An overview of 2008 diesel cars, and what’s coming after that

Don’t miss our updated overview of 2009 diesel cars!

And don’t miss our updated 2010 diesel cars overview!

As diesel technology gets greener and greener automakers are starting to take notice. In Europe many cars are offered with a diesel power plant as an option, while here in the US we are still using diesel motors primarily in pickups, buses and trucks. As fuel prices rise and environmental concerns grow we are finally starting to see some of the manufacturers take notice.

The following is the rundown of the passenger cars that will be available in the USA in the 2008 model year. A re-occurring theme with many of the manufacturers I contacted seemed to be that while they do plan to offer at least one diesel, it won’t be until later in the year.



Don’t miss our previous post, an introduction to biodiesel.

bluetec

Mercedes Benz

The 2008 E320 BLUETEC Sedan

MSRP $52,675

Acceleration1 0 – 60 in 6.6 seconds.

Fuel economy

EPA estimate 23 mpg

Highway estimate 32 mpg

It seems like Mercedes Benz has always been into Diesels. The fabled W123 chassis diesels, such as the 300D and 300TD regularly break the million mile mark with surprisingly little maintenance. So it’s no surprise the E320 tops most of the reviewer’s lists for diesel Sedans sold in the US. Mercedes claims to be the only luxury sedan sold in the US for 2008 that is diesel equipped; and that’s true for the moment as BWM has not announced their entry into the diesel arena for the year. Since they are the only company that could provide me with detail, we’re going to cover them first.

The E320 uses Mercedes innovative Bluetec system for reducing NO2 emissions and soot which is normally the downside to diesels emissions-wise. Mercedes initially entered into an agreement with BMW, VW and Audi to share the technology in order to increase the diesel passenger car market in the US; BMW, VW, And Audi however have announced they will no longer be working with Mercedes on bluetec.

Mercedes states that their diesel cars are NOT legal for sale in California, Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New York, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, or Vermont. A limited number will be available for lease in California.

The 2008 E320 BLUETEC does not meet the emissions requirements of California, Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New York, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, or Vermont and is not available in these states.

In California, a limited number of Model Year 2007 E320 BLUETEC vehicles are available for a limited duration and mileage lease only. No purchase option available. Available only to qualified customers through Mercedes-Benz Financial at participating dealers. Not everyone will qualify. Subject to credit approval and inventory availability. See your authorized Mercedes-Benz dealer for complete details on this offer.

Unfortunately for those looking to run biodiesel you may also have to look elsewhere. The new Mercedes engines are only warrantied to run a maximum of B5 biodiesel. Many people have run higher without problems, but it’s a very expensive car to take a chance with.

Audi

An Audi representative stated that they did not have plans for a diesel equipped auto for the 2008 model year. They did say that there would be an offering in 2009, at least in the Q7 SUV.

BMW

Possibly Several Models

It’s hard to say why car companies do what they do. BMW has maintained that it will be releasing a diesel sedan in the US in 2008; but as of this date they have not so much as specified which vehicles will be available with this option. In Europe every BMW vehicle is available with a diesel motor as an option but these vehicles have not been available in the US. When I contacted BWM their representative stated that they wanted to make sure that any diesel they released would pass emissions standards for all 50 states, and that most likely the 3 and the 5 series BWM’s would be the ones offered with the diesel power plant. They stated that they hoped to have the cars available before mid-year.

The BMW diesels in Europe feature a catalytic converter and particle filter in order to reduce the NO2 emissions and soot. Unfortunately as BMW has not announced their 2008 diesel US lineup there is very little data on what engine (They make a 4, 6, and an 8 cylinder diesel). Therefore no emissions or mileage info.

Cadillac

While Cadillac does not have a diesel powered offering for 2008, they do have one planned for the 2009 CTS.

Chevrolet, Pontiac, Buick.

I spoke with a representative from GM who stated that diesel are mostly used in pickup trucks. She stated that they had no cars in the 2008 lineup that would be diesel equipped. I grew up in a GM household where buying a foreign car, or even a ford, was a right up there with treason and using beans in chili (this was Texas, afterall). I had the opportunity to own one of the diesel equipped autos that GM produced back in the 80’s and I’ve watched over the years GM shoot themselves in the foot by throwing out the baby with the proverbial bathwater.

GM had in 1985 a full sized luxury car (Pontiac,Olds, Buick, and Cadillac) that got anywhere between 26 and 30 miles per gallon out of a diesel v8 motor. These motors had problems, primarily with seals and leaking, but instead of fixing and improving on them they stopped production after a few years. It’s not enough to innovate, you have to follow through and capitalize on your innovations. And once you try something and fail you can’t just throw your hands up and let your competitors pick up the ball and run with it.

Chrysler

While they offer diesel options in several of their trucks and SUV’s, they have no diesel cars in the 2008 lineup.

Ford, Lincoln and Mercury

Not offering any diesel powered vehicles, other than trucks, in 2008. Sadly, Ford offered a diesel powered escort back in the 80’s that got a whopping 52 MPG! One does not have to look far to see why our auto industry is in trouble today.

Honda

A Honda representative stated that they had no information available at this time on a diesel powered Honda car for the US market. But we’ve read elsewhere and even seen a photo of an Accord that is being tested with new clean diesel technology here. 62 miles per gallon, and in the United States by 2010? We’ll see!

Toyota

While there has been a lot of speculation about a Toyota diesel car for 2008, there are none listed for their 2008 lineup.

Nissan

No Nissan diesel cars available for the 2008 model year.

Volkswagen

Volkswagen stated that they plan to offer a diesel version of the Jetta, the Jetta Wagon, and the Toureg some time in mid 2008. They stated that no specifications have been released at this time. Volkswagen until recently offered a diesel, and over the years they had diesel Rabbits, Jettas, Microbuses, and the new Beettle. They proudly proclaim their diesel heritage on their website.

