Here Come the Cleaner, Greener Cars

From hybrids to electrics to diesels that run on vegetable oil, it’s a whole new ballgame.

The verdict is in on hybrid cars: Americans love them. But just suppose, some environmentalists have been asking, you had a bigger battery pack in your hybrid and the ability to plug it into the wall. Wouldn’t that give you the ability to drive to work on electric power, with the small gas engine available in reserve for longer trips? This concept started out as an environmentalist’s dream, propelled by activists like Felix Kramer of Calcars.org and the utility-backed Plug-In Partners. But now it’s headed for the market. And other high-tech green cars are on their way, too.

Chevrolet's Volt has a small gasoline engine, but it's there only to keep the lithium-ion batteries charged.

In 2005, the late Dave Hermance, then Toyota’s environmental engineering guru, had this to say about plug-in hybrid vehicles: "At some point it might be feasible, but it isn’t there yet." He added, "They say this is the next great thing, but it just isn"t."

What a difference a year makes. In 2006, Toyota was singing a rather different tune. The plug-in hybrid, Hermance said in an interview, "is an appealing technology in terms of energy diversity for transportation. Depending on the grid mix, it may offer reduced lifecycle carbon dioxide (CO2) and reduce fuel consumption at the same time." Others go further. Dr. Andrew Frank, a mechanical engineering professor at the University of California, Davis, envisions a plug-in hybrid that can achieve 60 miles of all-electric range using a currently available, 350-pound lithium-ion battery pack that would last 150,000 miles.

A New Day for Clean Cars

Interest in cleaner and greener auto technology is exploding. From fuel cells to plug-in hybrids, the industry is showing more research and development zeal than at any time since the halcyon days of 1900, when gasoline, steam and electric vehicles (EVs) were competing in the marketplace. Companies such as General Motors, ridiculed for stodginess and worse in films like Roger and Me and Who Killed the Electric Car? (see sidebar) are revealing a much leaner side. In fact, GM has made the first plug-in hybrid production commitment in the U.S., using an intriguing new approach. It is developing an entirely new propulsion system, shown at the recent Detroit Auto Show as the Chevrolet Volt.

The new GM car is not a standard parallel hybrid like the Toyota Prius or Honda Civic, or a conventional plug-in hybrid, but the first "series" hybrid. Instead of a gas engine that drives the wheels along with an electric motor, its small gas engine serves only to keep the lithium-ion battery pack charged. GM’s Rob Peterson calls this an "onboard range extender," and it means the car could travel 800 miles between gasoline fill-ups. And it was designed to be affordable. "It’s the size of the Chevy Cobalt and will be within range of that price," says GM’s Rob Peterson. "We can’t offer a $100,000 vehicle to only 5,000 people; we need volume."

Toyota may announce that it is building a plug-in hybrid this year, but if it does so it will be following in General Motors" wake. At the Los Angeles Auto Show late last year, GM Chairman and CEO Rick Wagoner announced that the company had "begun work on a Saturn Vue plug-in hybrid vehicle." The plug-in technology that the company had once casually dismissed was now a high priority in its product mix.

HONDA FCX: The latest evolution of the Honda FCX fuel-cell car is zero emission, fun to drive, has 300 miles of range, and is quickly refilled at a hydrogen pumping station. We're not driving fuel-cell cars yet because costs remain very high and there are still only about 30 hydrogen stations in the U.S.

"This is the beginning of the automakers fulfilling our dreams," says long-term advocate Kramer. Pointing to the first plug-in hybrid from a manufacturer, the DaimlerChrysler Sprinter van, he says, "This is very encouraging, and it absolutely means that carmakers are more likely to put a plug-in hybrid into production." If so, they may be assisted by federal dollars. A bipartisan coalition of 17 U.S. Senators and 21 Representatives recently sent a letter to President Bush asking for $90 million in research funding for plug-in hybrids.

With seesawing gasoline prices and uncertainty about the future of oil, Americans are finally focusing on fuel economy and looking beyond big SUVs for their next vehicle. A consumer survey by the influential J.D. Power and Associates last summer found that an amazing 57 percent of respondents would consider buying a hybrid car for their next vehicle, and 49 percent would consider a car powered by E85 ethanol. Another survey, by Frost & Sullivan, found that 80 percent are more concerned about fuel prices than they were a year ago. Almost half say they have already bought or would consider buying a more fuel-efficient gas car or hybrid if fuel prices keep going up. And in the sedentary U.S., it’s impressive that one in five say they’re also starting to use alternative transportation: biking, walking, public transportation and car pools.

Despite these numbers—and the fact that cars like the Toyota Prius are proliferating on U.S. roads—hybrids still made up slightly more than one percent of the market in 2006. But by 2013, J.D. Power predicts they"ll have taken five percent. This year, expect to see a wide range of new hybrids on the market, from the compact Honda Fit Hybrid (with fuel economy in the mid-50s) to the Toyota Sienna seven-seat minivan (approximately 40 mpg). You"ll even be able to buy a hybrid version of the Chevy Tahoe (though with only a 25 percent improvement over the SUV’s 17 mpg).

