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.
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>