Fleets Take Early Orders and Test Drives

OEMs are doing a lot of research now on what it will take for consumers to buy green machines as several enter the market later this year. The production volume and marketing is limited at first for the Nissan Leaf and Chevy Volt, yet the numbers will be increasing soon. And the pipeline soon will be full of vehicle options from several OEMs, and before long that will include hydrogen fuel cell vehicles. Along with retail markets, fleets play an important role in OEM strategy, as they always have. Certainly, overselling to fleets can be a financial crisis for OEMs and their financial arms, but they’re important early adopters of products carrying much weight these days.

Enterprise Rent A Car is buying Nissan Leafs at MSRP minus federal tax credit, but not at the usual fleet incentive discount rate. A few months ago, Hertz said it will be placing Leafs in select locations in the US and Europe. It’s rare to see rental fleets take on such a risk – they usually buy generic, plain cars that they acquire at volume discounts. They’re not especially attractive to renters, who usually look for a cheap deal and convenient service.

About 100 Chevy Volts are being test driven around the country right now, and some of these are going to managers of large fleets. This research will help GM lay out its production and marketing plans for this important new product, one likely to provide the platform for future models. In recent years, major and specialty OEMs, including Smith Electric Vehicles, Nissan, GM, Ford, Honda, and Toyota, have been selling hybrids, natural gas and propane vehicles, and test models of electric vehicles to taxi companies, governments, electric utilities, and commercial trucking companies.

The feedback received by fleets in invaluable – data is generated on maintenance and repair, warranties, resale market value, safety, driver appeal, fuel efficiency, emissions, and onboard diagnostics and communications technologies. Just as Race for the Green, American Le Mans Series, and Automotive X Prize are important testing grounds for green machines, fleets provide even more useful data for fixing problems and generating buzz about new cars entering the market.


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Ups and Downs of Being in Media in the Age of Blogs, Social Networks, etc.

While thinking about Green Machine Digest and what to post today, I remembered being invited, along with editorial colleagues, to speak at a panel during this year’s Alternative Fuels & Vehicles conference in Las Vegas. Reading through my outline, I came across some points that are helpful to review and that I’d like to emphasize…

• Seem to be most effective new media channel now for publications – AutoBlog Green, Green Car Advisor, Earth2Tech, Gas 2.0, Green Car Congress, and Autopia are must reads.
• Social network/media sites like Facebook, Twitter, and Youtube are expanding in leaps and bounds, but using them effectively isn’t obvious yet for media. It is getting better for OEMs, dealers, environmental groups, and industry associations, but it’s still not quite clear.
• Blogs offer breaking news but more importantly, they’re fun to read and colorful – opinionated, sometimes funny, sometimes irritating.
• But they’re based on explaining something that occurred and what it means to the writer – speaking in their own voice, and readers can respond in their own voices.

Tedious and Confusing:
• When you’re following green cars and alt fuel vehicles, you’ve got to have basic understand of science, technology, regulations, and engineering.
• That gets overwhelming, tedious, and confusing – so readers rely on automotive writers to tell them what it means in a lively readable way.
• Political blogs figured this out years ago and can influence elections.

Being a gatekeeper:
• Social media and blogs do mean there’s a risk to take.
• There’s still accountability for editors to maintain.
• It’s difficult sometimes being a gatekeeper in social media, especially as an editor who’s supposed to take responsibility for content and its ramifications.
• In alternative fuel vehicles, there’s a wide array of competing groups telling their versions of the story – OEMs, regulators, technology suppliers, trade groups, fuel makers, environmentalists, researchers, and academics. Editors have to give them space to be heard, but must sift through and sort carefully.

Putting all of this together, I was reminded of something that happened a couple of years ago while working for another publication. A transportation magazine obituary was posted on its blog paying tribute to a well known woman in the industry who’d just died of cancer. A couple of people wrote brutal attacks on her, and one of them had an ugly agenda that became known later. We pulled off those attacks and didn’t allow access to posting comments without editor approval for a period of time.

New media – blogs, social networks, forums, podcasts, e-newsletters, and video streaming – is a roller coaster ride. It’s costing media people jobs, and those in related professions, but it’s opening doors to opportunities we can’t quite clearly see yet. And it opens up the space, for anyone who chooses, to contribute what’s on their minds. As I said, bad stuff can happen, but that’s life. It’s worth the risk.

