TIME Autos

3 Next-Gen Plug-In Cars That Could be Game Changers

Japan Nissan
Itsuo Inouye—AP

The biggest complaints about electric cars are that they’re too expensive or have limited driving range, or that don’t have enough space for hauling gear or a family.

In one way or another, all of these issues are being addressed in forthcoming new versions of the Nissan Leaf and Chevy Volt, and a new plug-in hybrid Chrysler Town & Country—yep, a minivan—planned to hit the marketplace in the near future.

The Next Nissan Leaf
The second version of the Nissan Leaf, introduced in early 2013, addressed the sticking point for a lot of drivers who weren’t yet convinced to bite on an EV: By dropping the Leaf’s base price by over $6,000, Nissan was able to make a purely electric-powered car affordable, starting at under $19,000 once incentives were factored in.

The third-generation Leaf, due to hit the marketplace sometime around 2017, as reported by Automotive News, is expected to have a dramatically improved battery and therefore, a dramatically improved driving range. The goal is for the next the Leaf to have a driving range of 186 miles before needing a charge, up from 73 miles originally and 84 miles on a full charge for the 2014 version. If and when that happens, Nissan will be able to make a much stronger argument that the Leaf is truly affordable and practical.

The Next Chevrolet Volt
Car and Driver offers a sneak peak of the new plug-in hybrid Volt, which is expected on the market for the 2016 model year—and which gives drivers improvements in electric driving range and a cheaper base price to boot. Not long ago, General Motors announced that the price of the next Volt would start at around $30,000 before incentives, around $10,000 less than the original model. The driving range when powered strictly by battery, meanwhile, is expected to jump from 38 miles today to 50 to 60 miles in the forthcoming Volt—though likely only for a 2016 Volt with an optional more powerful (and more expensive) battery.

The Plug-in Chrysler Town & Country
Bigger, heavier cars need more power to operate, which makes the prospect of a battery-powered large vehicle problematic. The lithium batteries now in use are exceptionally heavy, and bigger vehicles would require bigger, heavier batteries—which in turn would weigh the cars down further. At some point, the math doesn’t add up, with prices for larger hybrids and EVs getting so high as to become impractical. That’s why the vast majority of EVs (and hybrids for that matter) are on the small size, and why they employ as many technologies and strategies as possible to keep their weight down.

Nonetheless, Fiat Chrysler just announced plans for a plug-in hybrid minivan, a first-of-its-kind Town & Country model that’s expected to get an astounding 75 mpg (or rather, the equivalent with electric and gas power combined), available for purchase around 2016. Chrysler anticipates its lineup will include a full-size plug-in hybrid crossover SUV by that time as well.

What’s curious is that Chrysler’s announcement comes at a time that, as USA Today noted, many automakers are pulling the plug on fuel-efficient hybrid versions of big SUVs such as the Cadillac Escalade and Chevy Tahoe due to poor sales and lack of interest from buyers. The most common reason cited for the failure of such models is that they were just too expensive to justify the bonus of getting a few more miles to the gallon.

The takeaway for Chrysler is that the next-generation large hybrids it’s rolling out must be vastly more fuel efficient than their traditionally-powered counterparts (that looks to be the case, with the 75 mpge figure), and they must avoid being astronomically expensive (we’ll have to wait and see).

TIME

Better Fuel Efficiency Is Hurting the Most Efficient Cars of All

A Toyota Prius hybrid car.
Toyota Motors / AFP / Getty Images

Why aren’t sales higher for electric vehicles and hybrid plug-ins? A big reason has to do with the technology that EVs are supposed to replace, the internal combustion engine.

Last year, Nissan Leaf sales more than doubled the total from 2012. Sales for the entire plug-in category, which includes pure battery-powered vehicles like the Leaf and gas-electric hybrids such as the Chevy Volt, nearly doubled as well last year.

Even so, automakers have recently launched major incentives and price-cutting measures in order to win over potential buyers. And the reason they’re doing so is that sales, while on the rise, haven’t been as strong as many had hoped.

“EVs have been a disappointment, compared to what we expected,” Morgan Stanley analyst Ravi Shanker flatly said, according to Automotive News. “Their cost hasn’t come down enough. Batteries haven’t gotten better. And gas prices haven’t gone up like everyone expected. And at the same time, the automakers have done a great job of making the internal combustion engine better.”

Yes, some of the explanation for why electric vehicles aren’t selling better is directed squarely at plug-ins themselves. As skeptics have pointed out since EVs hit the marketplace, the limited driving range, high initial price, and/or slow and inconvenient charging procedure of plug-in cars are deal breakers for many drivers.