After experiencing sticker shock at the pumps, the public is showing interest in a range of cleaner automotive technologies, from hybrids to fuel cells, biodiesel, battery vehicles and plug-in hybrids. Still, consumers remain quite confused about both the potential and the timetable for these technologies, and much of what they think they know is wrong. For instance, it is still commonly believed that hybrid vehicles need to be plugged in. And few are aware that Partial Zero Emission Vehicles (PZEVs) even exist, when they’re both affordable and as clean as hybrids in terms of tailpipe exhaust. What’s a PZEV, you ask? Read on. Here’s a look at some top choices for the environment, and a brief look into the future.

Hybrids

Al Gore and Berkeley, California Mayor Tom Bates take a drive in CalCars' custom-made plug-in Prius.© CALCARS

If you buy a hybrid, with both gas and electric motors, you join an exclusive club whose members enjoy tax breaks and entrée into the multi-passenger HOV lanes of California highways—even when they’re flying solo. A new group, Hybrid Owners of America, launched last August, has a five-point agenda that includes lifting the cap on the current federal tax break; creating a new tax incentive for owners who convert their hybrids to plug-in status ($15,000 kits are available to do that); a tax break for corporations that "incentivize" their employees to buy hybrids; rewards for automakers that undertake hybrid research; and conversion of 30 percent of the federal car and truck fleet to hybrids over the next three years.

Although hybrid sales slowed somewhat at the end of 2006 as gas prices eased and the federal credit was halved (it went, for example, from $3,150 for the top-selling Toyota Prius to $1,575), 2006 still promised to be the best year yet. By the end of November, 190,966 hybrids had been sold, meaning that 550,000 are on U.S. roads. Some 200,000 hybrids were sold in 2005, doubling the 88,000 sold in 2004.

Other hybrids are on the way. Honda is expected to bring out a 50-mpg hybrid version of its subcompact Fit model in mid-2007. Mazda will produce a hybrid version of the Tribute SUV

, which should be mechanically similar to the Ford Escape. The first U.S. hybrid minivan will appear from Toyota this year, a seven-passenger Sienna likely to achieve 40 mpg.

In 2008 and beyond, we will see new hybrids from Toyota (a third generation of the Prius, which, while not a plug-in hybrid, is rumored to have a nine-mile all-electric range), Honda (a new model), Ford (the Fusion), Mercedes (a hybrid "S" Class), Porsche (the Cayenne SUV) and Hyundai. But for immediate gratification, these are the best cars and trucks on the market:

Plug-In Hybrids

While plug-in hybrids remain in the prototype stage, conversion kits are on the market (though availability has been spotty). EDrive’s system, with pricing to be announced, replaces the Prius" nickel-metal-hydride battery pack with a larger, lithium-ion pack. Hymotion’s kits for the Prius ($9,500) and Ford Escape (as yet unpriced, but definitely more expensive) leave the existing batteries in place but add a lithium-ion auxiliary battery. The drawback is that they’re currently available only for fleets. The consumer needs to do research before buying one of these kits, with a particular emphasis on how they affect the car’s warranty.

The fuel-efficient Smart car, long a staple of European roads, will soon be on the U.S. market.

Do plug-in hybrid vehicles simply exchange their pollution source from tailpipe to coal-burning smokestack? It depends on the electric power source, according to a new report released by the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy (ACEEE), a nonprofit energy policy group. ACEEE concluded that a plug-in version of the Toyota Prius could reduce CO2 emissions by a third over a conventional Prius hybrid, but only if its batteries were charged with California electricity—generated mainly from relatively clean sources. In the Midwest, dominated by coal-burning power plants, the report says the plug-in Prius would actually generate one percent more carbon dioxide.

The goal of campaigns like CalCars.org and the nonprofit Plug-In Partners (www.pluginpartners.org), which work with utilities, cities and grassroots groups, is to convince carmakers to produce these vehicles on their own. A plug-in hybrid running on ethanol made from sustainably produced switchgrass would be a state-of-the-art clean car, trumped only by a battery or hydrogen-powered vehicle.

Diesel

Diesel vehicles are largely anathema to environmentalists and California clean air regulators, but they’re quickly dominating the roads of Europe (where green consciousness is almost a given) and they deserve a second look in the U.S., where their numbers can only go up. The good news for diesel partisans is the federally mandated low-sulfur (below 15 parts per million) diesel fuel that went on the market at up to 76,000 American filling stations late last year. It’s the cleanest diesel fuel in the world.

One important consideration with diesels is volume: There were nine million diesel vehicles built on the worldwide vehicle market in 2006 (18 percent of the total), but only 300,000 hybrid cars (0.6 percent). By 2010, carmakers will be producing 13 million diesels (and perhaps a million hybrids). If inherently fuel-efficient diesels can reduce our oil dependence without increasing air pollution, Americans need them here. The potential fuel savings with a diesel fleet is 1.4 million barrels of oil a day, about what the U.S. imports from Saudi Arabia.

