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Thursday, February 5, 2009

German pop star, 16, becomes world's youngest transsexual

From Tim to Kim:

By Mail Foreign Service

German teenager Kim Petras who became the world's youngest transsexual after undergoing an operation at the age of just 16 says she can't wait for the summer so she can try out a whole new wardrobe of tight fitting clothes.

The pop singer - born Tim - is well known in Germany for having started hormone replacement therapy as part of her gender transition by the age of 12.

Now 16, she completed Gender Reassignment Surgery in November, according to a posting on her blog.

Girl in a boy's body: Pop singer Kim Petras, 16, may have become the world's youngest transsexual after completing gender reassignment surgery last November

Girl in a boy's body: Pop singer Kim Petras, 16, may have become the world's youngest transsexual after completing gender reassignment surgery last November

Dr Bernd Meyenburg who heads the Psychiatric Special Outpatient Clinic for Children and Adolescents with Identity Disorders at the University of Frankfurt Hospital said: 'Very few youth psychiatrists have any experience with transsexual developments. The families wander from one psychiatrist to the next.

'I was always against such operations on children so young but after seeing how happy one of my patients was and how well adjusted after returning from having the operation abroad while still a teenager – I realised that in some cases it is the right decision.

'Kim is such a case – she always knew what she wanted.'

Kim herself said: 'Everything has changed because of this operation. I just can't wait to put on my favourite bathing suit and go swimming like I've never done before.

'I had to wait until my 16th birthday but once that was past I was able legally to have the operation.

Kim Petras

Kim Petras pictured as a young boy

'I know that because of my past people will always bring up the subject, I can't get away from it. But I hope that one day I might be better known for something else like my music.'

In Germany, such operations are not usually allowed until the patient is 18.

However Kim managed to convince doctors when she was just 12 that she should have the surgery.

By 14 she was officially registered as a girl - and was already famous for her choice.

The costs of her procedure were covered by health insurance as her condition was officially diagnosed as an illness.

Dr Achim Wuesthof, an endocrinologist specialising in children and adolescents, who was treating Kim at a clinic in Hamburg, said that he and his colleagues felt that in this case it had been best to start earlier.

He said: 'To the best of my knowledge, Kim is the youngest sex change patient in the world.

'According to German law, two independent psychiatrists must confirm that the child is indeed transsexual and approve the sex change. Once that has been done, it is best to start as early as possible.

'Transsexuals experience the onset of puberty, and the physical changes it brings, as a serious trauma.

'But there is a general lack of empathy with cases like Kim's, mostly because people know little about the condition. Imagine a man that suddenly starts growing breasts or a woman that starts growing a beard against their will – that is how Kim and people like her experience puberty.

'They are not freaks, nor do they suffer mental illness. They are simply trapped in the wrong bodies. That is why it is best to help them as early as possible and reduce the trauma for them and their families.'

Last year Kim was signed to Joyce Records and released online her first single 'Last Forever'.

It became a YouTube and MySpace hit.

In September - just weeks before the cosmetic surgery finalising her transition from a male to a female -she released her first commercially available single 'Fade Away' into the German market.

Kim said: 'I was asked if I feel like a woman now – but the truth is I have always felt like a woman – I just ended up in the wrong body.

'I had a problem because I couldn't wear skinny stuff, but now I can wear whatever I want to. I really am looking forward to going swimming like everyone else and to wearing tight jeans that show off my figure. They are so tight, I always felt quite uncomfortable in them until now.

'Now I can go as tight as I want to. I used to wear mini skirts too, but yes, now even the tight ones can be part of my wardrobe.

'I can enjoy swimming, and bikinis, go in the changing rooms without a problem, everything has changed because of this operation. I just can't wait to put on my favourite bathing suit and go swimming like I've never done before.'

Kim, who is now studying fashion design, began calling herself a girl when she was just two years old.

Her father Lutz said: 'I suppose it took me longer than my wife to accept it, but Kim is a very persuasive girl, she knows what she wants and how to get it.

'I am very proud of what she has achieved, how she has managed to get there and how she sticks to her dreams no matter how hard and painful they are to follow.'

A Mammoth Discovery in Down Town San Diego

Skull, tusk and foot bones found at future site of law school in East Village


Construction workers discovered the remains of an adult Columbian mammoth this week at the future site of the Thomas Jefferson School of Law. San Diego Natural History Museum employees Pat Sena, (from left) Sarah Siren, Chris Plouffe, Jennifer Nash and Maggie Carrino worked to uncover a skull (center) and tusk (right). Paleontologists from the museum estimate the remains are about 500,000 years old. (Laura Embry / Union-Tribune) -


August 2007: An 8-foot mammoth tusk is found at an East Village construction site at 16th and Market streets.

October 2001: A 7-foot mammoth tusk is discovered at a construction site in Oceanside near Mission Avenue and Old Grove Road.

February 1999: A 4-foot mammoth tusk is found at a construction site south of Fairbanks Ranch.

January 1987: The nearly complete remains of a mammoth are uncovered in the Anza-Borrego Desert State Park.

Former President Thomas Jefferson would have appreciated the discovery yesterday of an 8-foot tusk, skull and foot bones of a mammoth unearthed at the downtown construction site of a law school named for him.

The remains of the adult Columbian mammoth were found in the East Village, where the Thomas Jefferson School of Law is building its new $68 million campus. Paleontologists from the San Diego Natural History Museum estimate they are about 500,000 years old.

While serving as president in the early 1800s, Jefferson had fossilized bones of a mastodon found in Ohio shipped to the White House so he could examine them, said Rudy Hasl, the law school's dean.

“He was just fascinated with these large creatures,” Hasl said. “It's particularly appropriate that there is a connection between this find and Thomas Jefferson.”

Paleontologists from the museum are excavating the bones for transport to the museum for detailed study. They say the bones hold clues about animal life in the downtown area a half-million years ago, as well as indicators of climate changes that varied from hot to cool in eons past.

“It's a pretty important find,” said Pat Sena, a paleontologist for the museum who identified the bones yesterday morning. “The mammoth itself is a pretty rare find, and this is a really intact skull, foot bones and tusk.”

The museum has collected mammoth tusks elsewhere in the county, but this is its first skull, said Thomas A. Deméré, the museum's curator of paleontology.

“This was the largest land animal of its time,” Deméré said.

Construction workers spotted what they believed was a fossilized redwood Tuesday afternoon, several feet below street level at Island Avenue and Park Boulevard. Sena called for work to stop in that corner of the construction zone yesterday morning when he determined that the fossil was the animal's right tusk.