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Enginerds Rule!

Here’s something I just wrote in Green Machine Digest. If you find it offensive, then join the group and express yourself!

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Electric Cars: Let’s See… What Shall I Buy?

Long awaited electric vehicles will be making their ways to dealer showrooms in November and December, as most everyone knows by now. But the new model launches will be going on for a long time – about two plus years. Check out “Electric Car Buying Guide” in GreenCarReports.com, which breaks out models with detailed information and covers the gamut from expensive down to economical. The reports cover time blocks starting at the end of this year; there’s so many EVs coming out, they needed to be organized into sections. As previously mentioned, OEMs, dealers, and suppliers are waiting breathlessly for electric cars to go from idea concepts to consumer and fleet garages. That time is here – to the extent that Enterprise Rent A Car is talking about putting Nissan Leafs in their rental lots.

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EV Charging Station Infrastructure – Not a Big Deal?

According to Green Car Advisor, panelists just had a discussion called, “Full-scale Deployment: Making the Business Case.” This is part of the much-watched Center for Automotive Research management briefings in Traverse City, Mich. Their conclusion: the EV charging infrastructure isn’t really needed.

American Honda’s Robert Bienenfeld said although establishing a large charging infrastructure might be a “badge of honor” for EV proponents who’ve long fought for a quicker pace, the vast majority of consumers are well-served by the driving range provided by the charging they can do at home. Very little charging is needed in the public sector, he said.

So if the infrastructure’s in place, car buyers can easily install their home charging stations and find enough public access charging stations? I would think not. The electric grid infrastructure might be more than enough for years to come, even if a million or more plug-ins make it to the roads in the next five years. The problem is getting consumers set up with home charging stations, which they will have to pay for with Level 2 and 3 charging, and dealers and OEMs will need to find reliable, fast, effective installers. For public charging stations, this is being implemented at airports, work places, shopping malls, transit stations, and apartment/condo buildings, but the process is slow and expensive. Much to be done.

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ChargeView Dealing with Troublesome Home Charging Realities

When highly anticipated plug-in cars come out by the end of this year, one thing to keep in mind is how home charging stations are going to be set up for customers. This will vary depending on municipal building codes and electric utility policies. Installations will be done through outside vendors working with dealerships, and they’ll need to be inspected by the city’s building department and by the utility. All of this depends on where you live, and the rules and inspections governing installation – so we could be talking about 30 days after the car buyer brings home the Volt or Leaf before they get to have Level 2 charging set up in their garage. In other words, car buyers are going to get quite peeved when they find out about it.

ChargeView (www.chargeview.com) is a start-up technology supplier that we interviewed at Plug-In 2010 to find out about why the company started and the void that it will be filling. OEMs, dealers, and charging station makers should be happy to hear about such offerings being available – could reduce stress and headaches, and angry customers turning their backs on electric cars.

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EV Excitement Wafts Through Plug-In 2010

If you walked around the exhibit hall at last week’s Plug-In 2010, you would have noticed something a bit different than Plug-In 2009. ECOtality brand named its interactive EV chargers Blink and hired designers to create an iconic look and feel – black and grey, rounded edges, blending into the background. This was not a gas station pump, nor a maintenance garage tech tool. I noticed similar cool gadgetry at other display stations, like Better Place’s charging station in either DeepSkyeBlue or DogdgerBlue color. Then there was overhearing conversations at lunch tables, or sitting in aisles waiting for speakers, or the hearing people approach the microphone on Tuesday night and question Bill Nye, the science guy, and “Who Killed the Electric Car” star Cheslea Sexton. Actually, they had gushing comments to make more than questions and were quite enthralled with the Nissan Leaf and Chevy Volt coming to dealer lots soon, plus a score of competitive models. This is no longer a science fair, nor merely a handful of low speed specialty EVs. There were EV activists present, enginerds needing to talk through the details, and entrepreneurs ready to make good money on this all-new product line. There’s also the reality of selling EVs at dealerships and setting up the charging stations in people’s houses. There are a lot of details to work out. I predict dealers and technology suppliers will have a great deal of stress to live through starting in November or December, but it will be worth it.

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