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IMG_4368As fortune would have it I was able to spend much time on two of my favorite things recently: innovative technology and cars. The two have met, the world of cars is transforming in a big way, and my not-so-new-anymore writing charter for KITCO News allowed me to study it up front and close. In the process, I believe to have unraveled the mystery of where the industry, and we as frequent users of cars, are going. After many hours of conversations with people from all camps, and after even more hours of visiting events and reading online material, here is my prediction on what the next twenty or so years will look like:

  • We will not run out of gas. Yes, more people use gas, but more people use less gas than before. Ironically, the melting ice caps will allow us to drill for oil in even more places.
  • Consequently, the internal combustion engine (ICE) will continue to live on for quite a while.
  • However, since we keep changing climate by living the way we do, there is still an urgent need to implement new technologies that reduce our carbon footprint.
  • These new technologies don’t necessarily have to be “sustainable” in the beginning, but using what is always available instead of continuing to burn up precious resources must be the ultimate goal.
  • The majority of consumers is not in the “pioneer” or “early adopter” camps when it comes to changing.
  • This is bad news for any car that’s battery powered. A large amount of people will remain sympathetic but on the fence for a very long time, especially since there is no immediate need to change.
  • Small battery powered cars will continue to struggle with range for a while, meaning they will mostly be used for commuting only. Their market is further narrowed down by the necessity to keep a second car, so to a lot of people they make no sense economically.
  • Large battery powered cars like the Tesla will continue to be expensive for quite some time. Tesla’s Model S has replaced the Toyota Prius as an avatar to a specific demographic subgroup of society: people with a certain level of education, enough money and an overall “sustainable” and “organic” approach to life. Plus, in some cases, the desire to show it.
  • The majority of car producers will move towards designing new models in ways that will allow for an easy swap of power trains.  Customers will not only be able to select between different conventional engine sizes (gasoline and diesel) but also CNG, hybrid, plug-in hybrid, battery EV and fuel cell EV.
  • This “menu” approach will put them at a distinct cost and acceptance advantage over EV-only concepts like Tesla or the new BMW i-line of cars. In fact, I am ready to predict that unless Tesla keeps pushing the envelope their growth will flatline within a few years. Note that the “new” Tesla X scheduled to come out next year is essentially the same car.

IMG_4316Bold predictions? Perhaps. Except they are not, apart from the last bullet, maybe. The above statements are a -preliminary- assembly of puzzle pieces I gathered as explained in my my opening paragraph. Elon Musk has so far remained elusive to me but I hope to be able to confront him with this scenario one day. As to the other manufacturers, VW, Mercedes-Benz, Nissan, Ford and Toyota are all rolling out “menu” cars already, with other brands close behind. So it isn’t actually a prediction I am making, it’s an observation of what is already happening.

Meaning the future is now, and I like it!

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Another week again? Creating one article per week doesn’t sound impressive but it sure is a lot of work. The final product being just the tip of the iceberg; what you don’t see is the research for and verification of sometimes small details – an application, a market share, if you all want it to be correct then the research never ends. People like John Voelcker, last week’s interview partner, usually produce three articles per day. Sounds like fun but it’s hard work, especially when you run a business during daytime like I do. Anyway, enough of the whining.

Here is a link to this weeks article, “A Road Map to Technology Metals“, if you are interested.

The article just came out today – it was supposed to be released last week but neither I nor my editor liked it, so we swapped it with the Voelcker interview. Instead of breaking the topic down in its three logical sections I had crammed them all in one, and the result was rather confusing. I am glad we scrapped it, the new version was a lot easier to write and it sure is easier to read and digest (I hope). I spent a lot of time creating a slide on the use of technology metals in cars but KITCO embeds images, and the chart is rather hard to read. So as a bonus to everyone who bothers coming over to this blog, here is the high res version of the slide (click on it to open):

TMI Slides Part 1

IMG_0076In other news, Tom Moloughney, the man who drove the most electric miles worldwide to-date (outside of factory test drivers, perhaps), had a horrific crash in which he was injured, and his beloved BMW ActiveE was totaled. Tom is also an extremely nice guy, moderates BMW’s Facebook groups on the ActiveE and the i3, runs a very good Italian restaurant, and recently gave me an interview on a consumer’s perspective of the EV market. It will be published next week. Best wishes to Tom and a speedy recovery. Check out his blog if you like, it is all around interesting.

