When will advanced clean vehicle technologies be available to consumers?
They’re on the road now! Two manufacturers currently offer hybrid-electric vehicles for sale or lease. Toyota offers the Prius, Yaris, Auris, and Honda offers both the two-seat Insight and a hybrid version of the popular Civic. Fully-electric vehicles are also available, such as Tesla Model X/S, BMW i3, Renault Fluence Z.E., Opel Ampera etc., though the major auto manufacturers are phasing full-electric cars out of production because they feel that they offer consumers limited driving range per charge, and that battery costs are still too high.
Fuel cells are further off but have moved remarkably quickly from laboratory to road. Fuel-cell transit bus demonstration projects were completed in both Chicago and Vancouver, and many similar demonstrations are occurring in various cities around the country and the globe. In California, a partnership between automakers, fuel companies, and government agencies are testing fuel-cell vehicle technology and are expected to produce over 60 demonstration vehicles in the next few years. Also, the California Zero Emission Vehicle (ZEV) Program will require auto manufacturers to sell increasing numbers of zero-emission vehicles over the next decade, further encouraging the development of fuel-cell cars.
Are there any tax credits or purchase incentives for advanced technology vehicles?
Incentive programs have been established in some states and cities, from direct subsidies to tax credits, to other perks such as being able to use the HOV lanes with a single occupant. In May 2002, the IRS declared gasoline/electric hybrids eligible for tax deductions as “clean fuel” vehicles under the Energy Policy Act of 1992 (PL 103-486). The current deduction ceiling is $2,000, but the tax deduction is set to end in 2006, with $500 less available each year as the deduction is phased out. UCS continues to push for passage of a comprehensive tax credit package that will provide incentives for consumers and businesses that will be based on strong environmental performance criteria and will be offered for advanced technology vehicles from the family car to buses and trucks.
What is the difference between a “fuel-efficient” and a “low-emitting” car?
Higher fuel efficiency results in less global warming pollution; “low-emitting” vehicles release fewer smog-forming pollutants. The amount of fuel a car burn determines how much carbon dioxide (the major global warming gas) it releases. Air pollution control devices reduce other pollutants from modern cars, such as carbon monoxide, or smog-forming pollutants such as nitrogen oxides and volatile organic compounds. Choosing a car with high fuel efficiency won’t necessarily help reduce urban smog (as in the case of diesel cars); consumers should also look for vehicles with low emissions. Truly “greener” cars address the problems of global warming, air pollution, and our nation’s dependence on oil through low emissions and high fuel efficiency.
Aren’t new gasoline-powered cars 96 percent cleaner than cars were 30 years ago?
It’s true that today’s tailpipe standards represent a 96% reduction in some pollutants since the mid-1960s, but studies indicate that the real-world reduction is closer to 90 percent. And these numbers only refer to tailpipe emissions. There is also significant upstream pollution associated with petroleum refining, tanker spills, fueling stations, and so forth.
Moreover, Americans collectively drive twice as much as they did 25 years ago, partially offsetting the emission reductions from individual vehicles. Miles driven are likely to continue rising, making further reductions in vehicle emissions and advanced technology vehicles crucial to cleaning our air.
Do hybrid vehicles offer “the best of both worlds?”
Hybrid vehicles, a mix of traditional combustion vehicles and electric cars, offer the potential to combine the clean and efficient operation of an electric car with the long range and fuel infrastructure of today’s gasoline cars. However, the environmental benefits depend mainly on how these hybrid vehicles are designed. Future hybrids could be the cleanest of combustion vehicles or only a modest improvement over today’s cars. High-efficiency, low-emissions hybrids operating on renewable fuels will provide the highest energy and environmental benefits of this type of vehicle.
Is there any future for full battery electric vehicles?
Although full electric vehicles have range limitations (50-100 miles per charge depending on battery type and driving conditions) have reduced their appeal, the fact is that most drivers travel less than 50 miles most days, and electric cars could satisfy many driving needs. They are currently the only vehicle on the market that offers zero tailpipe emissions while requiring no catalytic converter or other emissions control system. These vehicles are therefore still a viable part of an overall clean vehicle future, but likely as part of a “niche” market. Smaller companies continue to produce electric vehicles or retrofit conventional gasoline models with electric engines. Electric vehicles are also emerging into areas such as airport equipment and smaller Neighborhood Electric Vehicles (NEVs) that are becoming more popular as elements within larger public transportation networks and for use within self-contained areas such as retirement communities.
What is a fuel cell?
A fuel cell is an electrochemical device that produces electricity from the reaction of hydrogen and oxygen. The only byproduct is water. Fuel cell vehicles are similar to battery-powered electric cars in that the fuel cell produces electricity that powers motors at the wheels. But while a battery must be recharged after all of the fuel inside it has reacted, a fuel cell is a “refillable battery,” in the sense that recharging the vehicle requires refilling the fuel tank. The hydrogen fuel needed to power can be stored directly on the vehicle in tanks or extracted from a secondary fuel, like methanol or ethanol, which carries oxygen.
Won’t it be too expensive to develop an alternative-fuel infrastructure?
Replacing the current gasoline infrastructure will be no small task, but it is imperative that our society shifts to cleaner alternative fuels. An important fact to note is that the oil industry currently invests more than $10 billion each year to upgrade or maintain the existing gasoline system. These investments would go a long way toward building a renewable-fuel future. From this point of view, the infrastructure hurdle is not one of limited capital, but one of the investment priorities. Money is not the only challenge in an effort toward shifting to a “hydrogen economy.” Hydrogen is plentiful but is never found alone in nature. It, therefore, must be extracted from some other source, be it from the wind, solar, coal, nuclear, or even more radical sources such as the manipulation of algae. The current plan by the Bush Administration relies heavily on both fossil fuel and nuclear production of hydrogen, casting serious doubts on its long-term environmental benefit. Ensuring that the production of hydrogen is done in as environmentally as possible will be a vital component in any fuel cell future.