Here’s the top question I’ve asked dealers, general managers and sales managers for the past three years: “How many customers have come into your dealership and asked when they can order a self-driving car?” My second question is simpler: “How many customers have asked whether ride-sharing software is included in the vehicle they are trying to acquire?” In both cases the answer is the same: None. No one has ever walked into any of the dealerships I’ve known and asked about buying a fully self-driving car or one they can rent out to total strangers when it’s not being used.
Considering that the media is still having both conversations about this claimed not-too-distant automotive future, one would think that someone, somewhere would be so excited about the possibilities that they’d be demanding these items for their next vehicle purchase. But, while many in the business media seem to be in love with these concepts — a love that in turn is driving our automakers to spend untold tens of billions of dollars in these two areas — no journalist has considered doing any real-time research on whether the public has any enthusiasm for them at all.
Again, I will go on record as saying I believe there will be a fairly large market coming for in-town self-driving cars — the 79 million Baby Boomers moving into retirement. In time a substantial number of them will not be as ambulatory as they are today; and, when that day comes, given the choice between a nursing home or a self-driving car for around town, to keep one’s freedom a self-driving car it will be. On the other hand, a self-driving car that someone can jump into, set the navigation system for an address in Los Angeles — say the Los Angeles Farmers Market next to CBS Studio City — and the car takes you there with no involvement on your part? That’s a fantasy, and it’s unlikely ever to happen in our lifetime.
Why? First, because our government is never going to spend the money to improve our highways to the point to where these vehicles will work properly. Second, who wants it? Why sit around doing nothing in a car driving to LA when you can do the same thing in a jetliner and be there in three hours instead of 24?
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The same business media has often questioned the electric car movement’s viability; to prove the point, the era of the modern electric car is now half a decade old, and yet fewer than a half million electric vehicles were sold last year. That’s a far cry from the 1 million electric car sales that the most optimistic manufacturers claimed should have happened some time ago. So the business media can’t dedicate enough print space to yet another story detailing how self-driving cars, ride sharing and Uber-ization are where the world is headed; yet, though hundreds of thousands of electric cars have been sold, journalists ignore the fact that those products’ sales momentum is building. Albeit slowly.
Last year, when Tesla opened the floodgates to deposits for the right to purchase one of its upcoming Model 3s, and then claimed that almost 400,000 individuals put up $1,000 to make it so, it was big news for that week. After that, the EV market was treated as if it were, again, no big deal. However, if — combined with the momentum of other manufacturers —Tesla stays in business and manages to achieve its production plans for 2018, the world may well see the first year of 1 million electric cars sold.
And that still won’t amount to a hill of beans as a percentage of new vehicles sold worldwide. Then again, as mentioned, absolutely no one has asked when a fully self-driving car is actually going to come to market, though from many stories one would think people would be champing at the bit and lining up to get one.
No More Gas Engines, Ever?
Last week at the Automotive News Europe Congress held in Barcelona, Gilles Normand, senior VP of electric cars for Renault, spoke on the future of alternative energy vehicles. It was pointed out that, because of the country’s continuing air quality problems, China is demanding that more electric cars be built and put on their highways. India, meanwhile, has stated that all vehicles sold by 2030 must be electric. (Possibly they should worry about having roads to drive on first, but you get the point.) Still, Normand pointed out that even Morgan Stanley has predicted that electric cars will continue their forward momentum and comprise 16 percent of the entire global market by 2030. But Normand had one more major fun fact up his sleeve: 99 percent of all of Renault’s buyers of electric cars have stated that they will not be going back to one with an internal combustion engine. Ever.
The day that I read that, Chevrolet’s local Public Relations firm wrote to let me know that the new Chevrolet Bolt was in town and available for a review. Now here’s an affordable electric with a range of 238 miles on a single charge, or double the best I’ve reviewed to this point — which was the current generation of the exceptional BMW i3. However, so many exceptional new vehicles are coming to market right now, I couldn’t slot the Bolt until early August.
