All About Green Machines: A Primer


All About Green Machines by TCC Team (7/15/2006)
The basics - and more - about earth-friendly vehicles.

Fuel prices are hovering near record levels, while turmoil in the Middle East threatens to cut off supplies of petroleum. Meteorologists predict another year of record heat and high hurricane activity as some skeptics start to accept the threat of global warming.


It’s no wonder American motorists have begun to think twice about the cars, trucks, and crossovers they buy. Wherever you turn these days, you hear people talking about hybrids, diesels, ethanol, and fuel-cell vehicles. But what exactly do these terms mean? Can they really reduce your fuel bills, trim back on imported oil, and lower harmful automotive emissions? Are any of these products are right for you? And are there any downsides?


No silver bullet


“There is no silver bullet,” no single solution that will solve all these challenges, cautions Jeff Alson, director of the EPA’s office for Transportation and Air Quality. But he is quick to add that there are a variety of different alternatives that may reflect an individual motorist’s needs and desires.


Since the beginning of the year, the number of Google searches for “hybrids” has increased almost 500 percent, a trend reflected in’s electronic mailbag. They’re the topic of talk radio and the latest trend among celebrities like Leonardo DiCaprio, who regularly drives up to the Academy Awards in his Prius.


Since Honda launched the first U.S. hybrid in autumn 1999, the number of offerings has expanded exponentially. There are more than a dozen available right now, and more coming. There are hybrid sedans, like the popular Toyota Prius and the soon-to-be-released Nissan Altima Hybrid, and SUVs such as Ford’s compact Escape. Toyota ’s luxury arm, Lexus, will soon have three different hybrid-electric vehicles including the performance-oriented GS450h and flagship LS600h. Slow to market, General Motors is getting ready to launch its first true hybrid, the Saturn Vue crossover.


Not all hybrids are equal. At the most basic, this technology captures energy lost during braking and coasting, and stores it in an onboard battery pack. When you accelerate, that power can be recovered and used to run one or more electric motors linked to the powertrain. This is often called “electric supercharging.” Most hybrids, such as the Honda Civic Hybrid also add the ability to automatically stop their gasoline engine when you’re idling, say, at a stop light, then instantly restart when you touch the throttle. So-called “full” hybrids, like the Prius, also add the ability to run on electric power only, usually at slow speeds and for relatively short distances.


“Hybrids are promising technology,” says Nissan’s always outspoken CEO Carlos Ghosn, but he is quick to caution, “the business model…is not good.” Why should that matter to you? Because all those added components — the generators, motors, control systems and batteries — aren’t cheap. The typical hybrid costs thousands of dollars more than a comparable, gasoline-only vehicle, and industry insiders admit they’re typically not passing on the full cost.


Even then, and even with gasoline hovering around $3 a gallon, it’s hard to justify buying a hybrid if your primary goal is simply to save money. The influential Consumer Reports magazine recently calculated that only two hybrids would save money over the course of a normal ownership cycle, the Prius and the Civic Hybrid — and then only as the result of various federal and state tax credits.


Complicating matters, hybrids tend to get a good bit lower mileage than shown on the window sticker, often a lot less. They’re most effective for those who spend a lot of time commuting in heavy, stop-and-go-traffic. If you’re largely cruising on the open road, consider another alternative.


Diesel alternatives


The diesel is one that European motorists have heartily embraced. This high-mileage technology now accounts for more than half of all Western European car sales, though in the U.S. , diesels register far fewer on the sales charts. In part that’s due to the bad experience American motorists had back in the 1980s, when some diesel products fell far short of expectations. They were noisy, smelly and a few, poorly engineered models were prone to catastrophic failures.


Today’s diesels are far more technologically sophisticated. They’re quick, smooth, and reliable, but they’re not always easy to find. Nor is the fuel, which in some parts of the country may only be found at truck stops. Right now, only a handful of manufacturers offer diesel vehicles—notably, Jeep, Mercedes-Benz, and Volkswagen. And a number of models, such as the Jeep Liberty CRD and VW Jetta TDI, are about to be pulled from the market for a year as emissions rules change and automakers update their offerings.


Stringent new emissions standards are extremely difficult for diesels to meet, especially when it comes to smog-causing oxides of nitrogen and potentially carcinogenic particulates. But low-sulfur diesel fuel is being phased in right now, and it will permit automakers to launch a new generation of super-clean powertrains, including Mercedes’ Bluetec diesels, which will be found in the Benz E-Class and the ’07 Jeep Grand Cherokee Diesel. So, as the billboards say, “watch this space.”


Flex-fuelers re-emerge


A re-emerging type of “green machine” getting a lot of attention lately is the flex-fuel vehicle. Flex-fuelers have been around from the earliest days of the automobile: Henry Ford’s very first automobile, the 1896 Quadricycle, could run on ethanol as well as gasoline or a combination of both.


