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"Influencing the AFV Choice" Event

At the National Clean Cities Stakeholders' Conference held in Washington, DC, 31 May to 4 June 1998, a series of events was planned to help fleet managers make the decision to include alternative-fuel vehicles (AFVs) among their car, truck, and bus purchases. These "Influencing the AFV Choice" events are to be organized by individual Clean Cities Coalitions to focus on the needs of commercial, municipal, and other fleets in their local areas, as part of the 1998 "Game Plan" for expanding the market for alternative-fuel vehicles. On October 29, 1998, the Southern California Association of Governments (SCAG) Clean Cities Program hosted their event at the headquarters of the South Coast Air Quality Management District (SCAQMD) in Diamond Bar, CA; I read about it on the Clean Cities website, and they let me crash the party.

SCAQMD entrance sign

The focus of these "Influencing the AFV Choice" events is on fleet managers, for several reasons. Vehicle fleets can be large contributors to air pollution either because individual vehicles travel high mileages (like airport shuttle vans) or because they engage in a lot of inefficient stop-and-go driving (like garbage trucks) or both (like city buses); thus large air-quality benefits can be reaped by persuading their operators to use cleaner-running vehicles. Also, these same operating conditions cause fleets to incur large costs for fuel and maintenance, so that savings in these areas resulting from the choice of (for example) natural gas over diesel fuel or gasoline can rapidly pay back to the fleet operator the larger initial cost of the vehicles. In addition, many fleet vehicles run on a specific, often short, route every day, so that refueling can be planned in advance for these vehicles and the relatively sparse refueling-station infrastructure for alternative fuels need not be an inconvenience; if the vehicles are refueled overnight at a central location anyway, then they could just as easily refuel from an on-site natural-gas dispenser or electric outlet (instead of an on-site gasoline pump) and not rely on public refueling stations at all. Thus, with the exception of the GM EV1 and Honda EV Plus electric cars, automakers are targeting their electric and natural-gas vehicle offerings to fleets rather than consumers, and the Clean Cities program and other projects to expand the market for alternative fuels are making fleets the focus of their efforts.

The presentations at this event concentrated on showing the financial and practical viability of alternative fuels; several speakers told about incentives (which are available to individual AFV users as well as fleets, don't forget!), including the keynote speaker, the Hon. Amanda Ormond, Director of Energy for the Arizona Department of Commerce, who made all us Californians green with envy by describing the very generous tax breaks and other inducements that her state offers to AFV users. Other speakers talked about their successful integration of AFVs into their municipal or commercial fleets, and a couple of speakers described the refueling and recharging infrastructure in southern California and beyond for natural-gas and electric vehicles. Bill Fairbairn of the California Natural Gas Vehicle Coalition, with whom I've corresponded for several months, was the speaker about compressed natural gas (CNG) infrastructure, so I finally got to meet him in person! (He had even brought along, as a "visual aid", the refueling adapter that he used on his journey Cleanest Across America and which he lent me for my drive Clean Across America And Back.) And, of course, all the major automakers with AFV offerings had representatives there to describe their vehicles and to offer test rides out in the parking lot.

The EPIC (Electric Powered Interurban Commuter) Dodge minivan that I drove at the Alameda EV Expo a couple of weeks back was there, as was the Toyota Prius hybrid-electric sedan that I saw there and at the Anaheim Auto Show (I understand it's the only Prius making the rounds in the United States). In addition to these and other electric vehicles (an EV1, a Ford Ranger, ...), there was a natural-gas-powered truck there from each of the Big Three U.S. automakers: a dedicated CNG Ford F-250 pickup and Dodge B-250 Ram Wagon (passenger van), and a bi-fuel Chevy C-2500 pickup.

CNG trucks

The 1999 Dodge van is a descendant of my 1993 van, and a comparison of the two shows the advancements that have been made based on experience with early models like mine. For one thing, the 1999 version is based on a heavier-duty chassis, the 7700-pound Gross Vehicle Weight Rating (GVWR) setup rather than the 6400-pound GVWR spec of my van, to ensure that the extra weight of the fuel tanks doesn't cut into the payload by a noticeable fraction. The tanks themselves are of a new design (carbon fiber wrapped around steel, rather than fiberglass around aluminum), and are lighter and cheaper; moreover, the floor-pan has been modified to accommodate the tanks more efficiently, and the fuel system is designed to operate at 3600 pounds per square inch (PSI) pressure for 20% more fuel capacity in the same space when compared to the 3000 PSI standard of the earlier vans. Four tanks are now standard equipment, and their total volume (even ignoring the higher nominal system pressure) is larger than that in the four tanks that I have (three standard, one add-on). Even with these improvements, the extra cost over a gasoline version of the van is about one-third less than the extra amount I paid for my 1993 van! Finally, Eric Gierst of Chrysler let me poke around the engine bay of the van and start it up, and I can report that its injector and pressure-regulator ticking is much better insulated from the passenger compartment than in my 1993 model. (I wish I knew how to store audio clips on this website; when my engine is idling and the turn signal is activated, it sounds like my van runs on clockwork!)

