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Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ)

On this page I'll answer some of the more common specific questions I get. For further information on alternative fuels generally or on a specific fuel, you might try some of the links on my More Information page.

What alternative-fueled vehicles (AFVs) can I buy or lease today or in the near future?
Where can I get fuel for the AFV I'm thinking of buying (or just bought)?
Where can I buy a used AFV?
Where can I test-drive an AFV?
What are the advantages and disadvantages of alternative fuels (or a particular alternative fuel)?
Can I use E85 (ethanol) in my gasoline vehicle?
Aren't so-called "Zero Emission Vehicles" really just "Elsewhere Emission Vehicles" that move pollution from the tailpipe to a power plant somewhere?
What's a "Partial Zero Emission Vehicle" (Partial ZEV, or PZEV)?

Q: What alternative-fueled vehicles (AFVs) can I buy or lease today or in the near future?

General Motors offers pickups that run on natural gas (both dedicated and bi-fuel), and pickups and SUVs that run on ethanol. Over the next few years, they will introduce hybrid-electric versions of various trucks and cars, starting with their full-size pickup. Ford offers ethanol versions of the Taurus sedan and Explorer SUV (and their Mercury equivalents). For the 2005 model year they offer a hybrid-electric version of the Escape compact SUV; unfortunately, they also have discontinued their formerly best-in-the-world lineup of CNG and LPG vehicles. DaimlerChrysler has stopped making natural-gas vans like mine, but they still make versions of some car and truck models with ethanol capability (fleet sales only). Toyota offers the hybrid-electric Prius sedan, and in the 2005 model year they have introduced hybrid versions of the Toyota Highlander and Lexus RX330 SUVs. Honda offers the hybrid Insight two-seater, and both hybrid and natural-gas versions of the Civic sedan, and as of 2005 they also make a hybrid version of their larger Accord sedan. Other automakers offer ethanol versions of some of their vehicles; to find a complete list, go to the Department of Energy's search page on their fuel-economy website and select "Flexible-fueled Vehicles" from the pop-up menu.

Unfortunately, no major automaker is currently making any battery-electric full-size vehicles; Global Electric Motorcars, a DaimlerChrysler company, offers a "Neighborhood Electric Vehicle" with a top speed of 25 MPH that is legal on streets with speed limits below 35 MPH, and numerous small companies make NEVs, electric scooters, and other small vehicles. Phoenix Motorcars is beginning to produce limited numbers of freeway-capable electric vehicles (EVs) with traditional hotrod styling, and Myers Motors is attempting to restart production of the late Corbin Sparrow 3-wheel commuter EV. Keep an eye on TH!NK (no, that's not a typo), which has a short-range but freeway-legal two-seat commuter EV called the TH!NK City. The company was briefly owned by Ford, but was sold to new owners in February 2003; the new owners may finally bring the car to market in 2005 or so (it has only been in demonstration-scale use so far). Also, if you're ready for something really alternative, Anuvu (pronounced "a new view") will sell you a fuel-cell vehicle! Their "Clean Urban Vehicles" (CUVs) are based on Nissan pickup trucks; they can run about 60 miles on utility (plug-in) electricity, and carry enough hydrogen to go 250 miles around town. If you can afford a Hummer H1, you can now afford a fuel-cell vehicle!

Finally, you can convert an ordinary gasoline vehicle to use an alternative fuel. Various local shops can add the ability to burn propane or natural gas to a gasoline vehicle you already have, or can even pull the gasoline drivetrain and replace it with a battery-electric system. In addition, some manufacturers of natural-gas conversion kits, notably Baytech and BAF, have certified their kits to new-vehicle emission standards, and some of their installers offer "turn-key" vehicles with the conversion already done, just like you'd drive off a dealer's lot. (In fact, some new-car dealers will sell you these vehicles off their lots!) Clean-Tech is a conversion shop in Los Angeles (several people have asked me for one) that offers both Baytech conversions of late-model GM vehicles and simpler retrofits of older vehicles. And again looking into the future, since March 2004 there have been rumors and leaks about a company planning to market electric conversions of specific gasoline vehicle models; it has been confirmed that AC Propulsion, one of the most respected names in high-performance electric vehicle technology, will be converting (at least) the Scion xB, perhaps reaching market in late 2005.

