Volkswagen Caddy Maxi EcoFuel driven by Rainer ZietlowEnlarge Photo
2010 TAG Heuer Tesla RoadsterEnlarge Photo
Last week, we covered the kick-off of Tesla's round-the-world tour, featuring a special-edition 2010 Tesla Roadster designed by luxury watchmaker TAG Heuer. The high-profile stunt is designed to show that Tesla's all-electric Roadster has plenty of range, and that it can circumnavigate the globe without using a single drop of gas. But the Roadster isn't alone on either of those fronts: there's another long-distance drive currently underway that has turned its back on gasoline, and it features a much more humble Volkswagen.
The drive is one of the longest on Planet Earth: the legendary Panamericana, or Pan-American Highway. It's being carried out by Rainer Zeitlow in a Volkswagen Caddy Maxi EcoFuel, which runs entirely on compressed natural gas (CNG). Between October 5 and November 3, 2009, Zeitlow drove the VW from Portugal to Japan along the Amur Transcontinental. He began the Panamericana trip just two months later, on January 2, in South America's southernmost CNG station in Rio Grande, Argentina.
After nearly three months and a couple of long side trips into Brazil and America's eastern seaboard, Zeitlow has nearly finished his run through the Americas. He hit San Francisco on Friday, and he aims to wrap up the journey a week from Thursday, on April 2, when he motors into North America's northernmost CNG station in Barrow, Alaska. In all, Zeitlow will have covered some 24,855 miles on the two excursions.
So, what's our take?
As pure spectacle, it's fantastic. We love a good rally, even if there's only one competitor. And alternative fuels are exciting, too -- even though they may be worse for the environment and the economy than good old-fashioned gasoline. Still, as tech geeks, we like to watch the tests anyway.
Unfortunately, CNG doesn't seem like an especially viable alternative fuel for most consumers -- despite T. Boone Pickens' efforts to prove that it is. He may be right when it comes to commercial hauling fleets and mass transit, but for most passenger vehicles, the future looks more like the all-electric one proposed by Tesla. In fact, it may look more like the all-electric one proposed by Honda, GM and others, thanks to vehicles powered by hydrogen fuel cells.
We say that for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is that hydrogen fuel cell technology relies on easily renewable resources (e.g. water) and produces zero carbon emissions, which are stated goals of many automakers, governments, and political groups these days. True, the hydrogen infrastructure is expensive to create -- around $2 million per fueling station to start -- but after that initial investment, the costs begin to trail off. Skeptics say that hydrogen will never be a viable source of energy because it's so difficult and expensive to create, and that could be true. But no matter where the electricity to power EV batteries comes from, the industry seems poised to transition away from vehicles that run directly on fossil fuels and toward those powered by batteries.
CNG, on the other hand, is expensive to recover, and it's not likely to become any less so over time. Furthermore, it's a limited resource, and limited resources always come with high costs -- politically, socially, environmentally, and economically. (Though it's only fair to point out that the lithium used in lithium ion batteries is even more limited than natural gas, and the mother-lode seems to be in Bolivia; in other words, until new battery tech rolls out, the politics of battery-powered vehicles will be tricky, too.) Finally, CNG vehicles aren't zero-emission. They're far cleaner than gasoline-powered rides, but they're not perfect.