Google’s Director of Energy and Sustainability, Rick Needham describes the company’s fleet of electric vehicles and how it has enabled millions of miles of electric driving (almost 2M and counting). As well as the “usual suspects” like Chevy Volt, Nissan Leaf, and Ford Focus Electric, Google’s electric “Gfleet” includes several Tesla Model S, a favorite due to its range of up to 265 miles. But is that the whole story?
Google continues to grow its electric fleet. In 2011, it had 30 electric plug-ins, today it has over 50.
“We view that as a very interesting place to spend some time and effort and come up with a technology solution that can really help. It’s not just the car that’s underutilized; it’s the infrastructure, the roads. If you could enable that to be utilized more effectively… whether that be cars that can travel closer together (in a platoon), cars that travel and you can be doing productive things while they’re moving… There are a lot of opportunities on the environmental side, on the human safety side, on utilization of infrastructure side.” Google’s Rick Needham
This strategy makes a lot of sense, given Google’s ability to integrate Google Maps and traffic conditions to make driving both more efficient and safer.
2. Why it invested in car sharing companies Uber, Sidecar and Relay Rides
“It’s an enormous opportunity. Today the car sharing market is just over $3 Billion (in the US)…That’s just starting out…there quite a roadway, a runway there, to have a much bigger impact…” Google’s Rick Needham
Read more about how the Uber investment offers synergistic opportunities for Google and may help change the future of transportation.
Why it all might be related
Some commentators like Green Car Report’s John Voelcker have speculated that all this might be part of Google’s grand plan to purchase Tesla and use it to launch a driverless car-sharing taxi service sometime early in the 2020s. Tesla’s Elon Musk is good friends with Larry Page and has discussed the potential of driverless cars.
Google’s Clean Energy Struggle
Today, only 34% of the energy Google uses comes from renewable sources like wind and solar power. This is not something to boast about, especially given Apple’s claim to use 100% renewable power, but as Needham explains, he’s chasing a moving target. As the number of Google searches soars and more Google services are adopted, Google’s energy use is growing so fast that it battles to keep up with clean energy sources, despite investing over $1Billion in wind and solar power.
Find out more about Google’s strategy to green its energy supply, green its buildings, and reduce its carbon footprint.
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.
You might be excused for thinking that the success of Tesla Motors is entirely due to the brilliance of its leader, Elon Musk. OK, perhaps with a wee bit of help from his friend, JB Straubel?
Well, that media delusion was dispelled last week when Tesla threw open the doors of its Palo Alto Headquarters and showed off a panel of top female engineers and leaders. The occasion was the 44th in a series of Bay Area Girl Geek Dinners, a popular women in tech group founded by Angie Chang and managed by the energetic Sukrutha Raman Bhadouria.
The group of 100 female techies was treated to Tesla Model S rides, product demos, networking with key members of the Tesla team; and a rare view of the Tesla patent wall (see photos below).
But the highlight of the evening was a lively panel of Tesla engineers and executives, including Katie Noble (Systems Integration Engineering Manager), Lauren Fullerton (Electronic Design Engineer), Miriam Vu (Product Manager), and Troy Nergaard (Senior Hardware Development Engineering Manager). Tesla’s Susan Repo (VP, Global Tax) did a solid job moderating the event and exploring:
1. The challenges of working at Tesla
2. Being a woman at Tesla
3. The importance of soft skills at Tesla
4. The legal action that Tesla faces from car dealers in some U.S. states.
“You work with aggressive people occasionally, both male and female… Passions are high at Tesla and things can get heated…If someone blows up, you try not to internalize things…(and) appreciate the passion they have for a particular problem.” Katie Noble
“At Tesla, you don’t have time to take the wrong path. As a leader you need to know when to step in.” Troy Nergaard
On Time Pressures at Tesla
“With Tesla moving so quickly, we may not have all the answers right up front before we start moving… We are a very small team in a company that’s trying to do a lot of things, so time is of the essence.” Miriam Vu
On The Types Who Work at Tesla
“There are “car geeks” and there are “green geeks.” Troy Nergaard
The Bay Area Girl Geeks Dinners boasts a membership of over 8,000 and demand for the events – hosted at top Silicon Valley companies like Google, Yahooo and Facebook etc are typically over-subscribed. This Tesla event had 2000 signups for 100 tickets. As a result Chang and Raman Bhadouria have created a lottery sytesm for tickets.
This week, I spoke with Diurmuid O’Connell, VP of Business Development at Tesla Motors and he confirmed the company is not just focused on sexy fast cars but connectivity and energy storage.
“The totem of social acceptance is no longer personal mobility, it’s personal connectivity…the smart phone,” says O’Connell, citing the company’s massive 17 inch touchscreen which offers everything from navigation, to climate control to web browsing. He describes how it gives consumers the ability to upgrade a vehicle immediately and remotely; a useful benefit especially for what he calls “the perfect navigation system.”
“The screen can be updated in real time to improve not just the entertainment and climate control aspects but actually the performance of the vehicle,” he adds.
O’Connell also shared some details of Tesla’s push into energy storage. I asked him if the focus was on utility scale storage or distributed energy storage and he made reference to Bloom Energy – the Sunnyvale based fuel cell maker – that has a business model aimed at both sectors. Energy storage is something that many experts describe as the holy grail for advanced energy systems and Tesla has a large team of engineers working hard on the challenge at its Deer Park, Palo Alto facility. When I pressed him on future breakthroughs, O’Connell admitted the team is making good progress and said an announcement was likely within the next 12 months.
The video was recorded at SVForum’s CleanTech breakfast, moderated by Rob Shelton of PwC, in Silicon Valley on October 16, 2012. Check back soon for more on Net Zero buildings and other clean tech innovation trends.
Today on Bloomberg News, Tesla CEO, Elon Musk, ever the space junkie, described the new 100-strong Tesla supercharger network like this: “it will feel like alien spaceships landed at highway rest stops….a beacon of hope and inspiration.”
The new fast chargers will boost the existing west coast network that enables EV drivers to journey from Canada to Mexico using slower level 2 chargers. Meanwhile, terrestrial Tesla spokesperson Christina Ra shared more mundane details of the company’s new supercharger network during our recent test drive of the Model S.
“It’s intented to solve the conundrum of the road trip, long distance travel,” said Ra. “So we will have superchargers along frequently traveled roadways, for example between LA and San Francisco, to enable charging during road trips.”
It is anticipated these fast chargers will be located at Harris Ranch, Coalinga (for the LA/San Francisco travelers) as well as dozens of other locations like Tesla, Newport Beach to connect popular Tesla centers across the country.
Tesla is eager to emphasize the speed and convenience of these super chargers, but let’s face it, no matter how cosmic, the experience won’t be as rapid as a five-minute pit stop at the gas pump.
“It doesn’t really modify your behavior,” says Ra. “It takes about a half hour to replenish 150-160 miles of range.”
Fresh Dialogues asked: Time for a cuppa coffee or a perhaps short nap? Indeed. The practice might add a whole new dimension to the term power nap.
Ever the pragmatist, Ra confirmed, “Time for lunch…bathroom break.”
Three intrepid Model S drivers just completed the first coast to coast drive, from San Francisco to D.C. Perhaps they can test drive some of the new superchargers on the return leg?
Click here for live video and full details of the Tesla superchargers network on Monday September 24th, 8pm (or beyond).