Green Transportation

picture of a prius parked in the snow

Looking to buy a new car and interested in green transportation trends? You've come to the right place.

The decision to buy a car can be as simple as staying brand loyal throughout life and buying the same model, upgraded of course, every few years. A twenty five year glance back at the automobile industry kinda confirms that narrative. It tells the big picture story of low gas mileage, SUV and light truck transport trends influencing consumer purchases.

Over that same time, smaller green transportation stories tended to move in and out of consumer consciousness, depending partially on oil prices. Despite its current niche status, progress in the sector continues. The number of hybrid cars, plug-in hybrids and electric vehicles on the road continues to increase, as more companies incorporate hybrid and electric models into their line up.

Green transportation innovation also extended beyond the automobile industry. For example, thanks in large part to the debates between the National Park noise enthusiasts and peace and quiet enthusiasts, ten years worth of research produced snow mobile engine breakthroughs. Ranges for battery powered snowmobiles continues to expand, with newer models reaching twenty miles on a single charge. Flexible fuel consumer snowmobiles are being tested at Yellowstone National Park. Finally, According to the International Snowmobiler Manufacturers Association

Sound levels for snowmobiles have been reduced 94% since inception.

Here's a quick roundup of green transportation issues that add context to the choices consumers make on a daily basis.

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California Zero-emissions Vehicle Program

Examples like the California zero-emissions vehicle program provide background about government efforts to mediate the American car loving population with the on the ground pollution realities attached to individual transportation choices. California's well publicized major metropolitan area air quality problems promoted two decades worth of Californians dreaming of a state filled with zero-emissions vehicles. Starting in 1990, planners had hoped that by 2003, 10% of all vehicles headed to California highways would be zero-emissions vehicles. California dreamers continue to promote their clean transportation goals, looking to improve the current, and still relatively modest 5% low emissions vehicles on the road today.

The latest revisions to the Zero Emission Vehicle (ZEV) program provide a better match for market realities, emphasizing coordinated policies addressing both air quality and greenhouse gas (GHG) issues, while promoting the production and use of low-emission vehicles such as plug-in hybrid cars, battery electric cars and fuel cell cars.

California, for example, also leads the United States in CNG vehicle (compressed natural gas) use. Manufacturers are currently negotiating issues such as changes in fuel standards and fuel sources as a way to further CNG vehicle use. Both Liquefied Petroleum Gas (LPG) and Compressed Natural Gas (CNG) vehicles travel the highways and biways of the United States. In fact, CNG vehicles have been around in some form for a couple of decades. The 1990s showed the greatest growth in CNG vehicle use, from a low of approximately 20,000 CNG vehicles in 1992 to just under 120,000 CNG vehicles in use in 2002. In addition to California, four states account for the bulk of CNG vehicle use:

  • Texas
  • Arizona
  • New York
  • New Jersey

Types of Cars

The alphabit soup sounding acronyms associated with today's green car trends gets a bit more complicated when they are linked to another way to group different types of cars. In addition to the previously mentioned low-emission vehicles such as plug-in hybrid, electric and CNG, diesel cars, hydrogen cars, solar cars and other fuel efficient cars continue to interest niche entrepreneurs and car enthusiasts.

The appeal of solar cars is obvious. Imagine a world filled with zero emission cars, trucks, SUVs and minivans running completely on solar power. That marketing approach speaks for the range of solar transportation products in testing and on the market today, from high performance race cars to back yard lawn mowers. Traditionally, the term solar powered vehicle loosely applies to any transportation platform fitted with a solar powered electric battery. A more relaxed definition would include electric vehicles charged by stand alone solar panels. So, for example, homeowners using their solar panels to recharge their electric lawn mowers can rightfully consider their lawn mowers solar powered.

Today's high performance solar vehicles fit the more restrictive definition, and the technology driving solar powered racing cars continues to improve, with efficiency gains in solar cells and batteries leading the way. Solar racing cars compete in a variety of cross-country and closed-track venues. The North American Solar Challenge and the World Solar Challenge, two of the more established cross-country races, invite university students and professionals to design and build cars using the latest solar and battery technology. In 2013, the organizers for the World Solar Challenge introduced the cruiser class, intending to spur innovation in the realm of practical solar cars, or cars that run exclusively on solar power. The class race was won by the Solar Team Eindhoven with their four seater car called Stella.

Neighborhood Electric Vehicles, or NEVs for short, fit in a lower performance category than solar race cars. Typically NEVs are considered restricted, cart like, on-road vehicles, with local speed limits used as the restricting tool. Generally any state licensed NEV may travel on roads posted with speed limits of 35 mph or less.

Currently the market offers only a limited line of true solar powered NEVs having the ability to automatically recharge the battery while the vehicle is parked. Solar-powered battery-charging stations have been proposed in a few areas. However, most NEVs get recharged by electricity produced from fossil fuel sources.

Reliability of Biodiesel Fuel

Progress in bringing green transportation fuels to the market also moved slowly over the past twenty five years, with ethanol production setting the standard for the US market. Research and development into additional alternative fuels such as biodiesel, cellulosic ethanol and algal based biofuels move forward with small pilot projects.

Scientists from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL), for example, investigated the reliability of buses running on diesel fuel compared to buses running on B20, diesel fuel with a twenty percent blend of biodiesel. The study, 100,000-Mile Evaluation of Transit Buses Operated on Biodiesel Blends (B20), consisted of a real life experiment involving a fleet of nine mass transit buses in the Denver Area.

B20 is the most common blend of biodiesel fuel on the market today. Because of the relatively brief history of biofuel production in the United States, there have been few opportunities to test those claims in real world situations. The nine busses involved in the NREL experiment were the same brand using the same engine. Additionally each bus traveled approximately 100,000 miles over the same route for a two year period. Fuel type was the only difference among the buses throughout the two year experiment. A group of four buses ran on diesel fuel. The other five buses ran on B20. After two years, each bus was evaluated in terms of four performance marks:

  • engine performance
  • fuel economy
  • vehicle maintenance
  • emissions

Results of the tests are necessarily couched in terms of the sample population. Using a small fleet sample for comparative purposes carries the possibility that one non-fuel related problem connected to one bus in either the diesel or B20 group could distort the overall results of any one test. For example, a few of the diesel buses has transmissions problems during the course of the experiment, resulting in overall higher maintenance costs for the diesel group.

Comparing the two groups of buses, clogged fuel filters turned out to be the primary vehicle maintenance challenge associated with the B20 buses. Researchers assume that as the B20 storage tanks approached empty, the gunk collecting in them had more opportunities to be pumped out and into the bus gas tanks, causing the clogs.

© 2011-2016. Patricia A. Michaels