Sometimes it’s hard to tell the players without a scorecard — a phrase that’s just as true in the automotive world as it is in sports.
Drivers are already tooling around in vehicles propelled by electricity, fuel blends, clean diesel and biodiesel, plus hybrid engines that combine various power sources. Hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles loom just over the horizon.
Here’s our guide to the various technologies that will be powering our vehicles for the foreseeable future.
In the 1980s, concerns over pollution resulted in the declining popularity of diesel engines. But the world’s dwindling oil supply and ever-rising gas prices have brought about a renewed interest in the technology, which is up to 30% more efficient than traditional gasoline engines. As the name suggests, clean diesel is up to 97% cleaner than the black-exhaust-spewing fuel we all knew (and despised) 20 years ago.
German automakers are leading the way in putting clean diesel technology onto the highway. Volkswagen currently offers four different clean diesel models, Mercedes Benz three, Audi and BMW two each. Detroit’s efforts have mostly gone into heavy-duty SUVs and pickup trucks — clean-diesel versions of the GMC Sierra 2500, Ford F-250, Chevy Silverado 2500 and Dodge Ram 2500.
Biodiesel is typically made by blending chemically reactive lipids — like vegetable oil or animal fat — with alcohol. According to the National Biodiesel Board, it can be used in all diesel engines.
“Any diesel vehicle — [including diesel versions of the] Ford F-150, Jeep Liberty and Dodge Ram — can use biodiesel,” said Jessica Robinson, spokeswoman for the biodiesel board. “So purchasing a biodiesel vehicle is the same as purchasing a diesel vehicle.”
Most manufacturers’ warranties cover up to B20 — a blend of 20% biodiesel and 80% petroleum diesel.
Biodiesel is more common than you might think. Nationwide, more than 25,000 government and commercial vehicles run on biodiesel blends. The San Diego Padres are one of several professional sports teams that donate cooking oil from concession stands to companies that will convert it into biodiesel. And in 2007, the MTV show “Pimp My Ride” transformed a 1965 Chevy Impala into a biodiesel hot rod to honor Earth Day.
Flexible fuel vehicles (FFVs)
Although the idea of a car being powered by something other than gasoline seems like a space-age concept, flexible-fuel vehicles have been around for more than a hundred years. The Model-T Ford could run on gasoline, ethanol or a blend of both.
More than 9 million FFVs are currently cruising American roads. Flex-fuel vehicles are designed to run on gasoline or a mixture of gas and up to 85% ethanol, a blend called E85. Ethanol costs slightly less than gasoline — currently about 30 cents a gallon less in Southern California. Drivers won’t notice a loss in performance while driving on 85% ethanol. The lower price isn’t the only thing this so-called “corn fuel” has going for it. It’s also cleaner and reduces U.S. dependence on foreign oil.
The big drawback in this part of the country is the lack of service stations that dispense E85 — there’s only one in Los Angeles and just six in all of the Southland. Most of the thousand or so E85 stations in the U.S. are located in the Midwest.
Hybrid vehicles use two or more different power sources to move the vehicle. The most common type on American roadways today is the hybrid-electric vehicle (HEV), which combines an everyday internal combustion engine with one or more electric motors.
From green-leaning grannies to hip Hollywood celebs, hybrid vehicles have found a broad and loyal following. The Honda Insight hit American showrooms in 1999. Toyota launched the Prius seven months later, and the rush was on. As of last fall, Prius had sold more than 2 million units worldwide, half of those in the U.S. But it’s certainly not the only game in town: Around three dozen hybrids from a wide variety of automakers are currently available.
Hybrids do not necessarily offer better gas mileage than gasoline-only cars. Combined city/highway performance can average anywhere from around 50 mpg in the Prius to under 20 mpg in the BMW ActiveHybrid X6.
Plug-in electric hybrids (PHEVs)
Plug-in electric hybrid vehicles use large battery packs as their primary means of propulsion. Unlike traditional hybrids, though, these batteries can be recharged by connecting to a common household power outlet. PHEVs can drive for around 40 miles without using any gasoline. When the batteries run down, a small gas engine kicks in as either the primary power source or as a means of recharging the batteries while you are still on the go.
The only mass-produced PHEV currently available to U.S. drivers is the Chevy Volt, the Motor Trend magazine “Car of the Year” for 2011. According to the EPA, the Volt can travel 35 miles on full electric power plus another 340 or so on gasoline. But the cost of driving 15,000 miles on electric over the course of a year is around a third of what it would cost to cruise the same distance on gas. Toyota, Ford, Volvo and Audi are among the automakers that have PHEVs waiting in the wings.
Electric vehicles (EVs)
As the name implies, electric vehicles are powered entirely by an electric motor, which gets its oomph from rechargeable battery packs that are capable of converting an astounding 75% of their chemical energy into power. EVs emit no tailpipe pollutants, offer a quiet, smooth ride with good acceleration, and generally require less maintenance than traditional internal combustion engines.
There just aren’t many of them around yet. General Motors tried to pioneer the electric revolution in the 1990s with the much ballyhooed EV1, but the experiment was a commercial failure. The Nissan LEAF is the only battery-electric car currently produced by a major automaker.
One of the stumbling blocks electric vehicles face is the fact they can only run 100 to 200 miles between rechargings (compared to the 300 to 400 miles traditional vehicles travel between fill-ups). And recharging the battery takes a long time — usually 4 to 8 hours — compared to the mere minutes it takes to fill a car’s tank with gasoline.
Hydrogen fuel cell vehicles (FCVs)
Often hailed as the future of clean driving, hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles are in the early stages of development but hold substantial promise. Rather than gasoline, they run on hydrogen gas that’s stored at extremely high pressure in a rear storage tank. Electric power for the engine is produced when the hydrogen reacts with oxygen in the vehicle’s fuel-cell stack. Like electric cars, FCVs are quiet, efficient and emit no harmful emissions.
First out of the gate is the Honda FCX Clarity, which is currently undergoing a three-year trial in Southern California. Two hundred of these cutting-edge FCVs have been leased to local drivers, among them actress Jamie Lee Curtis, movie producer Jon Landau and Anaheim Ducks team captain Scott Niedermayer.
– Joe Yogerst, Custom Publishing Writer