Can There Ever Be a Green Car?

A lumbering lorry spewing black clouds of choking smoke. Not long ago this was how pollution was, literally, thrust in our faces. In many parts of the world, it still is. But here in the US, thousands of laws and regulations later, we are just a few years away from the deadline 13 states have set for a 10 percent quota of "zero emissions" automobiles. Manufacturers are road testing -- or already marketing -- cars, trucks, bikes and buses that approach the zero emissions ideal.But big-picture environmentalists argue that we need to rethink our approach to transportation. Should we transport so much so frequently? Must we travel in individual vehicles? Must they be sport utility vehicles that consume a gallon of gas every 12 miles?Lester Brown, president of the Washington, DC based Worldwatch Institute, believes we are at the end of the era that idealized a gas guzzler in every garage. He recently told a conference of oil companies to prepare for a post-automobile economy. Brown said that a future tax system could back off of taxes on personal income and hike taxes on pollution."The image of US oil companies is of an industry pursuing a disinformation campaign, rather like the tobacco industry hiring out people to testify about the lack of proof that smoking causes cancer," Brown said. He was referring to the campaign by US automobile and oil companies (calling themselves the Global Climate Coalition) to stop congressional approval of the international agreement to counter global warming. The industry funds scientists who assert, against the majority of experts, that man-made carbon dioxide emissions do not cause climate change."The only proof of climate change is climate change, but by that time it'll be too late," he warned.Brown saw hope in British Petroleum's investment in solar energy. "We think the new global economy will be a solar and hydrogen economy and our future transport systems bicycle and rail centered, especially in the cities. This transformation represents the greatest investment opportunity in history," he said. "This is not a growth/no growth issue -- it's a what kind of growth issue."Government nudges public transportThe Clinton Administration, Congress and state governments are moving -- slowly. They have written rules and set targets in order to cut the volume of carbon monoxide and dioxide, nitrous oxide, heat and other components of auto exhaust; cut the huge mass of unrecycled garbage from discarded vehicles; and cut the environmental destruction caused by road building. But corporations that build highways, along with many state highway engineers, have enough politicians on their side to keep the money flow from radically changing our private-vehicle, gasoline-based transportation systems.Even so, the Surface Transportation Policy Project is upbeat about aspects of the recently-passed federal Transportation Equity Act for the 21st Century (TEA21), which proposes $200 billion in spending over the next 5 years. While most of these funds will pay for fixing highways, bridges, and urban roads, there are encouraging increases in funds for public transportation, bicycle facilities and public-transportation-friendly projects like helping unemployed people who find jobs in the suburbs pay for bus or train commutes.Cars for the 21st centuryBut we still live in a society centered on the almighty automobile, and a huge amount of money and energy is being spent to design cars that will cross the bridge to the 21st century.To make a greener car, you can build a more efficient engine; build a lighter, more aerodynamic car, to cut fuel use and thus, tailpipe emissions; or both. Not surprisingly, the established automakers are most committed to improving the traditional internal combustion engine automobile.Nissan, Honda, Toyota and others have invested in fix-ups that modify a car's powertrain to increase fuel efficiency. Nissan's Bluebird and Primera sedans already offer direct-injection gasoline engines with "continuously variable transmission" (CVT) technology which cut fuel consumption in half and carbon dixoide emissions by 35 percent. Direct injection of gasoline uses computers to deliver precise amounts of fuel to the combustion chamber; CVT replaces traditional gears with pulleys and a steel belt that changes the gearing continuously rather than at first, second and third gear intervals.But designers outside the auto and oil industries believe the future lies with zero-emission electric vehicles (EVs). But the public is skeptical because an EV's batteries don't hold a charge for as long as a gas-powered car can travel between fill-ups. Detroit has been quite happy to play up this angle, despite the fact that most car trips are brief, with time enough between them for a recharge.In any event, EV batteries use electricity from the power grid, meaning that while they don't pollute from a tailpipe, they contribute to pollution from power plants. The batteries also have a defined lifetime, are heavy and hard to dispose of in an inexpensive and environmentally friendly way.These negatives have inspired "hybrid" systems, which burn fuel in a small on-board engine to make electricity to charge the batteries which drive electric motors on the wheels. The Rocky Mountain Institute (RMI), which makes ecologically-sound proposals on a range of issues, is promoting a radical alternative vehicle that they call the Hypercar. Powered by hybrid-electric drive systems, Hypercars are built of ultralight composite materials -- the stuff tennis rackets and advanced aircraft are made of. Using ultralight materials to build a wholly redesigned car, with sleek, ultra-low-drag contours would drastically cut the car's weight and thus the fuel consumption. RMI says ultralight composites are also "ultrasafe, rugged, luxurious and recyclable." Critics point out that they come with the same pollution problems as all