Volvo

I spoke to a Volvo representative that stated that Volvo has no plans to offer a diesel automobile outside of Europe at this time.

So, there you have it. Of all the car manufacturers out there only Mercedes has any solid data on a diesel automobile for release in the United States for 2008. Many of these same manufacturers are offering full diesel lineups in Europe but because of tighter emissions standards here in the states we can’t get most of these cars imported.

Solar powered cars on the horizon?

Flickr photo courtesy of Rodrigo Walker Armijo.

The Christian Science Monitor writes about developments in technology that are bringing us closer to the possibility of solar powered cars!

The ranks of potential buyers for such cars are growing by leaps and bounds, say many car-industry analysts. But don’t look for them on normal streets just yet, they add quickly. Limitations of batteries and solar panels — though lessening — are still issues, among others.

Yet “fringe markets” — such as commuters within small towns, seniors in retirement villages, and users of industry fleets — are in a position to drive the first sales boomlet for such cars, analysts say.

Until then, Titus and other inventor-tinkerer types are offering a peek into the future of transportation in America – well before the major car companies.

“Garage tinkerers like Titus are the tip of an iceberg of innovation demonstrating the direction of the national, global trend,” says Steven Letendre, professor of business, economics, and environment at Green Mountain College in Poultney, Vt., who lectures widely on the future of electric and hybrid cars and solar energy.

In fact, their ideas are increasingly showing up in the mass-market innovations of larger car companies, Letendre and others say. America’s Ford Motor Co., Japan’s Mazda, and Europe’s Venturi Motors have all debuted prototypes at exhibitions with solar panels that boost electricity for internal lighting.

I did a quick search and found that the Solar Bug has a web site with more information about it. Check it out here. I was disappointed to find out that they don’t have any prices listed on the site. It says “Available 2008” on the front page though. This would be a perfect short commute car for taking to work.

Hybrids Still May Not Be Financially Viable.

A recent Wall Street Journal article reported on the economic benefits to be found in buying a hybrid and from the looks of things there really isn’t much of anything.  The article states that:

Americans get a tax break for buying hybrids — the starting amount varies by model — but the more hybrids an auto maker sells, the smaller the tax break becomes on any hybrid models from that maker. After a manufacturer sells its 60,000th hybrid, the tax break starts to phase out

Well, in perfect world we wouldn’t need a government subsidy in the form of a tax break to make it make sense to buy a hybrid; but just in case you live in the same imperfect world I live in every little bit helps.

It seems that although hybrids are marginally more economical to operate due to the increased fuel efficiency; the higher sticker price tends to absorb any savings and then some.   For example:

Toyota’s Prius, which gets a leading 46 mpg combined but no longer qualifies for the tax credit, costs over $7,000 more than the auto maker’s compact Corolla. It would take nearly 18 years to recoup the premium, or more than twice the time you might expect to own it

They go on with a helpful chart that lets us know how equally disadvantaged the other hybrids in the group are. 

If we are going to depend on our government to make up the difference; well I don’t personally think that is the horse we want to bet on.  Now what may be  a more realistic plan is to start requiring better mileage and less emissions to the point that manufacturing has to keep up  to stay in the game but then we wind up with straining our already battered auto industry and inadvertently encourage more people to stick with older more polluting vehicles as they can now no longer afford a new car. 

I think the realist position is that if hybrids are in fact the answer; we aren’t there yet technology-wise.  The general population has proven time and again that in order for something like this to work it has to not put them at a financial disadvantage.  I always hope to be proven wrong on this.

An introduction to Biodiesel

There is no such thing as a biodiesel conversion. Biodiesel Pump

I found that phrase scrawled across the wall of the bathroom of a bohemian college coffee house.  It wasn’t hard to track down the person responsible;  A biodiesel awareness group met there every week and I did a bit of asking around.  Like many people when I heard the word “Biodiesel” I thought of those guys I’d seen on TV who drove around picking up used grease from all the fast food restaurants and dumped it into specially modified cars with all kinds of line heaters and special filters and tanks and all manner of mad scientist add-ons.  Apparently I was mistaken, like most people, and it was time for an education.

The diesel engine was invented in the closing days of the 19th century to replace the steam engine in industrial applications.  They were designed to run of a variety of fuels from coal dust to peanut oil but until recently were primarily run off fossil fuels.  But the combination of rising fuel costs with environmental concerns, political concerns, and the availability of 80’s era diesel powered autos at prices that encourage experimentation has brought about some interesting fuel options.

The three major alternative fuels for consumer diesel engines are:

  • SVO: Standard vegetable oil. Just what it sounds like, you just run off of straight veggie oil like you use to cook with.

  • WVO: This is what most people incorrectly call biodiesel. Basically you take oil straight from a restaurant and filter it.

  • Biodiesel: This is plant based oil, usually soybean oil, which is processed to be used as a direct replacement for petroleum diesel.



SVO and WVO require modifications to be made to the vehicle in before it can reliably be used as a replacement for conventional diesel.  WVO has to be carefully filtered and there are contaminates that can escape filtering and can cause some rather severe damage to rather expensive parts.  In addition it tends to solidify so the fuel lines have to be heated to keep it flowing properly.  All in all it requires more dedication to do it right than most people are willing or able to provide.  It wasn’t for me in any case.

filling

Biodiesel is a different story entirely.  There only four things to keep in mind when switching your vehicle to biodiesel.

  • Biodiesel is a solvent: When you run your first tank full of biodiesel it will go to work dissolving all of the gunk built up in your fuel tank, your fuel lines, and your injectors over the years. While this is a good thing, for the most part, it means that your fuel filters are going to be catching a whole lot of debris the first few tanks. If you don’t know how to change your own filters, this can run into some labor costs, and even if you do your own maintenance it means carrying around a few tools and spare filters.

