Weekly Recap: Toyota propels hydrogen fuel cells
Plus: Notes on Mercedes, Ford's Marketing Shuffle And One-Off Vipers
The Japanese automaker said this week it's releasing 5,680 fuel cell patents from around the world, including technologies used on its upcoming sedan, the 2016 Mirai. The move is unusual, but not unprecedented, as Tesla similarly released its electric vehicle patents last year. The idea for Tesla, and now for Toyota, is to spur development of alternative propulsion.
"By eliminating traditional corporate boundaries, we can speed the development of new technologies and move into the future of mobility more quickly, effectively and economically," said Bob Carter, Toyota Motor Sales senior vice president of automotive operations, in a statement.
Toyota's fuel cell patents will be free to use through 2020, though patents related to producing and selling hydrogen will remain open forever. Toyota said it would like companies that use its patents to share their own hydrogen patents, but won't require it.
"What Toyota's doing is really a logical move, and really a good move for the industry," Devin Lindsay, principal powertrain analyst with IHS Automotive, told Autoblog.
The announcement was made at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. It comes as Toyota prepares to launch the hydrogen-powered Mirai in a limited number late this year in California. The launch will be extended to the Northeastern United States next year. Toyota also has announced plans to support networks of fueling stations in each region to try to smooth consumer adoption. The Mirai has a 300-mile range on a tank of hydrogen, and it takes about five minutes to refill.
Fuel cells have been receiving increased attention recently, and Audi and Volkswagen debuted hydrogen-powered cars at the 2014 Los Angeles Auto Show. Honda, another proponent of the technology, also showed its updated FCV concept in November in Japan. The company, however, has delayed its fuel cell sedan a year until 2016. Like Toyota, Honda says its hydrogen-powered car will have a range of 300 miles or more. Meanwhile, Hyundai currently offers leases for fuel-cell powered Tucsons, which have a 265-mile range, in Southern California.
Despite the optimism some automakers have for fuel cells, the technology still faces barriers. A lack of filling stations has long held it back, and many consumers are not familiar with the potential benefits. Cost has been another sticking point, and a tax incentive worth up to $8,000 expired at the end of 2014, leaving cars like the Mirai (MSRP: $57,500) far out of reach for many buyers.
"Cost is definitely the main barrier," Lindsay said.
Toyota's patent giveaway seems to put it at a competitive disadvantage, or at least levels the playing field. But Lindsay notes there is very little competition right now, and without other players, hydrogen will never gain acceptance by consumers or get a viable infrastructure. By offering access to others, like suppliers, Toyota is actually supporting its own investment in hydrogen.
"Overall, it helps, certainly at the development stage," Lindsay said. "Once the market matures, that's when everyone goes with their own secret sauce."
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Mercedes-Benz leads autonomous charge at CES
Self-driving cars grabbed the spotlight at CES this week, and the F 015 concept offered a glimpse of Mercedes' ideas for an autonomous future. The F 015 is about the size of an S-Class, and its body is made of carbon-fiber reinforced plastic, aluminum and steel. Exterior LED lights turn blue indicating if the car is being driven autonomously, or shine white if it's being piloted by the driver.
But since the idea of this car is not to drive, the inside is designed like a lounge. The four seats can pivot to face each other, and there are six digital screens that allow passengers to interact with the car or and the outside world. If needed, the front seats can swing toward the front, and the steering wheel automatically extends. Being a Benz, the cabin is done up in wood, leather, glass and metal. The suicide doors swing open at a 90-degree angle to allow easy access for passengers. The doors also expand, or inflate like an airbag, during a crash. The F 015 runs an electric hybrid system that draws power from batteries and a fuel cell for a total range of about 648 miles.
Mercedes has been an early adopter of autonomous driving, and some features on the current S-Class use elements of the technology to aid the driver. An S-Class prototype also completed a 62-mile autonomous test through Germany in 2013. Mercedes parent, Daimler, also built a Future Truck 2025 concept, which debuted in September and demonstrates the benefits of autonomous features for long hauls.
Mercedes moves US headquarters to Atlanta
Meanwhile, Mercedes-Benz USA confirmed this week it will move to Atlanta from its longtime headquarters in Montvale, NJ, beginning in July. The company will take space in a temporary location and is building a new facility that's expected to open in 2017. Mercedes said the move positions it closer to its port in Georgia and its US factory in Alabama, as well as its growing consumer base in the Southeast.
Mercedes US president and CEO Stephen Cannon said in a statement the company had to move to "achieve the sustained, profitable growth and efficiencies we require for the decades ahead." About 1,000 employees are affected, and some operations will remain in New Jersey. Mercedes is the latest automaker to decamp from its longtime home. Cadillac is leaving Detroit for a New York headquarters this year, and Toyota is setting up shop in Texas after decades in California.
Ford signs Mark LaNeve to head US sales and marketing
Well-traveled industry veteran Mark LaNeve is joining Ford to head its US marketing, sales and service. He comes from Ford's advertising agency, Global Team Ford, where he has been chief operating officer since 2012. LaNeve, 55, was General Motors North America sales and marketing vice president from 2004-2009 and earlier served as general manager of Cadillac. Before that, he was CEO of Volvo Cars North America for two years. After leaving GM in 2009, he went to Allstate Insurance where he oversaw the launch of the Mayhem campaign.
LaNeve arrives at Ford as the company reshuffles its executive team. He replaces the retiring John Felice as US sales chief, and will report to Stephen Odell, who just took over Ford's global sales job from Jim Farley. Farley, in turn, was exported to lead Ford of Europe.
Viper launches GTC custom one-off program
So you're leaning on your Viper as its V10 idles in the paddock at your local motorsports ranch. Doff the shades and casually mention to your fellow drivers: my Viper's a one-off.
Yep, you can do that if you opt for the newest trim level, the GTC. When you order one (of one), Dodge will build your Viper to taste. Pick your own colors, stripes, interior, aero package and wheels, among other features. Dodge says there's actually 25 million possible unique combinations, and no two customers will be able spec-out their Viper the same way in the same model year. You'll legitimately have a one-off car, but with that many potential combinations, you won't be alone.
The GTC trim costs $94,995, which is the same price as the GT model, which is $10,000 more than the base Viper. The GTC also includes a personalized badge on the instrument panel and a concierge service that updates you during the build process. You can have the Viper shipped in an enclosed car carrier or choose to pick it up at the Viper factory in Detroit. Orders of GTC models start in February.
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