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ALTERNATIVE VEHICLES:
MYTHS AND MISCONCEPTIONS

For most folks Alternative Vehicle conjures up the image of a futuristic contraption dramatically different from today’s cars and trucks. That’s a misconception; there’s nothing significantly strange or unique about the vehicles themselves, it’s the fuels that are ‘alternative’.

The overwhelming majority of engines today run on either gasoline or diesel fuel. Bio-diesel, ethanol, methanol, compressed natural gas (CNG), electric and electric hybrids, hydrogen, wood gas, propane, methane and fuel cell vehicles combined make up less than an estimated one percent of all vehicles on the road. This severely unbalanced ratio is a testament to the power of the oil industry. The reliance on fossil fuels for transportation is a major contributor to environmental pollution, disturbed weather patterns, our economic instability and why we go to war to control oil supplies.

A current ad campaign for an auto manufacturer applauds the vision and creativity of Henry Ford, while subliminally supporting the myth that his cars always ran on gas or diesel. In truth, Henry Ford was the first vocal proponent of an ‘alternative’ fuel: ethanol. He preferred grain-produced ethanol fuel for his cars, not because the engines ran better (they do), and not because ethanol is nearly pollution-free (it offers spectacular reductions in emissions), but because he believed in the economic benefits of supporting the larger community by having farmers make ethanol fuel. He did feel his cars should be affordable to all, as the ads proclaim, but he also believed that the economic benefits should be shared by all the people, not just a handful of industry CEO’s. He lost the debate then, but Henry Ford’s arguments are as persuasive, well reasoned, and logical today as they were one hundred years ago.

Rudolph Diesel introduced his new, spark-less engine in 1900 in Paris, France. His new invention, the diesel engine, ran on peanut oil. Yes, Rudolph Diesel also used an ‘alternate’ fuel over one hundred years ago. Today, running a diesel engine on bio-diesel fuel offers significant reductions in emissions in existing vehicles. The ongoing development of high efficiency diesel engines suggests that future bio-diesel engines will be dramatically cleaner. In addition, the same arguments for supporting local farmers with the production of soybeans other crops for bio-diesel holds true.

Other liquid and gaseous fuels, such as methanol, methane, CNG, hydrogen and so on, are little more than variations on ethanol and bio-diesel, at least from an engine’s perspective. For example, a gas engine is designed to vaporize gasoline and then ignite it with a spark.

Converting to a compressed gas, like methane from hog waste lagoons or landfill reclamation projects, simply eliminates the need for a carburetor because the compressed gas vaporizes naturally when released from its storage tank.

Electric and hybrid electric vehicles are commonly misconstrued as ‘alternative’, but in fact they too have a long history. In a nutshell, electric vehicles are virtually pollution-free in terms of operation, but their electricity needs to be generated from some source. Unless the electricity is generated from clean, renewable sources such as direct solar, wind power or bio-fuels, the advantages of electric vehicles are diminished proportionally. Hybrid electric vehicles that charge their own batteries, like the Honda Insight and Toyota Prius, are unquestionably more efficient than conventional cars and a major step in the right direction. However, until they too operate on renewable fuels, they’ll simply extend the diminishing supplies of very profitable fossil fuels.

The newest ‘alternative’ myth is that of fuel cell technology. Against all logic, the government is pumping billions of scarce taxpayer dollars into a handful of private companies doing fuel cell ‘research’. What makes it so illogical, from environmental and economic standpoints, is that the fuel cell technology being promoted will run on fossil fuels. Fuel cells make sense and are environmentally positive if fueled by solar or wind generated hydrogen, for example, but make little sense if fueled by LP, coal gas or other fossil fuel hydrocarbons. Fuel cells will extend our dwindling oil reserves, which means prices and profits can continue to rise, but what all living beings on this planet need is to stop squandering fossil fuels altogether, not keep burning them until the final drop is gone.

It doesn’t require a degree in combustion engineering to understand that the notion of ‘alternative vehicles’ is a myth. Anyone with a reasonable dose of common sense can figure out it’s the fuel, not the vehicle, that is the ‘alternate’ issue. Sadly, common sense in the United States seems to be as endangered as many species. Fortunately, a growing minority of Americans are waking up to the realization that we must change our oil dependant system, that we do indeed have much better alternatives and that the future of our children and theirs rests precariously in our hands today.

Written by: Ned Ryan Doyle


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