Analysis & Synthesis

With their one-week test drive of a Think City well under way, we sat down with Timo Häkkänen of the SELL Student Games last Friday to see how he was getting along. Eager to hear how an electric vehicle novice, such as Timo, would take to driving a fully electric car, we asked Timo to fill us in on his experiences and the lessons hands-on experience had taught him.

Timo and Hille Häkkinen (SELL's Environmental Issues Specialist) with the Think

Setting out at the beginning of the week having never sat behind the wheel of an electric car, although being relatively familiar with the technology and its development over the course of the past decade, Timo was initially surprised by how quickly he took to driving the car. Thus, Timo was not surprised to hear that even a novice driver such as the Games’ Accreditation Officer, who had only been driving for a few months, would find the car as easy to drive as he did.

Timo’s first impressions of the car were of its silent ignition and, apart from a slight humming sound, its nearly noiseless operation which, Timo noted, certainly sets it apart from fuel-powered cars and required a bit of getting used to at first.  Otherwise, Timo found himself growing accustomed to driving the car surprisingly quickly. Timo mentioned that, being used to cars with manual transmissions, the car’s automatic transmission was the only aspect which took a bit of adjusting to.

Having become quickly accustomed to driving an EV Timo’s first days with the Think were made even smoother thanks to its compactness and agility. Comparing the car’s size and handling to a Smart Car, Timo commented on how well-suited the car had been to his tasks, which had him constantly in need of a place to park the car to make brief stops in, at times, less than ideal surroundings. One such task took Timo on a drive around the Leppävaara area late at night posting signs to guide competitors and audiences to venues in the area. Therefore, Timo found himself needing to make frequent stops and the Think’s compact size helped make certain that he would never be left without a spot to park in.

Throughout the course of these first five days, Timo covered a total distance of 300km driving the car for three hours a day. Timo’s early concerns over the car’s range were put to rest following his first overnight, charge at the same garage where Timo and the other SELL staff members regularly park their cars, which easily lasted through a full day of driving.

Join us later this week for a final interview with Timo!

The beginning of March saw the launch of the Eco Urban Living initiative’s Think City test-drive contest, offering an exciting opportunity to see firsthand what the future of car culture holds in store. The aspiring test-drivers were asked to make their best arguments for why they should be given the chance to spend a week exploring the potential of EV technology. Entries streamed in over the course of the next month from everyone from electric vehicle and car enthusiasts, eager to try out the latest wave in automotive technology, to environmentally-minded young people, eager to do their part in reducing CO2 emissions.

One entry ultimately stood out from among these varied and persuasive hopefuls. The contest panel, following careful deliberation, ultimately selected the entry submitted by Hille Häkkinen & Timo Häkkänen of the SELL Student Games and announced the winner at the Kino Tapiola cinema on April 18th. The SELL Student Games’ strong ties to both a local and international student community bring an opportunity to help spread word of the test-drive week’s experiences to this crucial audience of future drivers. Furthermore, the contest panel also saw in the SELL Games’ an excellent opportunity to increase the environmental benefit of the test-drive week by providing the Games’ with an all-electric alternative means of transportation during the games.

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On Friday, May 11th, we met with the Timo and Hille at Valmet’s offices in Otaniemi to officially hand the keys to the Think City over to the enthusiastic winners. After taking the Think City for a quick first spin around the building, Timo sat down with us to give some background about the SELL Student Games, how they will be using the car during the games, and a little about his own expectations.

The SELL Student Games are a multi-sport event open to students, and recently graduated alumni, from all over the world. The Games, first organized in 1923, are named after the first letters of the host countries’ names, in their native tongues: Finland (Suomi), Estonia, Latvia & Lithuania. The Games’ organizers have adopted sustainability as the major theme of this year’s games, the 28th Summer Games, and strive to ensure environmental sustainability in all aspects of the Games, including: transportation, food, and purchases, while also providing environmental education to staff and volunteers.

