Driving Clean Fast and Furious on Alternative Fuel

One of the most common questions about alternative energy vehicles is how they perform. Consumers raised on Car and Driver and Road and Track want to know how fast, say, a fuel-cell car goes from zero to 60.

The reality is that most carmakers try as much as possible to make their experimental vehicles “transparent” to the driver, meaning that they don’t want them to feel exotic or unusual. But the technology is very different, and so the behind-the-wheel experience varies quite widely. Here’s an overview:

Telsa Roadster

Biodiesel. Since there’s been a paucity of new diesels offered on the U.S. market, most conversions to biofuels are older Volkswagen and Mercedes cars and trucks. As such, they don’t offer the most sophisticated driving experience and lack newer diesel pollution controls. Older diesels are both noisy and slow to accelerate, but after conversion they start smelling like their source material: McDonald’s fryer oil. Diesels are poised for a resurgence with the passing of the world’s strictest low-sulfur fuel laws, and that should soon allow the conversion of more modern cars.

GM Sequel

Electric vehicles (EVs).With batteries connected to an electric motor, EVs are the furthest removed from the standard driving experience. Largely silent except for tire noise, the vehicles have some other eccentricities. For instance, unless the carmaker programs in what is known as “creep,” they don’t inch forward when the driver takes his or her foot off the brake. The regenerative braking experience (charging the batteries when the driver backs off the accelerator) also takes some adjustment time. Electric motors have excellent torque characteristics, however, and so most are reasonably quick off the line.

Nissan Altima

Fuel cells. Since fuel-cell vehicles are basically electric cars with a miniature chemical factory instead of batteries, they largely replicate that driving experience. But in early fuel-cell prototypes the compressors made disconcerting hissing and popping noises, now largely engineered out of the equation. A recent drive in the fuel-cell General Motors Sequel is both fast and extremely quiet.

NG Honda Civic

Hybrids and Plug-Ins. Today’s hybrids offer seamless integration of two drivetrains, controlled by sophisticated computer controls. The transition from electric to gas mode is barely detectable, and the “auto-off” feature (which shuts down the engine at stop lights) is a miracle of modern engineering. No driver today would have trouble with vehicles like the Toyota Prius or Honda Accord Hybrid.

Natural gas. With the natural gas-powered Honda Civic GX sedan, I discovered that the issue isn’t the driving (which is virtually indistinguishable from a standard Civic) but the availability of natural gas. I’m lucky enough to have two pumps near my home, one at a home heating supplier and the other in the town public works garage. Since the GX carries the equivalent of eight gallons of fuel (pressurized at 3,600 pounds), it runs through a tankful in 200 miles. I made it to the fuel depot on fumes, and then was frustrated by the a non-engaging nozzle. On a pressurized system, this is a deal breaker. Luckily, the town connection worked, or I’d have gone home at the end of a tow rope. Natural gas is still not available widely.