2008 Auto Guide
Fuels of the future

GM is making another stab at an electric vehicle, but with a twist.

The Chevy Volt, which is planned for sale sometime late in 2010, uses lithium-ion batteries that can be charged at home or draw a charge while running from a small onboard engine that could either be gasoline- or diesel-powered. No price has been announced, but rumors suggest the sedan could cost more than $40,000 and GM may seek some federal tax credits to help knock that price down.

Other electric vehicles are in the planning stages, with the key to production resting on the development of better batteries.

Hydrogen-powered vehicles

Once residing in the imagination of science fiction writers, hydrogen-powered vehicles are now available. Honda is delivering its first FCX Clarity hydrogen-powered sedans in the Los Angeles area.

About the size of a Civic sedan, the FCX Clarity uses hydrogen to power on-board fuel cells that provide electricity to power the car's electric motors.

Los Angeles is the test city because it has a handful of hydrogen pumping stations and is home to Honda's U.S. headquarters and the resulting tech staff, should something break. Honda isn't selling the FCX Clarity -- hand-picked customers agree to a three-year, $600 per month lease.

Also on the road, though not ready for sale, is a hydrogen-powered BMW 7 Series sedan. Unlike Honda, BMW is developing a system in which a somewhat conventional internal combustion engine burns hydrogen. The experimental BMW can also burn gasoline when hydrogen isn't available.

Both Honda and BMW say that their on-board storage systems are safe from explosion in the event of a crash.

Tech and safety issues aside, don't expect hydrogen to become widely used unless and until an infrastructure to deliver hydrogen to neighborhood service stations arrives.

Ethanol and biodiesel

The most touted alternative fuel today is E85 ethanol, which is 15 percent gasoline mixed with agriculturally derived alcohol.

Its advantage is that the U.S. would need far less imported oil if the U.S. fleet were to run on E85. But the drawbacks are not insignificant.

Ethanol delivers fewer miles per gallon than gasoline and can cost as much or more as regular gasoline, depending on tax subsidies and regional pricing differences. Also, ethanol is not widely available and cars not built to take ethanol have to be modified.

Then there are debatable discussions about consuming crops like corn to make ethanol when there are food shortages in the world. Although ethanol supporters say eventually it will be made from garbage and switch grasses. It's also not entirely clear whether ethanol saves more oil than it takes to produce it. Biodiesel, again a blend of agriculturally based fuel with diesel fuel, shares some of the same drawbacks.

While all these alternatives are enticing in one way or another, look for manufacturers to concentrate primarily on how to make their gasoline-powered vehicles more fuel efficient.

Expect cars to get lighter and engines to get smaller and more efficient -- though not necessarily less powerful.

If you're holding off buying a gasoline-powered vehicle, you may still have to wait another product cycle before alternatives are more widely available.


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