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Under the Hood: New Green Autos for the 21st Century

Ever since Henry Ford invented the assembly line, it seems the internal combustion engine automobile was destined to dominate the 20th century. The auto became our primary means of transportation, and it has come to be identified with freedom, independence & the Great American dream. We Americans love our cars. Today there are over 200 million cars in the U.S. They use over 4,000 gallons of gasoline every second, and approximately 50% of all emitted pollutants come from these vehicles. The infrastructure that supports them is huge & its appetite insatiable. Two thirds of Los Angeles land space (and around 55% in most urban areas) is taken up by this infrastructure, including freeways & roads, parking, gas stations, garages, dealerships, etc.

Compelled by consumer demand & government mandates for clean cars, the automotive industry is giving indications that it is at last shifting away from dependence on the dirty, highly inefficient internal combustion engine. In fact, the typical new auto of this century is likely to be propelled by cells not engines.


Vehicles not dependent on gasoline or diesel engines are known as alternative fuel vehicles (AFVs). Today’s AFVs include vehicles running on methanol, electricity, natural gas, ethanol, hydrogen, and propane. In the 1990’s, a significant but anemic effort was made to put many more AFVs on the roads, but chances are neither you nor anyone you know owns one – not yet. The AFVs of the 20th century simply never overcame the obstacles that made them impractical as a mass production passenger automobile. Depending on the type of AFV, these obstacles include high purchase cost, limited range, long recharge times, lack of support infrastructure and the easy availability of cheap gasoline.

AFVs did have some success in fleet vehicles – light trucks, public transit buses, government vehicles and the like. You’ve probably seen them on the road - "This bus propelled by natural gas". The fleet only all-electric Ford Ranger Truck is the all time number one selling electric powered vehicle (EV) of any kind. Contrast the Ranger’s success with the GM’s EV1 - a two-passenger all-electric. The EV1 is a very high-priced boutique item available only through a lease program in California under their Zero Emission Vehicle (ZEV) mandate, and it has failed to generate much consumer interest.

Yet, this year (2000) could prove a pivotal one in the passenger auto market for AFVs. In January, at the North International Auto Show in Detroit, the production and concept cars that drew the most attention were AFVs. They fall into two primary categories: Hybrids and Fuel Cells.


Hybrid cars are, as the name suggests, the combining of two entirely different propulsion technologies. In this case, most major auto manufacturers have in the pipeline one or more vehicles that combine a smaller internal combustion engine with one or two electric motors. The combination produces a car that still is dependent on gasoline or diesel, but much less so. Average mileage for these fuel-electric hybrids is 40 to 80 miles per gallon depending on the vehicle. The HEVs generally meet the EPA’s national rating for Ultra Low Emissions Vehicles (ULEVs), and in some cases may qualify for California’s even more stringent Super Ultra Low Emissions (SULEV) standard. Unlike pure electric vehicles, which produce zero emissions (ZEVs), but need to be recharged for 6-8 hours every 100 miles or less, the hybrids are never plugged in at all. By way of the gas engine and brake coefficient energy, the batteries are recharged while the car is running. Since they are continually recharged, the battery storage capacity needed is far less than with the all-electric EVs. Less battery means a big savings on the space and weight over the EVs. The range of the Hybrids exceeds even conventional gas-powered vehicles, reaching upwards of 700 miles per tank of gas.

Two Japanese auto companies – Honda and Toyota – are playing the leadership role in hybrids. As this article goes to press, the futuristic looking 2-seater Honda Insight is already on American roads. The Toyota Prius, a four door compact sedan, a popular seller in Japan since 1997, will be in US dealerships in Summer 2000. Nissan has also begun selling its first hybrid over the Internet, but it is only available in Japan. Domestic automakers will reportedly begin selling their hybrids in 2001 and 2002. The Ford Prodigy, GM Precept, and Chevrolet Triax are both roomier and promise to deliver even better mileage than the Insight (~65mpg) or Prius (~50mpg). Also at the auto show was Toyota’s HV-M4 prototype, the world’s first hybrid four wheel-drive minivan. Ford has also produced a production prototype HEV version of their new small SUV - Escape, expected to be on sale in 2002.


The buzz in the automotive industry is that the gas-electric hybrids are a transition vehicle on the way to zero emissions. Compelled by government mandates such as California’s ZEV rules, car companies have a real stake in building ZEVs that have the mass appeal that battery-powered pure electric vehicles haven’t developed. The industry answer is to replace the batteries with fuel cells.

