Any serious discussion of breaking America's petroleum addiction has to focus on transportation. Vehicles guzzle more than 11 million of the 17 million barrels of oil Americans consume daily, and most of that goes into cars, trucks and buses. Transportation is 97 percent oil-dependent; electricity generation is only 5 percent oil-dependent.
Moreover, automobile fumes contribute more than half of the carbon monoxide in the air, a third of the nitrous oxides, a quarter of the hydrocarbons and nearly a third of the carbon dioxide.# “Motor vehicles generate more air pollution than any other single human activity,” says Deborah Bleviss of the Washington-based International Institute for Energy Conservation. Conventional wisdom holds that the clean cars of tomorrow exist only in blueprints. In fact, they already exist, and range from General Motors Corp.'s high-performance electric sportscar, the “Impact,” to hundreds of United Parcel Service vans running on compressed natural gas. So why do these marvels of efficiency seldom make it to the showroom? The reason, some say, has nothing to do with technology -- and everything to do with the marketplace. Take the example of the Volvo LCP 2000. This prototype sedan is more crashworthy than required by law, accelerates from 0 to 60 in 11 seconds and could be priced competitively. It gets 81 miles per gallon (mpg) on the highway and 63 mpg in the city. “It feels like a Honda Civic,” says Lee Schipper of the Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory in California. “But it was allowed to die because fuel prices fell and Volvo felt that it wouldn't pay off. Most of the world today wants to buy cars that are bigger and more powerful.”
That ambition is a strong indication of how far away this country is from the ultimate solution -- breaking the public's love affair with the private car. Even with tougher fuel-efficiency standards down the road, a long-term solution may lie in vehicles that dispense with refined crude altogether. Here is a look at some of the most likely alternatives to gasoline:
Methanol: In the United States, methanol, an alcohol that can be made from coal, wood, natural gas or other materials, is emerging as the main rival to gasoline for private cars.## Since it is liquid, today's cars could adapt to it with only minor technical changes.
The clear favorite of automakers, methanol is a cleaner and cheaper fuel than oil and yields more horsepower and acceleration (it's a popular fuel for race cars). It produces no particulate emissions, and carbon dioxide emissions are projected to be from 5 to 10 percent lower than gasoline's. “It's the alternative technology that's the furthest along and the most feasible,” says Chrysler engineer D.C. Van Raaphorst.
Methanol has many drawbacks, though. Cars powered by it are sometimes hard to start when the temperature falls below 50 degrees Fahrenheit. Mechanics are leery of its toxicity; it can burn the skin and peels paint. Moreover, methanol is environmentally suspect. It doesn't lower nitrogen oxide emissions much, and compared with gasoline, it releases much more formaldehyde, a potent carcinogen and contributor to smog.
Natural gas: Natural gas vehicles (NGVs) not only contribute a lot less to local smog than do gasoline vehicles, they also emit 25 percent less carbon dioxide, which means less risk of global warming. Because the fuel is so much cleaner than gasoline, vehicles running on it require less maintenance and fewer oil changes.
Proponents contend natural gas is no fantasy fuel -- some 500,000 NGVs are already on the road. But only 30,000 of them are in the United States -- about one car in 6,000. Canada, with one-tenth of the U.S. population, has an NGV fleet two-thirds as large. The fuel itself is 30-50 percent cheaper than gasoline, and likely to stay that way, given that the United States has substantial reserves of untapped natural gas.
However, converting to natural gas vehicles poses a chicken-and- egg dilemma. Detroit might be more willing to devote more resources to developing NGVs if there were a solid market for them, and mass production would eliminate the high cost of retrofits. Buyers would be attracted to NGVs low operating costs -- if they could readily refuel them. And gas station owners would install natural gas compressors if there were enough demand to make that investment profitable. But no one seems willing to make the first move.
Experts say the likely transportation niche for NGVs is for vehicles that travel local routes and can be centrally fueled, such as buses, delivery vans, garbage trucks and taxicabs -- in all, about 10 percent of American vehicles. These so-called fleet vehicles make up some 20 percent of road transportation, presently consuming about as much oil as the U.S. imports from the Persian Gulf.
Electric: Driven by tougher emission standards, especially those being imposed in California -- which wants “zero emission” vehicles to account for 10 percent of new car sales by 2003 -- every major car company has an electric-car project under way.
