Hybrid. All Electric. Hydrogen. Biofuels. Ethanol. Gasohol. Diesel. All electric with range extending gasoline engine. Lithium ion battery. Nickel metal hydride battery. Gesundheit.
The dizzying flurry of changes to the energy source your daily ride uses to derive the power to transport you around Delaware (sorry, no cure yet for beach traffic gridlock) can make your head spin. What does all this mean to you and what should you consider when buying a new (or new to you) car? Can we save the planet or stop global warming by moving away from gasoline?
To understand these issues, it helps to remember a few basic points: (1) most of us want our cars to take us the longest distance possible, but with enough oomph to get up the hill on Mt. Lebanon Road, at the lowest (or reasonably close thereto) fuel cost and (2) many people would like an alternative to gasoline due to its unpredictable cost, impact on climate or desire to reduce imported oil.
Most of us are familiar with hybrid vehicles like the Toyota Prius and the many similarly designed vehicles. These vehicles still run primarily on gas, but use energy from batteries to provide power in certain situations in order to reduce the amount of gasoline used. These vehicles cost several thousand dollars more than non-hybrids, so that you may or may not break even on cost depending upon how much you drive (the more you drive, the more you save). These hybrids don’t really require the driver to do anything differently compared to driving and maintaining a traditional car.
Some of you may have seen a very cool-looking all electric Tesla vehicle cruising around Wilmington (one could be yours for about $130,000). This two-seater sports car has a lot of lithium ion batteries and no gasoline engine, as does the much less expensive Nissan Leaf. The Tesla will run for about 200 miles before the batteries run out of charge. When your batteries run out of juice, just plug it in to an electric outlet to recharge in four to twelve hours depending on whether or not you are using a special charging station.
Newer vehicles coming onto the market, including the Chevy Volt (about $50,000 and on sale now) and the Fisker Karma (about $100,000 and arrives this summer), use plug-in electric technology, like the Tesla, but to eliminate “range anxiety” add in a gasoline engine so that you don’t end up stranded on the side of the road when your batteries run out of charge. The gasoline engines generally do not provide power to move the car, but rather provide energy to the batteries so that the batteries can continue to power the car. The gasoline engine does not, however, recharge the batteries. Once you get home, you can plug in to recharge and then automatically go back to all electric mode. The Fisker Karma and the Chevy Volt will travel about 50 miles solely on their electric batteries. If, like me, you rarely drive more than 50 miles per day, these vehicles will effectively act as all electric transportation.
So, you may ask, what is the big deal about these all electric or electric mated with gasoline vehicles? One big benefit is that electricity generally costs a lot less than gasoline so that powering an electric car will only cost the equivalent of about $1.00 per gallon. Electricity costs vary widely, however, even within little Delaware, and electricity costs are rapidly increasing as power generators switch from coal to less dirty, but more expensive (either from capital investment or operating perspective) energy sources, so don’t expect electricity to remain cheap. Still, if you have a short daily commute, then you could save a bundle in energy costs for now.
These first generation electric plug-ins are expensive, so you may not want to run out and buy one today. Battery technology today is a bit like flat screens ten years ago: prices will come down as the technology improves and those amazing scientists and engineers figure out ways to get more energy from lighter, smaller batteries.
One thing is certain: with the federal government likely to require auto companies to greatly improve fuel economy, new cars will continue to get smaller, lighter, a little pricier and continue to adopt hybrid technologies. You may not be driving a hyrid or other alterntive energy vehicle today, but many of you will be in five to ten years.