But as Shanker noted, underwhelming plug-in sales can also be partially explained by the other parts of the equation affecting consumer car-buying decisions. When gas prices are high, and the assumption is that they’ll keep on increasing, opting for an electrified car makes more and more sense as a long-term money saver. Likewise, when comparing the costs of commuting and running routine errands in a battery-powered car versus an old-fashioned gas guzzling SUV or sedan, the EV can seem like an especially savvy move for the household budget.

What’s hurting plug-in sales, however, is that gas prices aren’t sky high, and few experts today are forecasting the impending arrival of $5 per gallon like they were two years ago. The other factor is that gas guzzlers are disappearing, with new studies indicating that half of the new cars sold this year get 23 mpg or better, and new cars now averaging over 25 mpg thanks to improved efficiency in the internal combustion engine, as well as automakers (and buyers) generally embracing lighter, smaller cars.

Amazingly, car dealerships and sales staffers themselves often don’t seem sold on the wisdom of going electric. Secret shoppers from Consumer Reports just concluded a broad investigation of car dealerships and plug-ins, and during the course of visiting 85 dealerships, they found out that few dealership lots have decent selections of plug-ins, and that many sales employees aren’t knowledgeable about EV sales incentives and technology. Perhaps unsurprisingly, sales staffers who weren’t fully up to speed about plug-ins were particularly likely to try to steer customers away from EVs and toward traditional cars powered solely by internal combustion engines.

“Many seemed not to have a good understanding of electric-car tax breaks and other incentives or of charging needs and costs,” the CR report stated, referring to dealership sales staffers encountered by secret shoppers. “Many also didn’t seem to recognize that for people who intend to go with an electric car, the reasons for leasing are broader than for ordinary cars, including that you don’t have to wait until tax time to receive a generous tax incentive.”

If professional car sales employees don’t understand how all of this works, and can’t (or won’t) lay out a simple, sensible case for switching to a plug-in car, and can’t (or won’t) explain the smartest way to do so, imagine how the average consumer feels.

TIME energy

Could It Be? Gas Prices May Have Already Peaked for 2014

We’re still weeks away from Memorial Day and the peak travel days of summer. But it looks like gas prices mercifully won’t go much higher in 2014.

The commonly held theory is that gas prices rise hand in hand with both temperatures and consumer demand. In other words, gas prices tend to inch up in spring and peak in the height of summer. Many years, this theory holds true. For instance, the priciest day ever for gas in the U.S. was in July 2008, when the national average spiked over the course of a few short weeks, eventually hitting $4.11.

In more recent years, however, the summer spike hasn’t been quite as reliable. In 2012, the national average for a gallon of regular reached a summertime low of around $3.35 in early July, before shooting to over $3.80 in mid-September, after the peak summer travel period had passed. And the peak time for gas prices in 2012 was actually reached in early April, when the average topped $3.90.

Last year, the trajectory was a little different. Gas prices rose in early winter, then took the nearly unprecedented step of retreating in March, remaining in the vicinity of 3.50 through mid-summer. In any event, prices at the pump didn’t inch up slowly and steadily as the days grew warmer and longer, like the theory holds.

Analysts say that 2014 is shaping up as yet another year that blows a hole in the theory. As a recent NPR story noted, warmer days are here, the nation’s peak road trip period is approaching, and “predictably, the price of gasoline is rising.” The national average for a gallon of regular shot from $3.53 in late March to around $3.70 a month later.

But drivers will be relieved to hear that gas prices have already plateaued. As of Friday, the AAA Fuel Gauge Report indicated that the national average was $3.683, which is 12¢ more than a month earlier, but also 1¢ less than a week ago.

Most importantly, the experts have reason to believe that, based on crude production and demand domestically and around the world, prices at the pump are only going to go down from here. The Energy Information Administration forecast calls for a national average of $3.57 through September, and an overall average for 2014 of $3.45, which would be lower than the last two years.

“Prices could inch higher another week, but we’re definitely near the top for the year,” Brian Milne, energy editor of industry tracker Schneider Electric, told USA Today.

Likewise, the experts at GasBuddy wrote this week that their best guess is that “we’re starting to see clearer signs that we’re closer to top,” and that “the rally that started in February is nearing its peak.”

For the sake of the family vacation budget this summer, let’s hope we already got there.

TIME Environment

Cowboys And Indians Descend on Washington To Protest Pipeline

A coalition of ranchers, farmers and native tribes are staging protests against the Keystone XL pipeline on the National Mall this week with teepees, horses and a sacred fire that will burn for days

The National Mall in Washington, D.C., will look like a scene out of an Old Western this week, as the Cowboy and Indian Alliance holds a multi-day protest against the Keystone XL pipeline complete with teepees, horses and religious ceremonies.

