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Earth Day 2008: Where's My Green Car?

Posted: Apr 22, 2008 10:57 a.m.

There may be no industry on earth that impacts our environment as much as the auto industry.  And while that impact has been decidedly negative over the past 100 years, automakers are increasingly pursuing ways to do less damage, and in a few cases, perhaps even to help the environment recover.

In honor of Earth Day, we bring you an update on the state of green cars, 2008:

Gas Prices Are Driving Buyers to Smaller Cars

With $4 per gallon gas on the way, many Americans have begun looking to smaller, more fuel-efficient cars.  In fact, auto sales declined throughout the first quarter of 2008 in every single segment of the market except for small cars.  Searches for small cars now dominate our own web traffic.

Drivers have even started changing their driving habits to consume less gas. 

Hybrid Sales are Up…Way Up

ABC News reports, "U.S. registrations of new hybrid vehicles rose 38 percent in 2007 to a record 350,289, according to… R.L. Polk & Co., a Southfield-based automotive marketing and research company."  Lonnie Miller, R.L. Polk's director of industry analysis, "said rising gas prices may affect some buyers, but they're not the main driver of hybrid sales. Instead, he thinks sales jumped in 2007 because buyers had more options, including the new Nissan Altima, Saturn Aura and Lexus LS600h hybrid sedans and hybrid versions of the Chevrolet Tahoe, GMC Yukon and Mazda Tribute sport utility vehicles."

He may be right in some cases, but almost no one is buying those Yukons and Tahoes.

Electric Cars are Becoming Mainstream

The last year has seen considerable progress toward mainstream electric cars.  GM has invested money and political capital in its Chevy Volt electric, and small California manufacturer Tesla Motors has begun production of a high-performance electric roadster. A niche market seems to be developing in high-performance green cars, with two rivals to the Tesla in the planning stages.

Several major manufacturers have begun pursuing mainstream electric alternatives. 

Autoblog Green notes that small Norwegian automaker Th!nk "is launching operations in America. Th!nk's City electric car was designed with the American market in mind, so this news should not be too surprising."

But while electric cars are promising, there are kinks yet to be worked out in that technology. Autoblog Green notes, however, that electricity may, or may not, be the greenest way to power a car, depending on what produces the electricity in the first place: "Somewhere there's a chorus repeating the mantra that we need to work aggressively to develop sustainable methods of generating electricity."

The eerie silence of electric cars may also be a problem.  The AP has reported that a bill under consideration in Congress "would require the Secretary of Transportation to establish safety standards for hybrids and other vehicles that make little discernible noise, including an audible means for alerting people that the cars are nearby."

Hydrogen Fuel Cells Nearly Road-Ready

Hydrogen fuel cell-powered cars are also closer to reality.  BMW has unveiled a fuel cell- powered 7-series that, the manufacturer claims, actually cleans the ambient air of pollutants.  The Detroit Fee Press reports, "GM said it plans to bring a small test fleet of its hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles to China soon."  GM has a small test fleet of fuel-cell powered vehicles currently in use in California.  Mercedes and Honda have also invested in fuel cells this year.

Clean Diesels Coming to U.S.

Diesel's reputation as a polluter may be getting a makeover in the U.S. soon.  Automakers from Audi to Volkswagen are making plans to bring cleaner diesels to the American market in the next few years. 

A BMW diesel, the 118d with Efficient Dynamics, won the World Green Car of the Year award at the New York Auto Show last month.  A BMW diesel also bested a Toyota Prius in a mileage challenge conducted by the London Times.  Though more automakers are making plans to bring diesels to the U.S. market, The AP notes, "Strict regulations in the U.S. would make it difficult to sell a diesel car in all 50 states."  Mercedes has introduced 50-state diesels, but the AP reports, "Smart USA has no plans to offer a diesel-powered version of its ForTwo micro car in the United States."

Ethanol…Well, GM Still Believes In It

General Motors continues to invest heavily in Ethanol as well.  Autoblog Green reports, "For 2009, General Motors is adding four more vehicles to the existing eleven that are capable of running on E85."    Ethanol has come under increasing criticism as a green fuel alternative, however, with many unconvinced that it makes sense to use acres of crop land to produce fuel when more efficient alternatives may exist.

Interested in more green car news?  Tomorrow night most PBS stations will air a special on the "Car of the Future" hosted by Car Talk's Tom and Ray Magliozzi. 

Research the greenest cars currently on the market with U.S. News' car rankings and reviews.