Chevy bi-fuel CNG truck engine

The other vehicle I took a really close look at was the Chevy bi-fuel pickup. This photo shows the engine compartment; the black "hood" over the main air inlet for the engine has been modified to add a very sophisticated natural-gas "fumigation" system (smaller tube in front of the main air duct). In contrast to the relatively simple aftermarket add-on systems I've seen, where a natural-gas "carburetor" is perched atop the gasoline engine's air inlet, this design meters fuel with a system like the mass-airflow sensors in the air intake of many modern fuel-injected engines. This provides finer control of the air-fuel mixture, for better emissions and performance, and doesn't partially block the air intake when the engine is running on gasoline. The system was jointly designed by General Motors and IMPCO, a company that has for many years made the simpler aftermarket systems I mentioned; it shows what you can accomplish when the alternative-fuel system is designed into the vehicle from the start!

Passenger cars were also represented at this event. Toyota announced that they are introducing a dedicated CNG version of their four-door Camry for the 1999 model year; they didn't have one on hand to display, but I hope they will bring it to the Los Angeles Auto Show in January. Steve Ellis of Honda natural-gas-vehicle (NGV) sales and marketing showed a chart that illustrated something we have bragged about as a possibility for quite awhile: NGVs are so clean, we said, that the air coming out of the tailpipe could be made cleaner than the air going into the engine! Absurd, right? Well, he showed some measurements taken in stop-and-go traffic on Interstate 110, which demonstrate that the Honda Civic GX, the cleanest internal-combustion-engine car ever tested by the EPA, actually can accomplish this. He cautioned that this wasn't something that you'd expect routinely (the ambient air on I-110 in stop-and-go traffic gets pretty bad, I can tell you), but still, it's nice to do something impossible once in a while!

Bi-fuel Chevrolet Cavalier

Chevrolet is introducing a bi-fuel version of their Cavalier compact sedan, shown here; like the bi-fuel Ford Contour I saw at the Anaheim Auto Show, this has its CNG tank installed in the front of the trunk. While you wouldn't want to pack four people and their luggage for two weeks into one of these cars, given their reduced trunk space, they certainly still have plenty of room for business travelers. In fact, I think that a very good case could be made for SCAQMD or somebody to provide funding for rental-car companies, which are big purchasers of compact cars like these, to offer bi-fuel versions for rent to their regular customers. The Cavalier will run about 160 miles on a full tank of CNG, and then it switches over to gasoline; the rental company could use SCAQMD funding not only to cover the extra cost of the cars but also to provide free CNG fuel to the renter for those first 160 miles, to encourage renters to ask for the bi-fuel cars. If the renter drove more than 160 miles (and I for one have never, in five years of business trips, driven a rental car that far, nor have I ever needed to use the trunk for more than one suitcase that could have gone in the rear seat anyway), he or she could use gasoline and not have to deal with the unfamiliar CNG refueling procedure.

This would be a pretty efficient use of incentive money, I think; it would directly replace a lot of gasoline-powered driving miles with CNG, and it would present no inconvenience at all to the typical renter (who doesn't need to pack the trunk with luggage). The rental company would get a vehicle that lasts longer because natural gas is easier on the engine than gasoline, and they wouldn't have to screen customers to make sure that they're only driving a short distance: an effort to rent dedicated CNG Ford Crown Victoria full-size sedans at the Denver International Airport failed because, try as they might, the rental company couldn't prevent renters from trying to drive the cars to gambling resorts in the mountains where they couldn't be refueled. I'm a scientist, not a businessman, but I think that offering bi-fuel CNG cars for rent is more practical than my other start-up business idea, which is a line of clothes with simulated ink-stains from anti-shoplifting tags that could be marketed as "attitude wear" to teenagers...

Actually, there's already somebody out there who has put together a business case for something even more radical. A company called EV Rentals will soon offer electric vehicles for rent through Budget Rental Cars at the Los Angeles Airport. They have obtained funding from various air-quality programs to hold the cost down for the renters to match the price of gasoline rentals, and they are implementing a computer program to plan recharging stops using the public infrastructure so that business travelers who need to go on a predictable route (airport to hotel to convention center and back, say) will be assured of never running out of juice. I think they are getting ready for a major announcement or even a grand opening at about the time of the second birthday party for the EV1 in early December; Your Correspondent will try to wangle an invitation to these events, and I'll report on them here.

Solar carport at SCAQMD headquarters

Thanks very much to SCAQMD and SCAG, especially Bettye Werthman of the latter, for letting me sit in on this event! Before I leave Diamond Bar, however, I wanted to show you a picture of something really cool that they've built there. This is a carport adorned with solar cells, which provide power for electric-vehicle recharging stations at the first four or five parking spaces in the picture. You can see a Honda EV Plus parked there, plus a couple of conversion jobs on either side of it: I don't know who did the Honda CRX on its right, but the car on its left is an AC Propulsion special (based on a Honda Civic hatchback) with about 50% more power than an EV1. There's a photo from Road & Track magazine in 1995 of one of these things smokin' its tires...

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new 12 November 1998