The confederation of ranchers, farmers and members of Native American tribes kicks off the week of protest and civil disobedience Tuesday, Earth Day, with a horse ride on the Mall and the erection of a ceremonial teepee soundtracked by live music from the Indigo Girls.

The week’s activities will include religious rituals and a water ceremony “that will highlight the threat Keystone XL poses to water sources, especially the Ogallala Aquifer, along the pipeline route,” according to organizers. Events through the week are expected to draw about 200 participants, with a much larger group of 5,000 expected for a larger march on Saturday, Politico reports. Organizers said acts of civil disobedience and arrests will be part of the spectacle but wouldn’t offer details.

Protestors will not be sleeping in teepees on the Mall overnight because they did not receive the proper permits.

[Politico]

 

TIME Autos

Here Comes the Next Big Push to Get Drivers to Buy Electric Cars

Japan Nissan
Itsuo Inouye—AP

Everybody understands that one big upside of owning an electric car is that you’ll never have to spend a penny on gasoline. Now, you won’t have to pay for the electricity needed to charge the car either.

Thanks to a new “No Charge to Charge” initiative from Nissan, drivers who purchase or lease a new battery-powered Nissan Leaf will receive a special card that allows them to plug in at public charging stations at no cost whatsoever starting July 1. The program will be available in 25 U.S. markets, which have collectively accounted for 80% of all Leaf purchases thus far, and owners will be able to charge their vehicles for free for two years. Anyone who purchases outright or leases a new Leaf as of April 1 or later is eligible in the participating markets, which include many major cities along the West Coast, as well as Nashville, Houston, and Washington, D.C.

According to the U.S. Department of Energy’s FuelEconomy.gov site, a Nissan Leaf owner can expect to pay an average of $550 in “fuel cost” annually, based on driving 15,000 miles per year. So Nissan’s program would seem to be the equivalent of a $1,100 bonus for buyers. Whether or not an owner actually realizes such a return will depend a lot on how easy it is to use the public charging stations where plugging in is free. Most electric car owners charge their vehicles at home at night, and Nissan isn’t going to pitch in with any portion of your house’s electricity bill.

Even if “No Charge to Charge” offers less of a return that it initially seems like at first glance, the program obviously makes it more enticing—and more cost-effective—to buy a Leaf, so it could push some potential buyers off the fence. “The net effect here is it really increases the utility of the Leaf for the driver,” Norman Hajjar, research director for the electric-car app creator Recargo, said of Nissan’s new initiative, via the San Francisco Chronicle.

Nissan’s move comes at a muddled time in the electric car market, when Tesla is clearly the runaway success at the high end of the field, and when a wide range of less expensive EVs, plug-ins, and hybrids continue to vie for consumer attention. Despite the arrival of more and more plug-in models into the market, hybrids and electric cars remain a very small niche, representing around 3% of new car sales.

In a statement that’s about as definitive as you can get, Michelle Krebs, senior analyst with Edmunds.com, told the Detroit Free Press, “Plug-in vehicles aren’t going away, but how many will sell, at what price and using which technology, is yet to be determined.”

The Nissan Leaf ended 2013 on a high note, with its best sales month ever in December: 2,529 units sold, bringing the year’s total to 22,610, more than double the amount in 2012. But the disappearance of end-of-year incentives, combined with brutally cold weather that hurt all auto sales, resulted in a big electric car sale slump in early 2014. According to MarketWatch, there were 918 Chevy Volts and 1,252 Nissan Leafs sold in January 2014, compared to 2,392 Volts and 2,529 Leafs the previous month.

Leaf sales have rebounded with the onset of warmer weather, including 2,507 units sold in March, its second-best month ever, and a 12% increase over March 2013. For the first three months of 2014, meanwhile, sales of the gas-electric hybrid Volt decreased by 15% compared to the same period in 2013.

In any event, it’s clear that for any plug-in to achieve true mainstream appeal, some work needs to be done to convince the average driver of the cost-effectiveness of an electric car. Basically, the cars need to be cheaper to own and operate, or automakers need to do a better job of proving to consumers that these vehicles are indeed cheap to own and operate.

Throwing in two years’ worth of free charging, as Nissan is doing, certainly helps the equation. So does the tried-but-true practice of simply lowering the retail price. That’s what Nissan did in early 2013, which resulted in the automaker selling twice as many Leafs in 2013 that it did the previous year. And that’s what GM is planning for the next Chevy Volt, with the recent news that an entry-level Volt should hit the market for the 2016 model year with a list price starting at around $30,000—roughly $10,000 less than the base price of the original Volt.