“I saw a piece of tusk fragment and started digging on in,” Sena said.

The mammoth was 20 percent larger than the modern elephant and lived during a dry period in the area, Deméré said. That's apparent because there is a layer of dirt containing the shells of marine creatures below the bones and another shell-rich layer above the mammoth fossils.

The position of the mammoth fossils – in a stratum that also included the bones of rabbits and rodents – indicates that the mammoth roamed the area at a time when the waters had receded.

Sena, who monitors construction sites for the museum, said he has found mammoth bones in Oceanside, Carlsbad, and the Borrego Springs area.

“It shows that the county was teeming with mammoths and that it had a savannah environment,” he said. “It was a lot wetter than it is today.”

Ronald W. Powell: (619) 293-1258;

BREAKING: White House will end medical marijuana raids!

DEA continues pot raids Obama opposes

President vowed to end policy

Stephen Dinan and Ben Conery, THE WASHINGTON TIMES

Drug Enforcement Administration agents this week raided four medical marijuana shops in California, contrary to President Obama's campaign promises to stop the raids.

DEA Acting Administrator Michele Leonhart

The White House said it expects those kinds of raids to end once Mr. Obama nominates someone to take charge of DEA, which is still run by Bush administration holdovers.

“The president believes that federal resources should not be used to circumvent state laws, and as he continues to appoint senior leadership to fill out the ranks of the federal government, he expects them to review their policies with that in mind," White House spokesman Nick Shapiro said.

Medical use of marijuana is legal under the law in California and a dozen other states, but the federal government under President Bush, bolstered by a 2005 Supreme Court ruling, argued that federal interests trumped state law.

Dogged by marijuana advocates throughout the campaign, Mr. Obama repeatedly said he was opposed to using the federal government to raid medical marijuana shops, particularly because it was an infringement on states' decisions.

“I'm not going to be using Justice Department resources to try to circumvent state laws on this issue," Mr. Obama told the Mail Tribune newspaper in Oregon in March, during the Democratic primary campaign.

He told the newspaper the "basic concept of using medical marijuana for the same purposes and with the same controls as other drugs prescribed by doctors, I think that's entirely appropriate."

Mr. Obama is still filling key law enforcement posts. For now, DEA is run by acting Administrator Michele Leonhart, a Bush appointee.

Special Agent Sarah Pullen of the DEA's Los Angeles office said agents raided four marijuana dispensaries about noon Tuesday. Two were in Venice and one each was in Marina Del Rey and Playa Del Ray -- all in the Los Angeles area.

A man who answered the phone at Marina Caregivers in Marina Del Rey said his shop was the target of a raid but declined to elaborate, saying the shop was just trying to get back to operating.

Agent Pullen said the four raids seized $10,000 in cash and 224 kilograms of marijuana and marijuana-laced food, such as cookies. No one was arrested, she said, but the raid is part of an ongoing investigation seeking to trace the marijuana back to its suppliers or source.

She said agents have conducted 30 or 40 similar raids in the past several years, many of which resulted in prosecutions.

"It's clear that the DEA is showing no respect for President Obama's campaign promises," said Dan Bernath, a spokesman for the Marijuana Policy Project in Washington, which advocates for medical marijuana and for decriminalizing the drug.

California allows patients whose doctors prescribe marijuana to use the drug. The state has set up a registry to allow patients to obtain cards allowing them to possess, grow, transport and use marijuana.

Kris Hermes of Americans for Safe Access, a medical marijuana advocacy group in California, called the raids an attempt to undermine state law and said they were apparently conducted without the knowledge of Los Angeles city or police officials.

He said the DEA has raided five medical marijuana dispensaries in the state since Mr. Obama was inaugurated and that the first took place on Jan. 22 in South Lake Tahoe.

"President Obama needs to keep a promise he made, not just in one campaign stop, but in multiple speeches that he would not be spending Justice Department funds on these kinds of raids," Mr. Hermes said. "We do want to give him a little bit of leeway, but at the same time we're expecting him to stop this egregious enforcement policy that is continuing into his presidency."

He said he is aware that Mr. Obama has not installed his own DEA chief but that new Attorney General "Eric Holder can still suspend these types of operations."

The Justice Department referred questions to the White House.

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Copyright 2009 The Washington Times, LLC

An Illustrated Guide to Baseball Pitches

A fan’s guide to identifying pitches.

bloop curve pitch diagramI‘m a baseball fan. I’ve watched my share of televised games and attended a few handful. After all this, I was still in the dark about the difference between pitches. I knew a curveball broke downwards, but what exactly was a circle changeup?

The diagrams below are the results of skimming through baseball books and doing online research. This is not a complete guide. I’ve picked twelve of the more common pitches:

  • Fastballs: Four-seam, Two-seam, Cutter, Splitter, and Forkball
  • Breaking Balls: Curveball, Slider, Slurve, and Screwball
  • Changeups: Changeup, Palmball, Circle Changeup

Learning to Identify Pitches

The list of pitches might seem like a lot to keep track of, but remember that each pitcher utilizes only a selection of these pitches. For example, Pedro Martinez throws a curveball, circle-changeup, an occasional slider, and a fastball. Do a little research on the pitcher before the game.

Things to watch for that will help you identify a pitch:

  • Speed
  • Movement - the general direction the ball is moving
  • Break - a sudden shift in direction

There are a few other things that can help you identify a pitch: ball rotation, point of release, and grip. For a casual fan though, it might be a bit much and I don’t illustrate or discuss any of the latter three items.

Reading the Diagrams

Take note of the speed, movement, and break of the ball. Don’t worry about where the baseball is shown in the the strike zone. You can throw a fastball in the middle of the strike-zone like the one illustrated, or you can throw one high and away from the batter. It’s still a fastball. Location doesn’t determine the pitch.