  • Rubber Lines: The rubber fuel lines used in old cars are susceptible to the same solvent problems that I mentioned above. Over time when exposed to biodiesel they may break down and begin to leak. You can either replace them all, or just keep an eye out for any seepage for a while. My vintage Mercedes has been running on biodiesel for some time now and has never had a problem with the lines. Other people report problems within a few miles. To be safe, perhaps it is best just to replace all the lines.

  • Efficiency: Biodiesel contains less energy than petroleum diesel. That means that you will get slightly worse mileage, and also you may notice a slight drop in power. Since a diesel already gets as much as 40 percent better mileage than a gas motor its not that big of an issue, and honestly; If I was looking for performance I wouldn’t be driving a diesel.

  • Availability: This can be a deal killer for many people. Some cities have multiple outlets where biodiesel is readily available. Some have none.

So checking off the above list, I had no problem with changing filters, lower mileage, loss of performance, or replacing fuel lines.  All that was left was to find the stuff.

price signA quick Google search revealed only one retailer in my city; and it revealed a different decision to make.  Biodiesel is sold in different blends with petroleum diesel.  When you see B20, that means the fuel contains twenty percent bio, and 80 percent petroleum.  With B100, you get all bio and no petroleum.  In reality, most B100 is really B99.9.  A small percentage of petroleum is blended in because our government in their infinite wisdom gives a tax break for petroleum with bio added, but not for just plain bio.  The end result is adding a tiny amount of petroleum to B100 results in a significant savings to the provider.  Most of the sources I consulted recommended starting out with something like B20; Once your system is all cleaned out and you’ve gone through a few filter changes then you switch over to the pure stuff.

Depending on the market for biodiesel in your area your first trip to the biodiesel fuel seller may result in a bit of a culture shock.  While many retailers are simply normal fuel stations (you have to get used to not calling them gas stations) with a  biodiesel pump on the island along side the regular gas pumps, the one in my city bore a closer resemblance to something out of a post apocalyptic action thriller.

DFW Biodiesel

Above ground tanks were scattered about a lot in a predominately industrial area with fuel trucks parked prominently displaying DFW Biodiesel on their tanks.  A small unoccupied booth sat between two functional but antique looking pumps.  Beside the empty booth a lone terminal stood with a credit card slot and a display.  From this out of place looking island of technology you swipe your card, select which pump you wish to use (B20 or B100), and then by following the faded instruction sheet you fuel your vehicle.  I personally found I didn’t really miss the aisles of soda, candy, and cell phone accessories.  In the entire time I have purchased fuel from them I have yet to see anyone working there, and that is ok with me.  There is a certain do it yourself mentality that comes with using biodiesel; it’s certainly not for everyone…not yet anyway.

So, why go with biodiesel?  First of all, the environment.  Biodiesel produces 60 percent less carbon dioxide than regular diesel, It’s non toxic , and best of all it is available most places right now.  At some point I sincerely hope to see the day that we are driving primarily electric vehicles using power produced by solar and wind but that’s not today, it’s not tomorrow, and it is not next year.  Your average working person can’t afford a new electric car but many people can afford an older diesel Mercedes or Volkswagen.  Sometimes you have to take what you can get until you can get what you want.

terminalSecond, biodiesel extends engine life because of its cleaning properties and its superior lubrication properties.  I can tell the difference by the sound my engine makes when I run regular diesel.  It runs much quieter on biodiesel.

Third, I have to admit there is political element.  To me we have a choice of purchasing fuel from countries with a very questionable human rights history, or purchasing our fuel from our own farmers.  While biodiesel will not replace petroleum in its entirety by any means, every drop of biodiesel we use is that much less we have to import with all the nastiness that goes along with it.  I don’t know how much of a difference it makes in the grand scheme of things, but doing something is better than nothing.

You will notice that the above does not include saving money.  You won’t save money by switching to biodiesel.  At the present time in my area it is priced a few cents less than regular diesel.  Given the extra distance I have to drive to get it and the decreased economy I’m not saving any money.  Occasionally depending on the price of oil Biodiesel will actually be a few cents more.  Some things are just worth doing because they are the right thing to do.

PZEV vehicles, and why you probably can’t get one in your state

Flickr photo courtesy of juancnuno.

I’ve been reading up on PZEV vehicles, ever since I saw a local advertisement for one here in Dallas.

What I didn’t realize until now is that you can’t buy PZEV cars in most states!

From the Green Car Advisor at Edmunds.com:

Vehicles with PZEV equipment are specially certified under California rules, which only six states now use. The total will jump to eleven in the next few years as Arizona, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island and Maryland join the green team.

The EPA doesn’t have a PZEV classification. And it  won’t simply recognize the California certification and let the cars be sold wherever there’s a market for them.

Nope, the Feds insist that if a carmaker wants to sell a vehicle all decked out in PZEV accoutrements, it must re-certify it under federal standards. That’s despite the fact, well worth repeating, that by attaining the California PZEV rating, a manufacturer already has demonstrated that the car is cleaner than anything required by EPA standards.

The Feds do provide one break, though.  Recognizing that a lot of people who live in one state might cross the border to buy in another, the EPA allows car dealers in states that share boundary lines with the “California Rule” states to sell PZEVs if the manufacturers will provide them. That brings to 15 the number of states in which PZEVs can be sold.

It also casts a shadow over the EPA’s insistence that it has to certify the cars itself.

“We try to be practical,” said EPA spokesman John Millett.

So, if you live in Nevada, Arizona or Idaho, for instance, your local Ford dealer can sell you a PZEV-rated Ford Focus, if he has one in stock or can get one from a California dealer.

Volvo spokesman Geno Effler said his company, which markets two PZEV models, even honors the 10-year emissions warranty in the nine states that share borders with the official PZEV states.

But if a dealership in  Kansas, gets its hands on a PZEV, heaven forfend!

There’s that fine of up to $27,000 for selling a California-certified PZEV car in any state that doesn’t use the California rules or doesn’t share borders with those that do.

But that didn’t explain why Subaru is selling one in Texas, until I found this article from the Dallas Morning News.

