Driving on the Roadto the Future
With hybrids taking off, fuel-cells and alternative-fuel cars may not be far behind
by Carrie Steele
A favorite subject for filmmakers, writers, cartoonists — perhaps even you — is contemplating what life will be like on the future’s highways and byways. Your version of 21st century transportation may include Jetsons-style cars that fly through the air on super-highways. Or cars that talk and valet themselves by remote control, James Bond-style.
Some cars of the future are already here.
In less than five years, hybrid cars have staked a small and growing claim on Maryland’s byways. Now other technologies, like compressed natural gas-powered cars, ethanol-powered cars and fuel-cell cars, are the debutantes of the road.
Their arrival takes us to the brink of car evolution. The gasoline-powered vehicles we’re used to now will soon become antiques, and new technologies and fuels will propel us down the road.
What’s steering our vehicle evolution? The ignition is sparked by two problems: air pollution and oil dependency.
The Air Pollution Problem
On a clear day, the State House dome, miles of glistening Bay and rolling hills of farmland are familiar sights in Maryland. But clear days are fewer because of other familiar sights: cars idling for miles on the beltway; vehicles at a standstill before the Bay Bridge; traffic congestion on every major road.
Cars sprawling over land mean bad news for Maryland’s atmosphere and water as well as for drivers. That bad news gets even closer to home, entering our lungs with the air we breathe.
Vehicles emit pollutants not just from their tailpipes; they also pollute from evaporating fuel and leaking exhaust systems.
The EPA keeps a list of 21 toxins that our vehicles release into the air. Besides the familiar carbon dioxide, nitrogen oxide and volatile organic compounds spilling from our vehicles, there’s also an alphabet soup of toxins, like acetaldehyde, benzene, formaldehyde, mercury and xylene.
“There’s no question that the air we breath is injuring our children, triggering asthma attacks, limiting the growth of their lungs and causing cancer,” said Dr. Lorne Garrettson of the American Academy of Pediatrics about Maryland air quality. “This is a child-health problem.”
The chemical cloud we breathe harms not just the young but also the elderly and those with respiratory weaknesses.
Sound scary? That’s what Sen. Sharon Grosfeld, Del. Elizabeth Bobo and other state legislators thought, too.
“Maryland is in violation of federal smog standards,” Grosfeld told the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee, where more than 40 people testified late last month, among them environmentalists, public interest groups, auto industry representatives, doctors, car dealers and more. That violation and its serious effects on our health and environment are why Maryland needs tougher emissions standards, Grosfeld said.
“In five of the past six years, Maryland has had one of the worst smog problems in the nation.” said Brad Heavner of the Maryland Public Interest Research Group, a non-profit watchdog organization that works on behalf of the environment, consumer rights and good state government. “Something needs to be done.”
That something came in the form of the Clean Car Act, legislation designed to multiply the number of clean cars on Maryland roads while slashing harmful vehicle emissions.
But that’s not the track we’re on now, as the bill was defeated March 18 in the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee by a vote of six to five.
With or without Maryland’s Clean Car Act, you’re likely to see more hybrid cars cruising Maryland roads. Hybrids and other clean cars spew less harmful emissions than regular cars and get better mileage, so every one on the road helps us all breathe a little easier.
Everybody Loves a Parade
|photo by J. Alex Knoll
More than 100 alternative-fueled vehicles paraded around State Circle last month in support of Maryland’s Clean Car Act.
One hundred festively trimmed clean-air cars surrounded the State House last month in the biggest such parade ever in the country, according to Mike Tidwell of the Chesapeake Climate Action Network, one of the organizers of the event aimed at drawing attention to the Clean Car Act.
Drivers in the clean-car parade tangled traffic along the cobblestones of State Circle. Many of the cars bore signs proclaiming their clean-air status. One car’s license plate read LESSGAS; another read LESSCO2.
One of the largest cars in the parade belonged to Joy Newheart of College Park.
“I love it,” Newheart said of her 1998 Ford Crown Victoria, a full-size sedan that, powered by gasoline, is often used for police cars. Powered by compressed natural gas, or CNG, and made in Canada, Newheart’s car emits only 10 percent of the noxious fumes of gasoline.
“We don’t have to go to war to drive,” Newheart said of the country’s dependence on foreign oil. “Ninety percent of natural gas is domestic and 10 percent is from Canada.”
Newheart’s ride gives her both advantages — clean air and gas independence — in a single car. A driver behind her pointed to the dribble of water trickling from the Crown Victoria’s tailpipe. “See that little stream of water that comes out?” he said. “That’s the exhaust.”