TIME russia

Putin Warns Europe To Expect Gas Shortages If Ukraine Doesn’t Pay Debts

Russia's President Vladimir Putin delivers a speech during a session of the board of the FSB security service in Moscow April 7, 2014.
Russia's President Vladimir Putin delivers a speech during a session of the board of the FSB security service in Moscow April 7, 2014. Mikhail Klimetyev—RIA Novosti/Kremlin/Reuters

Russian President Vladimir Putin has sent a letter to European leaders asking them to help Ukraine pay its gas debts, which he claims amounts to over $35 billion, or they'll face the prospect of gas shortages

Russian President Vladimir Putin sent a letter to 18 European leaders Thursday saying that a dispute over Ukraine’s gas debt to Russia could impact gas distribution throughout the continent, urging them to offer financial assistance to the indebted country.

“The situation in urgent,” Putin’s press secretary, Dmitry Peskov, said of Ukraine’s debt. Putin’s letter stated that Ukraine’s failure to make payments to Gazprom, Russia’s gas extractor, will “completely or partially cease gas deliveries,” exacerbating tensions between the feuding countries.

Although the International Monetary Fund has already agreed to provide Ukraine with between $14 and $18 billion to avoid a default, that figure is far smaller than what Putin claims the country owes. In his letter, Putin says that Ukraine owes Russia $17 billion in gas discounts on top of a potential $18.4 billion debt due to a 2009 fine. He said that this debt grows by billions every day.

“No other country provided such support except Russia,” he said, according to Russian state media, adding that European partners offer Ukraine no real support, “only promises that are not backed up by real actions.”

Russia almost doubled its gas prices in Ukraine after President Viktor Yanukovych was ousted in February, amid an uprising against the country’s pro-Russian leadership.

TIME Autos

Beloved Little Car Amazingly Gets Smaller and Roomier at Same Time

Canadian International Auto Show
The all-new 2015 Honda Fit David Cooper—Toronto Star via Getty Images

The new version of the subcompact Honda Fit, hitting the market next week, is a little shorter than its predecessor. Somehow, though, there’s more space inside for passengers, including nearly five extra inches of legroom in the backseat.

The Honda Fit, introduced in the U.S. in the 2007 model year, has been redesigned in a third iteration that will go on sale in mid-April. There are plenty of improvements, including a bump up in horsepower (117 to 130), and a significant rise in fuel economy (averaging a class-leading 36 mpg, up from 31).

Perhaps the biggest change, however, is that this already small vehicle has gotten a bit smaller, at least on the outside. The 2015 Fit is 1.6 inches shorter than the previous model. At the same time, thanks to some creative design, there’s 4.9 more cubic feet of space in the passenger area, and the back seat is a whole heck of a lot less cramped, with 4.8 more inches of legroom.

How can a vehicle get smaller and simultaneously bigger? Well, it can’t. Essentially, the added passenger space comes at the sake of a decrease in the hatchback area. The wheelbase in the new Fit is 1.2 inches longer than the old model, and the new model has grown a smidge wider, both of which account for more passenger space. But the added space in between the tires means less room on either end, including a drop-off of five cubic feet of cargo space.

“Chalk it up to Honda deciding that seating space is ultimately more useful than cargo space,” a Car and Driver review said of why Honda made the change. The Fit’s signature “Magic Seat,” which lets owners fold seats flat and open up the space for bikes, suitcases, and such, remains in the new model and makes it easier to sacrifice some space devoted strictly reserved for cargo.

Speaking of reviews of the new Fit, most are glowing, with a few quibbles here and there. An Autoweek reviewer wrote that the 2015 Fit isn’t the most fun to drive or stylish vehicle in its category, but it’s the best value nonetheless. “For frugal practicality in a new car, the Fit remains your choice,” the review states, noting that anyone relegated to the backseat “will treasure their newfound legroom.”

WardsAuto played up the “positively luxurious proportions” of the new model’s expanded rear-seat legroom highlighted how comfortable it is to drive: “Steering feel is perfect: direct and heavy, but not so much that the wheel puts up a fight.”

USA Today is quick to point out that the Fit, like most Hondas, retains its value down the road better than its rivals. What’s more, the base sticker price of the new Fit is only $100 higher than the old version: The 2015 model starts at $15,525, plus delivery charges.

