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Prius Marching, Not Charging, Towards the Future

Despite sales slump, new model could revive Toyota hybrid.

by on Mar.02, 2009

Third-generation Prius needs to charge up a hybrid market that's nearly collapsed.

The third-generation Prius needs to charge up a hybrid market that has nearly collapsed.

Toyota had its share of electrifying announcements this year, in keeping with the green glow automakers are trying to shine on an otherwise gloomy season. Many headline-grabbers were cars you literally do need to charge up, from GM’s Cadillac Converj concept to Toyota’s own FT-EV electric minicar.

With the 2010 Prius, however, Toyota shows it isn’t flinching in its steely-eyed march toward annual sales of one million plug-free hybrids globally “by the early 2010s.”

Contrasting with the claims that lithium is right around the corner, Toyota’s flagship is staying with tried-and-true nickel-metal hydride batteries. That’s in keeping with Toyota’s cautious plans for 500 plug-in hybrids to be leased late this year for “market and engineering analysis,” as the company states. Regardless of how hard some rivals charge toward plug-in propulsion, Toyota marches steadily forward with what might now be called conventional cordless hybrids.

It’s not a march without stumbles. Total U.S. Prius sales barely tallied 159,000 this past year, compared to 181,000 in calendar 2007. The drop was most precipitous over the past few months as falling fuel prices coincided with the collapse in the economy, credit and car sales overall. The 12% year-on-year decline in Prius volume was not as bad as the 18% decline market wide. The slowdown is enough to have some wags wondering if hybrid technology will get no farther than a small, granola-fed plateau rather than climb the hills of real growth. (more…)

Design Sustainability and the Race to Green

Pasadena Art Center summit features car design experts plus a green racer girl.

by on Feb.27, 2009

Chevrolet Volt: Wishing will make it so?

Chevrolet Volt: Wishing will make it so?

The Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, California is a storied institution that has brought forth numerous automotive styling luminaries, including Wayne Cherry, J Mays, Henrik Fisker and Chris Bangle. For the past several years, the Art Center has hosted a Sustainability Summit that explores the role of design in addressing key environment challenges.

Among the Center’s graduates is Bryan Nesbitt, General Motor’s vice president of design for North America, who opened a panel discussion of what might lie around the many curves ahead on the road to sustainable mobility. Perhaps predictably, that panel — which included Bill Reinert, manager for advanced vehicle technology at Toyota USA, and John Waters, president of Bright Automotive and formerly of GM’s EV-1 team — didn’t agree on what’s just around the bend, let alone farther down the road.

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Obama Commitment Challenges Auto Makers

Speech outlines a hopeful and potentially helpful agenda.

by on Feb.25, 2009

Is Obama’s auto vision a mere academic dream or actually production possible?

Is Obama’s auto vision a mere academic dream or actually production possible?

In what some observers are calling this year’s real “state of the union,” President Barak Obama challenged Congress and the country to join in a national recovery effort. While he covered many areas as he ranged from criticizing the nation for short-term thinking to trying to inspire a collective effort, several of the president’s points bear on the auto industry. One of these was indeed a finger directly pointed at auto makers, or at least some of them.

“As for our auto industry, everyone recognizes that years of bad decision-making and a global recession have pushed our auto makers to the brink,” the president says. While noting that government should not “protect [auto makers] from their own bad practices,” Obama commits his administration to “the goal of a re-tooled, re-imagined auto industry that can compete and win.”

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New CO2 Rules Are Mixed Blessing for Automakers

Benefits of one national standard may come at cost.

by on Feb.24, 2009

New Rules Would Limit CO2 emissions.

New Rules Would Limit CO2 emissions.

The White House energy and climate czar, Carol Browner, has just given the clearest indications to date that the Obama Administration plans to press ahead on both regulating CO2 emissions under the Clean Air Act and on developing a stronger program for reducing emissions from cars and light trucks.

Speaking to reporters during a National Governors Association meeting over the weekend, Browner said that the Environmental Protection Agency is in the process of reevaluating its obligations about whether or not to treat CO2 and other global warming gases as official “pollutants” that would trigger regulatory action. Quoted in a Dow Jones Newswire story as saying that EPA “will make an endangerment finding,” Browner’s statements have sweeping implications for not only the auto sector, but also for power plants and any other industry that emits greenhouse gases.

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Where’s the next Bob Lutz?

It takes gut instinct, whether you're building muscle cars or green machines.

by on Feb.17, 2009

Lutz with the original Chevrolet Volt concept vehicle

Lutz with the original Chevrolet Volt concept vehicle

For years, the auto industry’s biggest complaint about fuel economy standards was, “You can’t make us build cars our customers don’t want to buy.”

Of course, getting customers to buy their cars — or enough of them, anyway — has been a cause of Detroit 3 anxiety for some time, even when fuel economy pressure was minimal. Lutz’s job at GM was to put the passion back into the product, and at that he had some success even though larger forces were inexorably bearing down on the Detroit 3 and now the entire industry.

Announcing his retirement recently, Lutz remarked how he felt that his talents weren’t the right ones for the times, which bring much greater pressure to reshape cars for lower fuel consumption and CO2 emissions. In an AP interview, Lutz said that the new situation “doesn’t really play to my greatest skills, which were perhaps more in the intuitive, emotional area with sort of a sense for what the market would want.”

In reality, intense customer-oriented skills will be crucial more than ever. The difference is that they’ll have to be applied with a much different understanding of what the car can be about. It’s not Lutz’s talents that are passé; rather, it’s his attitudes about what’s important and what will come to be — indeed, is already starting to be — valued by a new generation of car buyers.

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