Will GM experts share their wisdom with Tesla to make the Model S less prone to fires? That’s the question I put to GM’s Chief of Electrified Vehicles, Pam Fletcher last week at the Churchill Club in Silicon Valley.
You’ve no doubt heard that three fires have been reported in Tesla Model S in the last five weeks. As we all know, three’s a trend. Granted, they weren’t episodes of random spontaneous combustion. Instead they were ignited by one high-impact crash and two high-speed encounters with metal debris which acted like a “pole vault” to puncture the undercarriage of the car and hence the battery. Although Tesla’s Elon Musk has declared, there won’t be a recall, it’s almost certain the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration will investigate. What needs to be done to make Teslas more impervious to battery puncturing road debris?
As you’ll see in the video, Pam Fletcher confirms that GM has sold 58,000 Chevy Volts since its launch in 2010 and after 300 million miles on the road, not one has had a similar fate to Tesla’s Model S. She acknowledges that there were fire issues in 2011 at the crash-testing phase, but emphasises no real-world incidents similar to the Model S have occurred.
Fires, Electric Cars and Achilles Heels
First some background. In 2011, safety regulators investigated Chevy Volt crash tests resulting in one battery pack catching fire and one smoking and emitting sparks. The troubling issue was the week-long delay between the crash test and the battery pack catching fire.
During our interview, Fletcher confirms that after the investigation, GM made no change to the battery cells, but did put “some additional reinforcement on the outside of the battery.”
It also implemented a process with first responders that includes depowering of the battery after a severe crash.
Ironically, Tesla got the highest safety ranking from regulators and has a first responders guide in place, however all parties seemed oblivious to the vehicle’s Achilles’ Heel. It obviously needs more durable undercarriage protection to prevent any more fiery “pole vaulting” episodes. To date, Elon Musk has been strongly resistant to such an approach. A recall will taint not only Tesla’s award winning brand, but entail extra costs and manufacturing delays for this relatively small auto company. To make matters worse, extra reinforcement will increase the weight of the Model S, and the extra pounds will have a knock-on effect on the vehicle’s range.
But it looks like Tesla’s Elon Musk may have to get some tips from GM on adequate car underbelly protection or find his own solutions.
It’s unlikely Tesla will change the configuration of its batteries. According to Reuters, Tesla’s battery pack stretches across the base of the vehicle and is made up of small lithium-ion battery cells, like those used in laptops. By contrast, GM uses large-format battery cells in a T-shape in the center of the Chevy Volt.
Fletcher was eager to move past fiery discussions and talk about adoption rates and “getting to scale.” She described the newly unveiled Cadillac ELR (a luxury electric hybrid based on the Chevy Volt) which will be available for test drives this week at the LA Auto Show. We also discussed autonomous cars, why EV adoption rates are so high in Silicon Valley; what to expect from the next generation Chevy Volt; and what surprised her about the thousands of Volt drivers on the road today.
Did you know that buildings account for almost 40 percent of total energy use in the U.S.; almost 40 percent of carbon dioxide emissions; and 12 percent of total water consumption? The climate friendly solution is “green building.”
But what does green building mean? And what is the future of green building? Phil Williams, VP of Webcor Builders sat down with Fresh Dialogues to answer these questions and explain how the venture capital and building sectors work together to deliver innovative green building products – like smart glass – that reduce energy consumption and environmental impact.
Here are some highlights of our conversation (edited for clarity and length):
What is green building?
“The term actually started here in San Francisco in the mid-1990s, and starts with a certification of a building under the LEED standard (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design), developed by the US Green Building Council. We try to reduce the energy, the water, be responsible in the use of materials and create healthy interior environments.” Phil Williams
Why build green?
“There’s a high probability of climate change due to man’s impact; it’s seen as good business, it’s my energy bill today in terms of what is my overall cost of doing business.” Phil Williams
What should we expect from green building in the future?
It’s like a box of Cheerios…you’ve got some healthy products, you’ve got some less healthy products, some with sugar, some with fat. The consumer can now make a choice. When we didn’t know, the consumers were blind to the health or the energy consumption of a building. The marketplace will determine what happens, but now the information will be available.” Phil Williams
How do new green building products get in the supply chain?
“We work closely with several venture capital firms that are specifically focused in the built environment, and we have a strong engineering background…We can be part of that next breed of product…we have that advantageous viewpoint that we can lend to our clients and we can help those new innovative firms get a foothold in a very competitive industry. Any insight that we can provide benefits everyone.” Phil Williams
Webcor is sponsoring a four part interview series all about Green Building. Check back soon for more details.
Meantime, you can check out other green building interviews and stories by clicking here or on the Green Building Tab above.
