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A Better Strategy for Detroit: Electric Drive not Flexfuel

Posted Dec 09 2008 9:19pm
In 2006, Detroit held high hopes of being profitable by selling millions of flexfuel vehicles. The vehicles are named flexfuel because they can be fueled with either E85 ethanol or with gasoline. It cost little extra to make these flexfuel vehicles. The flexfuel modifications were not made to all engines. They were made in bigger engines for SUVs, trucks, and big cars with better profit margins, but subpar fuel economy. Millions of flexfuel vehicles were sold.

Thousands of E85 stations appeared, primarily in corn growing states. A federal law was passed requiring production of 36 billion gallons of biofuel to be produced by 2022. Executive orders gave preference to buying flexfuel vehicles for the fleet of 4 million federal, state, and local vehicles. As food prices soared, one billion people struggled to afford food. The law was modified to requiring 16 billion of the 36 billion gallons to be from cellulosic sources. Biofuel 2.0

Recently at the Los Angeles Auto Show, I saw flexfuel vehicles extensively displayed in GM and Ford booths. They are also pilling-up in at auto dealers throughout the nation. These flexfuel vehicles fail to delivery the fuel economy that people are now demanding.

Although Detroit automakers sell flexfuel vehicles with good mileage in Brazil, in the United States, the best EPA mileage rating for a vehicle using E85 is 19 miles per gallon.

As we approach 2009, transportation is beginning a major shift away from the internal combustion engine to electric drive systems. Just as downloadable music disrupted CD sales, just as mainframe computing gave way to distributed computing, transportation is shifting to a new electric-drive paradigm.

At the Auto Show crowds were excited by new electric vehicles, including plug-in hybrids and fuel cell vehicles. Crowds surrounded BMW’s Mini E, the freeway-speed battery electric version of the Mini Cooper with a 150 mile range. Nissan was showing off its Cube and talking about making 100 mile range battery electric vehicles in volume, with fleet quantities in 2010. Mitsubishi’s iMiEV was shown as is being put into trail at the electric utility SCE.

Big automakers were also displaying fuel cell vehicles that extend the range and speed the fueling time for electric vehicles. Chevrolet, Daimler, Honda, and Toyota are each putting over 100 of their hydrogen vehicles into daily fleet and personal use. Toyota also has big plans for plug-in hybrids. Look for new announcements in Chicago this coming February.

GM continued to generate excitement with its Chevy Volt, a beautiful sporty sedan with a range of 40 miles in electric mode and hundreds of added miles using a small gasoline engine to extend range.

Chrysler was demonstrating four different electric vehicles at the L.A. Auto Show. The popular low-cost battery electric Chrysler GEM has now passed 38,000 in use in the United States, with sales continuing to do well. Although it is limited to 25 mph and a 40 mile max range, the bigger new Chyrsler ENVI electric vehicles get from 0 to 60 in as little as 5 seconds with EVs and plug-in hybrids that include Jeeps, mini-vans, and sports cars. Chrysler Details

The full transition to electric transportation may take 40 years, but it is unstoppable. The fuel of choice is shifting from foreign oil to our own renewable energy resources. Over 40,000 people now drive electric vehicles in the United States. Most are the 25 mph types, not the $100,000 Teslas, but in 2010 several affordable freeway speed choices will be offered by Nissan, Chrysler, GM, Toyota, and dozens of exciting smaller companies.

Although millions of electric vehicles will displace cars with gasoline engines, the internal combustion engine will be with us for decades in hybrids, plug-in hybrids, and heavy-duty trucks. Using new biofuel blends in these engines will help us achieve energy security. Biofuels from cellulosic sources will help moderate damaging greenhouse gas emissions. Biofuels are not a panacea; rather, they are an important transitional solution for the next decades.

Currently, 142 billion gallons of gasoline are consumed annually in the United States. In ten years, consumption could moderate to 120 billion gallons annually, even with population growth, due to these factors: CAFÉ fuel efficiency standards, replacement of some gasoline engines with more efficient turbo diesel, growth of electric vehicles, growing use of commute programs, growing use of trains and transit, and reduced vehicle miles traveled.

Fuel refiners and engine manufacturers could agree on standards so that 20 percent of gasoline could be from ethanol and other approved next generation biofuel. This 20 percent would be 24 billion gallons annually of fuel from biomass, not from petroleum. Flexfuel vehicles that deliver under 30 mpg are not needed. A new E85 infrastructure is not needed.

The United States can regain its world leadership in transportation by investing in future solutions, not the failed strategies of the past. Millions of jobs can be created in public transportation, high-speed rail, electric cars, hybrid electric heavy vehicles, renewable energy, and next generation biofuels that can be blended with existing gasoline and diesel.

John Addison publishes the Clean Fleet Report and speaks at conferences. His new book, Save Gas, Save the Planet, goes on sale March 25.

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