products industrially manufactured from synthetic chemicals.But, RMI complains, the companies that make composite materials are not moving fast enough to be major players in the year 2000 vehicle market. Some materials suppliers have already acted. Alcoa, giant of the aluminum industry, is working with Audi to build the (costly) A8 with 40 percent less mass and one-third fewer parts than conventional cars.Fuel cells powered by waterThe most radical, and potentially most environmentally friendly, new power source is the fuel cell. In place of an internal combustion engine, a car would have a stack of fuel cells under the hood. Unlike a battery, a fuel cell actually produces electricity any time it is fed hydrogen, which can be extracted from fuels such as liquid natural gas or methanol. But the ideal fuel -- since it contains only hydrogen and oxygen -- is water. Researchers are racing to perfect a method of separating these two elements from water, without consuming vastly more energy than they could produce when fed back into a fuel cell.Each cell is a sandwich of two plates, each thinner than a computer diskette, with channels separated by thin membranes. Hydrogen circulates through one membrane, air through the other. When combined, hydrogen and oxygen create an electrochemical reaction that produces electricity with water as the byproduct.Fuel cells have four advantages over existing power sources (including internal combustion engines): they 1) provide power as long as each cell has hydrogen and oxygen -- no recharging required; 2) have no moving parts to wear out; 3) are noise-free; and 4) are environmentally friendly.Using cars to power buildingsIf fuel cells were mass produced, their cost could drop to a competitive $100 per kilowatt. And one reason fuel cells might be mass produced is to generate electric power for houses and commercial or public buildings.The water produced when fuel cells convert hydrogen energy into electricity is heated to about 170 degrees F (77 degrees C). That's an ideal temperature for heating floorspace or tap water, and for cooling and dehumidifying. In some buildings, these "building services" are worth almost enough money to pay for natural gas and a reformer to make the hydrogen. Thus, proponents argue, on-site fuel cells could drastically undercut the operating cost of most existing coal and nuclear power stations while cutting air pollution. The electric power industry now produces about one-third of America's climate-altering releases of carbon dioxide.If fuel cells were built into new buildings we could stop expanding the existing power grid. Fuel cells in cars could then become 30-40 kilowatt power stations on wheels. If you drove your Hypercar to work, you could plug it in to your building's hydrogen producer and send kilowatts back to the grid for credit.Says RMI: "If the entire US light vehicle fleet consisted of Hypercars, it would collectively have about five times the generating capacity of the national [electrical power plant] grid."Go to Rocky Mountain Institute at Transportation Policy Project at***Sidebar One: Greener cars coming on streamSome green car technologies are already in use.- Daimler Benz and Ballard Power Systems are road-testing fuel-cell powered vehicles. - Arthur D. Little Co., a Boston-based energy consulting firm, has developed a gasoline-based fuel cell with fuel efficiency up to 80 miles per gallon. Little says the carbon dioxide left over after extracting the hydrogen from gasoline would be 50 to 70 percent less than in current exhausts. But environmentalists insist we could use cleaner fuels -- such as water or natural gas -- if we could break free of the oil industry and its allies in the automobile establishment.- General Motors chairman John F. Smith predicts that electric, hybrid or fuel-cell driven cars will be cost-competitive by the year 2004. - Toyota's Prius has an electric motor for lower speeds and for extra kick, as well as a small gasoline engine. The car sells for $16,000 in Japan and will debut here in 2000, promising 51 miles per gallon for a five-passenger model capable of going 850 miles between recharges. - GM's EV1 debuted in 1996 as the first US production electric vehicle. - The Toyota RAV4, Ford Ranger and Chevrolet S-10 are also available as EVs.- In Europe and Australia many automakers offer compressed natural gas (CNG) tanks in popular cars, with service stations providing CNG filling systems alongside gas pumps.***Sidebar TwoWhy cars?If you build a better, greener car, what then? The social costs of driving are already huge -- congestion and lost time, accidents, urban/suburban sprawl -- adding up to $1 trillion a year, perhaps a seventh of US GNP. The best green cars could only cut these costs in half.The direct cost of cars are rarely tallied: 60 percent of the world's oil output, resources wasted in mining and manufacturing, roads and bridges, vast quantities of garbage, and greenhouse gases.We need to charge the full cost of car and road use. In Europe, drivers are charged for parking on private and public space. In Singapore, drivers are taxed for every mile they drive.We also need to reduce the need to travel. Fortunately, more people are working out of their homes as a consequence of the computer revolution.And we need to rethink public transportation. In Curitiba, Brazil, radiating bus routes with dedicated bus lanes and "boarding pods" have cut energy use by 30 percent. Buses can be far cheaper than subway systems.But social change lags behind technology. "We'll probably have great cars before we've figured out when not to drive them," write Paul Hawken and Amory and Hunter Lovins, in their new book, "Natural Capitalism" (Little Brown, 1999).Reprinted from News on Earth, 175 Fifth Avenue, Suite 2245, New York, NY, 10010. One year subscriptions (12 issues) are available for $15.


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