Like batteries, fuel cells are a chemical rather than a mechanical device. The cells themselves have no moving parts and are quite light. They rely on hydrogen - the lightest, most abundant element in the universe - in a kind of "reverse electrolysis". Simply put, a fuel cell is a plastic box with a piece of metal in it. Hydrogen gas is on one side of the metal; oxygen (from the air) is on the other. The oxygen draws the hydrogen ions through the metal – which is a special alloy catalyst, causing the hydrogen to lose its electrons in the process. The electrons are pulled around the cell in the opposing direction, and then lined up in a way that provides electric current. Eventually the electrons come around to rejoin the hydrogen and oxygen molecules making water vapor (H2O) and heat as the only by-products for emission.

Fuel cells are supplied with hydrogen either directly from compressed gas or from any hydrogen rich source such as natural gas, methanol, biomass, or even gasoline.

Advocates of fuel cell technology claim a range of benefits that no other single power technology can match. These include that fuel cells produce only water, electricity and heat, and are therefore inherently clean and efficient. They are safe, quiet and very reliable. The cells themselves produce zero emissions of carbon dioxide, oxides of nitrogen or any other pollutant.

Of course, when fueled by fossil fuels, there are still noxious emissions from evaporation, and carbon dioxide is a byproduct of reforming hydrogen from any hydrocarbon source. Carbon dioxide is a concern because its release is the primary cause of global warming. Yet, Debbie Harris of Ballard Power, a leader in fuel cell manufacturing, points out that "fuel cells are two to three times more efficient than conventional equipment. They produce that much less carbon dioxide."

A number of prototype cars have been built using fuel cells, and the first fuel cell passenger cars are expected to go on sale in 2003, once again, led by Honda. Ballard Power partners Ford and Daimler Chrysler are expected to market their first fuel cell driven autos in 2004. The Economist magazine estimates half the cars sold globally in 2018, 40 million, will be powered by fuel cells.

Fuel Cells aren’t just for automobiles. They are being developed and already used for portable, stationary, and a variety of transportation uses. Two fuel cell driven transit buses recently completed a two-year pilot program in Chicago with great success. More are being tested in Europe. Plug Power, and other companies are developing fuel cells generators that range from refrigerator size residential units for individual homes, to huge stacked cells that could replace heavily polluting & acid-rain producing coal & oil burning power plants. Buildings that are already using natural gas are excellent candidates for having their own generating plants based on fuel cells. In fact, the potential for fuel cells seems enormous. One manufacturer said the state of fuel cell technology is comparable to PC computers in the early 1980s. Following the Detroit auto show in January, fuel cell stocks became one of the hottest sectors in the stock market.


With all the excitement hybrids & fuel cells are generating, it is easy to loose sight of the fact that clean burning propulsion systems will be only one component of truly efficient (ecologically designed) automobiles. Visionary, green car advocate, and energy efficiency expert Amory Lovins lays out several more in his conceptual HyperCar. The HyperCar design was conceived by Lovins as a way to take "off the shelf advanced technologies in innovative ways" to produce cars that are sporty, spacious, comfortable, safe, durable, affordable and with a minimal "ecological footprint."

Besides incorporating the hybrid & fuel cell propulsion systems, the Hypercar uses a low drag aerodynamic design, ultra lightweight construction from super strong composite plastics, integrated electronics, and energy efficient accessories such as redesigned air-conditioning systems & low-roll- resistant tires.

Michael Brylawski, who works with the HyperCar Center, says the very nature of Hypercar manufacturing will more closely emulate that of today PC’s. "Now you get on the Dell web site and you order your PC and they don’t start building it until they get that order. It’s called a pull system, and Hypercars are going to enable a pull system so you’re going to go to a dealer... and order your custom Hypercar, and the factory will then get your order, build it to spec(ification), and have it at your door in three days."

Brylawski explained that the Hypercar has many fewer parts, making this kind of "factory-floor-to-customer-door" turnaround possible. He envisions Hypercars having upgradeable recyclable components that would allow you to stay on the cutting edge and possibly not replace your car for ten or fifteen years.


Sounds visionary alright. Yet, even if such super-efficient automobiles come to dominate our roads, Lovins, Brylawski and their colleagues at the Hypercar Center are quick to point out "such a technological fix may well exacerbate other problems."

"Hypercars don’t solve the basic problems of too many miles driven by too many people in too many cars. Indeed, they may—without good accompanying public policy—worsen these problems by making driving even cheaper and more attractive. Many of the social costs of driving have less to do with fuel use than with congestion, road-building, lost time, accidents, urban and suburban sprawl, and other side effects of auto dependence."

So beyond building truly green cars the Hypercar Center advocates sustainable transportation policies that includes greater support of public transportation, telecommuting, and "designing communities around people, not cars." In other words, it is time to rethink "land use so that we needn’t travel so much."

Larry K. Fried is publisher/editor of Natural Choice Directory, Willamette Valley.

HyperCar is an RMI trademark. Some quotes from this article taken from the RMI HyperCar Center website,


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