Copyright 2006 Dana Buttenhoff
The questions about alternative fuel vehicles increase every time gasoline prices rise. There are many options for vehicle manufacturers. Getting these vehicles from the research and development phase to the mainstream public has been a long and tedious process. The American vehicle manufacturers seem to have lagged behind the Japanese in this regard or have they?
When most people hear the term “alternative fuel vehicle” the vast majority will think of hybrid vehicles, the gas and electric combination. In the 2006 model year vehicle line-up for cars the only hybrid choices are Japanese. For light trucks however, the only choices are American. The SUV line up has both Japanese and American choices. The big question remains to be answered; will the demand for alternative fuel vehicles be the saving grace for a faltering American auto industry? Can General Motors and Ford adapt quickly enough to the consumer demand for lower operating costs for the average American driver to use the current spike in gasoline prices to their advantage? Perhaps the opposite is true and the inability to change will push one or both of the American auto giants over the top and make them a takeover target for perhaps Toyota? If you don’t think this scenario is possible, have you ever heard of a company called DaimlerChrysler?
Hybrid technology seems to be the most recognizable with the general public but it is not the only alternative fuel choice available. Some other alternative fuel sources have been used for years, mostly in fleet or industrial vehicles. The most notable would be Liquefied Petroleum Gas (LPG) more commonly known as propane. Another similar fuel source is Compressed Natural Gas (CNG). Fleets of trucks, buses and government agency cars have used these fuel sources for many years. Having a network of fueling stations is a stumbling point to bringing these vehicles to mainstream America. One reason why these fuel sources work well for fleet usage is because of the central garage and fueling station arrangement. When the vehicle has completed its workday it is brought back to the central garage as well as fueled for the next day’s service. Although both LPG and CNG are fossil fuels they produce less emissions than gasoline. Flex-fuel vehicles (FFV) are vehicles that have a single fuel source and are designed to run on either regular unleaded gasoline or a mixture of gasoline and an alcohol fuel source such as ethanol or methanol. With many farmer owned cooperatives building ethanol production facilities as a way to market their corn and other grain crops this type of alternative fuel vehicle choice has gained the most momentum in mainstream America. Another type of alternative fuel source vehicle is known as a Bi-fuel Vehicle. This design uses two completely separate fuel system. Typically one fuel source is a readily available fuel such as regular unleaded gasoline or diesel and the other fuel source is either LPG or CNG. By using two fuel sources the vehicle has greater flexibility to travel outside the limited refueling network for LPG or CNG. The vehicle is designed to easily switch between the two fuel sources based on fuel availability. Electric vehicles show promise but there are issues with the weight from battery storage sources and a network of recharging facilities as well as their limited travel range. Fuel Cell Vehicles (FCV) are several years away as they are not expected to reach the mass market prior to 2010.Government agencies and domestic automobile manufacturers are joining forces to bring a zero emission vehicle that does not rely on fossil fuels to the American driving public. Freedom CAR is a cooperative research effort between the Department of Energy and the U.S. Council for Automotive Research whose goal is to develop cars and trucks that are cheaper to operate, pollution free, competitively priced and free from imported oil.
With alternative fuel sources there will be growing pains. These would include setting up a network of refueling stations and training automotive repair technicians on vehicles that are completely different from what they have repaired in the past. There are many automotive technicians who, I am sure, will leave the industry as the new technology is introduced. The neighborhood repair garage will disappear as these increasingly more sophisticated vehicles begin rolling on American streets and highways. Most vehicle manufactures will keep the training on these new vehicles for their network of dealer service technicians only.
If you are considering an alternative fuel vehicle you should also consider the proximity of refueling stations and how that network will expand in the foreseeable future. Staying informed on alternative fuel vehicles currently in production as well as those that will be available in the near future will be to your advantage as a consumer.
-Reference material from http://www.fuleconomy.gov, The Department of Energy, FreedomCAR initiative and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency