The movie tracks their trials and tribulations, their setbacks and their triumphs, as they overcome hurdle after hurdle to get their cars into production. Chris Paine was granted exceptional access deep inside GM throughout the product development process of the Volt, and it’s fascinating to ride along with him as the story unfolds. In fact, he becomes such a cheerleader for Lutz and the Volt that you almost start to wonder if they bought him off.
But like many critics who think they know everything that’s wrong with the auto industry even though their knowledge is very shallow, I think Chris Paine learned a lot in making his second movie. And I think just about any automotive enthusiast will find it worth watching.
My only criticism is that the movie’s end is all butterflies and bunny rabbits. It makes you think that everyone will now run out and buy an electric car. That remains to be seen, and I remain a skeptic. But the movie is still worth seeing.
I invite you to join me and the Autoextremist, Peter De Lorenzo, for Autoline After Hours on Thursday night. We’ll be exploring the engineering and design culture in Detroit. Is it alive and well, or are the Big Three choking it off? This is going to be a great discussion so make sure you don’t miss it.
And that wraps up today’s report, thanks for watching, we’ll see you tomorrow.