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Q: Where can I get fuel for the AFV I'm thinking of buying (or just bought)?

A: If you live in California or a neighboring state, try the Clean Car Maps website. Across the United States, the Refueling Station Locator of the Alternative Fuels Data Center is the best I've found; I have used it to plan all my long-distance trips. In Canada, try the Refueling Station Search Engine of Natural Resources Canada.

If your AFV is a bi-fuel or flex-fuel setup, that means it can run on gasoline as well as the alternative fuel (and current hybrid-electric vehicles run only on gasoline), so you can fill up at any gasoline station if you drive out of town to a place where you don't know of any alternative-fuel stations.

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Q: Where can I buy a used AFV?

A: Since various AFVs are now being sold by regular car and truck dealers, I've started seeing them in ordinary used-vehicle lots. If you want a more specialized selection, EV Rental Cars has a page on their website to resell the vehicles that they have "timed out" from their fleet. For natural-gas vehicles in particular, and also parts and refueling equipment for them, try the Market Exchange of the Natural Gas Vehicle Coalition. Best Auto Sales in Corona, California, also carries a lot of natural-gas vehicles. For electric vehicles, ZAPWORLD sells new scooters and NEVs, and has also started listing used EVs, and I have found "for sale" pages on the websites of various EV enthusiast groups. Finally, the U.S. General Services Administration, which is in charge of the government's vehicle fleet, has a special AFV auction webpage.

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Q: Where can I test-drive an AFV?

A: Again, if the AFV in which you're interested is available at ordinary dealers, you can test-drive it there. Various AFV events often include "ride and drive" opportunities, and I've reported about some of these on this website. Or, if you want to try a vehicle for longer than a spin around the block, and you happen to live near an airport served by them, you can rent an AFV from EV Rental Cars.

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Q: What are the advantages and disadvantages of alternative fuels (or a particular alternative fuel)?

A: There's a discussion of different types of alternative fuels on this website, which includes advantages and disadvantages of each.

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Q: Can I use E85 (ethanol) in my gasoline vehicle?

A: Some automakers have recently been building E85 capability into all instances of certain of their models; for example, all 2003 DaimlerChrysler vehicles (cars and minivans) with their 3.3-liter V6 engine can run on E85. However, in general a vehicle must be tuned to use ethanol; its requirements for fuel-air mixture and spark timing, in particular, are significantly different from those for gasoline. The vehicles I mentioned above have sensors in their fuel lines to tell their engine computers what mixture of ethanol and gasoline is in their tanks, so the computer can tune the system to run properly on that mixture. If you try to put E85 in a vehicle not designed for it, it will run extremely lean, if it runs at all; I have heard of hotrodders "re-jetting" their carbureted 60's and 70's muscle-car engines to run on E85, but that means the cars can't run on gasoline without undoing the modifications! In addition, ethanol is somewhat more corrosive than gasoline, and it may damage the fuel system of a vehicle not designed for it, though I think all vehicles sold in the U.S. can run up to 10% ethanol (E10, or gasohol) without problems. So check your owner's manual, and don't put E85 in the tank unless the manual says the vehicle is designed for it; on the other hand, you may already have this capability and not know it!

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Q: Aren't so-called "Zero Emission Vehicles" really just "Elsewhere Emission Vehicles" that move pollution from the tailpipe to a power plant somewhere?

Well, it's possible to use renewable energy to power a ZEV, say by using wind or solar electricity to recharge the battery of an electric vehicle (EV); but most of the power for such applications these days comes from burning fossil fuels, so it is true that there are some "upstream emissions" from a ZEV. However, battery EVs are very efficient, and so is modern electrical generation and transmission, so overall you burn less fuel to go the same distance than you would in a gasoline vehicle; the generating plants are carefully maintained, so they run more consistently clean than vehicle engines that just get an occasional tune-up; and ZEVs are not subject to catastrophic failures of emissions-control equipment, so they can't become "gross polluters." The upshot of all this is that a battery electric vehicle recharging from the California utility power mix will produce about 98% less pollution than an average 2002 model car over their respective lifetimes, and 95% less pollution than even the cleanest 2002 cars; for this reason, the California Air Resources Board (the source for the numbers I just quoted, from Table 9-3 on page 137 of a 2000 staff report) has long maintained that ZEVs are the "gold standard" for meeting air-quality goals. My understanding is that, even though the national power mix includes a lot more coal than California's, you still come out ahead with battery EVs except for a small increase in the amount of acid-rain-causing sulfur dioxide.

