Driving Forward

The longest day of the year having just past, the long picturesque days culminating in fabulous sunsets well after 9:00 pm , make me want to go for a drive. Granted, a walk or a bike ride is a fabulous way to spend a summer day, but I admit to having a bit of the passion for the freedom of the open road with all its possibilities. I am fortunate to live in one of the parts of the country, where around every bend some scenic vista or historic vision beckons.

The typical American’s relationship to the automobile can be quite involved. In addition to the sheer joy of being able to travel just about anywhere within reason at the turn of the key, our daily lives are built around the automobile and its infrastructure. Given the consequences of its fuel source and its emissions, I feel very guilty about my driving from time to time. But is the gasoline powered internal combustion engine as we know it destined to become a thing of the past?

Perhaps the shift to alternatively fueled transportation is the necessary and responsible thing to do. A combination of legislative mandate, environmental concern, technological innovation and popular demand is driving the development and implementation of automobiles that go farther on less using different fuels, and most importantly, polluting less.

What are our options for alternatively powered automobiles? Unfortunately there is a big difference between what is available now and what will be available in the near future. The biggest obstacles right now are cost and political will. This relationship is intriguing and perhaps the subject of a whole separate article, or book for that matter. Auto industry decision makers and politicians both say they must respond to society and politics as they are today, considering consumer demands, corporate bottom lines, employment issues and votes. We would be naïve to think these two groups aren’t sitting at the table with big oil, whose petroleum based products provide the fuel for transportation as we know it.

The power of this lobby has repeatedly fought off any attempt to significantly raise CAFE (Corporate Average Fuel Economy) standards. These are regulations that impose an average miles-per-gallon standard on an auto manufacturer’s entire fleet of new cars. CAFE still does not cover “light trucks” – pick-ups, SUVs and minivans, which are the big money makers for the auto industry, making up 50% or more of all new car sales. These vehicles get an average of less than 15 miles per gallon.

Can these types of vehicles be powered by other means? Can their fuel economy be improved? Yes and yes; solutions are in the works. Trucks and SUVs powered by hydrogen fuel cells, hybrid designs or bio fuels are a little further away from production than are smaller vehicles. Currently GM engineers are designing what is called “displacement on demand” engine technology. This saves fuel by using only half of the eight cylinders during normal driving conditions, all cylinders then kick in when extra power is needed. Current designs bump up fuel economy by only about 3 miles per gallon at the most, which doesn’t sound like much but consider this: If all pickups and SUVs in the U.S. attained that kind of gas mileage, we would save almost 50 million gallons of oil per day, which is 7 million gallons per day more than proponents of Arctic drilling say they could get from the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. The point being that every gallon of oil we save makes a huge difference! We are talking about a dramatic decrease in wild lands exploited for oil, less dependence on foreign oil and the wars we wage over it, and many fewer hydrocarbons being pumped into the atmosphere.

The next step, to achieve zero emissions, is the ultimate goal. GM’s Chief Environment Officer, Dennis Minano, said that his company “wants to remove the auto from the energy-environment-fuel debate.” When asked whether this couldn’t be happening much more quickly through active support of higher mileage standards for both cars and trucks, his response was: “The next transportation revolution won’t be aided by government mandate… GM does not support a legislated increase in [fuel economy] standards.” Big automakers like GM and Ford tend to say one thing and do another, but Mr. Minano’s comments on the next transportation revolution provoke a good point.

What if the market, and the demand of the people for safe, clean transportation, could encourage auto makers to voluntarily produce clean cars? After all, one of the things they do best is compete with one another for the customer’s attention. This would be closer to a win-win situation. The industry and its employees could benefit from a stimulating boost, people could transport themselves more cleanly and efficiently, and the quality of life on this planet might clear up a bit.

Okay, so what kind of “green machines” are available or on the horizon? Here are the major types of alternative vehicles and fuels in production or in the works, perhaps in that order, from present to future:

Hybrid Gasoline Electric

On the road and in the showroom today, these vehicles are powered by both a small gasoline engine and an electric motor. The results include greater gas mileage and reduced emissions. There are three main vehicles in this category available today. The Honda Civic Hybrid, which gets about 46 miles per gallon during urban driving conditions and about 51 on the highway, and the Toyota Prius (45 city, 52 highway), both are four door sedans that look like ordinary, contemporary cars. The third option is the more futuristic looking Honda Insight, a two seater which gets about 61 mpg in the city and 68 on the highway.