I’ve collected all twelve of the pitch diagrams below, minus the text notes, into a single PDF:

Baseball Pitches
149 kb - PDF
four seam fastball pitch diagram

Four-seam Fastball

85-100 mph

  • Fastest, straightest pitch. Little to no movement.
two seam fastball pitch diagram

Two-seam Fastball

80-90 mph

  • Also known as a Sinker.
  • Moves downward, and depending on the release, will sometimes run in on a right handed hitter (RHH).
cutter pitch diagram


85-95 mph

  • Breaks away from a right handed hitter (RHH) as it reaches the plate.
  • Mix of a slider and a fastball. Faster than a slider but with more movement than a fastball.
splitter pitch diagram


80-90 mph

  • Breaks down suddenly before reaching plate.
forkball pitch diagram


75-85 mph

  • Like a splitter, but with a less dramatic, more gradual downward movement.
curveball pitch diagram


70-80 mph

  • Commonly called a 12-6 curveball. The 12-6 refers to the top to bottom movement (picture a clock with hands at 12 and 6).
slider pitch diagram


80-90 mph

slurve pitch diagram


70-80 mph

  • 11-5 movement. Similar to a curve but with more lateral movement.
screwball pitch diagram


65-75 mph

1-7 movement. Opposite of the slurve.

changeup pitch diagram


70-85 mph

  • Slower than a fastball, but thrown with the same arm motion.
palmball pitch diagram


65-75 mph

  • Ball is gripped tightly in palm.
  • Just like a changeup, this pitch is slower than a fastball, but thrown with the same arm motion.
circle changeup pitch diagram

Circle Changeup

70-80 mph

  • A changeup with 1-7 moment like the screwball.

Amazing New Water-Powered Jet Pack

Amazing New Water-Powered Jet Pack - Watch more Funny Videos

1366 Technologies wins DOE Contract to Develop Low Cost Cells

The Massachusetts startup plans to design its own factory equipment to show it can mass-produce multicrystalline silicon cell with an efficiency to 19 percent instead of the typical 15.5 percent.

1366 Technologies said Thursday it will get up to $3 million from the U.S. Department of Energy to produce crystalline silicon cells that promises to work harder at cranking out electricity.

The Lexington, Mass.-based startup is getting the money from the Solar American Initiative, a program to invest in technologies that could make the cost of producing solar energy on par with power from coal- or gas-fired power plants by 2015.

1366 Technologies aims to reduce the manufacturing costs by raising the solar cells’ power output and using different materials. And it has to figure out ways to make them on a commercial scale. If all goes as planned, then 1366 Technologies can offer ways to cut production costs by 25 percent, said CEO Frank van Mierlo.

The company, founded in 2007, has been able to produce roughly 10 cells per day in its pilot production line. The goal is to make 1,000 of them per day, van Mierlo said.

The company’s technology grew out of research conducted by Emanuel Sachs at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The startup has set out to improve the multicrystalline silicon cells’ efficiency, which refers to how well they can turn sunlight into electricity. Multicrystalline silicon cells aren’t as good at converting sunlight to power as monocrystalline silicon cells, but they are cheaper to make. That trade off has seen a growth in multicrystalline silicon cell and panel producers worldwide.

Multicrystalline cells have a typical efficiency of 15.5 percent, and 1366 Technologies wants to increase that to 19 percent without increasing the manufacturing costs, van Mierlo said.

The company’s researchers have figured out two ways to increase cell efficiency. One is to i mprove the conductivity of the cells. Currently, solar cells are printed with lines made with a mix of silver and other materials for conducting and transporting the electrical current. The mixture contains materials that significantly hamper the silver’s conductivity, and the lines are thicker than they could be, van Mierlo said.

What 1366 Technologies has done is shrink the lines’ width to 30 microns from 100 microns to 150 microns, thereby exposing more of a solar cell’s surface to the sun. The company also wants to copper instead of silver. Copper doesn’t conduct electrical current as well as silver, but it’s cheaper. Making these changes would improve a cell’s ability to absorb the blue light and improve its power-generation capability, van Mierlo said.

The second improvement 1366 Technologies’ researchers have made is to change the texture of the solar cell so that it can trap and absorb more of the infrared light.

“Imagine the cell that is completely flat, and infrared light comes in and reaches in and bounces and comes back out. Now imagine you have ridges and valleys on the front of the cell, and when the infrared light hits the silicon surface and all the ridges before it get out,” van Mierlo said.

To show that it’s possible to mass-produce this kind of solar cell, 1366 Technologies is designing some of the manufacturing equipment itself. The company intends to make money from selling solar cells and the wafers used to make the cells, as well as licensing its manufacturing technologies.

1366 Technologies will have 18 months to hit its goals as part of the DOE deal. The government funding alone won’t be enough, but 1366 Technologies has enough money to carry out the project, van Mierlo said. The company has raised roughly $12.5 million in private equity so far.

The startup is one of many working on making solar cells cheaper. That will pit it against a number of existing solar factory equipment makers such as GT Solar. Optomec, based in Albuquerque, N.M., only recently introduced a new piece equipment to shrink those light-conducting lines on solar cells (see Optomec Boosts Solar Cell Efficiency With Fine-Line Printing).

Bullet Arrow February 5, 2009

Mission Motors: The Need for Electric Speed

The motorcycle maker will soon release a sport bike that will turn heads. Mass market to follow

Mission Motors is working on the next big status symbol: the electric motorcycle.
The company, formerly known as Hum Cycles, is concocting an expensive, fast and all-electric motorcycle for enthusiasts called the Mission One (see Hum Cycles Raises Angel Funding). The first 50 bikes, due in early 2010, will be limited editions, followed by 250 others that are similar, said CEO Forrest North in an interview.

The expected price is $68,999. Five have already been sold. North will show off a prototype this week at TED, the spring-break-for-bigwigs conference taking place this week in Long Beach, Calif. North will not be giving test rides. The bike is particularly fast and is the kind of thing that needs to be handled by more experienced riders. Having Bono stack it up on Highway 1 might bring a damper to the proceedings.

Like electric cars, electric motorcycles will beat out most of their gas-burning counterparts in acceleration. The bike, which will top out at 150 miles per hour and go 150 miles on a charge, will rank high on the zero to 100 miles per hour ratings, even compared to bikes with two to three times the horsepower. That's because electric motors inherently can access power rapidly from an engine.

Electric bikes will also provide a new, unusual and "aesthetic" driving experience, he said. Because they don't have gas motors, electric motorcycles are essentially silent. The loudest sound is the chain and the wind. (I test drove an all electric Zero Motorcycles and can confirm this). Electrics also don't jiggle and vibrate like gas burners.

"There's a connectedness to the road. You get into a zone. A [gas] motor sort of disconnects you," he said, adding, "it will be blazingly fast."

Unfortunately, lithium-ion batteries still cost quite a bit, so the company will start at the high end and try to trickle its technology down. It is a similar strategy to one employed by Tesla Motors.

"We didn't feel battery technology was cheap enough yet to make a mainstream commuter that would be palatable," North said.

Making electric motorcycles is, however, arguably easier than getting into the car business. For one thing, crash testing is far less rigorous, according to motorcycle executives. It is also less concentrated. The world's car market is dominated by a few big brands. By contrast, there are roughly 200 motorcycle makers in the U.S. alone, he said. (Many are custom builders.) Factories are far cheaper and motorcycles require smaller batteries, the big sticking point for electric vehicles.

