TRUE NORTH: WHY AUTOMAKERS ARE STILL BETTING ON ELECTRIFICATION – THE BIG PICTURE

Looking into the future of EVs and luxury cars

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A tale of two worlds: As President Trump attempts to kick-start America’s coal mining industry, rolling back regulations and gutting environmental protections, Britain revealed its carbon emissions were the lowest since Grover Cleveland was in the White House—since 1894, to be precise—thanks to policies explicitly designed to discourage coal use.

Another tale of two worlds: While automakers petition the Trump administration in Washington to rescind fuel economy standards that would require their U.S. vehicle fleets to average 54.5 mpg by 2025, at the annual Geneva show they proudly touted fuel-efficient hybrids, cars that run on near CO2-neutral synthetic methane gas, and electric vehicles.

The line between hypocrisy and hard-nosed business savvy is often thinner than a politician’s promise. Automakers don’t make policy, however. Politicians do. And automakers are navigating political worldviews heading in fundamentally different directions.

Capitalizing on the Trump administration’s anathema toward environmental regulation is opportunistic and likely driven by a desire to save spending R & D dollars on ultra-fuel-efficient vehicles Americans now say they don’t need or want. (You can partially thank cheap gas prices for the current consumer psychographics.) But although the U.S. remains an important and lucrative market, it’s no longer the true north for the world’s automakers. That much was clear at the 2017 Geneva show.

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In 2011 Rolls-Royce unveiled the 102EX concept at Geneva, a giant Phantom sedan with two electric motors developing a total of 390 hp and 589 lb-ft of torque. A year later, the project was dead. Extremely wealthy Rolls-Royce customers simply weren’t interested in a car with a 100-mile range and an eight-hour charge time. Six years later, Bentley’s EXP 12 Speed 6e Geneva concept put the ultra-luxury electric car back on the agenda. What’s changed? Battery performance, for a start: If a production version of the EXP 12 Speed 6e were built, it would have a range of at least 300 miles, says Bentley’s engineering chief Rolf Frech.

But technological advances are merely part of a bigger story: “I think the environmental situation has changed a lot,” Frech says, noting large, compressed cities are contemplating curbs on vehicles with internal combustion engines in order to improve local air quality. The mayors of Paris, Mexico City, Athens, and Madrid have already announced a ban on diesel vehicles from 2025. Persistent, choking smog in Beijing and New Delhi has also prompted restrictions on vehicle use in those cities.

Even though many electric cars are automotive muesli—vehicles designed to look like they’re saving the planet—the glittering, extravagantly proportioned EXP 12 Speed 6e, which previews design elements of the next-generation Bentley Continental GT, is hedonism on wheels. Underneath the glamour, though, is a pragmatic response to a coming trend. “We want to make it possible for our customers to go wherever they want,” Frech says. And that includes cities. “What is important is that even if they are only driving 10 miles or at 10 mph, customers should feel they are driving a Bentley.”

In America, in the context of cheap fracked gas and Trump’s environmental policies, the Bentley EXP 12 Speed 6e would seem doomed to the same fate as the Rolls-Royce 102EX. But that’s not necessarily how the rest of the world will see it.

More than a half-million electric vehicles were sold in China last year, a 50 percent increase on 2015 sales that effectively doubled the number of EVs on the world’s roads. The Chinese predict a total of 5 million EVs will be in service by 2020, which explains why they are also spending billions on lithium-ion battery raw materials and manufacturing plants. In three years China will be producing almost three times the lithium-ion battery capacity as the U.S., and that’s assuming Tesla’s Gigafactory in Nevada meets its ambitious targets.

America once set the agenda for the global automotive industry, but by 2020 emerging markets such as China and India are expected to account for two-thirds of the auto industry’s global profits. And if those markets demand luxury electric vehicles, they’ll get them. The development of those EVs, ironically, might well be paid for with the money automakers saved by not having to meet tougher 2025 American fuel economy targets.

