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Articles from 2006 In November


I Killed the Electric Car

How much would you pay for a car with a 70-mile range and a six-hour refueling time?

I ask that question because I just finished watching the recently released documentary film, “Who Killed the Electric Car?” The film, which takes a hard look at the demise of battery-powered electric vehicles, designates a long list of guilty parties for the EV’s “murder.” Among them: the federal government; oil companies; hydrogen fuel cells; the California Air Resources Board; and…the consumer.

That last one jumped out at me because, admittedly, I’m one of those consumers. Years ago, I looked at pure electric vehicle technology and decided it wasn’t for me. True, General Motors’ EV1 (the main focus of the movie) was fun to drive. Its acceleration was amazing. In many ways, it was a marvel of engineering.

But electric vehicles had a couple of serious flaws. The first was the range: Some vehicles could go 70 miles on a charge; the best could go twice that. (For more info, read our 1998 story at /article/CA86459.html.) Then there was the second flaw: Depending on who you believed, recharge times could be as long as six hours. Again, there was argument on this point, but the recharge times were always measured in hours.

So I did a little calculating. Since I made a 300-mile trek from Chicago to Detroit a half-dozen times per year, I used that as a measuring stick. Stopping four times to refuel, and taking five hours per stop, an EV could drive me from Chicago to Detroit in about 25 hours. With an internal combustion engine-based car, it took me five hours.

I did similar calculations for several other frequent trips. From Chicago to Bloomington, Illinois, the driving time would jump from two hours to seven. From Chicago to Rock Island, Illinois, it went from two-and-a-half to 12 hours.

The movie mentions the range issue but, strangely, detours around the larger issue of recharge times. Instead, EV proponents in the film repeat a mantra that 90% of all driving takes place within the normal range of an EV. Then, by extension, they conclude that 90% of consumers don’t need a vehicle with longer range.

“Given the limited range, it can only meet the needs of 90% of the population,” notes actor Ed Begley, Jr. during a facetious moment at a mock funeral for an EV. In similar moments, the movie hammers home the point that consumers only think” they need longer range. (See the movie’s web site at http://www.sonyclassics.com/whokilledtheelectriccar/.)

And that’s where I take issue. I’ll buy their point about driving, but not about drivers. Many vehicle owners need to take occasional business trips and vacations. They don’t want to have to rent a separate vehicle to take a vacation or pick up their kids from college.

In truth, that’s an absurdly simple point. Moreover, it’s a buying decision that consumers are capable of making for themselves, no matter how many TV stars Hollywood flings at them.

Every year, consumers base their buying decisions on inclusion of features that are much less significant than 70-mile driving ranges and six-hour recharge times. They look at engines, brakes, wheels, air bags, electrical systems, and even the availability of DVD players, cup holders, and comfortable seating. Some consumers even buy toys, tools, and appliances for similarly “insignificant” reasons.

Up to now, they probably thought that was their prerogative as buyers.

I guess they didn’t realize they were committing murder when they did it.

Maxtor's questionnable return policy

Maxtor's questionnable return policy

There’s more to report on my post last week about an experience returning a 3-in-1 Maxtor network back-up drive that died after 60 days of use. What gauls me is that Maxtor sent me a refurbished unit instead of new unit yet said it would charge me the new price of $350 if I did not send back the dead unit within 30 days (I did and will be watching my credit card bills like a hawk.)
 
Maybe it’s like the rental car companies charging $7 a gallon if I don’t fill up before returning the car, but I only paid $222 for the unit THAT DIED AND WAS NEW from Amazon. Maybe, it’s $350 for units that actually work even if they are used. I think Maxtor’s return practices are sleazy. BTW, Maxtor is owned by Seagate.  

Game box price wars

Game box price wars

Here's a pretty good if not slanted heavily toward Microsoft story on pending game box price wars. Also, iSuppli has done a breakdown of the cost per PS3 and Sony is taking a whopping loss on both models. Check it out.

Podcast: E Ink's Indelible Impact on Sony Reader

Sony Reader product manager Dave Seperson discusses how E Ink has advanced electronic books. DN Editor in Chief John Dodge is the interviewer.


Download an MP3 of this chat

Toyota Hybrid pioneer dies in plane crash

Toyota Hybrid pioneer dies in plane crash

What a bummer! Toyota Prius hybrid pioneer David Hermance died in a plane crash. As Toyota executive engineer of environmental engineering, the 59-year-old Hermance led the effort revolutionize engine technology.

Gamer Chris on Wii

Gamer Chris on Wii

My son Chris, a college freshman, got to roadtest a Ninetendo Wii game console over the Thanksigving break. Here are his thoughts:

>>>In my opinion, the Wii constitutes the largest attempt in years by any of the major gaming companies to seriously revive the console genre. While other companies, namely Microsoft with the XBox 360 and Sony with the PS3 have focused more on technical innovation geared towards superior graphics, the Wii admits to sacrificing graphics in return for a more unique style of play. Both the XBox360 and the PS3 fail to break with their predecessors besides more eye candy and better technical specs. The truly innovative Wii, however, has motion sensors and two part controller has at least attempted to make console video gaming more interactive. Whether it will be successful remains to be seen. The important point is that Nintendo has taken the initiative in bringing something new to a stale genre.<<<

Electric Car Movie

Because automotive news coverage over the past few years has focused so heaviliy on hybrid technology, I was recently surprised to learn that a new documentary about electric cars was released into video on November 14th. Titled "Who Killed the Electric Car?," the film looks at the reasons behind the demise of pure electrics, paricularly GM's EV1. Narrated by actor Martin Sheen and packed with snippets from such Hollywood stars as Mel Gibson, Ed Begley Jr., Phyllis Diller, and Tom Hanks, the film has a decidely environmentalist bent to it, and hints strongly at an oil-auto-and-government conspiracy. The underlying message — that the electric vehicle was a great technology undermined by greedy oil executives and stodgy automakers —  comes across clearly, thanks to some clever and entertaining filmmaking.