Where will I go from here? I’ve been covering the electric vehicle market extensively this month and will now move on to hydrogen (H2) technology. Three people are already queued up for interviews next week and I am very excited to learn more about this facet of the industry. It also looks like a contest is beginning to brew. Some of the H2 people announced they’d throw the glove down, and prove their technology is superior. So stay tuned, the journey continues.

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BMW i3 unveiling NYCA week ago my first blog in my new “Tech Metals Insider” series appeared on KITCO News, and I am being told that it did quite well. Phew. As you can read there I was invited to witness BMW’s launch of their new “i3” “Megacity” car in New York City. My KITCO blog is geared at the use of specialty metals in high tech applications, but of course an event like this has many more facets, one of which I would like to highlight in this blog. Don’t worry, not a blog on cars yet again, more a blog on how Germans approach markets more often than they should.

BMW, like many German companies, is strongly driven by engineers. And these two words, “German” and “engineers” in one sentence signify what was to be observed on the sidelines of the event. Here are a few examples:

  • Designed to be a “Megacity” car, BMW’s executives touted the i3 repeatedly as the “ideal mode of transportation” in large cities. It is not. Public transportation is. New York also rolled out a bicycle program recently that appears to be very well accepted. It helps people move around quickly, and it decongests the roads.
  • When Megacity people travel they rent a car, or use a car sharing service. Why pay parking fees for a car you don’t need?
  • So the i3 really is a commuter car, not a city car. Totally different profile.
  • When asked about a missing spare tire BMW’s executives explained that adding a spare tire would have added “dead weight” and so they decided to do without. “But we have addressed the issue”, was added at the end, and in a small voice. Inevitably, the reporter’s follow-up was: “oh ok, so the car has run-flat tires?” – “No, but we have addressed the issue” – uncomfortable silence. Eventually, we learned that “we addressed the issue” means “you can drive home and call roadside assistance”. No further details were given. This may work when you live downtown Manhattan but it sure doesn’t when you’re commuting (see above) and are left immobile in a dark side street (which happened to me in my electric car, albeit for different reasons). No roadside assistance in almost two hours until I abandoned my car.
  • Part of this thinking is a “study” that proves most of their customers only drive about 40 miles per day. That study, of course, was conducted sampling the customers of BMW’s “ActiveE” program, a purpose built electric car geared solely at commuters, most of which own a second car for all the other things they’re doing. How empiric is that sample, I wonder?

The list could go on for a while but the point is made, and it is this: do you sell what you make or do you make what you sell? Engineers want to sell what they make. Marketers want to make what they sell. I am convinced BMW’s sustainability model is the way to go, it is bold, it is admirable, and it doesn’t deserve to fail. The i3 will have a tough time in the U.S. market, though, especially when Tesla follows up on their threat to offer a 200 mile car at $ 35,000 next year. Knowing who you want to sell to is incredibly important, and right now BMW are not on that path.

 

UPDATE: One of my readers points out that the Tesla “bluestar” won’t be out until 2017, and that the $35k price point is AFTER the $7,500 tax rebate. So the pre-discount price would be $42k. Sorry about that, I misread the press release.

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Bodo 2013Welcome back to “The Eniqma”. As you will recall I took a short timeout to rethink my activities. The wait is over, I am back! A slight makeover of this blog site is only half of it. I am very honored to contribute a new weekly commentary to KITCO News from now on: “Tech Metals Insider”. The welcome page of The Eniqma already explains the details so I won’t repeat them here. Also, KITCO published an introduction to the new series which you can read here.

