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This week’s “Tech Metals Insider” blog on KITCO News is featuring Hyundai, a brand that few people get excited about. Having started off as a manufacturer that followed the Japanese business model initially (inexpensive, reliable but bland cars), they are in the process of shaping their own identity now. At the International Auto Show in Frankfurt this September, my attention was drawn to Hyundai’s fuel cell electric vehicle (FCEV) which is based on their ix35 crossover SUV. While several other brands had made announcements about upcoming fuel cell vehicles, Hyundai was the only one present to actually have one. And not just that: it was a finished product, several of them serving as press shuttles to prove the point.

I now had a chance to follow up on my encounter by interviewing Frank Meijer, Team Leader FCEV and Infrastructure Development, at the company’s European headquarters in Offenbach, Germany. Mr. Meijer showed me a very detailed presentation on the company’s future plans for FCEV technology which I have posted here: FCEV Deployment 12-11-2013 if you are interested.

At the end of the interview, Mrs. Kerstin Mueller, the company’s Product Marketing Manager for FCEVs, surprised me by offering me the keys to one of their ix35 FCEV vehicles for a test drive. I couldn’t possibly have said “no”, of course, and I want to thank the folks at Hyundai once again for the opportunity.

Hyundai ix35 FCEV

Hyundai ix35 FCEV

So how was it? Shockingly normal, is the answer. Normal in a good way. Not only is the car very similar to its gasoline powered siblings, it also works without drama or the need to learn how to operate it. It’s plug and play, agile, roomy, quiet and relaxing like an EV should be, and at the end of the 20 minute test drive the fuel needle was still on “full”. So how does the experience differ from the battery-electric vehicles (the BMW ActiveE or the Tesla S / P85) I have driven? The Hyundai doesn’t accelerate nearly as well as those two which was to be expected. There is also much less “regen” upon deceleration meaning you can’t drive it with just the right pedal. If you are just converting from a regular car this will, I believe, make your transition easier as the driving experience is nearly the same. There is hardly any noise from the fuel cell, and apart from a short 10 second cooling cycle after turning it off you don’t even know it’s there. Trunk space is much improved thanks to the absence of battery packs which rounds off my initial statement.

After a little while, our conversation turned away from the car onto other things. Which, if you think of it, is a good thing. If you are not one of the pioneers or early adopters who enjoy playing with their car’s features for hours on end, if you are just buying the car for its environmental impact or (later) for cost reasons, then you’ll be a lot better off getting a less dramatic car, like the Hyundai ix35 FCEV. A car you’ll be able to refuel whenever you have to, just like in the old days when your car ran on gasoline.

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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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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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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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Last week, BMW gave their chosen ActiveE customers a glance at their next generation “electric” vehicles. At an event in New York City the company presented their latest prototypes of the i3 and i8 which they say will be sold as an entirely separate sub brand, much like their “M” cars. I didn’t quite make it in time but my son did, and after listening to what he learned I am glad I didn’t waste my time.

BMW presented both their i3 4-door hatchback and the i8 sports car which will be available as a coupe and a roadster starting 2014. Typically, prototypes like the “Vision” they showed off at various car shows around the world for the past 2 years get toned down and become more practical over time. The i3 and i8, however, are evolving into objects that are borderline goofy, and that don’t even qualify as electric cars. I consider them to be complete failures, and I am very disappointed in my favorite car maker. Here is why:

Unlike Tesla, for example, who keep pushing the envelope in terms of range, BMW have apparently resigned and turned towards covering up their lack of innovation by going all flashy on the outside. I’ll come to that later. Fact of the matter is that my ActiveE never lived up to its 100 mile range as advertised, and only the biggest enthusiasts still care bringing their numbers up to that level. Truth is that if you drive the car like a BMW is meant to be driven, you’ll end up with a little over 80 miles in range.

On paper, 80 miles gets me everywhere I want in terms of short distance destinations. Alas, there is the weather: if its hot you need the air conditioner which depletes the battery; if its cold the battery range drops just because of that; and if it rains the tires find more resistance, and the range goes down. Since there always IS weather out there in real life I have to build a safety cushion into my travel plans, rendering the vehicle almost obsolete.