Timo told us that they first heard about the Eco Urban Living initiative, and the Think City test-drive contest, from a friend from the Aalto University’s cycling club, who suggested that the contest might be a great way for them to take yet another stride in increasing the games’ sustainability. By using the fully-electric Think City over the course of the games, as well as in the preceding days of organizing and pre-arrangement, to transport equipment and make the other countless journeys integral to keeping the even running smoothly, the SELL Games will significantly reduce the total emissions resulting from its activities.

Timo, as Event Coordinator, will be using the car to travel between the various event locations across Espoo and Helsinki, a purpose which would otherwise have been filled by a gas-fuelled car. Timo, who was already well acquainted with the basics of electric travel, is eager to get behind the wheel of an EV and see how it performs when faced with the logistical challenges of the non-stop travel which the coming week will certainly demand.

While Timo was well aware of the worries shared by many prospective electric vehicle buyers related to battery capacity and whether they would be left stranded on the side of the road, commonly known as “range-anxiety”, Timo was confident that his plans to charge the car overnight, and plug it in during longer lay-overs through the day, would be more than enough to cover the distances he will be traveling.

Make sure to follow Timo’s test-drive throughout this week here at eco-urbanliving.com! Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter to make sure that you don’t miss Timo’s updates from the road!

You can find the SELL Student Games at sell2012.fi and like them on Facebook at facebook.com/sell2012.

The Chinese government’s strong support of the country’s burgeoning electric vehicle industry has rarely been more evident than at the 2012 Beijing Auto China exhibition and the Electric Vehicle Symposium 26, held in Los Angeles this week. The Auto China exhibition stood in stark contrast to recent European and North American auto shows in the number of automakers introducing new EV models or variants of existing EVs. Whereas recent shows in Detroit and Geneva have served as evidence of a marked decrease in many global automakers’ EV enthusiasm, the Beijing show hosted EV launches from: Daimler, introducing the first product of its partnership with Chinese automaker BYD; BMW, debuting an open-top version of its i8 EV; and Volkswagen, launching its Chinese-market directed Lavida EV.  Alongside these familiar international names, the Beijing show also featured a strong contingent of local automakers unveiling new EV related projects and technology, both in cooperation with western automakers, such as BYD and Daimler or FAW and Volkswagen, as well as independent projects from Great Wall Motors among other rising companies.

Coming a mere week after the 2012 Auto China show wrapped, the presence of 30 Chinese EV companies at Electric Vehicle Symposium 26 in Los Angeles seemed to confirm the trend observed by many industry experts in the wake of Beijing; China is now leading global EV development. However, recent analysis and expert opinion has cast some doubt on the wisdom of China’s enthusiastic EV push. A recent report in the Economist pointed to the failure of promising companies, such as the Warren Buffet backed BYD, to fully realize the expectations set for them, noting “anemic” sales and plunging profits. From the perspective of market analysts, the failure of Chinese automakers to spur and significant consumer demand despite the overwhelming state support they’ve received and the subsidies and tax breaks offered to consumers is serious cause for concern.

Beyond the impact which weak consumer demand has had on Chinese automakers’ profits, industry analysts have also voiced serious concern regarding the failure of many Chinese EV demonstration pilots to come anywhere close to fulfilling the initial targeted EV capacities set out for the end of 2011. Furthermore, a report by Reuters addresses an equally pressing concern; a lack of sufficient charging infrastructure to support even the limited number of EVs already in circulation in many of the pilot cities, such as Shenzhen.

This failure to meet the ambitious goals set out by the state government a mere three years ago has cast into doubt the future of, not only, China’s role in the future of the EV industry but the global drive for EV development. However, industry experts have noted signs of promise in encouraging recent developments, primarily in the Chinese government’s reformed EV industry support plan released in late April, 2012. In this plan, China’s State Council announced steps to accelerate the promotion of pure EV and plug-in hybrid development while also adding non-plug-in hybrid vehicles and increasing the efficiency of gas-fueled IC engines to its list of priorities. Furthermore, the new plan also eased the conditions governing foreign investment and cooperation with local Chinese EV producers; no longer requiring the handover of key EV technologies, a stipulation which was largely credited for sowing seeds of disinterest among many foreign automakers exploring the Chinese market last year.  The broadened scope and less restrictive attitude evinced in these new policy guidelines do not, however, signal a reluctance to continue EV development on the Chinese government’s behalf. Despite its slow start the Chinese government continues to aim high, setting its sights at a target of five million EVs on Chinese roads by 2020.