Christine Dorsey of Arlington showed off her 2004 Prius, the Toyota hybrid that most clean-air drivers still choose.
“It’s great on gas,” Dorsey said. On average, the Toyota hybrid gets 60 miles per gallon in city driving and 50 miles per gallon in highway driving. Unlike their fully gas-powered cousins, hybrids get better mileage in the city because of their ability to switch power sources while idling.
By driving a Prius, Dorsey also reduces more than her share of noxious auto emissions. Her Prius uses energy so efficiently that the government ranks it as a Super Ultra Low Emission Vehicle.
Her car is good for more than the environment.
“It’s comfortable and it’s a hatchback,” said Dorsey, “so I can carry everything I used to hold in my SUV.”
The Ins and Outs of Hybrids
The Annapolis parade was almost all hybrids like Dorsey’s Prius.
What makes these cars special is that hybrids supplement traditional gasoline engines with battery power. When driving conditions demand power, the gas engine takes over. Meanwhile, the generator recharges the battery, just as in regular cars, turning rotational mechanical energy into electrical energy. But both the hybrid’s battery and generator are a lot bigger than in traditional cars. When power demands are low, idling at a stoplight, for instance, the engine shuts off and the battery does the work.
This energy-efficient car is so smart that it also makes smart drivers. It tells you what’s happening, flashing a graphic gas-to-electric flowchart on a display screen on the dash console.
Because they use less gasoline, drivers like Dorsey get more miles for their money. While saving money, hybrids also emit less carbon dioxide, nitrogen oxides and airborne toxins than do regular cars.
Its engine emits only 2.3 pounds of ozone-forming hydrocarbons during 100,000 miles of driving, about the same as spilling a quart of gasoline. That’s far less than a conventional auto. The comparably sized gas-driven Hyundai Accent, for example, emits 6.1 tons of hydrocarbons over the same period.
That’s not Dorsey’s only savings. If she drives 15,000 miles in the next year, she’ll save about $520 in fuel costs.
And fuel costs are on the minds of drivers everywhere, especially with record prices for a gallon of unleaded gasoline last weekend in Maryland: $2.06 a gallon, according to the American Automobile Association. That rising pump price makes the fuel-hoarding hybrid even more appealing.
“People are rushing to get these hybrid vehicles,” said Sen. Sharon Grosfeld, explaining why they played the feature role in the Maryland Clean Car Act.
Maryland’s Clean Car Act
|Compressed natural gas provides the muscle-power to Joy Newheart’s 1998 Ford Crown Victoria.
Marylanders want cleaner air, according to a late January poll of 684 likely voters released by the Maryland Public Interest Research Group and conducted by the D.C. firm Momentum Analysis. Nearly eight out of 10 Maryland voters support stronger vehicle emission standards.
Getting more of these clean cars on the road was the goal of Senate Bill 366, House Bill 564 and the Clean Car Act to everyone else. The perennial act would require car manufacturers to sell more hybrids and other clean-fueled vehicles. This year’s failed version would have set 2009 as the deadline when at least five percent of all cars sold in Maryland would have to be hybrid or clean-fueled vehicles. Even more new cars, 30 percent, would have to be cleaner than today’s conventional vehicle.
Sen. Grosfeld, a Democrat from Montgomery County, laments the defeat of her bill.
“It was so unexpected,” Grosfeld told Bay Weekly about the defeat of her bill. “Legislators that we weren't concerned about ended up voting the other way.” Grosfeld explained that Sen. Ralph Hughes, a Democrat from Baltimore City, had indicated his support of the Clean Car Act, even telling advocates that he was voting for the bill, but switched his vote — the swing vote — at the last minute.
“It just doesn't make sense. I can't figure it out,” Grosfeld said. Shaking her head, she added that she was baffled by Hughes’ vote, given that his district, Baltimore City, has high levels of air pollution.
Voting against the Clean Car Act in the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee were Sen. Larry Haines, Sen. Ralph Hughes, Sen. Nancy Jacobs, Sen. Phil Jimeno, Sen. Alex Mooney and Sen. Norman Stone.
Voting for the Clean Car Act were Sen. Brian Frosh, Sen. Leo Green, Sen. Jennie Forehand, Sen. Robert Garagiola and Sen. John Giannetti Jr.
Sen. Grosfeld said that she'll absolutely bring up the bill again — so will the third try be the charm?
“I hope next year, preceding the election year,” she said, “legislators will be listening more to their constituents.”