High-end buyers also won't likely blanch at the price. Some custom sport bikes from high-end makers like Ducati can cost $70,000 or so, he said. Execs and engineers from the company, in fact, have worked at both Ducati and Tesla Motors.

Other companies, meanwhile, are taking an opposite tack. Zero (see hilarious video here), Vectrix and Brammo have all developed electric rides for the mass market. These bikes all cost more than gas equivalents. Zero has a dirt bike while Vectrix has a street scooter.

Will these be popular? Like electric cars, potential consumers are already intrigued. When North drives the prototype around, motorcyclists often come up and ask questions. That is, after it gets quiet enough to speak.

"The first thing they do is turn off their motorcycle to talk to me," he said.

Bullet Arrow February 4, 2009

Smart Grid: A Matter of Standards

As utilities deploy millions of smart meters that need to send and receive massive amounts of data, the question of what types of communications networks they're using is becoming a matter of increasing controversy.

Eka Systems' EkaNet Wireless Nodes support legacy and standards based application protocols at the Node to interface to multiple meters. Eka works with Itron, GE, Landis+Gyr, Sensus and Elster.
Eka Systems How open should the smart grid's communication and networking infrastructure be? And what's the definition of "open" communications standards in the first place?

As a host of utilities and smart meter companies turn to companies to help them network millions of smart meters being deployed across the nation, these questions are coming to the fore (see Smart Meter Installations Grow Nearly Fivefold).

Radio frequency mesh networks like those provided by smart meter makers Itron, Elster, Landis+Gyr and others – as well as the Internet protocol (IP)-based system from startup Silver Spring Networks – are coming under indirect criticism for their lack of openness by companies like Trilliant, which provide communications based on the ZigBee standard, or SmartSynch, which uses cellular networks from providers like AT&T.

At the same time, Eka Systems, which has developed its own smart meter data communications and networking technology, says that companies like Silver Spring Networks that have built IP networking systems are settling on a standard that, while open, will lead to problems with increasingly complex data communications needs to come in the future.

Who's right – or perhaps more importantly, which point of view utilities and regulators adopt – could play a big role in who succeeds in the emerging smart grid industry.

The subject is a hotly discussed one at the DistribuTech conference in San Diego this week, when companies spanning the reach of the smart grid meet to ply their wares and state the case for their technologies (see DistribuTech Shines Spotlight on Smart Grid).

Silver Spring: RF Mesh and IP

Take Silver Spring Networks, which provides communication networks for smart meter systems now being deployed by utilities including Pacific Gas & Electric Co., Florida Power & Light, American Electric Power and others, fueled by a $75 million investment led by Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers (see Silver Spring Grabs $75M).

The Redwood City, Calif.-based company installs smart meter interface cards with frequency-hopping radios that mesh together in a 900-megahertz frequency range, much like technology from big smart meter makers.

But Silver Spring singles out its use of Internet protocol throughout the stages of its network to differentiate itself from those others.

"We see this as much as the Internet was conceived... it's capable of evolving and supported by so many parties as an open standard," said John O'Farrell, executive vice president of business development.

But the fact that Silver Spring still uses its own RF mesh technology for the physical transmission of data lays it open to criticism from other companies that have come up with different means of getting that done.

Trilliant's "Beefed-Up ZigBee"

Redwood City, Calif.-based Trilliant is one of them. The company has deals with about 100 utilities, including Ontario, Canada's Hydro One, and in August landed $40 million from MissionPoint Partners and zouk ventures.

Trilliant builds a "multi-tiered network" that uses a beefed-up version of the 802.15.4 wireless standard – which the ZigBee protocol uses for in-home equipment – as its primary home-to-utility concentrator point communications technology. That "SecureMesh" system then links to concentrators that can communicate to utilities via a variety of public and private wireless networks, said Eric Miller, chief solutions officer.

So what's that mean? Theoretically, Trilliant's physical communications system could be open to other equipment using its enhanced ZigBee-based gear, CEO Bill Vogel said during a recent meeting with reporters.

Silver Spring, on the other hand, "is open standard, but the last piece – the physical equipment – is proprietary," he said. "We embrace broader, more holistic stuff."

That's led Trilliant to push for Congress to include requirements for open standards-based systems in any federal support for smart grid technology deployment, Vogel said.

"Everything needs to be industry standards. Everything needs to be plug-and-play," he said.

Communications Options

Silver Spring has also called for open standards language to be included in any federal support for smart grid deployment (see Draft Stimulus Plan Has Billions for Smart Grid). That’s because Silver Spring doesn’t see a conflict with using RF mesh communications gear to support standards-based networking, O’Farrell said.

Rather, he says that utilities have settled upon RF mesh because it’s the best technology for the purpose.

"You’ve got WiFi, which as we know doesn’t work well in a municipal setting or widespread setting," he said (see An Old Favorite – WiFi – Preps to Disrupt Smart Meter Market). O’Farrell said that ZigBee has similar problems with transmitting in areas dense with trees, buildings and other obstructions – problems that Trilliant says it has solved with its 802.15.4-based technology.

O’Farrell added that there are powerful, but overly expensive, solutions like broadband over powerline technologies (see Will Smart Grid See a Push for Power-Line Networking?).

"And you’ve got WiMax, which may be promising, but will take a massive capital investment and many years to roll out," he said. Grid Net, a startup with links to Intel and General Electric, has come out in support of using WiMax for connecting smart meters to utilities (see The Next Smart Grid Technology: WiMax).

Still, O’Farrell insisted that Silver Spring is "absolutely committed to standardization in the RF mesh" field, and expected that work to accelerate as more and more utilities choose the technology for their smart meter efforts.

A Cellular Option?

For Stephen Johnston, CEO of smart meter communications networking company SmartSynch, the promise of future RF mesh standardization isn’t quite good enough.

"That’s kind of a weak answer," he said. "There are lots of things being developed. Does that mean that what they’re building will be what the end standard is?"

SmartSynch, not surprisingly, has its own answer: "We’re the only company in the space that’s really bet the ranch on public wireless networks," Johnston said. That’s the technology the Jackson, Miss.-based company has installed in meters and other gear in deals with more than 100 utilities, mostly in industrial and commercial smart metering.

On the residential side, where far more meters serve customers with far smaller individual power demands, "what the market hasn’t seen yet is a value story from our network partners that makes sense for mass deployment," he said.

But that could change very soon, he predicted.