In future, my blog will contain stuff I think to be relevant but which didn’t make it into my articles. I’ll probably sprinkle in a few other things as well, let’s see how it goes. I hope you will enjoy the new Eniqma. Always happy to hear from you so tell me if you do, and… oh well…. if you don’t you can say that, too.

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From time to time I look back at my blogs. Topics, categories, search strings and statistics provide an image of what I like to write about, what readers want to read about, and the part where both overlap. If you recall, after a brief excursion into the world of “precious metals only” I returned to “Marketing and The Meaning of Life” quickly after realizing that neither I nor my readers enjoyed what I wrote. Ever since my blogs have been hovering around several hundred readers each, plus minus, and I want to thank every one of you for lending me your time and for sending the occasional comment.

Still, life goes on, things progress and I may have changed a little over time. My observations are:

  • While blogging about “current affairs” is incredibly satisfying it is also true that these blogs never seem to change anything. So what’s the point?
  • With the appearance of the electric BMW in my life last year (and its disappearance earlier this year) I discovered how fascinating the world of alternative energy really is. I have since become more involved with the technology and logistics behind these vehicles, learned much about other alternative technologies such as hydrogen, and of course the materials required to enable them. So my blog has turned into a car blog a bit more than anything else last year.
  • Lastly, I find myself not reading as many blogs anymore as I used to. No disrespect to my fellow bloggers, some of which are good friends of mine, but it seems like I am not the only person experiencing “blogging fatigue” after everything of relevance has already been said before by someone else.

Instead, I find myself drawn more towards topical news, information and industry insider commentaries on discoveries, technologies and trends. Which lead me to combine the two: with my unique exposure to the precious metals and specialty metals / rare earths industries combined with my passion for everything that moves fast I am confident to be in the right spot to pick up topics at the intersection of both areas, report and interpret on developments, and hopefully manage to insert the occasional interview with interesting people from participating industries. And I promise my sentences will be shorter.

Bodo 2013So here is the plan: my blog will go passive for a little bit and relaunch in September this year with a new focus, and a new design. Anyone sharing my passion or wanting to contribute is invited to do so. I hope you will like the new “Eniqma”. Of course my other website pages will remain in place. Where else in the world do you find information on Albert Schweitzer, Taekwondo and Deaf Cats on the same website? I am conscious of my responsibilities. 😉  Also, some of my older blogs are still getting hits on a regular basis so I’ll leave the archive in place.

Again, thanks for tuning in, and I hope you’ll be giving the new “Eniqma” a shot.

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Chevrolet Camaro 2008Easter – not only a caloric religious holiday but also the time of the New York International Auto Show. I’ve been going for many years although it isn’t one of the really important events car buffs don’t want to miss. But it’s as good as it gets around here, so why not? Five years ago I decided to try out my new digital camera on the occasion, and I submitted a few pictures to a German car website (also new at the time) named Carspotting. And would you know it? One of my pictures shot to #1 of the most viewed pictures and has since stayed there with over 300,000 views and counting. Counting, but counting slow because in all honesty I don’t think the site is doing so well. But that’s besides the point.

The trophy picture? Here it is – a “bumblebee” yellow Chevrolet Camaro. Which might surprise you as it surprised me. Neither is the picture special in any way, nor is the car something people take much notice of over here. Which goes to prove that Germany’s romantic relationship with the American Way of Life is still alive and well. A relationship frequently expressed through admiration combined with a shaking of the head. Hard to explain, but it’s there.

IMG_1759So what is the picture I liked best? Here it is: a detail of the then also new Audi R8 (yes, five years ago, time flies…) which I thought combined the white car with the red background in a great way. Oddly, the website has a second scale of “most voted for” pictures, and it emerged on that scale just a year ago. I believe this scale doesn’t even take into account whether people like or dislike an image, it just counts the votes. But what the heck. Seeing it there made me happier than topping the other list – I remember waiting forever to get a clean shot the way I wanted it with all the people there.