Still, entertainment and technology make strange bedfellows, which is why we'd like to her from those of you who've seen the movie. We'll be posting a column about it in the next few days. Until then, let us know your thoughts: Was the film fair? Honest? Technically accurate? If you haven't seen it, we recommend that you pick up a copy at the local video store, mull it over, and take a seat at your trusty word processor. Use this space to post comments and, as always, feel free to let loose.
–Chuck Murray

Game console prices slowly floating earthward

Game console prices slowly floating earthward

PS3 pricing remains stratospheric, but is inching down closer to the the $499 and $599 Sony MSRPs. The long lines are gone and and no purchasers of the coveted game console have been robbed or shot in the past 10 days. CNET's video review gives the uninitiated (and non-gamer such as myself - I have a life, thank you very much) a good overview of the system and says while it has potential, it'll be a couple of years before games come that exploit its promising graphics. 

So expect to pay close to $800 for the PS3 for 20 GB version on eBay if such offerings are real. Bobby on eBay says he'll deliver it by Christmas for $790 if your throw in $60 for shipping and his double boxing! Many are still trying to get up to $1,300-$1,600 for one and that remains the prevailing price range on Amazon. All in all, the furor and pricing seems to be dying down. Thank, god. Right now and game for game, CNET says the PS3 is only on par with the XBox 360. The new Wii Nintendo game is also commanding a healthy price premium.

Maxtor drive dead

Maxtor drive dead

Well, I don't have to eat crow. Relative to my last post, my Maxtor 3-in-1 network drive is dead after 60 days of use. I called Maxtor support we conducted some highly sophisticated tests on the unit. The clincher was the hand test. "Put your hand on the unit," the Maxtor support instructed. "Do you feel anything spinning?" he asked. "Nope, nothin'" I responded. He told me me to send it in for a new one. I elected to go the credit card route and have them send me a unit right away. If I don't send back el kaput within 30 days, they charge me for the new unit.
 
In my original post on this subject, I complained that I could not get an RMA number through Maxtor's web site. Maxtor support, a real person of which came on the line within a surprisingly fast 2-3 minutes, told me you can't get an RMA number online for a network drive. Why didn't the web site say that, I thought. My original post was inspired out of frustration of my futile attempts to get an RMA number.

Anyhow, I give Maxtor support a solid C for its performance. My complaints include using a wrong e-mail address to confirm the call, putting me down at "Don Dodge" and costing me $13 for sending back the dead unit. As for the drive, I give it a solid F, but like my kids' teachers sometimes, I'll let it take the test again.

IEC at work on material global content declaration standard

The Swiss-based International Electrotechnical Commission (IEC) has announced on its website that it has started work on developing a worldwide material declaration standard to aid companies in the electronics industry that need to respond to environmental directives.

In a statement on the IEC’s website, the industry group explained the forthcoming global standard, noting that “The team that is working on working on the IEC’s Material Declaration plans to develop a single truly international passport for environmentally conscious design in products and sub-parts, making it the first single international standard for the declaration of materials for the electronics industries.” The “Material Declaration for Electrical and Electronic Equipment” is being prepared under the responsibility of IEC Technical Committee 111 (Environmental standardization for electrical and electronic products and systems).

While the website’s statement didn’t give a date by which the standard will be released, experts in the electronics industry expect the standard to arrive soon after February of 2007. At that time, industry insiders expect the IEC standard will override the IPC-1752 materials declaration standard.

One of the goals for the IEC standard is to provide a common declaration format that would work for a wide number of directives as they appear across the globe in places such as China and Korea. “A global standard concerned with protecting the environment will have the chance to play a pivotal role and gain endorsement from some of the big players – countries like China, for example – where measures to protect the environment are already being taken,” says the website statement.

Some believe the new standard will be slightly easier to use than IPC-1752. Dr. N. Nagaraj of Papros Inc., a company that has developed software that supports materials declaration, notes that “Companies that are keeping their data exported in the XML format of their IPC-1752 material declarations might find it a little easier to transition to the new standards which are expected to include data reporting in non-proprietary XML, though the schema most probably will be different.” He notes that in the meantime, “companies can continue to use their data in the IPC-1752 XML format for their on-going country-specific and region-specific RoHS compliance work.”

Nagaraj notes that his company has already made adjustments to accommodate materials declaration for China RoHS and plans to incorporate the IEC standard into its software once it’s released. “As far as our own strategy, we released a new minor upgrade to make it easier for companies to comply with China RoHS based on using data in the IPC-1752,” says Nagaraj. “When the new IEC standards are released, we plan to support them and offer conversion from the current IPC-1752 forms.”