“One renewable fuel cannot replace all fossil fuels of today,” stressed Volvo Cars senior vice president Hans Folkesson, at a recent seminar in Paris , called the Challenge Bibendum. Volvo’s prototype Multi-Fuel Vehicle could run on any of five different liquid and gaseous fuels.


There are a number of alternatives already available, including propane and compressed natural gas, or CNG. But most of these are geared towards use by taxis or government and corporate fleets. The strongest contender for consumer use is ethanol, an alcohol not much different from classic moonshine.


Ethanol is wildly popular in Brazil , where it’s distilled from sugar cane. There are now 5.7 million vehicles on the road there capable of running on ethanol. In the U.S. , most vehicles built since 1970 can handle a blend of ten percent ethanol. The number of flex-fuel vehicles capable of using E85 — 85 percent ethanol, 15 percent gasoline — is only a couple percent of our fleet, but growing by more than one million annually.


With ethanol, the big challenge is availability. Right now, there are only 774 ethanol pumps in the country, according to the National Ethanol Vehicle Coalition, but that’s expected to double by year’s end, and major vendors, including Wal-Mart, are promising to add plenty more.


Ethanol is still a bit more expensive than gasoline, and the critical thing to note is that you will likely see a reduction in mileage. You may also see a jump in performance, and a decline in some harmful emissions.


Biodiesels and other alternatives


Another alternative fuel is biodiesel, which is typically produced from waste oils, like those discarded by your local fast food chain. Right now, you’re more likely to find biodiesel being brewed in a hobbyist’s garage, but some major refiners are considering production. There’s some support for legislation that would require a 10 or 15 percent blend of biodiesel mixed into conventional diesel. Most modern diesels could handle that mix, but check with your manufacturer, or with the various online forums, before trying to pump pure biodiesel into your vehicle.


There was a time when proponents believed the pure electric vehicle, running solely on battery power, would become commonplace. California even enacted rules requiring manufacturers to start marketing a small number of these so-called zero-emission vehicles. But despite some strong support in environmental circles, the general public stayed clear. Limited range, long charging cycles and high costs were among the reasons why.


There are still a number of small producers providing low volume EVs. One of the largest is Global Electric Motorcars, a subsidiary of DaimlerChrysler, which recently launched the six-seat GEM e6. Electrics may prove useful if you live in a closed community, where your drives are short and you could easily set up a charging station.


There’s growing interest in plug-in hybrids, the marriage of conventional hybrids and the EV. Add an oversized battery pack to a vehicle like the Prius, charge it up and you can get perhaps 50 miles or more without ever using the gasoline engine. There are drawbacks, of course. You do need to plug in to get a full charge, and there’s added weight — which lowers mileage and reduces cargo capacity — as well as the added cost. There are no mass-market models right now, but some observers believe we could see some plug-ins hit the highway in the coming years.


Fuel-cells for the future?


Further into the future, many experts believe we may adopt a “hydrogen economy,” using this lightweight gas as the ultimate, clean alternative to petroleum. The only emission from a hydrogen-powered vehicle is water vapor.


BMW and Ford are among the manufacturers studying ways to burn hydrogen in the time-tested internal combustion engine. It works, and with relatively modest modifications. Prototypes are already being tested in Europe and the U.S.


Longer-term, the bet is on the fuel-cell vehicle, or FCV. Fuel cell “stacks” combine hydrogen and oxygen, from the air, to produce water vapor and electric current. That’s why the fuel cell is often referred to as the “refillable battery.” Companies such as GM, Honda and DaimlerChrysler are aggressively refining the technology, with growing test fleets running in California and other parts of the world. But DaimlerChrysler's Juergen Friedrich cautions that we won’t likely see competitive fuel-cell vehicles reach showrooms until “the middle of the next decade, around 2015.”


And perhaps the biggest challenge will be to develop the infrastructure required to support FCVs. Though hydrogen is the most abundant element in the universe, there’s no natural source, like petroleum. It must be produced from other fuels, such as coal or natural gas, or produced from water — which is two parts hydrogen, one part oxygen — using an energy-intense process called electrolysis. Lining up a production and distribution network will be as difficult as developing a cost-competitive FCV.


Not ready to give up on gasoline? You can still help the environment while also lowering your fuel bills. Consider cars that use advanced powertrain technology. GM, Mercedes, Chrysler, and others offer vehicles that can shut down half their cylinders when power demand is light, like when you’re cruising on the freeway. And, of course, you can consider downsizing. Do you really need that 5.7-liter V-8, or can you get by with a smaller, gas-stingy V-6? Is there a smaller, lighter crossover vehicle that can replace your full-size SUV?


Raising mileage, reducing petroleum imports, and lowering emissions are goals that almost everyone — perhaps save OPEC — can agree upon. There are a growing number of ways to achieve these goals, but it’s important to consider the plus and minus of each alternative as you do your part “for the cause.”

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