The Chinese government’s continued support for the future of its EV industry coupled with the more lenient restrictions have served to spark the interest of western auto industry mainstays such as Renault and Nissan Motor CEO Carlos Ghosn, who felt that the government’s new stance was a strong statement in support of the EV industry’s development and would serve a strong match for his own companies’ EV ambitions. Alongside the renewed interest of foreign automakers, local automakers such as SAIC Motor and Dongfeng Motor Group, who have pledged to invest $1.9 billion and $441 million respectively, have also recommitted their efforts to cooperating with global automakers.

While the EV industry seems destined to continue to struggle through a period of slow momentum building for the foreseeable future, the continued support of strong commercial actors, such as Nissan, BMW and VW, paired with strong public support, from state and municipal authorities around the globe, seem to leave significant hope for the future of the global EV industry and its potential to impact the fate of our environment.

Read more:

Blog post on Daimler-BYD EV launch

Autoblog post on BMW’s i8 Spyder

Autoblog post on VW’s Lavida launch

China Daily report on EVS 26

Economist article

Reuters report on lagging Chinese EV industry

Post on the Wall Street Journal’s China Real Time Report blog

Green Autoblog post on Chinese goals for 2020

Further details on the Chinese State Council’s new EV policy at Green Car Congress

Businessweek/Bloomberg article on China’s elusive dreams of EV dominance

A quick glance around the floor of this year’s Geneva auto show reveals a considerably reduced electric vehicle presence at many major automakers’ stands when compared with the considerably more bullish displays present in recent years. The state of the display floor in Geneva certainly serves as an apt summary of the auto industry’s ongoing debate regarding its future. While there is little dispute over the necessity of a shift to emissions free modes of transport, the timeframe in which this transition will take place is far more ambiguous. As Europe’s auto industry faces a stark future, many major automakers are reconsidering their entrance into the electric vehicle market.

While the Geneva auto show is typically an opportunity for Europe’s auto industry to bathe in media attention and introduce its wildest concept cars and upcoming models, this year’s show has been colored by a distinct lack of enthusiasm on the part of many auto industry chiefs. Sergio Marchionne, chief executive of Chrysler and Fiat and president of the European Automobile Manufacturers’ Association, repeated calls for the European Union to provide assistance to car companies who, Mr. Marchionne believes, will need to cut capacity in Europe by 20 percent in the near future. According to analysts, the European auto industry’s woes stem from a markedly reduced demand as Europe’s auto market has reached the point of saturation. Without measures similar to those employed by European governments in 2008 and 2009 which saw governments offering significant tax subsidies and incentives to consumers for the purchase of new vehicles, analysts fear that demand will remain stagnant and car companies’ unused capacity will continue to bleed losses.

While early signs of this downturn are already apparent in some parts of Europe, with automakers Fiat and Opel shutting down factories last year and Saab declaring bankruptcy, this decline has yet to swallow the entire industry. Demand for luxury cars appears to be less susceptible to the forces of economic downturn, with Volkswagen AG and BMW predicting continued sales growth for the year, largely on the strength of increased demand in China and the US.