So why aren’t PZEVs in every showroom? The main reason, as you might guess, is cost. Although Subaru charges $200 for the option, some estimate that it costs as much as $1,500. If Subaru passed on the entire expense, it could hinder sales and slow the automaker’s compliance with ultra-low-emission laws.

Most PZEV builders don’t even offer them outside the hot-air – er, clean-air – states because they don’t want to multiply their losses. Subaru says it’s one of the few manufacturers that make PZEVs available everywhere.

Still, PZEV is one-tenth as expensive as hybrid hardware and technology. And if the cost were spread among a larger number of vehicles, it would probably drop further.

“That’s why test markets like Texas are important to us to see how much demand there is for PZEVs,” said Subaru spokeswoman Lisa Fleming.

So why are they only available in certain states? A columnist from MSN Autos spells it out.

Not only can’t you buy one, but the government says it’s currently illegal for automakers to sell these green cars outside of the special states. Under terms of the Clean Air Act—in the kind of delicious irony only our government can pull off—anyone (dealer, consumer, automaker) involved in an out-of-bounds PZEV sale could be subject to civil fines of up to $27,500. Volvo sent its dealers a memo alerting them to this fact, noting that its greenest S40 and V50 models were only for the special states.

So, just how green is a PZEV machine? Well, if you just cut your lawn with a gas mower, congratulations, you just put out more pollution in one hour than these cars do in 2,000 miles of driving. Grill a single juicy burger, and you’ve cooked up the same hydrocarbon emissions as a three-hour drive in a Ford Focus PZEV. As the California Air Resources Board has noted, the tailpipe emissions of these cars can be cleaner than the outside air in smoggy cities.

That’s amazing stuff. But what’s more amazing is how few people have a clue that the gas-powered, internal combustion engine could ever be this clean.

Naturally, no company wants to bring too much attention to a car that most people can’t buy, unless it’s Ferrari. And there’s the catch. PZEV models are already available from Toyota, Ford, Honda, GM, Subaru, Volvo and VW. They’re scrubbed-up versions of familiar models, from the VW Jettato the Subaru Outback. But chances are, you’ve never heard of them.

So now I’m looking to see if there is a list of PZEV vehicles that are nationally available. Does anyone know if there is such a thing as a nationally available PZEV car, and which makes and models they might be?

NY Times overview of electric cars, and what’s coming.

Photo: The Phoenix Motorcars “SUT” electric pickup.

The New York Times has come up with an overview of what’s happening with the electric car market, including a list of many of the major companies trying to launch electric cars, and what those cars should be like.

The vehicles mentioned in the article include the Tesla Roadster, Zap-X, Chevrolet Volt, Think City, Phoenix S.U.T. (see our post about a test drive of the Phoenix electric pickup), Wrightspeed X1, Electrum Spyder, Venturi Fetish and the Tango. They do not mention Miles Automotive.

From the article:

Trading the internal combustion engine for batteries could bring well-publicized advantages: reducing pollution, raising mileage, promoting energy independence. E.V.’s and plug-in hybrids could deliver the gasoline equivalent of 100 miles a gallon or more. For consumers, that would in effect roll back the clock to buck-a-gallon gas. Car owners could save money in their sleep, recharging in the off hours when electricity is cheapest.

And compared with hydrogen fuel-cell cars, the infrastructure for electric cars already exists, requiring only more plugs in more places. Aside from home recharging, it would be easier to install pay-per-use outlets at curbsides and in parking lots than to spawn a network of hydrogen filling stations. Wal-Mart and McDonald’s might offer convenient electricity for customers or employees.

Sounds good? There is one problem. There is still not a single E.V. or plug-in hybrid available that can approach the driving range, interior room and performance of a typical gas-powered family sedan, at anywhere near the price that an average consumer would pay.

Note to auto manufacturers: We aren’t stupid. Give us hybrids that actually get good gas mileage or don’t bother!

Flickr photo courtesy of psorgenfrei.

ABC News online writes about how car manufacturers are introducing hybrid models left and right, but few of them actually provide better gas mileage than regular cars.

But enter the showroom, and instead of seeing green, you may be seeing red. Many of the market’s hybrids — cars which combine gasoline engines with battery-powered electric motors — forsake fuel-efficiency in the name of power and performance.

The average gas mileage of hybrid models available in the U.S. is 33 miles per gallon (combined city and highway). But Chevy’s newest Silverado hybrid truck gets only 16 mpg. The newest Lexus LS 600h L hybrid sedan clocks in at 21 mpg, the 2007 Saturn Vue hybrid at 26 mpg.

See pictures of the least efficient hybrids at our partner site, Forbes.com

This contradiction is not lost on consumers. The most recent 2006 J.D. Power and Associates Alternative Powertrain Study found that only 50% of new-vehicle shoppers are currently considering a hybrid — down from 57% the year before.

Are car manufacturers really this dumb? I don’t get it.

It’s clear to me that the reason why most people would buy a hybrid versus a regular car is to save money on gasoline.

Why would someone want to buy a more expensive car with new technology that might break down more often when it doesn’t even provide any benefit other than perhaps slightly lower emissions?

Even Honda did it wrong, and has seen the consequences.

Honda, a company that forged the hybrid car market in the U.S. with the 1999 Insight, understands this. Due to poor sales, the Japanese company is discontinuing its Accord Hybrid, which is considered a “mild hybrid.” Such cars have oversized starter motors that allow gas to be saved when coasting and while stopped, but have no hybrid drivetrains, meaning there is no electric motor to drive the vehicle. Mild hybrids also rarely have regenerative braking — a system that converts kinetic energy from the brakes into electrical energy to help power the vehicle.  

I think this is also why people only think of the Toyota Prius when they think of the hybrid.

But at least Honda is starting to catch on!

GM announces plan to launch entire family of electric cars based on gas automobile platforms

  Photo courtesy of Flickr.