The Mercedes E320 Bluetec is the first diesel vehicle sold in the U.S. able to take full advantage of low-sulfur fuel. It can has a range of 700 miles, and is particularly successful in capturing the nitrogen oxides (NOx) and particulates (with a trap) that are the diesel’s Achilles heel.

Toyota's Fine-T prototype combines fuel-cell and hybrid power.

Rudy Thom, an environmental affairs research director at Mercedes-Benz, says that Bluetec is being rolled out in the U.S. first, because Europe, with 50 percent diesels on the road, still has wildly disparate fuel regulations. The German Bluetec owner who goes skiing in Italy (where sulfur content is higher) could end up bringing his poisoned car back home on a tow rope.

Biodiesel

There are several forms of bio fuel, and the categories can confuse the novice. Biodiesel, in blends with standard diesel of five to 100 percent, has been refined to work without modification in any newer diesel vehicle. With a kit from companies like Greasecar, diesels can burn 100 percent vegetable oil, which can be sourced and filtered from restaurants for a wholly recycled fuel. Biodiesel, which offers both improved emissions and the opportunity to thumb your nose at fossil fuel, is still largely a grassroots enterprise, with enthusiasts banding together in co-ops.

Seventy five million gallons of biodiesel were sold in 2005, but growth of biodiesel, whether made from soybeans or a crop like switchgrass, is limited by our agricultural infrastructure. The National Biodiesel Board, a major booster, nonetheless predicts that under current conditions, biofuels can displace only about 10 percent of current fossil fuel use.

Partial Zero Emission Vehicles

Although they’re available on dealer lots in all of the states that embrace the California emission regulations (including Maine, Massachusetts, New York, Connecticut, New Jersey and Vermont, with the likely addition of Washington and Oregon) Partial Zero Emission Vehicles (PZEVs) are largely unknown even to very environmentally aware consumers. There’s nothing magical under the hood of a Partial Zero Emission Vehicle (PZEV). It’s powered by a gasoline engine, and has a traditional tailpipe emerging from its back end. PZEVs are ultra-clean versions of such common vehicles as the Subaru Legacy, Ford Focus and Nissan Altima. They control exhaust gases with sophisticated engine controls and advanced catalytic converters. Although they don’t improve on fuel economy, by some measures the emissions from PZEV tailpipes are cleaner than the ambient air. A PZEV running is cleaner than a standard car shut off, because it emits near-zero evaporative emissions (the gasoline vapors that escape from the fuel system before they reach the engine). All this for at most, a few hundred dollars more than the standard model.

The Future with Batteries and Fuel Cells

If any one technology can replace the internal-combustion engine, it’s the fuel cell, which doesn’t burn anything but converts hydrogen (stored in a tank as liquid or gas) to electricity and its tailpipe emission: water vapor. Fuel cells were invented in the mid-19th century and provided electric power on NASA space missions, but they’re only now becoming practical for ground transportation.

The Chevrolet Sequel is one of the world’s most advanced fuel-cell automobiles, representing many millions of dollars of advanced R&D. The Sequel looks like a fairly sleek crossover SUV, but driving it is like nothing else: EVs (fuel-cell cars are really electric cars) tend to be slow and plodding, but the Sequel peels out, zooming to 60 mph in only 10 seconds. It seats four with all the creature comforts, including air conditioning, radio and trunk space.

The Sequel is the cutting edge: only two exist. But GM is making 100 of its also-all-new Chevy Equinox fuel-cell vehicles available to regular-folk test drivers (in California, Washington, DC and Westchester County, New York) this fall. According to Greg Cesul, the company’s fuel cell propulsion sys

tem chief, these Equinoxes are closely based on the production SUV, and offer the latter’s ABS brakes, airbags (or at least room for them), and federal crashworthiness. Redundant safety systems make it very unlikely that a fuel-cell car will ever catch fire, let alone explode like the Hindenburg.

The Honda FCX fuel-cell vehicle is zero emission, fun to drive, has almost 300 miles of range, and is easily refilled at a hydrogen pumping station. So why aren’t we driving them yet? Well, the $1 to $2 million price tag is a bit daunting, as is the lack of a hydrogen infrastructure.

EVs show promise, especially with the advent of high-output, lightweight lithium-ion (li-ion) batteries. There haven’t been many on the market lately, but San Carlos, California-based Tesla Motors is trying to change that with a snazzy all-electric battery sports car that can achieve zero to 60 in just four seconds, with a top speed of 130 mph. GM tried the same performance emphasis with its EV-1 battery car, but it was limited to about 90 miles of range. If Tesla has been able to achieve both high performance and long range, it’s a considerable breakthrough. If not, well, the 100 buyers who just spent $100,000 to sell out the first run of these cars are out of luck.

Even if a practical, affordable hydrogen vehicle appeared tomorrow, it would be still be many years before the current fleet went into junkyards. But the rapid acceptance of hybrid cars on the U.S. market is encouraging. America’s auto fleet is hardly green, but it’s getting greener.

JIM MOTTAVALLI is editor of E>