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GREENER CARS ON THE HORIZON

 

SAN FRANCISCO, 11 NOVEMBER 2007

Dear EarthTalk: We’ve all seen the current generation of hybrid cars, but what vehicles do the automakers have coming out that are even greener? 

Brian Smith, Seattle, WA

No longer just the domain of the Japanese, greener cars are forthcoming from just about all of the major automakers. Toyota will improve on its hot-selling Prius by adding a plug so owners can juice up the batteries overnight and make it at least six miles before switching over to the car’s gasoline-powered internal combustion engine. Toyota’s president hinted that the plug-in hybrid, though still in the prototype stage, could attain double the fuel efficiency of the current Prius, which gets 46 miles per gallon.

While gas-electric hybrids are all the rage today, carmakers are also looking at other technologies, though none are on the market yet. Mitsubishi’s new concept car, the iMiEV, runs for more than 120 miles exclusively on electricity stored in high-capacity lithium-ion batteries, and sports small electric motors on each of the front wheels, as well as another propelling both back wheels. Nissan is also getting into electrics with its Mixim concept car, which can reportedly go 155 miles on a single rapid-charge (20-40 minutes only). While Nissan says it has the technology to mass-produce the Mixim today, costs remain too high to make feasible from a marketplace perspective.

General Motors (GM) recently released a prototype of its futuristic Chevrolet Volt. This concept car is designed to go 40 miles on just its batteries, but it has an onboard gasoline-powered internal-combustion engine (not connected to the wheels) that can recharge it on the fly. GM hopes to make the Volt available to consumers within three years, but because of slow lithium-ion battery development, competitors wonder if such a timeline is too ambitious.


General Motors: Chevrolet Volt 
Photo: General Motors

On the fuel-cell front, Honda already has a few dozen of its zero-emission hydrogen-powered 2007 FCX sedans on the road, and plans to lease 100 or so more of the sleeker 2008 model. Honda will only lease the vehicles to a few lucky individuals, since each FCX costs hundreds of thousands of dollars to produce.

General Motors is launching a "test" fleet of a 100 fuel-cell powered Chevrolet Equinox SUVs in select cities across the U.S. in 2008. The company will also set up hydrogen refueling stations in the same locales. The program will last two years and GM engineers hope to glean important information on how to improve its fuel cells to perform better at lower cost.

South Korea’s Hyundai is also getting involved in fuel cells, launching a U.S. test fleet of some 300 of its Tucson SUVs. The company also recently unveiled its i-Blue concept car, a decidedly space-age vehicle that reportedly can cover 372 miles before needing to refuel. The company says that it will put fuel cells into mass production by 2015, if not sooner.

Automakers are responding to growing environmental concerns—and consumer demand—by producing vehicles that our grandparents would not recognize as cars. The dream of futuristic vehicles may just yet become a reality.

CONTACTS: Toyota, www.toyota.com; Mitsubishi, www.mitsubishi.com; Nissan, www.nissanusa.com; General Motors, www.gm.com; Honda, http://automobiles.honda.com; Hyundai, www.hyundai-motor.com.

GOT AN ENVIRONMENTAL QUESTION? Send it to: EarthTalk, c/o E/The Environmental Magazine, P.O. Box 5098, Westport, CT 06881; submit it at: www.emagazine.com/earthtalk/thisweek/, or e-mail: earthtalk@emagazine.com. Read past columns at: www.emagazine.com/earthtalk/archives.php

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