Environmentally, electric cars have always made sense. They do produce a few pollutants indirectly because power plants must generate the electricity needed to charge the batteries. But even after taking these into account, electric cars release 98 percent less carbon monoxide and nitrous oxides, and 25 percent less carbon dioxide than conventional cars, according to Steve McCrea at the Electric Auto Association in Belmont, Calif. Says McCrea: “It's easier to clean one smokestack than a million tailpipes.”
One drawback is that electric cars can be lackluster performers, often because of awkward trade-offs between acceleration and range. The prototype of GM's Impact has a top speed of 110 mph and a range of 120 miles, but that's largely a result of the car's aerodynamic shape and high-tech components. Electric cars also are expensive: According to some estimates, the price of an electric car is likely to be 20-40 percent higher than an equivalent gas-powered car, depending on the type of batteries. And the batteries will need replacing, perhaps every two or three years (charge: roughly $1,500).
Last October, Detroit's Big Three automakers formed the U.S. Advanced Battery Consortium, a four-year collaborative R&D effort with the U.S. government to pour $260 million into new battery technology that will give electric cars longer range. The sodium sulfur battery, a promising new technology, can store two to three times as much energy as the lead acid battery and may be ready for the marketplace by the mid-1990s. Last autumn, Japan's Ministry of International Trade & Industry announced a similar program. Already, Nissan contends it has a battery that can be recharged in only 15 minutes, compared with two to eight hours for most others.
Even when electric cars hit the road commercially -- GM expects to have the Impact in showrooms by 1995 -- experts say they are likely to function primarily as second cars for commuters.
Looking ahead: While clean-air laws could aid a switch to other fuels, legislators aren't sure which alternatives to promote, since even experts disagree about the trade-offs involved. Each possibility reduces some pollutants, but sometimes at the price of more serious ones. All the available choices require technical retooling and time for consumer acceptance.
Last October, alternative vehicles got a big boost when nine Eastern states and the District of Columbia promised to adopt tough new smog reduction rules first imposed by California in 1990.* With other states mulling similar moves, it seems almost certain that large numbers of new U.S. cars and trucks will have to run on natural gas or methanol starting in 1997. On top of that, the new rules mandate that by 1998, 2 percent of all new vehicles will have to run on electricity. That will hit 10 percent by 2003, or nearly 500,000 vehicles annually in states that have agreed to the rules so far.
Nevertheless, most experts believe it's far too early to write the obituary for Henry Ford's internal-combustion engine. The move to supplant gas-guzzlers has inspired the auto industry to tinker more seriously with advanced two-stroke engines and new gas turbines that promise to give cars more oomph and less exhaust. They are also experimenting with lighter materials, such as ceramic engines and plastic side panels, to improve mileage efficiency.
“Oil has been fueling the transportation sector for 70 years,” notes Jeff Alson, assistant director of the Environmental Protection Agency's auto emissions lab in Ann Arbor, Mich. “It is the fuel. Everything is designed around it.” Changing that will take a revolution in thinking.
Moreover, motorists may be wary of shifting fuels, especially if they can't find anywhere convenient to fill up. In the meantime, so- called flexible-fuel vehicles (FFVs) and hybrid cars, which can run on electricity or gasoline, could break the gridlock.
An FFV will be able to detect which type of fuel its tank has been filled with -- even if it is a mixture -- and will automatically adjust the engine. FFVs use specially modified engines with sensors that measure the quality of the fuel flowing to the engine. Volkswagen has developed an FFV capable of running on any carbon-based liquid fuel, from diesel to alcohol.
The drawback is that these “transition” vehicles will never perform as optimally as one designed specifically for one fuel. But most experts agree it is unrealistic to rely on any of the current alternatives beyond the near term. The wild card is how fast companies can improve alternative-vehicle technology. “The alternative-fuel lobbies are fighting each other as much as they are fighting the gasoline industry,” says Alson. “But none of the alternative fuels will make an impact until any of them does.” # Technology Review, May/June 1990, p. 22. ## An alternative fuel with similar qualities is ethanol. For more details, see Replacing Gasoline: Alternative Fuels for Light-Duty Vehicles, Congressional Office of Technology Assessment, 1990. * The states are New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, Maryland, Delaware, New Hampshire and Maine.