American car companies are currently working on hybrid versions of their existing trucks and SUVs. Dodge is coming out with a hybrid Durango for example, Ford with a hybrid Escape, and both GM and Dodge will have hybrid versions of their full size pickups. These models are expected to get at least 30% better gas mileage and will have all the power and cargo capacity of standard trucks. An added benefit will be their mobile electricity generation, which appeals to contractors or other people who need a power source in the field.

Though these cars can cost between $2,000 & $4,000 more than traditional, comparable models, there are a number of incentives to owning a hybrid. From different kinds of tax credits to a huge fuel cost savings, hybrids are worth looking into.

Electric Vehicles (EVs)

While the electricity production process for these vehicles may contribute somewhat to air pollution, an electric vehicle (EV) itself does not, resulting in much lower emissions per mile traveled. Most of these vehicles you would charge through the standard electrical outlets at your home or place of business. In many cases, however, solar photovoltaics can be used to charge the EV battery, in which case no emissions are produced. There are several free charging stations in Southern California to encourage EV usage. EVs might currently lack some of the torque and horsepower of a traditional automobile or a hybrid. Some options here are the Toyota RAV4EV (range: 125 miles between chargings) and the Ford Ranger EV (range: up to 89 miles between chargings). Ford has also come out with an interesting line of solutions for local, environmentally responsible transportation called Th!nk Mobility. This EV product line includes two electric bicycles, a neighborhood vehicle and a commuter car. These vehicles have “fun,” streamlined designs and are ideal for short trips or commutes, without the exhaust or the noise of the common automobile. Taking it one important step further, the entire makeup (structure, parts and all) of one of these vehicles is 95% recyclable.

Compressed Natural Gas (CNG)

While still a mixture of hydrocarbons, sourced usually from strategically drilled wells, compressed natural gas is a relatively clean burning and efficient fuel for automobiles, especially fleet vehicles like vans and buses. While there are only about 1,200 CNG stations throughout the U.S. , vehicles running on this fuel are becoming more common. According to the Department of Energy roughly 1 in 5 new transit buses in the U.S. runs on natural gas. Other benefits of natural gas are that it is a domestically produced fuel and it produces significantly reduced amounts of carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide, particulate matter and nitrous oxide compared to similar fossil fuel vehicles.


These are renewable fuels produced from biomass – organic matter including various kinds of plants. Biofuels are an interesting case: the plants used to produce them actually remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere (plants take in carbon dioxide and release oxygen) and they produce greatly reduced tailpipe emissions in automobiles, resulting in no net carbon dioxide emissions. The most widely used biofuel, and the most widely used alternative transportation fuel is ethanol, which is an alcohol usually produced from corn or corn by-products in a process similar to brewing beer. Vehicles that run on ethanol have lower carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide emissions than traditional vehicles. In the U.S. , we blend more than 1.5 billion gallons of ethanol with gasoline each year to produce E10 (10 percent ethanol and 90 percent gasoline.) E10 can be used in most of the vehicles on the roads today. We’re already using E10 across the country to improve vehicle performance and reduce air pollution. Some vehicles can use a higher blend of ethanol, up to 85 percent, called E85. These vehicles, known as flexible-fuel vehicles, can use E85, gasoline, or any mixture of the two. E85 is available in many parts of the country but primarily in the Midwest .

Biodiesel is an ester (similar to vinegar) that can be made from several kinds of oils like vegetable oils and cooking fats. Each year in the U.S. about 30 million gallons of biodiesel are produced from recycled cooking oils and soybean oil. This biofuel is currently not available to the general public. Some federal, state, and transit fleets, as well as tourist boats and launches, use biodiesel alone or blended with another fuel. Biodiesel is typically used as a blend of 20 percent biodiesel and 80 percent petroleum diesel called B20. B20 can be used in a conventional diesel engine with essentially no engine modifications. There is a growing interest in using biodiesel where workers are exposed to diesel exhaust, in aircraft to control local pollution near airports, and in locomotives.