I realize the Active E is sort of a prototype so I am prepared to forgive (see my previous blogs). What I don’t see happening is an evolutionary process, a gradual improvement in the car’s performance based on user experience, which is what we all signed up for. Au contraire, the new i3 now appears to have the exact same performance data as the Active E; 80-100 miles per charge. Yes, there are two more doors, and there appears to be more interior space. But BMW claim the car is also lighter than the Active E so this doesn’t count as an excuse. Instead, they are offering a range extender (at a surcharge, I am sure) that will give you the peace of mind not to get stranded. This turns the i3 into a Chevy Volt competitor and makes it pretty lame in my book.

So what about the i8? When I first saw it in “Mission Impossible” I immediately wanted one, even after accepting that the cool windshield touch-screen computer was fictional, and that you can’t really drive that fast downtown Mumbai. So what has it become after all those years? A car capable of going 20 miles electric after which a “real” engine kicks in. A car featuring two backup transportation devices (scooters) in back, a car running on tires reminding me of my Toyota Prius. I am sure one of their doctors will explain to us why this doesn’t compromise roadholding and cornering at all. Common sense and five years in a Prius say it does.

Which brings us to appearances: both cars still yell “Look at me!” – the Active E does that in a – comparatively – more subdued way and I have gotten used to the occasional question from fellow motorists. The i3 and i8 are, however, sure to draw a crowd and – similar the Active E – they are built with BMW’s self promotion in mind, not a view to customer preferences. To the company’s credit they did announce more color choices so let’s wait for this detail to be released. Maybe it’s just me, but if someone wants me to promote their product they should pay me for doing so. BMW are counting on their stedfast enthusiasts to pay, and then go out to do their PR. The “Electronaut” welcome kit even included little cards you could hand out to people you met on the road, pointing them to  more information on the car online. Seriously….

I won’t go into color choices since tastes differ, so I’ll just say that subjectively the bright white and blue exterior clashes with the brown interior big time as far as I am concerned. I understand the cows used to make the seats were fed organic food only, and they died happy, but still. Again, I trust there will be choices eventually.

Why the rant? If you haven’t noticed, dear makers of BMW, I like your cars and I care about your brand. I’ve driven BMWs for most of my life and I want to continue doing so. But first there was Bangle and then you started taking strange turns towards poseur cars with engine noise coming from the stereo rather than the exhaust; you are losing your edge on technology by giving the world hybrid cars that you cover under the “i” mantle – what other company does this preface remind me more of than yours? Please wake up, please give your true enthusiasts the cars they want again, and please stop the theatrics. If what I see isn’t what I get then I may not want it anymore in future.

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Shame on me – I don’t even deserve that title, and I call myself German. Last weekend was the first time I could actually sit down and look at what other ActiveE owners were doing on the BMW sponsored online forum. Not only did I miss out on a gathering of Electronauts, I was also completely ignorant of all the enthusiasm my fellow Electronauts profess by discussing every aspect of the car, trying to outdo each other in highest mileage driven, longest distance per charge and so on. So what, in absence of all the excitement, has my life been like?

I really miss my trunk. No surprise, but the ActiveE is a single-purpose car clashing with my multi-faceted life. Driving an ActiveE IS a sacrifice in a number of ways. But I knew that, I agreed, so I’ll stop whining. Still wish they’d chosen an X5 as the base vehicle.

Other than my fellow Electronauts I am playing it safe: Anything above 80 miles total driving distance is out. I have neither the time nor the curiosity to look for charging stations elsewhere – my car can not dictate or slow down my daily schedule. Its purpose is to serve me, not the other way round. So sorry, my fellow Electronauts, I truly admire your enthusiasm, but I am not playing.

