Everything You Ever Wanted To Know About Alternative Vehicle Choices
With all the talk we’ve heard lately about sustainable eco-friendly vehicles, I thought it might be useful to identify some pros and cons of the alternative engine choices available now and promised to come to market in the future.
AskPatty's Contributing Editor Brandy Schaffels has driven Chevy’s Hydrogen Fuel Cell Equinox and says it offers excellent performance. She also says if she had two million dollars, she would absolutely build a 700-bar Hydrogen fueling station in her neighborhood so she could create one tiny piece of the infrastructure required to support this emerging technology. But experts suggest urban areas should have enough Hydrogen fuel stations located close enough to each other so that users will have ready access to fuel. Even building just 100 fueling stations around Los Angeles would require an investment of 200 million dollars. And as if that’s not enough, the prohibitive cost of producing the fuel cells themselves puts the feasibility of this choice far into the future. Hydrogen-powered vehicles have been manufactured by BMW, Ford, General Motors, Honda, and Toyota. Can you buy one? Some are available in specialized fleets, but none are yet for sale to the general public.
We’ve all heard about the Tesla electric car and are amazed by the performance (0 to 60 in four seconds) promised by this battery-operated sports car, but did you know that it is powered by more than 6800 lithium-ion computer batteries? Besides being incredibly expensive ($98,000) have you considered how the battery performance of your laptop degrades over time and how this is likely to transfer to the performance of that little car? And where will all those little batteries go after they lose their effectiveness? Again, this car is too expensive and impractical to be considered a viable option for the average consumer.
Since November, Chevy has been testing the first batch of batteries developed specifically to power its electric Chevy Volt. This plug-in vehicle promises emission-free travel for about 40 miles on one charge, with additional range made possible by a secondary gasoline engine. Research shows more than 75 percent of drivers in the United States commute fewer than 40 miles a day, and for these drivers, a fully-charged Chevy Volt will use no gas and produce no tailpipe emissions. If testing goes as planned, Chevy hopes these vehicles will be available to consumers by 2010 with a price point between $30K to $40k. This vehicle promises the greatest value to commuters who travel short distance and have access to a common 110-volt electrical outlet, so apartment and condo dwellers will have to make other charging arrangements.
The electricity required to charge plug-in vehicles such as the Tesla and Volt can come from a number of energy sources - including renewable ones such as wind, solar, geothermal, hydroelectric, and biofuels - or from traditional sources such as natural gas, coal, nuclear, or even gasoline. The source from which the electricity is manufactured is largely determined by the region in which the user lives, and how their utility company contracts for power. Residents of Idaho, for instance, use electricity created largely by the region's hydroelectric powerplants; while residents of Pennsylvania use electricity created by burning coal. The true benefit to the environment must be measured by how your region procures its electricity; the emissions won’t be coming out of your tailpipe, but they will be coming out of the plant that produces the electricity.
E85 and Flex Fuels:
Renewable biofuels such as E85 ethanol and biodiesel have tremendous potential to help offset the world's growing energy demands. FlexFuel E85 ethanol vehicles can run on either gasoline or E85 ethanol - a blend of 85 percent ethanol and 15 percent gasoline - or any combination of both.
In addition to helping us reduce petroleum use and promote energy independence, E85 ethanol fuel produces fewer greenhouse gases during the combustion process and can enhance engine performance. It is a cleaner fuel made today from mostly U.S.-grown biomaterial, such as corn. But researchers are working on broadening the supply of ethanol by turning other non-food plant materials such as lumber mill waste, switchgrass, lawn clippings, and even garbage into what's called cellulosic ethanol. Unlike corn-based ethanol, the cellulose in the products used to make cellulosic ethanol must be pre-treated and then broken down into sugars before they can be fermented, a step called cellulosis. The technology required to do this is currently under development by the manufacturers themselves, as well as the fuel companies.
A broad assortment of flexible-fuel cars, SUVs, and trucks are offered by Chrysler, Dodge, Ford, General Motors, Honda, Lincoln, Mercedes-Benz, Mercury, Mazda, Mitsubishi, Toyota, Saturn, and Volvo, but access to ethanol-based fuels is limited to specific regions in the midwest of the United States.
Hybrid Electric/Gasoline Powerplants:
Among the most familiar eco-friendly choices, hybrid engine technology combines gasoline and electric power to increase fuel economy and reduce emissions. This technology is currently offered by Chevy, Ford, Honda, Lexus, Nissan, Saturn, Toyota, Mazda, and Mercury. Most hybrid drivers realize the best improvements in stop-and-go around-town driving, so breakeven of purchase cost versus fuel savings depends largely on each owner’s driving style. Most experts say a hybrid can take five to ten years to pay for itself.
Additional Fuel-Efficient, Low-Emission Engine Technologies:
Did you know you can make a difference just by choosing a fuel-efficient or low-emission engine? Direct-injected, turbocharged gasoline engines such as that offered by Ford’s EcoBoost in the United States (and other manufacturers in Europe) carefully time delivery of precise doses of gasoline directly into the cylinder to encourage a more fuel-efficient combustion process with reduced emissions. Turbocharging utilizes additional energy from the exhaust to deliver additional boost to the fuel combustion process. These two technologies combine to offer up to 20 percent improvement in fuel economy, up to 15 percent reduction in C02 emissions, and an increase in performance that makes a V-6 engine feel like a V-8, or a four-cylinder feel like a six.
Slightly more expensive than traditional engines, but slightly less costly than the hybrid gasoline-electric powerplants currently available, this technology has proven effective in Europe and is emerging in the United States. It promises to be an efficient, eco-friendly option that doesn’t require an entirely new fuel delivery/charging system.
If reducing tailpipe emissions is your main concern, consider a zero- or near-zero emissions vehicle. The cleanest in this group are defined as Partial-Zero-Emissions Vehicles. PZEVs are 90% cleaner than the average new model year car, have zero evaporative emissions, and offer a 15-year / 150,000-mile warranty on its emission control components. No evaporative emissions means that they have fewer emissions while being driven than a typical gasoline car has while just sitting idle.
Many PZEV choices are available in model year 2008, such as the BMW 328i; Buick LaCrosse and Lucerne; Chevy Cobalt and Impala; Chrysler Sebring; Dodge Avenger; Ford Focus, Fusion, Taurus, and Taurus X; Honda Accord; Hyundai Elantra; Kia Spectra; Mazda 3 and 6; Mercedes-Benz C350 and E350; Mercury Milan and Sable; Mitsubishi Galant, Outlander and Lancer; Nissan Altima; Pontiac G5 and Grand Prix; Subaru Forester, Legacy, and Outback; Toyota Camry; Volkswagen Jetta, Rabbit, and New Beetle; or Volvo S40 and V50.
Many manufacturers also offer Ultra-Low Emissions (ULEV = 50% cleaner than the average new model year car) choices in their lineup, so be sure to ask your salesperson what ULEV and PZEV vehicles they have on the lot.
Compressed Natural Gas
Emissions-minded shoppers can also opt for an ultra-clean-burning natural gas 2008 Honda Civic sedan. Right now, this is the only option available directly from a manufacturer, though some companies may offer aftermarket engine conversions that can be fitted to other vehicles.
Even though most people think they must choose a hybrid vehicle to be truly eco friendly, consider some of the other options contained in this article. Depending on your driving style and budget, you might find you can make an equal contribution to the environment simply by choosing a more economical or more emissions-friendly vehicle.