Hydrogen and Fuel Cells

And finally hydrogen – the fuel that powers the space shuttle! The Department of Energy (DOE) describes well hydrogen and the revolutionary role it will play in transportation:

Hydrogen is a simple, abundant element found in organic matter, notably in the hydrocarbons that make up many of our fuels, such as gasoline, natural gas, methanol, and propane. As an energy carrier like electricity (not an energy source), it must be manufactured. Hydrogen can be made by using heat to separate it from the hydrocarbons. Currently, most hydrogen is made this way from natural gas. Hydrogen can be combined with gasoline, ethanol, methanol, or natural gas to reduce nitrogen oxide emissions. Because the only byproduct of hydrogen is water, only the engine lubricants from a hydrogen-fueled vehicle emit small amounts of air pollutants. Hydrogen is already the fuel of choice for propelling space shuttles. It is also being explored for use in internal combustion engines. Although hydrogen can be burned in an internal combustion engine, or serve as a fuel additive, there's more interest in using hydrogen to supply fuel cells that power EVs…” Scientists, engineers and others are working on ways to completely remove fossil fuels from both the hydrogen fuel and fuel cell equation, which will make it the cleanest, most revolutionary development in energy as we know it.

Fuel Cell Vehicle

The concept of the fuel cell is probably the hottest and most advanced development in automobile and energy technology today. As we move further into the current decade we will benefit from its progress in many ways. The Department of Energy (DOE) again does a good job of bringing the science and the physics of this technology to an understandable level: “Fuel cells, which convert hydrogen and oxygen into electricity, have been researched for use in vehicles for many years, and their development and performance have progressed. Because they produce only water vapor as emissions, fuel cells are ideal power sources for transportation. They can be used as the main power for an electric vehicle, or in conjunction with an internal combustion engine in a hybrid vehicle. Fuel cells convert the chemical energy of a fuel into usable electricity and heat without combustion as an intermediate step. Fuel cells are similar to batteries in that they produce a direct current by means of an electrochemical process. Unlike batteries, however, they store their reactants (hydrogen and oxygen) externally and operate continuously as long as they are supplied with these reactants. Today, researchers are working on making fuel cell components considering their size, weight, and cost—competitive with internal combustion engines. Although researchers still have several obstacles to overcome, fuel-cell technology has the potential to provide us with another energy-efficient, cost-competitive transportation option that will help lower emissions and reduce dependence on petroleum.”

Fuel cell cars are on their way: Honda, Toyota , Ford and other automakers expect to start bringing them to the public as soon as 2003. Some of the challenges are in hydrogen storage (It currently takes around 12 gallons of hydrogen to create the energy equivalent of a gallon of gasoline) and in developing a hydrogen fuel infrastructure. Both are in a promising stage in their evolution and we will soon begin to see the practical and beneficial results.

Driving Forward

In addition to cleaner fuels and reduced emissions, other vehicle technologies and advancements are positively affecting human transportation. Bio-oils made from plant materials will begin to replace petroleum based motor oils, further benefiting the environment, the consumer and today’s struggling farmers. Developments in the physical components of automobiles are becoming more earth friendly and recyclable as well. Automakers and researchers will continue to innovate and improve on the transportation technologies discussed here. In addition to better ways to use fuel cells and alternative fuels, they are also working on new ways to store energy, and creating

Alternative Vehicles

Sales, 2000

    Electric Vehicles: $275 million

    Hybrids: $1 million

    Fuel Cell Engines: Negligible

Projected Sales, 2005

    Electrics: $603 million

    Hybrids: $3.5 billion

    Fuel Cell Engines: $4.2 billion*

Source: Business Communications Co. Inc.

*Adams, Harkness & Hill

(As printed in the Fall 2001 LOHAS Journal)

lightweight advanced materials to make vehicles that run cleaner and use less fuel. Cars, trucks, buses, trains and transportation of all kinds will be revolutionized. This will benefit not just humankind and the environment, but could give a powerful boost to the struggling economy.

You will continue to see information on these developments in future issues of The Risk Factor, and probably in many media sources as well. If you’re interested in the specifics and comparisons on what’s available in alternative vehicles today (maybe you’re thinking about buying a hybrid vehicle or EV), or would just like to learn more about these innovations, the following two web sites are great places to start:



Adam J. Coppock