"When these carriers decide they want to be in this business, you know they’ll do anything they need to win in this space," he said.

Who Defines Standards?

Of course, the question remains whether utilities will want to rely on wireless carriers or build their own networks. In that sense, the open versus closed standards issue goes beyond robustness and reliability.

In closed environments, utilities can set up a winner-take-all economy where companies touting very specific technologies get extensive contracts and all the other vendors are left out. In standards based environments, a wide variety of thermostat makers, software vendors and others can compete. In that scenario, a utility could offer customers $100 rebates if they installed a network card into their meter and give the consumer the option of picking up a wide variety of cards.

Nationwide, there will be probably be a mix with some utilities opting for closed environments and others opting for open, said Adrian Tuck, CEO of Tendril Networks.

"We come across utilities with that [closed] mindset all the time," he said. Approximately one-third of the utilities opt toward a winner-take-all closed approach, he said. "But they are outnumbered two to one by people who want an open approach."

Some companies, on the other hand, argue that talking about open standards at all at this point is putting the cart before the horse.

Srini Krishnamurthy, vice president of corporate development for Eka Systems, is one of them. His company raised $18.5 million in July and provides data networking technology to smart meter deployments in Russia, Singapore, Ecuador, the city of San Marcos, Texas and U.S. utilities including Tampa Electric (see Eka Systems Dives Into Water World).

Eka’s networking technology will be "IP-compliant," Krishnamurthy said, but added that "I believe we have invented a new routing infrastructure" to go beyond what he called the limitations of IP architecture as it exists today to connect millions of meters together.

In Eka’s case, "The network forms itself on the basis of the best available path and the best available routes, without having to tell any meter what to do," he said. "That’s part of our core intellectual property."

As far as Sam Lucero, senior analyst with ABI Research in Scottsdale, Ariz., is concerned, this fact means that Eka Networks’ technology is "an example of proprietary from top to bottom."

But Krishnamurthy says that’s not accurate, given what he sees as the evolving status of the industry.

"One can say "proprietary" only when there’s an open standard available and published for this application space," he said. But in the smart meter communications industry today, "There are bits and pieces emerging, but there isn’t one definitive approach or standard." Eka will work to be compliant with those standards as they emerge, he said.

Does It Matter?

When it comes to the "neighborhood area network" that Silver Spring, Trilliant, SmartSynch and Eka Networks are arguing over, ABI Research’s Lucero said that interoperability at the physical level, and even at the networking level, might not be that important.

"The communication that happens between the meters in an area and to a concentrator, or aggregator, there’s much less of a need for standardization," he said -- an argument that could apply to Silver Spring, as well as smart meter makers that have developed their own, often 900 megahertz, short-range wireless technology, he said. The lack of a strong case for standards at the neighborhood level could even apply at the networking level, he said.

It’s a different case in the so-called Home Area Network -- the stage that connects meters or other endpoints to home energy monitors, "smart" appliances and other devices within the home.

"That’s where standardization at all levels of the networking stack, the communication stack, is important," since "many utilities want as an end goal for consumers to be able to go and buy devices at retail."

Still, standards at the neighborhood area network level will be important for at least one group – the companies trying to bring new technologies and services to bear in utility smart meter deployments.

That’s the view that Erich Gunther, chairman and CTO for EnerNex Corp. and an architecture council member for the smart grid industry group GridWise Alliance, laid out in a January 2008 white paper on the topic.

"Presently, each communication vendor develops a unique interface card for each meter (in close cooperation with the meter vendor)," Gunther wrote. "This one-at-a-time, custom approach presents a high barrier of entry for new meter vendors. That’s good for meter vendors perhaps, but not for the utility customers."

by: Jeff St. John

Finding Early Signs of Arthritis

Molecular checkup: Atomic-force microscopy images show molecular changes in cartilage decades before symptoms show up. In this image of osteoarthritic cartilage, collagen fibers are lined up instead of randomly ordered, as in healthy cartilage. The white arrows point to a gap in the fibers, and the silvery diamond represents the microscopy probe.
Credit: Martin Stolz

Osteoarthritis, which affects about 14 million people in the United States alone, occurs when cartilage between joints degrades and disappears, leaving joint bones to grind painfully against each other. Therapies can alleviate some of the pain, and some patients undergo joint replacements, but there is no cure. Now nanotechnologists at the University of Basel, in Switzerland, have demonstrated that the molecular changes characteristic of the disease's earliest stages can be detected using an atomic-force microscope (AFM). The researchers hope that using the extremely sensitive technique to monitor response to osteoarthritis therapies will speed the development of more-effective drugs for the disease.

Other research groups have used AFM, one of the standard tools of materials science, to study the mechanical properties of tissues including bone and even individual cells such as cancer cells. The researchers, led by Martin Stolz, a nanotechnologist at the University of Basel, are the first to apply the technique to cartilage. AFM can detect cartilage breakdown decades earlier than can conventional diagnostics, the team reported in Nature Nanotechnology this week.

The symptoms of osteoarthritis are caused by molecular-level changes in the tissue that aren't visible on conventional diagnostics such as x-ray images. "Osteoarthritis, like many other diseases, starts at the level of molecules, [and current techniques] don't look at where it starts," says Stolz. "The molecular scale is where you first have changes--that's where you should address them."

Cartilage is made up of tough collagen fibers that provide structure and soft, water-attracting supportive proteins that hold the collagen in position. In osteoarthritis, the supportive proteins in the cartilage disintegrate, drying out the joint and leading to disruption of the collagen fibers and eventual loss of cartilage altogether. Osteoarthritis is conventionally diagnosed with x-ray images or when a doctor, using a minimally invasive surgical probe called an arthroscope, notices changes in the appearance of the cartilage. Normal cartilage looks white and shiny under the arthroscope, but when osteoarthritis is under way and the tissue begins to break down, cartilage loses its shine and takes on a velvety appearance. By the time these changes are visible, Stolz notes, the greatest tissue damage has already happened.

Because AFM probes the mechanical properties of cartilage, not its appearance, it's much more sensitive, says Hari Reddi, an orthopedist at the University of California, Davis, who was not involved in the research. In the AFM data, the tiny increases in spacing between the collagen fibers and their increasing stiffness--changes characteristic of the early stages of the disease--are visible.

In its study, the team found that AFM could pick up cartilage degradation in healthy mice well before the tissue showed visual signs of aging, and even before an electron microscope--a high-resolution imaging system that doesn't measure mechanical properties--picked up changes. The team also detected damage in the cartilage of mice with a disease similar to human osteoarthritis when the mice were just one month old--well before the animals showed signs of the illness.