Each year, 320,000 new vehicles are sold in Maryland. So by today’s figures we’ve lost the prospect of 16,000 clean-fueled vehicles and 96,000 vehicles with other clean technologies.
That’s not the only loss. The Clean Car Act would also have established stricter standards for emissions for all new cars sold after 2008.
“It would require Maryland Department of the Environment to enact a low-emissions vehicle program to apply to cars and trucks of the 2009 model year and years after,” Grosfeld said.
The Maryland Public Interest Research Group was behind the bill, saying its passage would, by 2025, be like erasing pollution emitted from 190,000 vehicles.
Maryland’s bill would have adopted California’s Clean Car Program, which has been in effect since 1999. Seven other states — Connecticut, New Jersey, New York, Maine, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and Vermont — have already made this legislation their own. So Maryland wouldn’t be a trendsetter, but we’d be part of a clean-air bandwagon.
On the Flip Side
The eight states already linked in the California bandwagon are on their way to enjoying the cleanest air in the country. By default with the Clean Air Act’s demise last week, Maryland will now follow air standards set at the federal level. EPA’s standards, called Tier Two, let more pollution slip into the air.
Both rules set standards for different types of vehicles: cars, light-duty trucks, heavy light-duty trucks and more. California’s program also requires light-duty diesel vehicles to meet stricter emissions standards.
“There are federal standards being phased in for cars and trucks,” said Heavner of Maryland Public Interest Research Group. “But they’re not as far as we need to go.”
Environmental groups say that the two routes are similar, but California’s short leash on emissions will make for cleaner air. Maryland missed its chance this year, but if we hop on the California bandwagon next year, by 2025 we will have 11 percent less nitrogen oxide emissions than if we’d stuck with federal rules, according to Maryland Public Interest Research Group. Volatile organic compounds would drop 13 percent.
Maryland’s default to federal Tier Two standards is just what the opposition ordered on the clean-air menu.
Opposition to the Clean Car Act came from two state departments that regulate cars and their environmental effects: the Maryland Department of the Environment and Maryland Department of Transportation.
Maryland should stick to the federal EPA standards, said Environment Secretary Kendl Philbrick, “instead of ceding to the whims of California policy-makers.”
Philbrick brought charts to the hearing at the senate committee, showing that the emissions reductions for nitrogen oxides and VOCs between the two rules would be so small a percent by 2025 that it wasn’t worth switching.
The Department of Transportation also opposed the bill as a California import that would handicap Maryland businesses. “There is a possibility that SB 366 could be altered based on future modifications to legislation in another state,” that department wrote in its position statement.
Also against the state clean-air bill was the automobile industry.
“We’re strongly opposed to this bill,” Peter Kitzmiller, president of the Maryland New Car & Truck Dealers Association, told Bay Weekly. “It’s going to cost customers.”
The Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers ran radio ads in Maryland against the bill just before it went to vote. Some of the ad claims — including that the bill would prohibit people from buying SUVs and minivans in Maryland — were contested by environmental and public interest groups.
The ads helped tip the vote against the bill, said Climate Action Network’s Tidwell.
But at the February hearing, Grosfeld recalled conversations with dealers and leaders in states already following California’s standards. She found that these states have had no problems selling cars. What it comes down to, she said, is that “manufacturers don’t want to be told what they have to do.”
Supporters insisted all along that the Clean Car Act embraced the best of both worlds.
“It’s good for the environment and it’s good for business,” said Gary Skulnik, director of the Clean Energy Partnership. “Toyota has shown the way, selling a vehicle that sells like hotcakes.”
Hungry for Hybrids
The Clean Car Act may be dead this session, but Marylanders aren’t waiting for the state’s green light to drive into the future.
There are still thousands of clean-car owners in Maryland, and legendary waiting lists for hybrids aren’t keeping clean-car seekers from quenching their thirst. Perhaps you’ve even considered getting a hybrid yourself.
Dealers of hybrid cars have been feeling this demand for years.
“Usually, every Prius that comes in is already sold,” said Steve Thompson, sales manager of Bayside Toyota in Prince Frederick, who says that he typically doesn’t have Priuses on site. “The minute someone sees one and test drives one, it’s gone.”
Still, he said, people who want a hybrid are typically willing to wait for one. With Toyota making more of its popular hybrid, his waiting time is down to about a month. So, he said, it’s rare that buyers turn to another model.
On a recent Friday morning, Koons Toyota on West Street in Annapolis had two Priuses in stock. By Monday morning, both had sold. The one 2004 model on site was out for a test drive.
Honda has three hybrids on the road: its pioneering Insight plus its newer hybrid Civic and hybrid Accord.
