Tomorrow's Environmentally "Clean/Green" Vehicles Are Here Today
The future is closer than you think. Manufacturers are offering "clean and green" vehicles today. Motorists can now purchase a variety of "super low-emission vehicles," known as SULEVs - from dealers around the country. SULEV gasoline/electric hybrid vehicles from Toyota and Honda are selling briskly, and many more offerings are coming. Alternate-fueled vehicles - those that run on natural gas, propane, ethanol or methanol - are also considered clean vehicles and are commercially viable. These alternate fuel vehicles, or AFVs, may be more suitable for car, truck and bus fleets where centralized refueling is available, but they're definitely low on emissions and offer real maintenance and fuel savings.
For purists, ZEVs, or zero-emission vehicles, are available on a limited basis (mainly in California or in the South). Typically they are battery-electric powered. Some individuals are using EVs as commuter cars or neighborhood vehicles, but most battery-electric vehicles are used for stop-and- go mail and courier delivery, meter enforcement, etc. They're also found in gated communities, on campuses, at zoos, parks, etc. These vehicles are typically charged overnight or recharged between trips; they offer considerable fuel and maintenance savings along with zero on-road emissions. But because of their limited range, EVs are admittedly considered "niche market" vehicles.
Hybrids Gaining in Popularity
EV technology has contributed to the success of today's more versatile hybrid-electric vehicles. Gasoline/electric hybrids are not range limited, can get exceptional mileage, and are rated as SULEVs. Hybrids generally work by using an engine and generator in harmony with one or more energy storage devices such as batteries. Managed by sophisticated computers, today's hybrids may use battery-only power at low speeds, or a combination of battery and engine power for accelerating and hill climbing - the batteries serving as an "electric supercharger." Under cruise conditions, the engine runs a generator as needed to re-charge the batteries and propel the vehicle. When going downhill, coasting or braking, otherwise-wasted vehicle inertia runs the generator for re-charging the batteries, and the engine shuts off, adding to miles-per-gallon.
For now, hybrid-electrics seem the most popular choice. Hybrids are achieving 70 mpg and more. Greater numbers of these gasoline/electric autos, vans, pickups and SUVs will be for sale in the next couple of years.
Longer-term projections indicate that hybrid-powered vehicles of all stripes will gain considerable market share over conventional gasoline and diesel vehicles in the next 10 to 20 years. Purchase prices will depend on economies of scale, and government and auto manufacturer subsidies. Widespread acceptance of hybrids would mean far less petroleum would be consumed, which translates to both lower overall grams-per-mile of emissions and a greater degree of energy independence.
Most industry experts predict that the gasoline or diesel powered hybrid is an interim step towards achieving near pollution-free transportation. The ultimate in zero-emission vehicles are hybrids that use the hydrogen fuel-cell engine. Hydrogen is reacted (not burned) in the fuel cell to generate electricity for the vehicle's traction motor(s) and for charging the batteries. When run on pure hydrogen, fuel-cell vehicles (FCVs) produce no harmful emission and are more fuel-efficient than the best vehicles with internal combustion engines.
According to the Society of Automotive Engineers, "Most major auto manufacturers have announced plans to commercialize [fuel cell powered] cars in 2003 or 2004." But improving the technology and lowering the cost of fuel cell production and materials is a key factor for market success. An American Methanol Institute report predicts that by 2020, seven to 20% of all new cars sold will be powered by fuel cells. Government subsidies and market demand for fuel cells and FCVs (fuel cell vehicles) has resulted in an increasing number of companies striking innovative deals to bring fuel cell technology to the marketplace. Numerous fuel cell powered cars, trucks, vans, and transit buses already exist.
Adding impetus to development of FCVs is President Bush's recent announcement of the Freedom CAR (Freedom Cooperative Automotive Research) program. This program will focus on the technologies needed to build affordable, clean, mass-produced hydrogen fuel cell vehicles along with those needed for a hydrogen-fueling infrastructure using domestic energy sources.
The future is coming, and sooner than most people realize. For those impatient with the pace of progress, consider how far we've already come: Today's conventional cars could actually run on the tailpipe emissions of cars produced in the 1960s, thanks in large part to on-board vehicle technology.
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