On the upside, I’ve never been so much at the center of attention (on public roads) as I am now. I frequently get the “thumbs up” from other drivers ranging from commercial vans to exotic sports cars. Takes some getting used to – at first I kept asking myself “Do I know you?”, but it’s all just part of my day by now. I wonder if I will miss this one day – would you? Alas, with great bling comes great responsibility: what are the odds of me dissolving into the crowd like my grey Prius did (no, I don’t want it back)? What are the odds of people remembering exactly who just misbehaved (allegedly…), speeded, went through a “Jersey Yellow” light and such? It may be paranoia but I am actually driving more consciously now, knowing that I am probably not going to wiggle my way out of any incident like that.

So it’s a social event, mostly:

  • The security lady at the gate of a parking lot I frequently use making it a point of keeping the prime spot reserved for me so she can enjoy the view (letting her sit in the car once probably helped);
  • The valet forgetting to take his tip because he was temporarily enjoying his job a lot;
  • The fellow at the car wash exit taking periodical abuse (in Spanish, luckily) from his coworkers because he still hasn’t figured out how to start the car (subsequent cars pile up surprisingly quickly, I noticed);
  • Other drivers taking pictures, honking their horns or telling me at stop lights how much they wanted to get this car.

It would be wrong to say that I am not having fun driving my ActiveE. I like the stereo, the feeling of sitting in a “real” car again after my Prius Years, but mostly the sensation of the electric drive with little noise and little need for using the break pedal. In fact, I have a feeling I don’t want to go back to a gasoline powered car – ever. So I guess I’ll continue to be the “everyday Electronaut” who goes about doing the things he used to, minus the gas.

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Yes, I am one of the “chosen” who are paying money for the privilege of driving one of 700 BMW ActiveE’s in this country. Now I realize how the Apple enthusiasts must have felt who camped out in front of an Apple store to grab one of the first iPads, not quite knowing what they would do with it. Except I didn’t camp out, I was just one of the people on a list.

So what’s an ActiveE? In essence it’s a modern Ford T: you can have it in any color you like as long as it’s white, and there are no other options to chose from. Luckily it comes standard with much of what BMW has to offer except for powered seats (which apparently drain the battery a lot) and an automatic garage door opener which I believe was just forgotten. And of course it’s electric.

The engine sits in the back, battery in front, which makes for excellent weight distribution. And it really is fun to drive. You will, however, need a second car: the ActiveE comes with no trunk space to speak of, and while its range of about 80-90 miles per charge (it’s advertised at 100 but I never get that) is enough for trips in the area you’ll always have to fall back on something else for the further places such as Philadelphia. There is a network of charging stations, free and paid, which in fairness I haven’t used yet, mainly because they only make sense if you are actually planning to stay 4 hours where you are going.

To make sure you get all the attention in the world BMW has plastered the car with a blue-and-gray circuit board decor. I usually insist on getting paid if a company wants me to advertise their stuff but given the circumstances of my decision to get the car itself I figured it wouldn’t even matter. And the decor is actually quite cool, which is perhaps the attribute that best describes the entire car. I am not even concerned about the white leather interior because it has COOL blue stitching. In short, BMW have their message straight to advertise electric cars as something you really gotta have.

Which really is the only argument to justify this car. With the high cost of a charging station, the monthly lease (they let you have the car for 2 years after which, I believe, they’ll get crushed), the fact that they keep the tax bonus, and the need for a second car the ActiveE makes little sense economically – an equally equipped 1 series BMW would doubtlessly be cheaper, even with the cost of gas included. Plus you’d have an actual trunk. Having an ActiveE also puts you on the next “chosen” list for the i3 expected to make its debut in 2 years but – after having seen it at an auto show recently – it remains to be decided if I’ll really want one.

So is the ActiveE a bad idea? I don’t think so. Much like 5 years ago the Prius was pointing the way in a new direction I am convinced that electric vehicles will play an important role in our near futures. Being able to pioneer the idea, to experience a well built prototype and have tremendous fun driving it on top it is worth the sacrifice, at least to me. I fully expected the car to break down sooner or later but so far it hasn’t, so congratulations to BMW for an incredible piece of engineering. With all the fun I am having I shall forgive you for the missing garage door opener – this time.

I’ll report periodically on my adventures as an Electronaut.

 

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