Today’s Wall Street Journal writes that General Motors is planning an entire family of electric automobiles that will share major components with their regular gasoline cars, which will save significantly on production and design costs.

To reduce costs, the company is working on a version of its so-called E-Flex architecture for electric cars, which shares components with its high-volume, mainstream, front-wheel-drive cars, Mr. Lutz said in an interview at the Frankfurt auto show. “The hope is certainly to proliferate E-Flex over a wide variety of brands,” he said. “It is a goal to be able to build E-Flex vehicles in the same plants as our mainstream models.”

Ideally, GM would like to use a common chassis that can accommodate either a traditional gasoline engine and transmission or a battery-powered E-Flex powertrain.

GM and other car makers have at various times responded to political pressure to increase U.S. fuel-efficiency standards — known as corporate average fuel economy, or CAFE — by throwing open the doors of their normally secret research and development labs, in part to impress upon lawmakers the argument that money spent on incremental increases in the fuel efficiency of current models could siphon cash away from researching technology that might produce super-efficient cars tomorrow. Legislation to boost fuel economy is pending in Congress.

Industry critics counter that when it comes to fuel economy in the U.S., tomorrow never seems to come, as the average fuel efficiency of U.S. cars and light trucks has barely budged since the mid-1990s.

GM executives say the Volt will be a real car, and is under development. GM also plans to launch soon gasoline-electric hybrid versions of its large sport-utility vehicles. GM’s electric cars have a battery to store power and use an internal combustion engine only to recharge the battery, not to turn the wheels. Hybrids use either an electric motor or an internal combustion engine, or both, to turn their wheels.

At the Frankfurt show, GM’s Opel unit showed a concept for a sleek electric hatchback that pairs an electric motor with a 1.3-liter diesel engine. Called the Flextreme, it would be able to run for 40 miles on power from a large battery pack that can be recharged during longer trips by the engine.

Like the article itself, I am a bit skeptical, although hopeful that GM will go through with the plan. Seems to me though, that as soon as the next recession hits and oil and gasoline prices fall back down, these designs will go right into the dustbin of concept cars that never get developed.

My hope is that one of the startups like Tesla, Phoenix Motorcars or Miles Automotive Group will launch a real car that takes off like the Prius, forcing the mainstream automobile manufacturers to respond. After all, thanks to the success of the Prius, most of the major manufacturers have hybrid cars on the road or in the pipeline for launches soon. Even brands like Porsche!

How much would an electric car need to cost before you would buy it? If the upfront costs were $5K to $10K higher, but you’d make it back on reduced fueling, would you still be willing to pay it? And would 150 to 200 miles per charge be enough for you to buy one, or would it have to be more than that?

For me, as soon as a real electric car hits the road that is at least as big as a Civic or a Prius, goes at least 150 miles per charge and costs less than $50K, I’ll buy it.

New technology to replace batteries, allow an electric car to go 500 miles per charge?

Photo courtesy of Flickr.

CNN reports about an Austin based company that claims it has a new technology that will completely replace batteries, and would eventually allow an electric car to drive 500 miles between charges.

Don’t get too excited yet though, because they don’t actually have a product yet, and their claims aren’t really backed by any kind of demonstration or evidence. But they did get some real companies to invest serious money, so there might be something to it.

For years, EEStor has tried to fly beneath the radar in the competitive industry for alternative energy, content with a phone-book listing and a handful of cryptic press releases.

Yet the speculation and skepticism have continued, fueled by the company’s original assertion of making batteries obsolete — a claim that still resonates loudly for a company that rarely speaks, including declining an interview with The Associated Press.

The deal with ZENN Motor and a $3 million investment by the venture capital group Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, which made big-payoff early bets on companies like Google Inc. and Amazon.com Inc., hint that EEStor may be on the edge of a breakthrough technology, a “game changer” as Clifford put it.

ZENN Motor’s public reports show that it so far has invested $3.8 million in and has promised another $1.2 million if the ultracapacitor company meets a third-party testing standard and then delivers a product.

Clifford said his company consulted experts and did a “tremendous amount of due diligence” on EEStor’s innovation.

EEStor’s founders have a track record. Richard D. Weir and Carl Nelson worked on disk-storage technology at IBM Corp. in the 1990s before forming EEStor in 2001. The two have acquired dozens of patents over two decades.

Neil Dikeman of Jane Capital Partners, an investor in clean technologies, said the nearly $7 million investment in EEStor pales compared with other energy storage endeavors, where investment has averaged $50 million to $100 million.

Yet curiosity is unusually high, Dikeman said, thanks to the investment by a prominent venture capital group and EEStor’s secretive nature.

Related links to companies mentioned in the article:

ZENN Motor Company
EEstore Wikipedia page (So secretive they don’t have a public company web site!)
Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers

Compact cars, hybrids get a beat down from new EPA method of calculating gas mileage standards

Photo courtesy of Flickr.

If you’ve ever bought a car and been disappointed that your gas mileage is nowhere near what the sticker on the car at the dealership said it would be, then you’ll understand why the EPA has revised the way that it calculates gas mileage to make it more accurate to the way that Americans really drive.

Today’s Dallas Morning News writes about the new gas mileage EPA standard that will begin appearing on 2008 vehicle stickers at a dealership near you.

The old EPA standard drove the test vehicle around at 20 mph for the “in town” version of the gas mileage calculation, and drove on the highway at an average speed of 48 mph! Oh, and they also never turned on the air conditioner during the test. The test also included a much slower level of acceleration than people use in real life now.

The new standard drives the car faster, accelerates faster, and turns on the air conditioning some of the time. It also takes in to account that the car will be stuck in traffic sometimes and includes that in the gas mileage calculation.

As a result of the new EPA testing method, the gas mileage number that you see on the stickers of new cars will actually be pretty close to what you’ll get, and you might actually be able to do better than the sticker. (Dealers will like this, because they get a lot of complaints from people who buy a new car and then come back and complain that they don’t get gas mileage anywhere near what the sticker said they should get.)

