By Allen Penticoff
Assuming the Mayans were wrong about the end of the world coming Dec. 21, 2012 (or thereabouts), we’ll soon be rolling into the 13th year after the millennium. I have been writing the “Mr. Green Car” column for this fine paper since May 7, 2008 — so this will begin my fifth year of scrambling to fill the void in a Word document every other week.
I’ve covered much ground — airplanes, boats, bicycles, batteries, fuels, personal experiences with clunky old cars, and veggie-powered road trips.
I much appreciate the freedom the publisher, Frank Schier, and my editor, Brandon Reid, have given me — and their willingness to leave what I write pretty much as I submit it. This week, I’ll take a retrospective look back at what has happened since I started writing this column.
My first column was on “Series and parallel hybrids,” written at the request of Frank Schier. This technical article was the first of many to delve into the dawning hybrid technology.
In 2008, the Toyota Prius pretty much was the sole hybrid available to the public, and that was reflected in the number of articles about it. Daimler AG’s — Smart Fortwo micro car was a hot item at the time. June 18’s column featured Cheap Trick legend Rick Nielsen protruding from his Smart car in front of Rockford’s awesome Coronado Theatre. My friend, Kelly Epperson, had a Smart Fortwo as well, so test drives and comparisons were feature stories. The Smart Fortwo has not really taken off — yet, there are a few seen about town.
At the beginning, the magazines were all abuzz with what hybrids were in the works at the various manufacturers. It is now interesting to see at the end of 2012 that, indeed, there are now many hybrid choices, including the long-promised plug-in hybrids that are part electric vehicle, part fuel-powered.
I’ve done many articles about alternative fuels. Yet, alternative fuels have yet to find an economic foothold in the marketplace. Many more vehicles can operate with E-85 ethanol and biodiesel, but the current low price of gasoline inhibits their use.
Tax code has curtailed biodiesel production, and the current drought conditions have done little to boost ethanol — which is a very debatable fuel anyway.
Of the alternative fuels I’ve written about, compressed natural gas (CNG) holds the most immediate promise. In fact, there is still much buzz about moving our transportation system to consumption of this now widely available, cheap, clean-burning fuel. But alas, the infrastructure has yet to be built to make it practical for the average driver. More and more fleet operators have moved to CNG, and I welcome its arrival, even if it is still a finite fossil fuel. Expect to see more of CNG in the next few years.
Our burst of high gasoline prices, like I’d predicted, encouraged buyers to seek efficiency — and the auto makers came through and provided it. Overall, efficiency is now a big part of their advertising and promotions. In 2008, it was rarely mentioned. I am a bit concerned about the current low prices of fuel, as this does not encourage purchase of vehicles that are more efficient. Truck sales are still too high, in my opinion. While trucks themselves have become more efficient, 20 mpg on the highway in a truck is still a lot more pollution than a car that gets 40 mpg going to the same place. We seem bent on using our dwindling oil resources until it is all gone — then, we’ll consider the other options.
Hydrogen has not come around. It is still experimental, and is likely to stay that way. We now have legitimate electric vehicles (EV) we can go out and buy. The Nissan Leaf is finally here, and it is a great car. The problem with electric vehicles is their price. They are presently out of reach of the average shopper.
Higher fuel prices would make the EV much more attractive. I’ve constantly lobbied for use of EVs and would drive one myself if I could afford to buy one. I’ll continue to lobby this cause, because it is the obvious best choice for the future.
Plug-in hybrids like the Chevy Volt are on our streets now, and in many situations they are the best choice for a one-vehicle household. There has been a wane in the sales of the Volt and the Leaf, but the industry has not given up on them. Expect to see more of them, and cars like them.
The auto industry almost died in 2008-2009 with the economic collapse. The industry was kept on life support with the purchase of GM by the public and the brief Cash for Clunkers program, but has since come roaring back. Gosh, how I wish I’d listened to my own advice and dumped my old Suburban and bought a cheap Ford Focus at that time. I had a different mindset then. I DID NOT want a car payment. I still don’t have car payments, but I’ve got too many vehicles, too — and that’s a drain.
I recently read that there has been a 42 percent decline in new car purchases by people 18-34 years of age. That is a troubling sign of our economic times. Young people just don’t have the kind of jobs that encourage them to go out and spend, or get in debt, for a $30,000 car — yet the desire is probably there.
In 2008, you could get a tax break on buying a Prius. I should have taken advantage of that, too. That’s long gone. The only tax incentives out there now, and they are substantial, are for purchase of EVs and plug-in hybrids. Who knows if those tax credits will survive the fiscal belt-tightening that is needed. I, for one, support these breaks — we need more electric vehicles on our streets. They are the only truly clean operating vehicles that can operate directly from renewable energy sources.
I’ve enjoyed taking new cars for test drives, and look forward to continuing that part of my column. I’m not allowed the space that can look at these vehicles in depth. My goal is to bring them to your attention, and leave it to you to investigate other reviews or go to a dealership and check them out for yourself. The new CAFE efficiency standards are bringing us ever more efficient vehicles — and it has not killed the industry. In fact, it has spurred some great competition and brought us ever better new vehicles that are safer as well.
In 2008, the average car had two front air bags. Now, 10 to a dozen is not uncommon — even in the lower-priced cars like the Chevy Sonic. Cars have all but become maintenance-free for their life span. On the other hand, I’ve witnessed a skyrocketing in costs of parts, anti-freeze, oil and tires. I don’t see that turning back — perhaps another good point for the electric vehicle (if you don’t mind the grand expense of battery replacement in the future).
I’ve rambled on long enough. If you are new to Mr. Green Car and want to see what else I’ve written in the past, The Rock River Times has an extensive archive on their website — click on the “Fast Lane” tab. Right now, it goes back to July 29, 2009. I don’t know exactly how many columns I’ve written, but going by the big pile of clippings I keep, this one is No. 120. Thanks for reading — I enjoy writing to you. Have a great new year, and we’ll see again what comes up in the greening of technology in 2013.
From the Dec. 26, 2012-Jan. 1, 2013, issue