Considering that cars, as we know them, have only been around for slightly more than a century, they’ve wreaked a lot of havoc. But ironically enough, Henry Ford foresaw a green future for automobiles. His Model T ran on gas, ethanol, or a combination of the two, and he proposed that fuel could be created from fruit, weeds, sawdust, or anything else that could be fermented.
These days, it’s hard for a mechanically challenged car-shopper to keep up with the options: hybrids, biodiesel, ethanol, flexible-fuel vehicles, hydrogen cell cars — the list is growing longer.
The problem for many of us, is that each time we open the automobile section of our newspaper, we hear about another hybrid, flexible-fuel vehicle or “cleaner” diesel that promises to deliver us to greener driving. It’s getting hard to separate the news from the noise. Let’s look at the options:
Hybrids: Toyota sent much of North America into a wild case of Prius envy when it released its revolutionary hybrid in 2004. Waiting lists for the car were months long as the groundbreaking technology quickly proved itself and a nation of gas guzzlers saw the green light. Consumers have a number of good resources to help them sift through the hybrid offerings: Hybridcenter.org, greenerchoices.org (click cars), and www.epa.gov/greenvehicles.
Diesel: There’s been much ado about cleaner-burning diesel fuel — prompting many to consider diesel a viable green alternative. Diesel die-hards argue that their cars get 20 to 40 percent better mileage than similar gasoline-engine autos, thereby contributing far less greenhouse gas to the atmosphere. Moreover, low-sulfur diesel is becoming more available, and diesel manufacturers are moving toward technology that is expected to cut both particulate emissions and nitrous oxide emissions.
Biodiesel: A further argument for diesel-powered cars are their ability to run on biodiesel — fuel created from renewable vegetable sources. Biodiesel fuel isn’t widely available; I would have to drive 40 minutes from my home to the nearest station. You can, after a conversion that will run you about $2,000, run your diesel on discarded vegetable oil (you might want to befriend your local Chinese restaurant owner). There’s a teensy little issue with legality — the EPA considers cars that run on straight veggie oil a violation of the Clean Air Act and, if caught, you might have to cough up a fine of close to three grand (which would pay for a lot of Chinese dinners). However, if living within the law isn’t high on your priority list, and you don’t mind emitting the odor of pork dumplings (no sulfur emissions, though!), this might be an option for you. There are plenty of veggie-fueled folk out there happy to guide you on your journey.
Flexible-fuel vehicles: While FFVs ostensibly run on E-85, a blend of 15 percent gasoline and 85 percent ethanol, a corn-based fuel, only a few hundred of the 176,000 fuel stations in the United States even offer E-85.
There are murmurs about more electric cars and hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles coming on the market, but at this point, they’re out of reach for the average family.
LESLIE GARRETT is an award-winning journalist and mother of three. Her latest book is, “The Virtuous Consumer: Your Essential Shopping Guide to a Better, Kinder, Healthier World”.