The gas mileage on car stickers will drop anywhere from 10 to 25 percent from what they used to say, because of the new method of calculating.

Strangely, small cars and hybrids are going to see the biggest drop, according to the article. I assume their small engines are particularly susceptible to faster acceleration and the air conditioning reducing gas mileage, compared to bigger engines.

At a time when consumers are paying greater attention to fuel consumption, the biggest losers will be hybrids and four-cylinder vehicles, which struggle more with air conditioning and hard acceleration than vehicles with bigger engines, officials say.

The seeming declines in economy, in turn, may prompt some disappointed consumers to forgo compacts for more comfortable midsize sedans with larger engines, some industry officials say. In general, vehicles with V-6 and V-8 engines dropped only one or two miles per gallon in the city fuel tests, while some compacts dropped by four mpg or more and some hybrids by 10 mpg or more.

“My take is there will be almost a perverse impact,” said George Hoffer, a professor of economics at Virginia Commonwealth University and longtime observer of the auto industry. “The most fuel-efficient cars will take the biggest hits. As a result, I think we will see some movement from compact to midsize.”

Who wants to guess what the new 2008 Toyota Prius gas mileage sticker will read?

The article says they haven’t released the actual figure yet, but they think it will drop from 60 mpg to the mid 40s.

Want to improve your own gas mileage? Please check out our previous post on 5 Ways to Make your Car More Environmentally Friendly.

Miles Automotive Group, a new $32K electric car in late 2008?

Here’s an electric automobile company I’d never heard of. The Miles Automotive Group. They’re working on introducing an all electric sedan in the United States in 2008.

They already have a vehicle that is approved and street legal in the US as a Low Speed Vehicle (because it has a top speed of 25 mph). See the video.

ZDNet reports that they are on track to release a $32,000 sedan that goes up to 80 mph and has a range of 120 miles some time in 2008, if all goes according to plan.

Although Miles is based in the U.S., the car will be assembled in China, and most of the key components, such as the battery, will come from there as well. The basic chassis of the Javlon, in fact, is already being used for a gas car by another company in China. (U.S. carmakers get parts from China but assemble them elsewhere, and Chinese companies do not import street cars in large numbers to the U.S.)

China isn’t exactly identified with high-quality manufacturing these days, but Boyd and other executives assert that Chinese doesn’t mean cheap or shoddy. The chassis was actually designed by Italian designer Pininfarina.

The battery also comes from a well-known vendor. “We’re buying it from one of the premium battery manufacturers in China,” he said.

The company has already come out with low-speed vehicles that top out at 25 to 35 miles an hour. They are sold for use on college campuses, industrial sites and military posts–the Department of Defense is replacing a number of conventional cars with low-speed vehicles. Retirement communities, which have seen a rash of accidents among their golf cart-commuting residents, are another target market.

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Look out Tesla and Phoenix Motorcars, here comes the Baker 1909 electric coupe

 Photo of a 1910 model Baker courtesy of Flickr.

Electric cars are on the radar these days, with models like the Tesla electric sports car, the Phoenix Motorcars electric four door pickup and the G-Wiz.

But did you know that there used to be thousands of electric cars on the road back in the early 1900s?

From the NY Times article about Jay Leno’s 1909 Baker.

At the turn of the 20th century, quiet, smooth, pollution-free electric cars were a common sight on the streets of major American cities. Women especially favored them over steam- and gasoline-powered cars.

In an era in which gasoline-powered automobiles were noisy, smelly, greasy and problematic to start, electric cars, like Jay Leno’s restored 1909 Baker Electric Coupe, represented a form of women’s liberation. Well-dressed society women could simply drive to lunch, to shop, or to visit friends without fear of soiling their gloves, mussing their hair or setting their highly combustible crinoline dresses on fire.

“These were women’s shopping cars,” said Mr. Leno, who is a serious hands-on collector of autos and motorcycles dating from the 1800s to the present. “There was no gas or oil, no fire, no explosions — you just sort of got in and you went. There were thousands of these in New York, from about 1905 to 1915. There were charging stations all over town, so ladies could recharge their cars while they were in the stores.”

Baker Electrics, Detroit Electrics, Rausch & Langs and other similar electric cars were comparatively reliable and easy to drive. Even the wives of legendary car company owners drove electrics.

Clara Ford, Henry’s wife, drove a 1914 Detroit Electric Brougham until the 1930s, using it to visit friends and make her rounds on the family’s Michigan estate. Helen Joy, wife of Henry Joy, president of the Packard Motor Car Company, drove a 1915 Detroit Electric.

5 easy ways to make your car more environmentally friendly

If you’re reading this post in the United States, chances are pretty good that you own and drive a car.

It’s an unfortunate reality that it’s nearly impossible to reasonably get around without one if you are outside of a major metropolitan area with a good transit system, like New York, Chicago, Boston, etc.

So what’s a driver who cares about the environment to do to make driving and owning a car as green as possible? There are literally dozens of things you can do, but it starts to get overwhelming to list them all. And when people start to get overwhelmed they tend not to take any action at all. I know it happens to me all the time.

So I’ve decided to give you some low hanging fruit, with these 5 easy tips that require very little time, motivation or effort.

Read them, and then do something!


Photo courtesy of justinmatson at Flickr.com.

1. Check your tire pressure.

How can something so simple be so consistently overlooked? The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimates that 44 million people are driving around right now with underinflated tires!

Even worse, 85 percent of people who do check their tire pressure probably aren’t doing it correctly, according to the Rubber Manufacturers Association.

Learn how to check your car tire pressure correctly at Safercar.gov.

Keeping your tires properly inflated will give you around 3 percent better gas mileage, so you’ll be saving money too.

2. Get rid of the junk in your trunk.

Did you know that every extra 100 pounds of stuff that you are hauling around in the trunk of your car or the back of your wagon or SUV is reducing your gas mileage by up to 2 percent?