When the researchers used AFM on human-cartilage biopsies taken from patients undergoing knee or hip replacements, they found that it could pinpoint age-dependent breakdown in tissue--even in outwardly perfect cartilage--long before other instruments could. "We're providing a nanoscale measurement that shows the breakdown of [molecules]," says Stolz. "You cannot detect that by any other means." It's possible that the technique could eventually be used to provide minimally invasive, early diagnosis of osteoarthritis. "By the time a patient comes in and complains, it's too late. The cartilage has gone to pot," says Reddi.

Even if clinical trials show the value of AFM for diagnosing the disease, Stolz acknowledges, there's still no cure. However, AFM could help speed the development of osteoarthritis therapies. "If you produce a potential drug, you have to wait six months before you see its effect on the macro scale" using x-ray imaging or an arthroscope, says Stolz. "Our tool clearly showed the changes at one month . . . If you think about it in the development of drugs, it saves a lot of time and money." Jingsong Wang, a rheumatologist at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine, agrees that the technology's greatest benefit will be in drug development, noting that nine major osteoarthritis drugs failed in clinical trials due to the fact that patients did not show progress. "You have to show the progression in your treated group using an imaging tool, and the only approved tool is x-ray," says Wang. "A [more] accurate measuring tool is a first step to studying this."

The researchers hope to develop an arthroscope that integrates an AFM tip, enabling doctors to more accurately monitor the progression of osteoarthritis, and offering a better tool for assessing the effectiveness of osteoarthritis therapies currently under development. Stolz also plans to use the microscope on blood vessels in the heart and the brain to determine if AFM could detect early signs of risk of heart attack or stroke.

Graphene for the Green Grid

Graphene power: Graphene Energy hopes that graphene electrodes such as this one will increase the energy-storage capacity and power output of ultracapacitors. This image, which shows the edge of a graphene electrode, was made with a scanning-electron microscope.
Credit: Meryl Stoller

Integrating irregular sources of renewable energy, such as wind and solar, with the electrical grid, while keeping power output steady, is going to be a big challenge. Energy-storage devices called ultracapacitors could help by storing sudden surges of power. But much will depend on developing a new generation of ultracapacitors with enough storage capacity to meet the likely demand.

Graphene Energy, a startup based in Austin, TX, hopes that ultracapacitors with electrodes made of graphene--sheets of carbon just an atom thick--will be the solution. The storage capacity of an ultracapacitor is limited only by the surface area of its electrodes, and graphene offers a way to greatly increase the area available.

Ultracapacitors store energy electrostatically, instead of chemically, as in batteries. During charging, electrons come to the surface of one electrode, and electron "holes" form on the surface of the other. This draws positive ions in an electrolyte to the first electrode and negative ions to the second. By contrast, the chemical reactions used to charge batteries limit the speed with which they can be charged and eventually cause the electrode materials to break down. Ultracapacitors can be charged and discharged very rapidly, in seconds rather than minutes, and can be recharged millions of times before wearing out.

However, ultracapacitors currently on the market can't match batteries for energy density, so they're mostly used in hybrid systems alongside batteries or for niche applications. Because these devices can handle a rapid influx of large amounts of energy, they're often used to recover energy--for example, when a city bus breaks or a gantry crane lowers its cargo. Ultracapacitors employed in this way have reduced by 40 percent the energy needed by some cranes used in Japanese ports. A few power tools, including an electric drill, take advantage of the rapid recharging ability of ultracapacitors.

Graphene Energy hopes to open up new ultracapacitor applications by developing devices with far higher power output. These ultracapacitors could perhaps be used to regulate surges in the electrical grid or to power hybrid transportation vehicles. The company has $500,000 in seed funding to commercialize graphene ultracapacitors developed by Rodney Ruoff, a professor and chair of mechanical engineering at the University of Texas at Austin. Ruoff is a cofounder of Graphene Energy and also serves as the company's technology advisor.

Existing ultracapacitors use electrodes made from activated carbon--a porous, charcoal-like material that has a very high surface area. Activated carbon stores charge in tunnel-like pores, and it takes about one second for it to travel in and out. This is very fast compared with the fastest batteries, but activated carbon has a limited power output.

To make the graphene for its electrodes, Ruoff's team starts by putting graphite oxide in a water solution. This causes the material to flake into atom-thin sheets of graphene oxide. Next, the oxygen atoms are removed, leaving the graphene behind. So far, Ruoff's lab has made graphene ultracapacitors that match the performance of those made using activated carbon. With further refinements, he says, they should outperform activated carbon, although the steps that his company is taking to achieve this remain secret.

Based on a description of the graphene ultracapacitors published last September in the journal Nano Letters, John Miller of JME, a research and consulting firm that specializes in electrochemical capacitors, says that it should indeed be possible to improve their performance. The graphene electrode described in this paper is "wadded into a ball like a crumpled piece of paper," says Miller. "You don't have full access to the surface."

If Graphene Energy can grow the electrodes in vertical arrays, like a row of perfectly flat sheets of paper standing on edge, Miller says that the power output could be increased dramatically. In this arrangement, every single carbon atom would be exposed and able to store energy, with virtually no waiting time for the charge to travel down the tunnels found in activated carbon.

However, in addition to improving the performance of its ultracapacitors, Graphene Energy must also develop a method for making them at larger scales--a common challenge across all graphene research.

Dileep Agnihotri, CEO of Graphene Energy, says that the company hopes to test its first prototype product incorporating graphene electrodes by the end of this year.

Another group of researchers hopes to make better ultracapacitor electrodes using carbon nanotubes--rolled-up tubes of graphene that have many of the same properties. "I think both approaches can work in principle," says Joel Schindall, a professor of electrical engineering and computer science at MIT who is working on the nanotube electrodes. "The key will be getting the growth process right, then working on ways to manufacture it in a cost-effective manner."

General to Nuclear Crews: Get it Right! Or Else...

Alston_cd2 In certain corners of the military, there's some grumbling, about how impossibly hard the Air Force's nuclear handling tests have become. Major General Don Alston, the Air Force's new man at the Pentagon overseeing all things atomic, has a message for the grumblers: Suck it up.

These are weapons that can destroy cities, and turn the world's political balance on its ear. There's no room, he says, even for the small failures. "You actually have to get out of bed every day and hustle to achieve a certain level of deterrence," Alston tells Danger Room. "Any anecdotal exposure of a weakness, that may or may not be interpreted as an opening for someone who would want to press an advantage."