“They’ve been selling extremely well; people have been paying premium prices for them,” said Tim Euliss, sales manager at Honda of Annapolis, of Honda’s three hybrid models. Euliss says he sometimes has a waiting list, but the morning we spoke he had two hybrids on his lot. To keep hybrid demand up, he said, “Honda’s not going to flood the market.”
Euliss said that customers lust after the power under the Accord’s hood: 255 horsepower. They also prize good gas mileage. On that score, the Insight takes first prize at about 60 MPG; the Civic hybrid gets 48 and the Accord hybrid about 32. Another advantage for commuters is the privilege of driving in HOV lanes without a passenger.
New hybrid shoppers are most wary of the battery that supplies half the power to hybrids. It is warranted for on average eight-plus years, with variance across make and model.
The battery should last the lifetime of the vehicle, said Grant Monks, a service advisor at Toyota of Glen Burnie. “The car’s been out since 2000, and I haven’t seen one battery fail yet,” said Monks, who has two hybrid-trained technicians on staff. The hybrid also has an additional battery, a smaller one like normal gasoline-powered cars, that’s used for starting. It needs to be replaced about as frequently as the battery in a conventional car.
Service is the second worry of drivers considering hybridizing. Basic upkeep, such as changing the oil, can be done as you would on any car. But if a hybrid should need major work, you’ll need service at a dealer by mechanics who have been through special two-month training to learn their way around under a hybrid’s hood.
|photo by Carrie Steele
Sen. Sharon Grosfeld, a co-sponsor of Maryland’s defeated Clean Car Act, stands with a hybrid Toyota Prius in Annapolis.
“We see more and more of these cars driving on the roads,” said Maryland Department of Enironment’s Philbrick, who recently test-drove the new hybrid Lexus, which goes on sale this spring.
Hybrid isn’t one size fits all. Manufacturers are adapting hybrid technology to all sizes and shapes, though small, sleek models will always be easier to propel.
Ford pioneered the first hybrid SUV: the hybrid Escape. With up to 65 cubic feet of cargo room, it costs about $7,000 more than the non-hybrid Escape, which ranges in price from $20,000 to $27,000. The hybrid Escape, however, gets about 31 miles per gallon on the highway and about 36 miles per gallon in the city; that’s about one and a half times better than a non-hybrid Escape can squeeze out of a gallon of gas, averaging 20 miles per gallon.
“I’m considering a hybrid Escape because of the mileage, especially with the cost of gas going up and up,” said Bay Weekly’s general manager, Alex Knoll, an Explorer driver who needs cargo room for toting newspapers. “If you can find a way to trim those costs while helping the environment, that’s a great thing.”
Five hybrid models are now on the road, with about seven new models making their debut. Joining Toyota, Honda and Ford this year are Chevrolet’s hybrid Silverado; GMC’s hybrid Sierra pickup; Dodge Ram’s hybrid pickup; Toyota’s hybrid SUV Highlander; Mercury’s Mariner SUV hybrid; and a Lexus SUV hybrid.
On the horizon for 2006 are a Chevrolet Malibu and Tahoe, a Saturn and a GMC Yukon, among other new models.
Opponents of the Clean Car Act argued that these cars cost consumers on average $3,000 more than a comparable all-gas-powered car. But supporters argued that a $2,000 tax break from the federal government, together with a less-polluting car with higher mileage, adds up to a great deal for hybrid buyers.
If you’re considering buying a hybrid, act fast: the $2,000 tax break is only good for purchases through 2005. (A Maryland state tax break only lasted through 2004.) Hybrid buyers through the end of 2006 earn a $500 federal tax credit, as the cost incentive is slowly phased out and hybrids drive into the mainstream.
More on the Horizon
Like a swimmer inching into icy waters, hybrid technology is wading into the problem of reducing our dependency on fossil fuels. A shrinking oil supply and world politics mean we’re going swimming at some point, though we’re not yet sure which technology lane we’ll paddle down yet.
Hybrids may be the clean-car technology of the near-future — they’re putting us on the right road — but we’ll still need to wean ourselves from our fossil fuel addiction before this limited resource gets too scarce and too costly. That means that we’d better start searching for our alternative fuel now.
Other options are already zipping around Maryland, including cars that run on compressed natural gas, like Newheart’s Crown Victoria.
The Department of Energy lists CNG fueling stations on its website, but they’re still few and far between. Bay Weekly readers who drive compressed natural gas cars can refuel at Crown Petroleum in Millersville or in White Marsh. With few natural gas filling stations, “it’s getting harder and harder,” Newheart said, to drive a CNG vehicle like her Crown Victoria.
