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2015 First Hawaiian International Auto Show

This webpage, like the one on the Los Angeles Auto Show a few months earlier, is the first of what I hope will be a resumption of updates to this website. The First Hawaiian International Auto Show, sponsored by First Hawaiian Bank, is held around March of every year at the Honolulu Convention Center. As with the Los Angeles show, I haven't missed one since I moved here, but there are several for which I never had time to post a report. Until I can go back and fill in that hiatus, here's a report on the show held 13-15 March 2015, which I attended on the first day.

Toyota Mirai FCV

As with the Anaheim auto shows that I used to attend when I lived in California, this show doesn't really compete with the Los Angeles or Detroit shows for rollouts. However, it's not completely restricted to models off the local dealers' showroom floors, as for example this Toyota Mirai fuel cell vehicle (FCV), which I saw for the first time at the preceding Los Angeles Auto Show. As I remarked in that report, I am skeptical about automakers' promises to make FCVs broadly available to the public; however, at this show I was fortunate to run into a Toyota representative who was an expert on their fuel-cell program, and quiz him a little. It was right at the end of the show, so I had to talk with him in haste, and I failed to ask his name. His badge just said "Quaid," and based on some web searching I think his full name is Quaid McIver. [Note added 26 March 2016: At the next year's Hawaii Auto Show the Toyota rep with whom I spoke, Maggie Clark, confirmed this.] Many thanks for taking the time to discuss the issue with me!

My concern, which I argued in detail on this website as early as 2004, is that the path to mass commercialization for vehicles powered by compressed natural gas (CNG) was a lot easier than that for FCVs powered by hydrogen would be, and yet by the 2007 model year every automaker except Honda had decided that even this easier path was too hard and abandoned the vehicles they had introduced. His response was that governments like that of California are much more enthusiastic about hydrogen than they ever were about CNG, and Toyota is confident that if you come (with FCVs), they will build it (the necessary refueling infrastructure, through public-private partnerships). Of course, CNG refueling infrastructure is already widespread, and there is a good market for heavy-duty vehicles like delivery trucks and buses, and for aftermarket conversions of lighter-duty fleet vehicles like pickups (not to mention the factory CNG Honda Civic that's been around since 1998). This growth in CNG is driven by the economics of the fuel and vehicles; that's a rather more durable driver than government policy, which can be flighty. As for the economics of hydrogen, he said that Toyota expects retail fuel to cost about $10 per kilogram (kg) when the vehicle goes on sale; a kilogram of hydrogen carries about the same amount of energy as a gallon of gasoline, so that seems awfully expensive, but the FCV is much more efficient than typical gasoline vehicles, so that kilogram of hydrogen will take the Mirai about 60 miles (it has a 5 kg tank). Compared to gasoline at, say, $3 per gallon, though, that means that the fuel for the Mirai will cost about as much as gasoline for a vehicle with 18 MPG fuel economy! Hard to make a business case for that, and you'll still be waiting for the refueling infrastructure to be built.

Toyota FCHV-adv

Another reason electric-vehicle (EV) advocates like myself are skeptical about automakers' FCV promises is that in the past these promises have been part of the excuses they used to shut down their EV programs that began in the 1990s. Thus I asked Quaid about his thoughts on FCVs vs. EVs, and he made a point that I hadn't considered. Another FCV Toyota brought to the show was this FCHV-adv prototype, based on the Highlander SUV, from 2009, and this and other prototypes have been subjected to hot- and cold-weather testing from Death Valley to Yellowknife. Batteries generally hold less charge in cold weather than in warm, though I have corresponded with many EV owners who are quite happy in cold climates; however, the FCV does not inherently suffer from this effect, and the Mirai in particular has been tested to cold-start down to -20 degrees Fahrenheit. (I didn't think to ask if that required some equivalent of the combustion-engine "block heater," or other measures to ensure that the water "exhaust" still in the system didn't freeze...)

Nissan Leaf with quick-charge port

Of course, it never gets anywhere near that cold in Hawaii except up Mauna Kea, so that's no advantage here. Another often-touted advantage of FCVs over EVs is that it takes just minutes to refuel an FCV's hydrogen tank, whereas typical charging stations for EVs take at least a few hours to go from empty to full. That advantage is fading, though, with the commercialization of quick-charge hardware. One of the first events I covered for this website was the opening in 1998 of a quick-charge station being tested at an electrical utility site; the vehicles using the station were specially modified Chevrolet S-10 electric pickups. However, the photo above shows the charge port of a factory Nissan Leaf, with a conventional 220V charger plugged in on the right and a high-power 440V port for quick charging on the left. This is a $1630 option package, including LED lights, for the high-end SL version of the Leaf. It's a little hard to get 106 amperes at 440V in your garage, but the question is whether it would be easier for somebody to build a public station to make 440V electricity available or to build the station and the production and distribution infrastructure to make hydrogen available. The Leaf charges from 0-100% in about 3-4 hours on 220V, I am told, but 440V charging gives 0-80% in about half an hour. Not as quick as the minutes to refuel an FCV, but a lot closer. Anyway, there are no plans to bring the Mirai to Hawaii for awhile, as it will start in California only, so I am grateful to Toyota for bringing these vehicles here, and I am doubly grateful to Quaid for coming along so I could talk with him! [Note added 26 March 2016: According to Maggie Clark, Hawaii will be the second state to receive the Mirai, with a few already on Oahu in spring 2016.]

Chevrolet Spark and Volt

Besides the Nissan Leaf, other EVs and plug-in hybrids (PHEVs) for sale in Hawaii were on the show floor. In the background of this photo is the Chevrolet Volt, which will get an upgrade in 2016; in the foreground is a Chevrolet Spark that, despite its name, is gasoline-powered. The EV version of the Spark has never made it to Hawaii, but I am holding out hope for its successor, the Bolt.

BMW i3

Several months before this show, I started seeing the BMW i3 on Hawaii roads. This model included the new range-extender motor, which recharges this EV's battery when it gets low while out driving; this is similar to the arrangement in the Volt. I have been told that BMW is offering this as a retrofit for i3 drivers who got the earliest cars, which didn't have the extender.

Tesla display with Model S

And, despite this being a smaller show than, say, Los Angeles, here is something I have never seen before at an auto show: a dedicated Tesla display. I first saw the Tesla Roadster at the L.A. Auto Show in late 2006, but it was part of the Yokohama Tires display outside the main exhibition halls, and I've seen a few other Roadsters at booths advocating electric transportation, like environmental organizations or electric utilities, but this is the first time I've seen the Tesla company itself stake a claim! The Model S in the picture seemed to draw a lot more traffic than the equally red Ford Mustang to its right at the edge of the photo, but to be fair, that was a 4-cylinder version...

In the time between when I attended this show and when I wrote up this report, Tesla has introduced a "house battery" intended to store cheaper off-peak electricity for use during expensive on-peak times, and/or to help buffer the fluctuations of solar or wind electricity feeding into a house. The Mirai FCV will include a "power take-off," at least in California when initially offered, that will let you run electrical equipment or a whole house off electricity generated by its fuel cell, if the utility power goes out; work is ongoing to develop standards to enable this, and for entire EVs to act as rolling "house batteries" while they are parked in a garage. Tesla is a leader in this effort, as well.

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new 31 May 2015, updated 26 March 2016