NEWS

MCLAREN FORMULA 1 STAR FERNANDO ALONSO TO RACE IN INDY 500

Two-time F1 champion will skip Monaco Grand Prix

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McLaren hasn’t fared well in Formula 1 as of late, with the team’s Honda power unit being the main cause of its woes. This has reportedly put team driver and Formula 1 star Fernando Alonso in a funk — something he has made apparent in interviews. In a stunning move that is perhaps an attempt to provide the Spaniard with some much needed fun, McLaren and Alonso on Wednesday announced he will skip this May’s Monaco Grand Prix — F1’s crown jewel — and head to Indiana to compete in the 101st running of the Indianapolis 500.

Alonso will drive for the Honda-powered Andretti Autosport team, which has won the race four times, including last year when IndyCar rookie and ex-F1 hopeful Alexander Rossi scored a shocking victory. Alonso will become the sixth driver on Andretti Autosport’s roster for the upcoming race, driving alongside Rossi, Marco Andretti, Ryan Hunter-Reay, Takuma Sato, and rookie Jack Harvey.

Alonso will drive a Dallara-Honda car with its exterior sporting the same orange McLaren livery also found on his F1 car. The team is also likely to keep many of Alonso’s sponsors. McLaren’s inclusion in the Indy 500 will mark the first time the race team has competed in the IndyCar series since its exit in 1979.

Fernando Alonso headshot

F1 drivers racing at Indy isn’t unprecedented, as swapping back and forth from each series used to be more common, with the likes of Jack Brabham, Graham Hill, Jim Clark, Emerson Fittipaldi, Mario Andretti, Jackie Stewart, Alberto Ascari, Jochen Rindt, Jacques Villeneuve, and Nelson Piquet competing in both throughout the years. However, Alonso’s skipping of Monaco is an unusual situation.

McLaren has not announced who will replace him, though former McLaren stalwart Jenson Button remains tied to the team. McLaren also has three test and development drivers: Oliver Turvey, Nobuharu Matsushita, and Nyck De Vries. Other than Button, Turvey is the only one of the candidates with actual experience behind the wheel of an F1 car, completing 698 test laps, and currently races in Formula E.

As for Alonso, he said, “I’m immensely excited that I’ll be racing in this year’s Indy 500 with McLaren, Honda, and Andretti Autosport. The Indy 500 is one of the most famous races on the global motorsport calendar, rivaled only by the Le Mans 24 Hours and the Monaco Grand Prix. I’m confident that I’ll get to grips with it fast. I’ve watched a lot of IndyCar action on TV and online, and it’s clear that great precision is required to race in close proximity with other cars on the far side of 220 mph. I realize I’ll be on a steep learning curve.”

Dario Franchitti, a three-time Indy 500 winner, four-time IndyCar champion, and a 24 Hours of Daytona winner, told MotorSport Alonso’s debut in IndyCar is “brilliant for IndyCar, absolutely brilliant. To see him going head-to-head with the likes of Scott Dixon, Tony Kanaan, Will Power, Helio Castroneves, these types of drivers, is just fantastic and it will make a massive splash around the world.” Franchitti did acknowledge that Alonso will need to learn quickly and make sure he’s digesting all the information he gets in order to succeed.

Mark Miles, CEO of Hulman & Company, which owns the Speedway and the Verizon IndyCar Series, said, “The entire IndyCar community — competitors, fans, media, everyone — is delighted and excited at the prospect of a driver as brilliant as Fernando making his debut in our series. Even better, he’ll be making that debut in the greatest race of our year, the world-famous Indy 500.”

McLaren commercial boss Zak Brown — who has strong business ties to IndyCar and who was behind the idea of Alonso racing at Indy — said, “I would love to have Fernando to be in two places at one time but we can’t, at least that technology has not yet been developed. I think the opportunity for the prize in Indianapolis is very large and an opportunity that none of us want him to miss.”

Alonso will fly to Indianapolis after the Spanish Grand Prix to begin testing. Indianapolis 500 practice begins May 15, with the race scheduled for Sunday, May 28.

Source: IndyCar, MotorSport

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