It wasn't too long ago that the Air Force seemed to have a quite different attitude. Units mistakenly sent nuclear nosecone fuses to Taiwan, and lost track of six warheads. As a result, top officers were disciplined. The service's civilian and uniformed leaders were sacked. Once-relatively-lax Nuclear Surety Inspections became pressure cookers. These days, a few misfiled papers or a few out-of-place troops means the entire Wing flunking the NSI. Which is exactly what's happening, to unit after unit. Some wonder whether these minor flubs are being blown out of proportion.

Not Alston. Given nuclear weapons' potentially cataclysmic impact, it's a good thing "when a single airman can make a single mistake and that consequences of that mistake are absolute failure of the wing for that Nuclear Surety Inspection," he says. "Every failure is not equal -- for sure. But it does expose how dependent we are on every airman to do this job right."

If nuclear weapons are all about deterring potential adversaries -- and to Alston, they most definitely are -- then those enemies need to know that those arms will always be ready to fly, no matter what. Any imperfection, even a paperwork slip-up, "could result in an unsafe, unsure, unsecure or unreliable nuclear weapon system... one that could fail in peacetime and adversely affect credibility of the reliability of the system or fail if tasked to produce a nuclear yield," he says.

"So, tough business. I wouldn't want it any other way," Alston adds. "And I am not encouraged when people can rationalize: 'but for that mistake we were, y'know, kicking ass.' Well, but for that mistake, you would have passed. But you didn't. You failed. Tough business. And it needs to stay that way."

Hyundai Equus Interior Sketch

Rumors have run wild concerning the new Mercedes-Benz S-class-fighting (see, there's a rumor right there) Hyundai Equus, which will essentially be a larger, fancier, more powerful Genesis. Pricing, people say, will border on six figures in the Korean home market. Power could push 500 horses. But all we know for sure is what has been seen in the two official sketches of the future car, and that isn't much. Today, we get a little more, as Hyundai has released a sketch of the car's cabin. From what we can see, it does indeed look like a more luxurious Genesis with more wood and nicer seats. See the full shot after the jump.


The Fury: Honda's First Chopper

You meet the nicest people on a Honda ... chopper?
Honda Fury

Honda's motorcycle brand has always been firmly planted in the sport-bike and cruising genres, but its cruiser franchise has typically shown more brawn than bravado. Honda aims to change that with what it calls its "first production chopper," the V-Twin, 1312cc Honda Fury.

Dan Savino, a Honda spokesman, says the chopper will be priced for a new market of younger custom bike fans. "When the bike comes out this March, we estimate it will be around $13,000 for the base bike," he said.

Chevy Volt: The Inside Story (A Book Excerpt)

In late 2005, Bob Lutz was losing patience. Toyota was getting huge P.R. mileage out of its Prius hybrid, even as the automaker was gearing up to make inroads into the least energy-efficient segments of the market, large SUVs and pickups. Adding insult to injury, Lutz heard in late 2005 about a Silicon Valley company called Tesla Motors that was developing a high-performance electric car, which would sell for $100,000. Such a car would not be commercially viable from GM's perspective, but the idea that a start-up company in California could be doing something so technologically sophisticated-when the mighty GM couldn't-ate at Lutz. But the GM hierarchy was extremely skittish about batteries, hybrids, or electric cars, especially after the misadventure with the EV-1. In terms of commerce and public relations, it had been a disaster. So when Lutz pressed for some form of electric car, as he had on at least two occasions since his arrival, he was shot down. The data didn't support his thinking, he was told.

Soon thereafter, Lutz says, he "just lost it." In a fit of pique, he demanded GM snap out of its paralysis on the issue. He turned to veterans like Jon Lauckner of engineering and John Smith of product planning, both of whom reported to him, and also to Larry Burns, the head of R&D, and urged them to find a solution. With the help of an informal skunkworks that included veterans of the EV-1, they developed an internal white paper, a vision statement aimed at launching something they called the iCar. The paper was presented to GM's Automotive Strategy Board in March 2006, and the board approved it.

It was the equivalent of an Apollo moon shot: The company was going to invent a propulsion system and design an entirely new vehicle at the same time. "We don't normally let people do that," notes GM CEO Rick Wagoner. But despite those misgivings, Wagoner and his team had now set a goal of unveiling a new design-not a fanciful concept car, but a real car that could go into production-at the January 2007 Detroit auto show, only nine or 10 months away. By the standards of the automotive industry, that would require blazing speed.

In April 2006, the call went out to Tony Posawatz to start making it happen. Posawatz was tapped to become project leader for a combination of reasons. He had been involved in the EV-1 project and was known for his interest in alternate propulsion systems. Partly because of his MBA, he also had business savvy. And he had been involved in product launch efforts for half his 24 years at the company. There was also a personality factor: Posawatz was someone who could operate in a loosely defined, somewhat chaotic environment. He could be creative. He could hustle different departments for resources. He could get things done unofficially.

Still, he almost didn't take the iCar job because he thought it would be a "science-fair project," a term GM people use to describe something that may be interesting but has no chance of moving into commercial production. "I said, 'No, I'm not interested in doing a concept car. I do real cars.' Then I got the second call. 'No, no, no. You don't understand. This is more than a concept car.'"

Roomy passenger cell and 105.7-inch wheelbase should qualify the Volt as an EPA midsize sedan, allowing it to compete with such high-volume players as Camry, Accord, and Altima.

He was given about a dozen people from various parts of the company to get started part-time. Only Posawatz was assigned to the project full-time. "Everyone else had other jobs," he says. "It was purposely set up as a team with a lot of different types of diversity. I'm not talking about just the general diversity, but diversity of thought, from age to different types of individuals, different backgrounds." The charge to the team was very clear and exciting. "The leadership message we got was, 'Try to find a way to displace petroleum.' They didn't say, 'Be the greenest or be the most environmentally friendly.' Those are all nebulous terms. But when you tell engineers, 'Try to find a way to displace petroleum,' oh, boy, engineers can solve those problems."

Lutz asked the team to do a pure electric vehicle, but they pushed back; they weren't going to be stampeded into any particular course of action. The problem, as the team launched into engineering simulations and feasibility studies, was that GM's engineers were intensely divided over whether future cars should be powered by diesel, E85, pure electric batteries, hybrids of various sorts involving both electric and combustion engines, or fuel cells that might operate on hydrogen or methanol. It was an emotional, high-stakes war among the tribes.

The starting point was a review of what was right and wrong about the EV-1. "We went through a point-counterpoint process," Posawatz explains. The EV-1 was a two-seater, which limited its market appeal. It was a unique vehicle in terms of components, which made it expensive. It used a 220-volt inductive charging system, which required rewiring many customers' garages. It had no cargo space. And it had lead-acid batteries, which meant it had a limited range. Ideas were created, tested, fought for, and shot down.

