At Witz' End - Working vacation means testing a new Prius in Hawai'i, and more
Which brings us to Honolulu, where I was recently asked to speak to a group of Hawai'i-based auto enthusiasts – creatively called the "Auto Lunch Bunch" – that meets once a month for lunch at the Waikiki yacht club (sounds fancier than it is). What did they want me to talk about? EVs and Hybrids? Yeah, I could do that.
Group organizer (and old friend) Bill Maloney, who is producer and host of the "Ohana Road" automotive TV show on Honolulu's KITV (ABC) and writes an auto/humor column called (what else?) "A Bunch of Maloney," for the Honolulu Advertiser, sweetened the offer by talking the local Toyota dealer into loaning me a new Prius for our six-day stay. Who could say no? (more after the jump)
A short cab ride from the airport brought us to Servco Auto, Hawai'i's largest Toyota store, where we were welcomed by lovely customer service rep Stacy. On our way to our hotel on the other side of the island, the Prius' range gauge was promising 450 miles.
On the day we drove back across the island to the humungous Ala Moana mall and a tasty dinner at Bubba Gump Shrimp, the Prius' GPS navigation system did a great job of getting us there, though its screen washed out badly in bright sunlight from behind. Once there, its "Nav Lady" told us to turn left into the parking deck... which I did, noticing in the process that it was a prohibited left turn. "Honest, officer, we were just following Nav Lady's directions." Luckily, no cop was there. And who would ticket such a "green" car anyway?
Driving back, we noted that the Prius is very nervous in side-winds at freeway speeds. Other minor complaints: the (blended regenerative/friction) brakes felt squishy, a fairly common hybrid trait, there was no USB input for my beloved iPod, and we found that we could not monitor the trip computer while using the (automatic radar) cruise control, since both occupy the same portion of the centrally located multi-information screen. On the positive side, our average fuel economy was an amazing 46.4 mpg.
On the day of my talk, I arrived (as requested) a half-hour early and parked the Prius for display directly behind a sexy Tesla electric sports car. The Tesla (one of only two in Hawai'i) belonged to fellow speaker Henk Rogers, President and CEO of Blue Planet Software and the Blue Planet Foundation and a committed environmentalist working hard to make our 50th state greener than it already is. Guess which car got the most attention.
I was greeted outside by Maloney and fellow Lunch-Bunch organizer Ed Kemper, a former sports-car racer who now hosts and produces "Island Driver TV" (OC-16) and is auto writer for Hi Luxury magazine. And I did have time to tout the 2010 Prius and demonstrate its key features to several interested attendees, some of whom were considering purchasing one.
Just as the waiter served my salmon salad, it was time to entertain and enlighten the group. I started by taking them through the true story behind GM's EV1 and its engineering test and development, which I was lucky and proud to have led between 1991 and 1999, when the program was regretfully canceled after just two model years of low-volume production. The same true inside story you may have read (still can) in greater detail in earlier ABG columns (Parts I, II, III, IV and the three Q&A sessions – 1, 2, 3).
Then I talked about how most of the very talented people who labored long and hard on that commercially unsuccessful, but technologically brilliant, program continued cranking on electric propulsion as GM's focus shifted from battery-only vehicles to fuel cell EVs (still viable in the long-term in the eyes of many), two-mode hybrids (way expensive but more fuel efficient at highway speeds than Toyota/Ford single-mode systems) and range-extender EVs, the first of which – the much-hyped Chevy Volt – should reach production in late 2010.
With little time for Q&A, since it was Rogers' turn to talk, I did take a couple of questions. Everyone wanted to know whether battery technology would one day advance to where pure battery EVs would be much more affordable and practical. I answered with an honest, "I don't know." I'm no battery engineer, but I understand that lithium is about as good as it's going to get as a base material. On the other hand, there are many different ways to mix and bake it with other materials and much room left for cost reduction, so we'll see.
Henk Rogers, the Dutch-born entrepreneur and philanthropist who founded and is chairman of Hawai'i's Blue Planet Foundation, is a very rich man. One of his companies, Blue Planet Software, holds exclusive intellectual property rights to Tetris, the world's most popular electronic video game with over 70 million units sold. Among his recent scores are launch of the casual game portal Tetris Online, the digital photo management developer Blue Lava Technologies and multiplayer virtual world builder Avatar Reality. His companies also include Bullet-Proof Software, AnimaTek, Blue Lava Technologies and Blue Lava Wireless, one of the country's top mobile phone game publishers.
His nonprofit Blue Planet Foundation works to drive transformative change in Hawai'i's energy culture. "Hawai'i is the most dependent state in the nation on imported oil, "Rogers told us. "Some 50 million barrels are imported annually, nearly 80 percent of which originate from foreign sources. In addition, over 805,000 tons of coal are imported into our state. These sources provide power for over 92 percent of Hawai'i's electricity generation." As a cluster of islands abundant in sun and wind, he asserted, "Hawai'i can become a role model to the globe for clean energy solutions" by dramatically reducing – and eventually eliminating – the fossil fuels it imports and consumes.
When we returned our borrowed Prius (averaging a very impressive 47 mpg) to Servo on our way back to mainland reality, we were driven to the airport by wonderfully friendly product manager Bryan Hata. Many thanks to him, to Paul Lam, who provided the loan, and to everyone else on this beautiful island who helped us enjoy our restful – and for me, fairly productive – working vacation. Mahalo and Aloha to all. We will be back!
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