During the Summer of 2008, gas prices hit their peak of $4+. Sure, we’re not paying nearly that now, but seriously, does anyone really believe that $2.14 is a bargain? And while new drilling technologies and oil reserves are taking the pressure off gasoline prices and peak production issues, demand for alternative fuel vehicles is at an all-time high. Finding alternatives for the traditional internal combustion has become a priority for both manufacturers and consumers, spurred on by environmentalists who demand lower emissions, as well as the federal government, which has mandated that vehicles must average a whopping 54.5 MPG by 2025.
Although this flurry of demand and regulation is recent, manufacturers have been experimenting with alternative fuels for decades. The easy availability of gas, to the exclusion of most other fuels, hasn’t made getting people to abandon their gas-powered vehicles an easy task, though, which is why the vast majority of vehicles on the road today still run on the time-honored fuel. Let’s face it, who wants a car they can’t get fuel or find a recharging station for? Of course, as regulations change, infrastructure will need to change right along, and you may soon be seeing more vehicles that run on these alternatives to gas:
- Gas-electric hybrids
The Honda Insight and Toyota Prius were the first hybrids to reach the American market in 1999, and today there are over 40 models of gas-electric cars available. While these vehicles still use gas, they also use electricity at low speeds to handle stop and start. This greatly increases the overall MPG, and since the battery is charged by the engine itself, it need not be plugged in. The best-selling hybrid is the Prius, but several other manufacturers have also jumped on the hybrid bandwagon, including supercar makers Ferrari and Porsche, who have added hybrid vehicles to their lineups.
- Plug-in hybrids
Plug-in hybrids or PHEVS are similar to gas-electric hybrids but have larger batteries that can propel the car limited distances on electricity alone, thus generating zero emissions. The batteries can then be recharged by being plugged into an electric power source. Unfortunately, the larger batteries cost considerably more, and mining the lithium necessary to manufacture them isn’t exactly environmentally friendly. In addition, recharging will definitely make a mark on your monthly electric bill, so add that to the cost of driving your PHEV.
Electric vehicles (EVs) were introduced a few years ago, and use a battery to store the electric energy that powers the motor, thus running gas-free. Popular models include the Nissan Leaf and the Tesla Model S, as well as the Mercedes’s Smart ForTwo Electric, which claims a range of 68 miles per charge and sells for $20,740 before incentives and discounts. Unfortunately, only being able to go 34 miles before you have to head home to recharge isn’t much of an incentive to buy one of these vehicles, so don’t expect to see too many of them on the road until charging stations get more plentiful.
- Ethanol and flex fuel
Ethanol made from corn has been around for decades, enjoying a brief moment of popularity in the 80s before languishing into obsolescence as people realized how badly it clogged their engines. The fuel additive has made great strides since then, however, and in 2007 the government’s Renewable Fuels mandate required a certain amount of liquids made from renewable sources be added to gasoline, opening the door for ethanol to make a comeback. Nowadays there are close to a hundred models that carry the designation “flex fuel,” meaning they can run on mixtures that contain up to 85% ethanol. The initial celebration over the new ethanol has waned a bit, however, as realization grows that vehicles using ethanol get fewer miles per gallon. Ethanol also takes a lot of energy to produce, which can lead to increased emissions of carbon dioxide, so the benefits of using it are overshadowed by the drawbacks. Opponents also argue that ethanol is unethical, because approximately 40% of the corn grown gets used for ethanol production instead of food.
Manufactured from vegetable oil, animal fats, or recycled restaurant grease, biodiesel raises the octane rating of conventional diesel fuel and burns more cleanly, in addition to being non-toxic and biodegradable. Biodiesel can be used in its pure form but is most often found in a blend with 80% conventional diesel fuel. Biodiesel can be used in most vehicles that have conventional diesel engines without modification, making it an easy choice for diesel owners who want to be more environmentally friendly while still being able to go fast enough to get a speeding ticket on the highway.
Also known as liquefied petroleum gas (LPG), propane is produced as a by-product of natural gas processing and crude oil refining, and costs about one third less than gasoline despite a high octane rating and clean burning properties. Ease of maintenance and reduced emissions have spurred the use of propane in light-vehicle fleets (police cars and school buses), and heavy-duty truck makers such as Kenworth and Peterbilt are also jumping on board to produce these vehicles. Unfortunately, propane’s glowing attributes are dimmed by the fact that it must be stored in a pressurized tank, and the propane refueling infrastructure is limited.
- Liquefied and compressed natural gas
Natural gas vehicles, operating on either liquefied or compressed gas, produce mileage similar to gasoline but burn more cleanly. Most of the vehicles currently running on natural gas are medium and heavy-duty trucks, but Honda has offered a natural gas Civic since 1998. It is slower than a gasoline one, has a limited range and refueling network, and costs thousands of dollars more. In its favor are cheaper prices for a fuel that is produced domestically and lower emissions.
- Fuel cells
Hydrogen is appealing because it can be produced domestically and burns cleanly, and fuel cell vehicles are two or three times more efficient than gasoline-powered ones. What’s held them back has been the cost of building the cells themselves and a network of fueling stations to distribute the hydrogen. In addition, as in the PHEVs, mining the lithium necessary to manufacture the fuel cells is decidedly environmentally unfriendly. As a result, small fleets of FCVs are being tested by manufacturers, but no fuel cell vehicles have reached the consumer market. Two notable models in limited tests: the Honda FCX Clarity, and the 2012 Mercedes-Benz F-cell, which gets 52 miles per kg of hydrogen (roughly equivalent to a gallon of gasoline).
Yes, free, clean solar! Recently a Dutch-manufactured car powered by the sun drove almost 2,000 miles across the Australian outback at an average speed of 56 miles per hour. Awesome, right! Yes and no. Yes, the car did all that, but it was made of super lightweight materials which are prohibitively expensive, the car only carried a driver, travelled only during daylight hours, and used a small battery to get rolling. In addition, the photovoltaic cells that capture the sunlight and convert it to electricity are expensive to produce. Until these problems are solved, solar-powered vehicles will probably be limited to use as golf carts and other similar uses.
In use since the early 18th century, steam was the original default fuel, and between 1899 and 1905, the Stanley Steamer outsold all gasoline-powered cars in the U.S. Once internal combustion engines gained the ability to be started easily they caught up quickly, and steamers with their heavy boilers were doomed. Steam-powered vehicles can burn fuel like garbage, wood, and crude oil, so manufacturers are still experimenting, but they are relatively inefficient and very weighty. In 2009, a modern steam car exceeded 130 miles per hour, breaking a speed record set by a Stanley Steamer in 1906. Unfortunately, it weighed more than three tons and contained more than two miles of steam tubing, so this may not be a practical car for everyday driving.