Despite the negative impact the downturn has had on the European auto industry, there remain reassuring signs for the survival of the electric vehicle market among those automakers, such as Volkswagen and BMW, who have managed to retain a strong position. Volkswagen began the Geneva auto show by announcing its plans for a “fundamental ecological restructuring”, one which would see the company overhaul its entire organizational ethos to one which prioritizes environmental and sustainability related considerations. Volkswagen’s decision to invest two thirds of its €62.4 billion investment program, from 2012-2016, into “more efficient vehicles, powertrains and technologies as well as environmentally compatible production.” was seen as a strong display of the automaker’s commitment to developing low-carbon technologies. BMW, meanwhile, introduced a new hybrid version of its popular 3 series vehicles as well as displaying prototypes of its upcoming i3, its first fully electric vehicle, and i8 vehicles, a plug-in hybrid sports car. BMW is expected to launch its i-series of fully electric and plug-in hybrid vehicles in 2013, with Norbert Riethofer, the company’s chief executive, describing the company’s EV project as a long-term project which demands endurance from automakers.

However, even outside of those luxury automakers with the leeway to continue exploration of the burgeoning EV sector, executives such as Carlos Ghosn of Renault-Nissan and Dieter Zetsche of Daimler also reiterated their belief in the necessity of electric vehicle development and their continued persistence in furthering this technology despite current market fluctuations. Jérôme Stoll, executive vice president for sales and marketing at Renault, urged automakers to reconsider their approaches to selling EVs, noting that Renault had had to reassess the ideal consumer range for its EVs, targeting urban commuters and not long-distance drivers, for instance, as well as ensuring that car buyers are more well informed regarding battery range and the various potential limitations of EVs.

The pragmatic optimism on display among Europe’s struggling, budget automakers is also reflected in the number of young SMEs entering the EV market at present. A number of small and mid-size firms from all across Europe, including: France, Italy, Austria and Switzerland, have jumped at the opportunity to help pioneer the low-carbon vehicle sector.  The niche products introduced by these SMEs serve as an indication of the potential which the EV sector continues to hold for any number of future entrants of a variety of sizes, all of which will be necessary to ensure the sector’s success in the future.

Read more:

Auto Overcapacity Gives Leaders Another Issue to Ponder (NY Times)
Europe suffering from oversupply of cars, Vauxhall boss warns (Guardian)
Europe's Cars Lose Traction (Wall Street Journal)
Car makers battle to escape Europe's slow lane (Reuters)
Volkswagen Aims to Be Green and Mean (Wall Street Journal, The Source blog)
A More Circumspect View of Electric Cars (NY Times)
SMEs launch electric car push (news24.com)
Carlos Ghosn, the Undisputed Electric Car Leader in Geneva (Plugincars.com)

Activities in the electric vehicle demonstration project, established on April 23rd, 2011, centered in Shanghai’s Jiading district have been slowly building up steam over the course of the past ten months. The district welcomed the first members of its EV fleet back in May of 2011, a group of eight area residents who became Shanghai’s first private owners of pure EVs. In the months following the founding of the Jiading electric vehicle district, a number of major international companies have dedicated their support to the pilot program.

Contributions include GM’s delivery of Chevrolet Volt’s to serve as pilot vehicles for area residents and fleet owners, such as car rental giant Hertz, providing a fleet of vehicles for use in the demonstration. Companies outside of vehicle manufacturers and providers have also displayed an interest in helping to develop the districts EV support infrastructure, with GE installing charging stations and providing upgrades to the electrical grid.

Then in January, 2012, authorities announced the continued, active expansion of demonstration activities. Plans for the coming year include: expanding the number of installed charging stations to 2000; incentivizing private EV purchases; building up public interest for participating in demonstration activities; exploring potential business models, in leasing and sales markets; and reaching the target fleet size of 1000 electric vehicles. Additionally, stakeholders announced the addition of 30 fully electric buses into the district’s public transit system.

While the demonstration project was rumored to have experienced some minor setbacks last summer, the participation of a number of internationally proven companies invested in EV development, coupled with the continued commitment of local officials are a strong indication of the future project’s promising future potential.

Read more: Post on the formation of the demonstration zone at eco-urbanliving.com

Liberation Daily article on first EV owners

GM press release regarding Volt

Environment News Service report on GE & Hertz

Electric Vehicle Authority post on GE & Hertz

Report on 2012 plans

Report on coming activities (In Chinese)

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