WP_20130329_027I have now decided to never look at this website again – it made me happy while it lasted but, like the Camaro, it’s getting stale and it is time to move on. So while this blog has no deeper meaning or message than this it will serve me as reminder of my decision. The blog, and the repeat I did on the Audi. Five years later and it’s still looking pretty hot, don’t you think?

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IMG_0691Probably the most unusual car I have driven in my life. One of those cars you like not despite its flaws, but because of them. Not having much trunk space, for instance. Not being able to go everywhere you want. Not having a lot of interior room either. Not getting the advertised range out of it, a little over 80 miles vs 100 miles as it were. I liked it a lot, and I am sad to see it go. But it had to go. It had to go because this last flaw turned from an “oh well” flaw into an “OMG” flaw in recent months when temperatures came down. Our low point was 76 miles at one time and the general consensus among Electronauts is that doing more than 70 miles means pushing it in this weather.

My second, equally sad experience was that the ActiveE “field trial” seems to be a rather poorly managed program. BMW gave its customers an online forum for discussions but the really interesting things happen in the customer-driven Facebook group, as I found out just recently. Communication from BMW is limited to gimmicks, video sessions with happy Electronauts and glances at future products while there is little to no feedback on the project itself, the mysterious “software updates” they make or any kind of incremental improvement going into our cars. Au contraire, when my first breakdown occurred, instead of getting sympathy I got a very German answer: Ve tested se car. It does 80 miles so suck it up! (I am paraphrasing of course, including the exclamation mark). When I challenged the author to prove it I heard nothing but the chirping of crickets.

ActiveE Range

“Electronauts” are the most hardcore fans of the BMW brand. They are pioneers, they are mavens and they are definitely avid communicators. Many have blogs that amplify the message, and they have all gladly invested in this project.   Being asked “How is the ‘Kaputt’?” (which happened to me) is not nice when this is your personality profile, and you feel left alone with your problems.

This project is marking the brand’s third attempt of creating an image of environmental conscience in recent history. First there was the “Hydrogen 7” that has yet to go anywhere; then came the “Active Hybrids” failing to perform better than their standard counterparts, and now there is the electric car program which is on it’s way into a very uncertain future – “Mission Impossible” was probably a bad omen. To this day, the TechSpecs on the web promise a range of 100 miles and safe trips from my home town to Philadelphia or Scranton that will never happen. Yes, there is fine print like in ads for weight loss products saying “results may vary”, but come on – that’s not what you tell an M5 buyer about horsepower either. It is this perception of a particular attitude that makes it so hard to believe future iterations of this concept will be any different. Why not be honest, why not admit to the flaws? The myth might have suffered, but the trust would have remained.

It is important to know that other “Electronauts” have different emotions about the experience. Most notably Tom Moloughney who just wrote a very interesting summary of his first year in his ActiveE. I am bringing this up to put my rant into perspective: there are people for whom the Active E makes a lot of sense. But note that Tom uses his car to commute from A to B and back every day – same purpose, same distance, with a charging station at each end. This is what the car was built for. And it’s what it does best.

Bottom line? Like Tom Moloughney I am convinced that electric cars are the future. Check out Tom’s earlier blog on how he added photovoltaic cells to the roof of his house for maximum effect. Local / decentralized energy production is a critical component for these cars to make sense. I predict that in 10-20 years from now homes will have their own fuel cells for energy production (which is where fuel cells belong – wrong idea for a car). The loss of power in transport will be near zero equalling additional “free” energy. I can also confirm Tom’s calculation of fuel expenses: the direct cost of my ActiveE was about 1/3 of what a gasoline powered car would have cost. A recent study in Germany also indicates that – despite of having to replace the main battery after 5-8 years – the overall cost of maintenance of electric cars is about 30% lower compared to a conventional vehicle; mainly due to the absence of moving engine and transmission parts and the use of kinetic energy recovery breaking systems. I still think there should be 4 motors, one at each wheel, batteries in the bottom, Tesla style, to refine the idea and to address the torque issues but that’s a topic for another day. So stay tuned for my next electric car adventure (although this may take a while…).

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