One raging debate was how far the new car should be able to go on a single battery charge. "Why 40 miles?" Posawatz asks rhetorically. The winning argument was that 78 percent of Americans drive less than 40 miles a day. It also ended up being ideal because of the amount of tunnel intrusion the appropriately sized battery would create.

To avoid giving drivers range anxiety, the team decided to add a small gasoline engine. It could never actually power the vehicle; it was there to recharge the battery and thus extend the range of the vehicle past 300 miles. Drivers running short on power could simply stop at a gas station and fill up, obviating the fear of running out of juice on a long and lonely road.

Posawatz's breakthrough was getting the warring tribes to rally around a unifying concept, which became known as E-Flex (later Voltec). The idea was to make a vehicle architecture flexible enough to accommodate the various energy strategies GM engineers were pursuing. "If you're a fuel-cell advocate, the engine generator set can be replaced by a fuel-cell stack. If you're an E85 advocate within the company, we can burn E85 fuel in the engine generator set. So, ultimately, when people finally understood the value of it, and its connecting qualities, it became something that the whole organization rallied around. It reached the point that everyone felt, 'This is my idea.' Everyone had a kick at the can."

By November 2006, two months before the Detroit auto show, the E-Flex team had made enough progress that Wagoner and the ASB decided to start production engineering work on the car, now called the Chevrolet Volt. That was an unusual step; typically, the company doesn't start the very expensive engineering work on a model until after it has gauged the market's response to an unveiling. Wagoner made a key speech in Los Angeles at about this same time, promising GM would take the lead on a new generation of fuel-efficient vehicles. Few in the outside world believed GM was serious.

Taking a new car from concept into production is like a relay race; no matter how skilled the individual, no one can handle all aspects of getting it done. So in March, two months after the Volt was introduced, a German by the name of Frank Weber arrived from GM Europe to take over for Posawatz. Weber's title became vehicle line engineer and chief engineer, meaning he was responsible for bringing the vehicle to market and meeting its cost "boundaries," as well as for resolving all technical questions. The VLE position is one of the toughest jobs at GM, and Weber's measure of success is simple: Either the Volt is launched in November 2010, or it's not.

One reason GM has put a European in charge of the Volt launch may be that Europeans in general are ahead of Americans in attempting to adapt to a world in which energy costs are high and there are constraints of space, money, and resources. "Fuel is nine dollars per gallon in Europe," Weber says. "But there is definitely another piece, which is European history in dealing with limited space. Because of the war also, I think there is something in Europe that makes everything a little leaner. You go with less." What's also unusual is that Weber reports to a leadership board, which includes Wagoner, Lutz, and all the top product people inside GM.

While the original Volt concept (below) was a sporty, glass-roofed coupe, the production-version sedan has wider buyer appeal.

"The Volt is on!" Rick Wagoner announced at a press conference before the annual shareholders meeting in Wilmington, Delaware, in May 2008. The board of directors had just authorized funds to gear up production. Not surprisingly, Wagoner approaches the Volt more from a business and economic angle than from a technological or design point of view. "The first cars out are going to be pretty expensive," Wagoner explains, sitting in his office in the Ren Cen. "That is the key issue we need to be confronting. We really have to be able to drive down the costs.

Lutz says the Volt will be an "absolute game changer." That's not to say he isn't concerned that the cars will be priced so high that it discourages customers from buying them or that GM will have to subsidize purchases, meaning it will lose money on each sale. "There isn't a well-developed supply base for the stuff that you need in an electric vehicle, and we're having to pay exorbitant prices for a lot of the stuff. But some of it we'll integrate in-house. We already have seen areas where we can save a lot by switching to making something instead of buying it. So the second and third generations will be cheaper."

The Volt's architecture is new from the ground up and managing its engine is also a different experience from that of a conventional auto. There are no customary gauges or shifter. Screens will facilitate monitoring of battery, fuel, and emissions levels.

A company with GM's global scale should be able to quickly find many markets for the Volt. "I think it has the potential to be almost the Model T redux," says Lutz. "That's why we've designed it to comply with all known crash regulations around the world. It'll be available in right- and left-hand drive, and it'll go to China and Latin America, Europe, everywhere. Clearly the technology is such that, once we've got it into mass production as a Chevrolet, there's no reason why we can't do larger versions, smaller versions, more luxurious versions, truck versions, and so forth."

Lutz says the Volt's technology may be the only thing that will enable GM to meet tough U.S. fuel economy regulations: "Because we're going to get a label of over 100 mpg for it." That figure is widely debated. Some analysts consider 50 mpg more realistic; it will depend a great deal on how the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency conducts its mileage test. If it operates the Volt only on the battery, it would use no gasoline. But if the EPA insists on using the gas engine to charge the battery, the miles per gallon would be fewer.

Lutz believes that in the early stages of the Volt's development, the media overstated the challenges of the lithium-ion battery-with help from Toyota. "Toyota started [the negative media coverage] because they have such an enormous equity in nickel-metal hydride batteries, which are okay. But they are last-generation. They are very mature; they're very reliable. We use 'em, too, in our full-size hybrids. But the energy storage is only half of what you get with lithium-ion."

Neutral observers agree Toyota was not eager to make the move to lithium-ion because of its huge investment in three factories in Japan that made nickel batteries. "There is only one company that has a stranded cost in nickel, and that's Toyota," says Alex Molinaroli, CEO of Johnson Power Controls, which makes lithium-ion batteries for BMW and Mercedes-Benz in Europe. "They [Toyota] would be least motivated to move to a new technology." Lately, however, Toyota has gotten on the bandwagon and has announced that it, too, will unveil a plug-in hybrid in 2010 using lithium-ion batteries. Thus a high-stakes technology race is fully engaged.

If the Volt fails it will be a signal to everyone inside GM and to everyone who watches the company that its woes were as deep as its harshest critics suggested. It either could not make the right bets or could not break free from its bureaucratic shackles to innovate. If, however, the company starts production in November 2010-or comes close-it will be a wakeup call to those same people and to the whole market. GM can once again stake a claim to design and technological leadership in the auto industry.

Excerpted from "Why GM Matters," written by William J. Holstein and published by Walker Publishing Company, Inc., New York, 2009. William J. Holstein has written for BusinessWeek, U.S. News & World Report, The New York Times, and Fortune, among other publications, and is author of the books "Manage the Media" and "The Japanese Power Game."