What are you dragging around in the back of your car right now that you could unload?

3. Don’t leave your car running when you aren’t driving.

This one infuriates me. I see it all the time at my local Starbucks. People just leave their car running while they go inside for five minutes to order and prepare their drink. What’s the point? We have a serious air pollution problem here in Dallas, and cars idling for no reason are not helping.

An idling car is getting ZERO miles to the gallon by definition.

And beside being bad for your gas mileage and bad for the environment, it’s just plain dangerous if you’re in a garage. Stationary vehicles are the largest source of unintentional, non-fire related fatalities, according to the U. S. Consumer Product Safety Commission.

When you stop your car for longer than a red light, just turn it off.

4. Don’t spill gasoline when filling up your tank.

It’s not just burning gasoline that causes environmental issues. Spilling gas and letting it evaporate are both big problems.

Here’s what the EPA has to say.

Gasoline vapors are harmful to you and the environment. Not only are they toxic to breathe, they contribute to ozone formation in the atmosphere. Since gasoline vapor production increases during the hot summer months, it is important to be careful when refueling your vehicle. Here are some simple measures you can take at the gas station:

  • Don’t Top Off Your Gas Tank
  • Secure the gas cap after refueling to prevent vapors from escaping.
  • Avoid refueling on Ozone Action Days.
  • If you must refuel on Ozone Action Days do so in the early morning or evening
  • Need more convincing? Here are some facts from the Alliance for Proper Gasoline Handling.

    A rough estimate of hydrocarbon emissions from gasoline spillage alone is approximately 28,000 tons per year nationwide.

    These releases contribute, at least in part, to the United States Geologic Society (USGS) estimate that more than 40 million people use groundwater that contains at least one volatile organic compound, many of which are components of gasoline.

    5. When it’s time for a new car, go green.

    You don’t have to buy a hybrid to go green. The EPA has this terrific resource for the greenest automobiles in every category.

    We’ve also done a previous post on 2007 model PZEV vehicles that have the lowest emissions.

    Treehugger also has a great resource page on greening your automobile.

    Worried about whether it is more environmentally friendly to keep your current car or switch to something that gets better gas mileage? Well guess what! Someone has done the math for you.

    Did we miss one of your favorite tips? If so, leave a comment!

    Toyota delays switching next generation hybrid cars to lithium ion batteries over safety concerns

    Today’s Wall Street Journal reports that Toyota has announced that it will delay switching its next generation hybrid cars from nickel-metal-hydride batteries that it currently uses to lithium-ion batteries, because of safety concerns. Lithium-ion batteries can heat up, catch on fire or explode if not designed and used correctly.

    Until recently, Toyota was preparing to roll out a dozen new and redesigned hybrids using new lithium-ion battery technology in the U.S. between 2008 and 2010. Its hybrids now use nickel-metal-hydride batteries. But safety concerns with the lithium-ion technology have forced Toyota to back away from that timetable, people familiar with the company’s strategy say.

    The rollout — critical to Toyota’s goal of selling 600,000 hybrids a year in the U.S. by early next decade, up from nearly 200,000 last year — is on hold, according to Toyota executives knowledgeable about the company’s hybrid-product plans for the U.S. market.

    Toyota also postponed plans for hybrid versions of its big and fuel-thirsty Tundra pickup and its Sequoia sport-utility vehicle, though the executives added there is a chance Toyota would revive big-truck hybrids and come out with them by 2013 or 2014. GM and Chrysler LLC, owned by Cerberus Capital Management LLP, plan to launch hybrid large SUVs next year, using a system developed jointly by GM, Chrysler, DaimlerChrysler AG and BMW AG.

    The batteries Toyota is trying to develop use particles of lithium cobalt oxide. But such batteries have shown a tendency to overheat, catch fire or even explode. Tomomi Imai, a Toyota spokesman in Tokyo, declined to comment. But, according to Toyota executives, similar problems with lithium-ion batteries for laptops made by Japan’s Sony Corp. sounded an alarm because the chemistry of the Sony batteries was similar to batteries Toyota was trying to use for future hybrids.

    Aside from the planned lithium-ion Prius wagon, Toyota now plans to launch as many as nine other lithium-ion-battery hybrids in the 2011-2012 period. Among them are a new wagon-style crossover with three rows of seating and a wagon derivative of the Camry.

    I wonder how this will affect Toyota releasing a plug-in hybrid? Doesn’t a plug-in hybrid design require lithium-ion batteries?

    Electric Datsun nerdmobile trounces gasoline powered muscle cars


    Photo courtesy of Flickr.

    Today’s Wall Street Journal has a front page story about a battery powered electric Datsun called the White Zombie that is leaving gasoline powered Corvettes, BMWs and police cars in the dust.

    In 1985, he found the white Datsun sedan in a junkyard and bought it for $585. He intended to use it to drive to work. But in the early ’90s, with General Motors Corp. beginning to tout the electric car, Mr. Wayland decided to convert the Datsun to electric power. Today, after several modifications, White Zombie has two powerful motors normally used to operate forklifts and 36 12-volt storage batteries crammed into the back seat and trunk. In daily use, most electric cars in the U.S. are little more than souped up golf carts with fewer batteries and much less power.

    In electrifying the Datsun, Mr. Wayland had as his goal building a car that could beat most of the big gasoline-powered muscle cars around Portland. “Getting beat by a little Japanese car back then reflected on your manhood,” he says.

    Unlike gasoline engines, which take a few seconds to build up turning power, or torque, for the rear wheels, electric motors deliver it instantly. The sharp jolt of power was a problem for Mr. Wayland in his first few races. “I hit it and it was on full power,” he says. “You just held on.” He has since installed a controller, a kind of giant dimmer switch that phases in the battery power more gradually.

    Last year, a Washington state police department — the Clark County Sheriff’s Office — invited him to show off White Zombie in a fast-driving course for young officers. Mr. Wayland did a massive burnout, leaving a squad car, with lights blaring and siren screaming, far behind. “Somebody, please arrest me,’ ” Mr. Wayland recalls saying. “I’m having way too much fun.”