TIME Infrastructure

Harlem Building Collapse Highlights America’s Dangerously Old Gas Infrastructure

Firefighters respond to an explosion that leveled two apartment buildings in East Harlem.
Firefighters respond to an explosion that leveled two apartment buildings in East Harlem. John Minchillo—AP

The deadly explosion started with a leak in a gas pipe, one part of the nation's enormous and aging gas system

A gas leak in New York City morphed into a deadly explosion Wednesday, claiming at least three lives and destroying two buildings while injuring dozens of other residents. How old the pipe was that runs beneath that part of an old neighborhood—and exactly how the leak started—remain unclear. Some academics, however, say it’s clear that much of America’s aging gas infrastructure needs to be replaced, regardless of what happened in Harlem.

American’s use of natural gas goes back to the early 1900s, and some of the pipes funneling gas beneath city streets today go back that long, too. More than 6,000 miles of pipe run through New York’s five boroughs, carrying the natural gas that in turn provides 65% of the heat used by city residents. And the average age of that pipe, according to a report from the Center for an Urban Future, is 56 years old, much of it made of old materials that are more prone to leaks.

“Most of those leaks are small,” says Rob Jackson, a professor at Duke University and Stanford who has been trawling Northeastern cities for natural gas leaks. “But at some point, every leak is 100% natural gas. So potentially, every leak is dangerous.”

In the Roaring Twenties, men laying pipe were likely to be making paths for cast iron or wrought iron—like the faulty 83-year-old pipe that led to an explosion in Allentown, Pa., three years ago that killed five. By the mid-century, those men were laying steel, and that eventually gave way to the more advanced plastic pipe used today. “The system has infrastructure that was in its time state-of-the-art,” says Frank O’Sullivan, a director of research and analysis at MIT. “But frankly, is no longer.” Cast iron pipes are more brittle, producing potential for cracking to occur. Early steel pipes, meanwhile, are more prone to corrosion. About half the pipeline in New York is cast iron or unprotected steel.

“These things weren’t designed to last 100 years,” Jackson says.

Earlier this year, the journal of Environmental Science and Technology released a study on gas leaks in Washington, D.C., led by Jackson. His team drove over every bit of asphalt in the city with tubes sucking in air outside the vehicle. They found nearly 6,000 leaks over 1,500 miles of road, including a dozen potentially explosive pockets gathered in manholes—most of which the city still hadn’t addressed six months after he reported them in February 2013. Pockets of natural gas generally need an enclosed space in which to build before they become explosive, which happens when the methane makes up about 5% of the air mixture. Jackson notes in the report that despite advances, incidents involving natural gas pipelines still lead to an average of 17 deaths and $133 million in property damage each year.

Though most enforcement happens at the state level, the Department of Transportation’s Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration oversees the pipelines through which gas travels around the U.S. In 2011, following the Allentown explosion, Department officials issued a “call to action,” asking pipeline operators “to accelerate the repair, rehabilitation, and replacement of the highest-risk pipeline infrastructure,” such as aging cast and wrought iron pipe.

But that is a tall order with complicated economics. The enormous network of pipeline stretching across the U.S., O’Sullivan says, is so vast that at any given moment it contains enough gas for the entire U.S. population for three days. To get to American homes, natural gas must first be imported or taken out of the ground. The raw gas is gathered through pipelines, which take the raw material to processing centers where it is homogenized. It then flows through the equivalent of interstates toward so-called “city gates,” the points where the gas enters a local distribution system of smaller pipes—like the one run in New York City by Con Edison, which got a report of a gas leak before the explosion in Harlem.

It might seem like the answer is easy: companies like Con Edison should shell out and replace all the old pipeline. Those companies, though, are beholden to public utility commissions, who can determine how much the companies spend on such things, Jackson says, and public utility commissions often gauge success by providing customers with the smallest bills possible. “If the money were there,” he says, “the companies would do it very quickly,” and that may be where some more creative financing on the federal level could come in.

The notion of a natural gas system without any leaks is laughable to experts. And Jackson emphasizes that his research in cities like Washington, D.C. and Boston, is meant to help officials prioritize high-risk neighborhoods, which might be the older parts of the old towns in the Northeast. Though attempting to stop every leak isn’t helpful, he says, if companies address the real problem areas, it could mean saved lives and less greenhouse emissions in the atmosphere.

New York City politicians are already taking up the call. “With two reported deaths and over a dozen injuries, the human cost of inaction is clear,” City Councilman Ydanis Rodriguez said on Wednesday. “If the necessary funding for these repairs and improvements is not granted by the federal and state governments, tragic occurrences such as today’s may become more common in our city.”

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