But the news kept getting better: The next day, Volkswagen brand chief Herbert Diess said that the company had agreed to put its “ID buzz” concept electric into production, possibly as a 2020 model. That probably means nothing to you, unless you know that this is the latest retro-incarnation of the famed Hippie van of the 1960s.
Yes, GM has built a Tesla Model 3 fighter; it has a better range and is priced similarly. And, because GM hasn’t yet hit its federal quota, the Bolt’s first buyers will find the $7,500 direct income tax credit available. (Tesla’s successful volumes mean that many waiting on a Model 3 will not receive that much tax credit.) Yet the Chevrolet is off to a slow start in terms of purchases, and there have apparently been few if any defections from the Tesla waiting list to buy the Chevy today instead of waiting for the Model 3. But the VW van could change all that; it appeals to the same impulse buyer, or early adapter, as the Tesla does. One of the publications even suggested that Volkswagen was planning to use a 100-kilowatt-hour battery onboard, which potentially could give this new microbus a cruising range close to 400 miles.
Or not. It all depends on the efficiency of the electric motor and AC in that final determination. As pointed out before, the Tesla Model S with the 80kWh battery had an approved range of 265 miles. That means it travels 3.3 miles for each kWh. In the past two years, reviews had the all-electric Kia Soul delivering a whopping 4.2 miles per kWh of battery, including running the air conditioning at freeway speeds. Recently the updated BMW i3 delivered around 4 miles per kWh on the freeway with the air conditioning running.
Therefore, if the VW retro-microbus delivers efficiencies like the Kia and BMW do, then it will have a 400-mile range; if its efficiency is like a Tesla’s, adjust that range downward to around 330 miles.
And that conversation brought in all the skeptics. How many hours will it take to recharge this new all-electric microbus? One gentleman said he read that it took around 17 hours with a 240-volt fast charge unit. Another wrote wondering how functional that would be on a long trip, and so on. So here it is, one last time: You don’t buy an electric car to take to the highways to see America. They are designed for short runs around cities and, soon, for midrange runs between towns. The average person drives 15,000 miles a year in major metropolitan areas, which works out to around 289 miles each week. That’s 41 miles per day, so a 120-volt slow charge unit will easily top off your battery for the next day’s use.
For more robust use than that, I would suggest sticking with a gas-powered automobile. If you need a truck for work, no electric car is going to take its place. But most today have two cars; electrics have worked as second vehicles for some time and are becoming decent alternatives. At least to some.
This is how disconnected we can be about some things. Nobody has a truly working Level 5 self-driving car, although untold tens of billions are being spent on the research to make them a reality. At the same time, I can’t find where one consumer has actually asked to buy one or when they would be available — and yet nobody seems to doubt that these futuristic vehicles are viable.
On the other hand, electric car sales have gone up substantially every year for the past five years, and they are about to make a huge jump in quality and range while their prices remain static. And yet it seems that no one believes that trend will last.
Oh, and, while I was writing this column, Porsche stated that in five years’ time, half of its worldwide production will be fully electric vehicles.
I’m guessing that the 79 million Baby Boomers, most of whom have become die-hard capitalists in their lifetime, mostly wish they could have been hippies in 1967 Haight-Ashbury, during the Summer of Love. They will never get that wish in their lifetime, at least in this universe; but Volkswagen’s upcoming electric retro-Microbus may do for them what the Camaro and Challengers did for others. We will still need a plastic surgeon, however, to restore hair and eliminate wrinkles.
Copywright 2017 Ed Wallace
Ed Wallace is a recipient of the Gerald R. Loeb Award for business journalism, conferred by the Anderson School of Business at UCLA. He reviews new cars every Friday morning at 7:20 on Fox Four’s “Good Day” and hosts the top-rated talk show, “Wheels,” 8:00 to 1:00 Saturdays on 570 KLIF AM. E-mail: EdWallace@gmail.com