    US vehicles at bottom of the list of fuel economy standards of industrialized countries

    Cars sure do drive better and look a lot nicer than this 1985 model, but overall, they have the same fuel economy standards. Photo courtesy of Flickr.

    The US ranks at the bottom of the list for fuel economy standards, according to this News.com story.

    U.S. fuel-efficiency requirements for passenger cars have been stuck at 27.5 miles per gallon since 1985, while the standard for pickups, minivans and other light trucks will increase from 20.7 mpg in 2004 to 24 mpg in 2011.

    That puts the United States behind Canada, South Korea, Australia, China, members of the European Union and Japan in vehicle fuel economy, according to the report from the International Council on Clean Transportation.

    Gasoline demand makes up 45 percent of daily US oil consumption, according to the article.

    I am curious about what the article didn’t say.

    Does anyone out there have any figures about the actual overall average fuel economy of today’s automotive fleet versus the average economy from 1985? Surely the average has to be higher than back then, even if the economy standards are the same. Am I wrong?

    Test Drive: Phoenix Motorcars electric Sport Utility Vehicle

    I was fortunate enough to receive an invitation to the Dallas, Texas unveiling of the new Phoenix Motorcars Sport Utility Truck tonight, up in Farmer’s Branch, at the Sam Pack Automotive Museum.

    Ed Begley Jr., the guy from the Living With Ed TV show, was there to introduce the truck.

    I was on the list with my coworker Steve, from Clean Air Gardening. (We were invited because Clean Air Gardening specializes in environmentally friendly lawn and gardening tools and supplies, and the organizers correctly figured that we would be interested in attending.)

    We arrived at 6 p.m., and immediately went over to sign up for a test drive. Steve and I were number 16 and 17 on the list, and we each got to drive the electric truck a few blocks after waiting for a half hour or so.

    When you sit in the driver’s seat, it seems pretty much like a regular car, until you look down at the shifter. There was a neutral setting in the middle. To put it into reverse, you just pull the shifter backwards to R. To drive forward, you shift it forward into D. Those three settings were all that there was.

    I drove at dusk, so I turned on the headlights during my drive.

    When you first push down the pedal to give it gas (or juice, I guess I should say), it was a little bit sluggish and weird feeling, and you could tell it wasn’t a regular car. It was much quieter, for one thing. I wouldn’t call it a fast car, by any means. I would probably compare it to driving a Toyota Corolla as far as the acceleration goes. But it was plenty fast for a typical commuter vehicle, which is how you’d probably use it.

    The prototype model I drove had no air conditioning, but it was perfect weather, so it didn’t matter. The final version is supposed to have AC. They told me that it will cut your driving range by 20 to 30 percent to run with the AC on. The heat also uses battery life, because gasoline cars use the heat from the engine, and an electric car doesn’t generate heat that way, so it needs a heater.

    The weirdest part about the truck was the way they had it set up to regenerate power whenever you let off the gas pedal or hit the brakes. You actually didn’t need to brake very much, because if you let completely off the gas, then the car started to slow down fairly dramatically as it used the slowing down kinetic energy to charge back up the battery. It takes a slightly different driving style to keep you from speeding up and then slowing down all the time like some kind of a crazed taxi driver.

    The truck looks kind of like a plainer version of the Honda Ridgeline, but it is sized sort of like the Subaru Baha, but maybe a little bigger and taller.

    They said that the price would be $45,000 for the truck. In California, you might pay as little as $35,000, because the state evidently has some kind of program to promote the use of zero emission vehicles and will give you back $10,000, from what I understood from the Phoenix Motorcars guy I talked to. Evidently, the company also gets some kind of subsidy that brings the upfront price down too, or it would be higher than $45,000. Their cost to build it is evidently higher than that, but they didn’t say how much higher.

    After test driving it, I can say that I would definitely buy one if I could get the $35,000 California deal, and I would probably buy it at $45,000 if the car was available and there was a place in Dallas to get it fixed.

    The company says it is making 500 of them in 2007, and selling those first 500 mostly to fleets, like PG&E in California.

    In 2008, they should make several thousand (I don’t remember exactly, but I think they said 5,000), and they hope to ramp up to around 20,000 in 2009.

    Here are the details from the sheet they handed out at the event:

    Phoenix Motorcars Sports Utility Truck Specs:

    Top Speed: 95 mph

    0 to 60 mph in less than 10 seconds

    Range: Urban or Highway, 100 plus miles per charge

    Charging Time: 5 to 6 hours with the 6.6KW on-board vehicle charger, but just 10 minutes to 95 percent SOC (I think that means 95 percent charged) with the 250KW charger that you would stay at your home or charging location.

    So how much does it cost to charge it? Approximately $3 to $5 for a full charge that will take you 100 plus miles, according to the engineer I spoke with.

    Motor Manufacturer: UQM Technologies

    Power Rating: 100KW peak, 55KW continuous

    Torque Rating: 500Nm peak, 300Nm continuous

    Controller Thermal Management: Liquid cooling

    Regenerative Braking: Programmable

    On-Vehicle Charging System: UQM Technologies

    Battery Type: NanoSafe Lithium Titanate

    Battery Management System: Altairnano Technology Integrated BMU

    Overall length: 194 inches

    Overall Width: 73 inches

    Overall Height: 69 inches

    Wheelbase: 108 inches

    Gross Vehicle Weight: 4,800 lbs

    Curb Vehicle Weight: 3,800 lbs

    Payload: 1,000 lbs

    Battery Life: This type of lithium battery supposedly has no “memory” issues, and has a life span of 12 plus years, or approximately 250,000 miles.

    Photos: (Click through to Flickr to see larger versions.)

    Phoenix Motorcars truck engine

    Phoenix Motorcars truck and crowd

    Phoenix Motorcars truck side view