There remain some questions about whether hydrogen-powered vehicles are as beneficial as battery EVs. An internal-combustion-engine vehicle that burns hydrogen has nearly zero tailpipe emissions, and a fuel cell vehicle emits only water vapor. However, generation of hydrogen from fossil fuels, whether by "re-forming" natural gas (or methanol, or even gasoline) or by electrolysis of water using fossil-fuel-generated electricity, is not as efficient as generation of electricity for a battery EV; and it takes more energy to transport hydrogen (whether in trucks or through pipelines) and to store it aboard a vehicle (as a compressed gas or a super-cold liquid) than it does to transport electricity via wires and store it aboard a vehicle in a battery. For the same reasons as given above (intensive maintenance of central generating plants, lack of pollution controls aboard the vehicle that can fail catastrophically, etc.), hydrogen-powered vehicles are expected to reduce air pollutants like carbon monoxide, soot, and nitrogen oxides, compared to the emissions from petroleum-powered vehicles. However, it remains to be seen whether they cut actual fuel use, because of the inefficiencies of generating and transporting hydrogen; some calculations show that it would be more efficient to burn a fossil fuel in the internal-combustion engine of a hybrid-electric vehicle than to use it to make hydrogen for a fuel-cell vehicle. The jury still seems to be out on this, even as hydrogen power picks up political momentum; stay tuned.

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Q: What's a "Partial Zero Emission Vehicle" (Partial ZEV, or PZEV)?

A typical hybrid-electric vehicle cannot be plugged in to the utility grid, but instead gets all of its electrical energy onboard from gasoline. It may be able to travel some distance without starting its gasoline engine, running solely on electrical power; however, the source of that power ultimately traces back to gasoline. It is possible to build a "plug-in" or "grid-connected" hybrid that can recharge from the electrical utility grid as well as from its gasoline engine and thus can handle moderate commuting and errands without using any gasoline, and some people (in the press and otherwise) confuse these, or even ordinary hybrids, with PZEVs. I recently saw a columnist refer to the Ford Focus and BMW 325i as hybrids, and I think it's because he heard that they are PZEVs. However, most PZEVs are relatively ordinary gasoline cars; the name is a regulatory definition, not a functional one.

In 1990, California issued emission regulations for new cars to be sold in the state over the next fifteen or so years; included in these standards was the "ZEV Mandate," which required that 2% of new cars sold in the state would be Zero Emission Vehicles (ZEVs) in the 1998 model year, with the percentage ramping up to 10% by the 2003 model year. Well, as I write this, the 2003 model year is almost over, and the ZEV Mandate has been watered down in stages over the years, to the point that automakers don't actually have to build any substantial number of ZEVs. Instead, they can satisfy California regulations by a combination of "banked" credits for early introduction (before 2003) of small numbers of battery electric vehicles (EVs), construction and deployment of a few dozen experimental fuel-cell vehicles (FCVs), and production of vehicles that have very low but non-zero tailpipe emissions, called Partial ZEVs. PZEVs are (mostly) ordinary gasoline cars which meet very stringent limits on tailpipe and evaporative pollution, and which have a long warranty on their emission-control systems. The first PZEV certified was the 2001 Nissan Sentra GXE, which had an ordinary (albeit clean) gasoline drivetrain; hybrid-electric and even natural-gas vehicles took a while longer to get certified, mostly because of the requirement for the long warranty. Cleaner gasoline cars are a good thing, of course, and the extended emission-control warranty suggests that these cars will be less prone than others to the kind of catastrophic failures that result in their becoming "gross polluters"; but they'll still get dirtier over time, and time will have to tell whether they clean the air anywhere near as much as the real ZEVs that they will be displacing.

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new 29 April 2003, modified 13 August 2005