Commercial drivers are also switching to new fuel sources.
“Baltimore Gas and Electric has 40 natural gas-powered vehicles in our fleet,” said Linda Foy, a BG&E spokesperson. “Also, all of our trucks burn bio-diesel, which is more environmentally friendly. We are always looking for ways to improve our environmental record.”
Other cars are using plants for fuel. Ethanol — an alcohol distilled from corn, sugar cane or other biomass — is the contender among alternative fuels, production having doubled over the last decade. Its most visible use in the United States is as the major component in E85, a fuel blend of 85 percent ethanol with 15 percent gasoline. Only specially adapted vehicles can fill up on E85.
“General Motors typically builds about 300,000 to 400,000 of these vehicles every year, though not all are driving in the U.S. now,” said Brad Beauchamp of General Motors, of the E85 vehicles.
The fuel is on sale in Chesapeake Country at Citgo on West Street in Annapolis or at a Chevron service station in Laurel.
Other fuels competing to be the gas of the future are methanol and bio-diesel fuels. We may even live to drive a car powered by garbage — or methane — like Doc’s in Back to the Future.
The Power of Hydrogen
|photo courtesy of the Maryland Energy Administration
Maryland this summer will become the first state to lease one of GM’s HydroGen3 fuel-cell-powered minivans; Here Gov. Robert Ehrlich takes a ride.
We’re on the brink of another new alternative fuel technology: fuel cells. You may have heard the term on the news or in a magazine as the breakthrough technology of the future.
Fuel cells have been in the works since the 1960s. Hydrogen (from a manufactured source) and oxygen (from the air) combine in an electro-chemical reaction, making an electrical current.
Fuel-cell cars are here and now. They’re already cruising the D.C. area. Six fuel-cell cars have been driving in the District for over a year. A new Shell hydrogen-refueling site opened in Washington last November, offering both compressed and liquid hydrogen at the 3355 Benning Road station in North East.
Now a fuel-cell vehicle is going to call Maryland home. The state of Maryland has a lease with General Motors for a fuel-cell minivan. The five-passenger HydroGen3 arrives in Maryland sometime in early summer. Maryland’s the only state so far to lease a fuel-cell vehicle.
A technician will travel with the van to track the new technology and to identify potential problems. The minivan’s normal route will be in Prince George’s County so it will be near the D.C. fueling station. The state’s still figuring out who gets to drive the new high-tech vehicle.
Leasing this hydrogen-powered minivan will cost about the same as leasing a conventional car, $100 to $400 per month, according to Michael Li of the Maryland Energy Administration.
“It’s part of an educational campaign to demonstrate the safety of the vehicle and familiarize the general public with what a fuel cell is like,” Li said. One of the reasons fuel cells sparked the Department of Transportation’s interest is what comes out of the tail pipe — water.
Fuel cells don’t emit any pollution, only water vapor. “Hydrogen,” Li said, “would be essentially pollution free.”
Smog will drop, but that’s not all. Since fuel cells are powered by hydrogen — which is produced from natural gas, methanol or electrolysis — our reliance on foreign oil will also drop.
What’s holding us back from that day is a maze of technological challenges, including storage of hydrocarbons, cost of materials and developing the hydrogen economy, which includes refueling stations, uniform standards, funding and education. Alternative fuel entrepreneurs are puzzling out how to adapt our gasoline and natural gas pipelines and stations to hydrocarbons.
Originally, General Motors thought it would have fuel cell cars in the mainstream by 2006.
“It’s looking more like 2010, now,” said GM’s Brad Beauchamp. “The cars perform very well. It’s more external factors, like making sure there are fueling stations in place.”
The Road to the Future
Maryland is just one small mid-Atlantic state trying to grow into better solutions for health and our environment while moving away from a polluting and declining natural resource.
The vehicle-evolution bandwagon is rolling, sparked by air pollution woes and dwindling, ever-more-expensive oil. Newer and cleaner technologies are on the way.
With pushes from the public health advocates, far-sighted leaders and progressive legislation, momentum will keep the bandwagon rolling. With clean cars of all kinds gaining in popularity, our gasoline-powered wheels will someday become dinosaurs of the automotive age.
Most Marylanders say they’re willing to pay a little more for a car that saves the air now — and saves on gas money to boot. In the long run, it’s today’s decisions that are going to affect tomorrow’s air.
Find out more about clean cars on the U.S. Department of Energy’s energy efficiency and renewable energy webpage: www.eere.energy.gov and www.fueleconomy.gov.