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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…

Categories: Automotive Efficiency

Fuel Mileage Myths De-Bunked!

Do Americans care about fuel economy as oil spills into the Gulf of Mexico and gasoline hovers around $3 a gallon? You bet they do, though they also have a fair number of misconceptions about how to squeeze a few more miles out of every drop.

The Consumer Federation of America’s (CFA) most recent survey says that if we had a 50-mile-per-gallon car fleet today, we’d save more oil than the entire proven reserves in the entire Gulf of Mexico. And people care about that.

According to Jack Gillis, author of The Car Book and a CFA spokesman, 87 percent of respondents said it is “important that the country reduce its consumption of oil,” and 54 percent said it is “very important.”

An amazing 65 percent of Americans surveyed support a mandated transition to a 50-mpg fuel economy standard by 2025. That’s a tough standard, some 15 mpg better than the ambitious goal set by the Obama Administration (35 mpg by 2016).

“The expectations of American consumers are reasonable and achievable,” Gillis said in a conference call.” CFA says that Asian carmakers, compared to the U.S. competition, are offering twice as many vehicles with 30 mpg or better.¬†“It’s shocking that so few of today’s cars get more than 30 mpg,” he said.

Mark Cooper, CFA’s research director, noted that in five years of the group’s polling, the public’s views have stayed remarkably consistent: Americans want less dependence on Middle Eastern oil and higher fuel-economy standards.

People care about fuel economy, but they’re misinformed about how to actually achieve it. The federal government’s fueleconomy.gov site (very useful to check cars’ mpg) just published the “Top 10 Misconceptions About Fuel Economy.”

Here are a few big myths:

  • It takes more fuel to start a vehicle than it does to let it idle.
    People are really confused about this one and will leave a car idling for half an hour rather than turn it off and restart. Some kids I know started an anti-idling campaign in the suburbs and are shaming parents into shutting down their cars.

    Idling uses a quarter- to a half-gallon of fuel in an hour (costing you one to two cents a minute). Unless you’re stalled in traffic, turn off the car when stopped for more a few minutes.

  • Vehicles need to be warmed up before they’re driven.
    Pshaw. That is a long-outdated notion. Today’s cars are fine being driven off seconds after they’re started.
  • As a vehicle ages, its fuel economy decreases significantly.
    Not true. As long as it’s maintained, a 10- or 15-year-old car should have like-new mileage. The key thing is maintenance — an out-of-tune car will definitely start to decline mileage-wise.
  • Replacing your air filter helps your car run efficiently.
    Another outdated claim, going back to the pre-1976 carburetor days. Modern fuel-injection engines don’t get economy benefits from a clean air filter.
  • After-market additives and devices can dramatically improve your fuel economy.
    There’s not much evidence that these “miracle products” do much more than drain your wallet. Both the Federal Trade Commission and Consumer Reports have weighed in on this. There are no top-secret 100-mpg add-ons out there.
  • Using premium fuel improves fuel economy.
    You might as well write a check to BP if you believe this. Only use premium if your car specifies it.
Categories: Automotive Efficiency

10 Automotive Fuel Economy “MYTHS”

10 More Automotive Fuel Economy “Myths”…

1. Toyota Prius You have to drive a small car to get good fuel economy.
Advanced technologies like hybrid drivetrains, diesel engines, direct fuel injection, turbocharging, advanced transmissions, low rolling resistance tires and aerodynamic designs are allowing standard-sized vehicles to be very fuel efficient. For the 2010 model year, five of the top ten most efficient vehicles are midsized cars, with a midsized car taking the top spot.
2.
Shifting gears Manual transmissions always get better fuel economy than automatics.
Advances in automatic transmissions have improved their efficiency to the point that the automatic version of a vehicle often gets the same or better fuel economy than the version with a manual transmission. For vehicles offered in both automatic and manual transmissions, consumers can easily compare fuel economy at http://www.fueleconomy.gov/feg/findacar.htm.
3. Turn off your car when practical It takes more fuel to start a vehicle than it does to let it idle.
Modern fuel injected engines start very efficiently, especially when warmed up. Idling can use a quarter to a half gallon of fuel per hour — depending on your vehicle’s engine size — costing you about 1 to 2 cents per minute. Turn off your engine when your vehicle is sitting still, except when you are waiting in traffic or waiting in a line where you would need to turn it on and off frequently. Restarting your engine too frequently can wear out your starter.
4. This car is warm enough Vehicles need to warm up before they can be driven.
Modern vehicles can be driven within seconds of being started, though the engine should not be subjected to extreme loads until it has reached its normal operating temperature. Plus, the quickest way to warm up a vehicle’s engine is to drive it.
5. Gas mileage doesn't decrease significantly as a vehicle ages As a vehicle ages, its fuel economy decreases significantly.
A vehicle that is properly maintained will retain its efficiency for many years. The EPA tests vehicles with about 5,000 miles on the odometer to account for the break-in period since a vehicle’s fuel economy will typically continue to improve over the first several years of ownership. Vehicles that are 10 or even 15 years old will experience little decrease in fuel economy if properly maintained.
6. Air  Filter Replacing your air filter will help your car run more efficiently.
This is true for older vehicles with carbureted engines, but modern fuel-injected engines have onboard computers that automatically adjust the fuel-air ratio to the proper level. Changing a dirty air filter won’t increase your fuel economy, but it might improve your engine’s performance.
7. Beware of aftermarket additives and devices Aftermarket additives and devices can dramatically improve your fuel economy.
Excluding full conversions that meet all EPA certification standards, tests have shown that such devices and additives do not improve fuel economy and may damage your engine and/or increase your tailpipe emissions. For further information, see “Gas-Saving Products: Fact or Fuelishness?” by the Federal Trade Commission.
8. Fuel pump Using premium fuel improves fuel economy.
Unless your vehicle was specifically designed for premium fuel or knocks severly with regular fuel, you will probably experience no benefit from using premium fuel over regular. Consult your owner’s manual to see whether premium is recommended and under what conditions (e.g., towing).
9. Fuel Economy Label The EPA fuel economy estimates are a government guarantee on what fuel economy each vehicle will deliver.
The primary purpose of EPA fuel economy estimates is to provide consumers with a uniform, unbiased way of comparing the relative efficiency of vehicles. Even though the EPA’s test procedures are designed to reflect real-world driving conditions, no single test can accurately model all driving styles and environments. Differing fuel blends will also affect fuel economy. The use of gasoline with 10% ethanol can decrease fuel economy by about 3% due to its lower energy density.
10. Vehicle on dynamometer All vehicles are tested for fuel economy.
Current testing regulations only require light-duty vehicles of 8,500 lbs or less to be tested for fuel economy. Several popular models, such as the Ford F250/350, Chevrolet/GMC 2500/3500, and Dodge 2500/3500 vehicles, exceed this weight limit and are therefore not tested and have no official fuel economy rating. The EPA also does not test motorcycles or four wheel vehicles that are not legal for highway driving like neighborhood vehicles. Beginning with the 2011 model year, passenger vehicles (vans and SUVs but NOT pickup trucks) up to 10,000 lbs will be required to have fuel economy labels.

These misconceptions are based on user feedback to http://www.fueleconomy.gov and are listed in no particular order.

Categories: Automotive Efficiency