I recently recorded a story for KQED radio about Apple’s “dirty” iCloud and the more I dug into the issue, the greener the world’s most valuable company appeared to get. By the time I’d finished researching the topic, visiting a local data center, talking with an expert in energy efficiency, and interviewing members of the public at my local Whole Foods store, Apple released a statement announcing it was going “all in.”
“By the end of 2012, we’ll meet the energy needs of our Maiden, North Carolina, data center using entirely renewable sources,” the statement read.
The data center is a LEED Platinum building (the highest rating of the US Green Building Council standards) with an impressive collection of energy efficient design features from a chilled water storage system to a white cool roof which maximizes solar reflection. The whole project looks so “insanely green” it might start to make once green-revered Google turn a shade of (envious) green.
Was it the black balloons released in Apple’s spectacular retail stores in the Bay Area and around the world? The giant iPod “squatting” outside Apple’s Headquarters in Cupertino? The supersize iPhones walking around the campus demanding Apple clean its “dirty” cloud? The slick video or the 200,000+ petitions asking Apple CEO Tim Cook to stop using dirty coal? The environmental group Greenpeace would like to think so.
But it’s likely that none of the above induced Apple to green its cloud. These decisions to install 20 MW of solar arrays (from SunPower) and the largest non-utility fuel cell installation (from Bloom Energy) were years in the making, and the Greenpeace campaign weeks old. But having Greenpeace on its case does appear to have helped Apple discover some transparency in its operations. Something for which it’s not exactly famous. And that transparency will likely spur further clean action from other IT companies.
In a detailed release, Apple explained exactly where the 60% onsite clean energy is coming from and made a public commitment to power the remainder using local and regional clean energy supplies, including NC GreenPower.
In the war of words and facts between the environmentalist group and Apple, prior to the company coming clean, several commentators accused Greenpeace of “doing a Mike Daisey” on Apple. That is, intentionally fabricating the facts to make a stronger case against the tech giant. In the end, Greenpeace spokesperson Gary Cook told me, “We will continue our campaign to push Apple – and other IT giants like Microsoft and Amazon – to clean the cloud until Apple has policies to ensure that they will grow using exclusively clean energy.”
As for Google and the other fast growing cloud users like Amazon and Microsoft, we’ll be watching closely to see if a “greener than thou” race starts warming up. Each leapfrogging the other to out-green their competitor’s data centers. A race for the most insanely green cloud? Bring it on.
“Here in California, we’ve created 1500 clean jobs and we’re going to do the same in Delaware when we build that (30MW) manufacturing facility.” Asim Hussain
Manufacturing in California
The privately held company currently has three manufacturing facilities – including its testing facility – and they employ two Bloom Boxes to power one plant, using a biogas source. They plan to extend that capability to the recently built second plant. Unlike many Silicon Valley companies, manufacturing operations are here in the valley, although they have a global supply chain.
Fresh Dialogues asked about the future of Bloom Electrons, the energy-only purchase model the company announced last year. Instead of paying the hefty $800,000 upfront cost for a Bloom energy server, customers sign a ten-year energy purchase agreement at a fixed price. Hussain confirmed that this model allows Bloom to access a new market segment: the nonprofit sector. The poster child for Bloom Electrons is California Institute of Technology Caltech – which began a 2 MW Bloom installation in 2010. The program has also allowed commercial clients like Walmart to expand their Bloom installations from two to twenty eight stores.
How is Google greening its growing army of Googlers, on and off campus? Biodiesel buses, Google bikes…pogo sticks anyone?
I sat down with Parag Chokshi, Google’s Clean Energy Public Affairs Manager this summer and he explained some of Google’s employee incentives and green practices. Did you know that if you get to the Googleplex under your own steam – walking, running, biking…or on your pogo stick, Google will donate to a charity of your choice? And if you can’t bear to move from your cool pad in San Fran, and the thought of 36 miles on a pogo stick seems a stretch, Google will transport you to work in one of its special biodiesel buses. Wifi equipped of course.
There’s even a sizeable organic vegetable garden on the campus, so if you fancy getting dirt under your finger nails and communing with Mother Earth, Google’s your place.
Of course, Google also fanfares the usual green suspects:
solar power (one of the largest commercial installations in the Bay Area at 1.6 MW or 30% of the complex’s peak power use);
Bloom Energy Boxes (Google was one of the first customers for this efficient fuel cell power source);
But if you think working at Google is just one green Kumbaya center, remember it’s not just a holiday camp…Pay maybe the highest average in the tech industry (2011 Payscale Report) but according to anecdotal evidence and Google’s own job descriptions, expect a high-stress startup environment and the bureaucratic issues typical of any fast growing big company.