Home > Automotive Efficiency > How much do you know about alternative fuels?

How much do you know about alternative fuels?

Straight talk on hybrids, electric cars, biodiesel, hydrogen and beyond.

tesla roadster

The Tesla Roadster can travel more than 200 miles on a charge.

The Firesign Theatre once said that “everything you know is wrong,” which is a bit of an exaggeration, but there are a lot of things that get us confused, and alternative fuels are one of them. A new survey conducted by Harris Interactive for Mercedes-Benz USA finds that “Americans don’t have the basic knowledge to make informed decisions about alternative fuel options and as such, many are holding off on purchasing an alternative fuel vehicle.”

We’re confused, and that makes us afraid to act. The survey said that almost one in two (48%) of adults is interested in buying a green car, but doesn’t know which type to get. (The survey lists the choices as hybrid, pure electric, hydrogen electric and diesel/biodiesel, but take the hydrogen choice off there, because those cars won’t be available until 2015.) Only one in three (35%) said they had any idea which of these choices is best suited for city, suburban or highway driving.

Everybody has an opinion about the Tea Party, the difference between good and bad cholesterol and who’s responsible for the Gulf oil spill, but the alternative fuel fleet is a mystery to 71% of us. Only one in four says they have much knowledge about these cars and trucks. And it’s not surprising that men (41%) are more likely to claim deep insight into the subject than women (18%). But men just think they know more.

Since only three percent of the people polled actually own an alternative-fuel vehicle, it really does seem like a little education will go a long way. Hence, this Q&A:

Can any diesel car run on salad oil?

Any diesel car can run biodiesel, which is a blend with standard diesel. But to run pure “grease,” diesel cars need to be modified with a kit that includes a heater to warm the oil, which turns the consistency of mayonnaise when it gets cold. Conversions are also done by companies like Greasecar.

Do fuel cells run on hydrogen gas or liquid hydrogen?

They run on hydrogen gas, but they can also carry tanks of liquid hydrogen (which must be kept cryogenically cold at -400 degrees Fahrenheit) which converts to a gas before it enters the fuel cell.

How do plug-in hybrids work?

Standard hybrids like the Toyota Prius can run for only a short distance, a mile at most, on their batteries. But plug-in hybrids, some of which are due to be produced soon, add a larger battery pack and the ability to recharge that pack from the wall. That gives them an all-electric range of 20 to 50 miles, and very high “mpge,” which is miles per gallon equivalent. The Fisker Karma, due at the end of the year, is a plug-in hybrid, and Ford, General Motors and Toyota are also working on them.

What is likely to be my range in a battery car? Should I worry about this, a condition known as “range anxiety”?

Battery EVs generally have a range of 100 miles, though there are exceptions: The Tesla Roadster can travel more than 200 miles between charges, and its forthcoming Model S will include a 300-mile option. EV enthusiasts will tell you most people’s commutes are 40 miles or less round trip, so they shouldn’t worry about running out of charge. But what about that trip to grandma’s house in the next state? That’s why, for many, battery EVs will be a second car. And most of the regions targeted for early EV sales are also getting public chargers that will be there in an emergency.

Will battery EVs (and hydrogen cars, for that matter) be expensive?

In a word, yes, but the pain will be eased somewhat with federal, state and local subsidies. Buyers of battery EVs will be eligible for a $7,500 federal tax credit, and a second one of up to $2,000 to install a home 220-volt charger. States are also offering rebates: $5,000 in California, for instance, and $2,500 in Tennessee. Other states with subsidies are Georgia, Hawaii, Oregon, Washington, Maryland and South Carolina. Expect battery cars to cost $30,000 (the Nissan Leaf is $32,780, and the Coda sedan $44,900). The main reason they’re expensive is the battery packs, which run from $10,000 to $30,000, depending on size. Going forward, we may find we opt for a smaller battery pack and shorter range in exchange for a cheaper car.

How much did you know? Stay tuned for a Part II down the alt-fuel road…

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Categories: Automotive Efficiency
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