What is to be Done? Or, A Guide for the Perplexed

Chevrolet Malibu Hybrid

Sometimes I like to put the student loans to work (by borrowing titles from classic literature, for instance). But, as the coffee ads used to say, “it’s to prove a point.” This spring and summer have seen lots of green-car headlines, which makes me happy; however, if you look at the big picture, you see a lot of different directions.

For instance, I’ve been meaning to write about the Mercedes E320 Bluetec being selected as the 2007 World Green Car of the Year since the award was announced in April. The Bluetec is a fuel-efficient clean diesel; it gets 36 miles per gallon, and thanks to high-tech catalytic converters, its emissions are significantly lower than a gasoline engine’s. And it’s available in the US! (But good luck finding a gas station with diesel in most major cities.) Another finalist for the year’s Green Car honors was the Volkswagen Polo BlueMotion, a 60-mile-per-gallon clean-diesel family hatchback. Yes, you read that right. Sadly, the Polo BlueMotion isn’t scheduled to come to the US anytime soon.

Although clean diesel is all the rage in Europe, here in the US it seems that most of the emphasis when it comes to green driving is on hybrids. We’ve talked about New York City’s hybrid taxi initiative, led by the Ford Escape Hybrid; the Escape’s twin, the Mercury Mariner hybrid is generating buzz as well. GM’s jumped into the hybrid market with the Saturn Aura Green Line and its twin, the funky Chevy Malibu hybrid, which launched at baseball’s All-Star Game this week:

And Chrysler is getting into the act, too, with a 2008 launch of hybrid Aspen and Durango models. Meanwhile, Toyota continues to rule the US hybrid market with its Prius, as stateside sales of the distinctive gas-electric snubnose top 400,000.

But wait…what about the plug-in car? The Chevrolet Volt concept car is exciting us here at CarGurus and in the media at large. Ford’s plug-in HySeries drivetrain grabbed fewer headlines, but may beat Chevrolet’s E-Flex plug-in to the market; a test fleet of plug-in Escapes is being tried out by a California utility company. Right now, the plug-in field is dominated by Ford and GM, which may make a difference when it comes to US government incentives going forward.

And let’s not forget some of the other technologies out there, from biodiesel and flex-fuel to hydrogen-powered cars. It’s enough to make your head spin…wait! Maybe I could power a flywheel with that!

Seriously, though, the automotive industry is in a time of incredible transition. I don’t think anyone knows what fuel(s) are going to be powering us down the highway in 20 years. Is the fuel of the future hydrogen? Biomass? Clean diesel (whether biodiesel or petroleum)? Battery power, either hybrid or plug-in? Some combination of the above?

Only time will tell. And speaking of “time”, this reminds me of a similar moment in automotive history: the very beginning.
Stanley Steamer

Yep, when cars first started being manufactured commercially, there was a similar wealth of choices when it came to powertrains. Who remembers the Stanley Steamer, a gorgeous automobile whose engine was an adaptation of the plants that drove trains down tracks, and powered ships along the rivers and across the seas?

And while we’re looking backward, let’s not forget the early electric cars, either. These beautiful machines were thought by many to have more staying power than the “coarse” and “unreliable” gasoline-powered competition. A hundred years later, electric cars are the New New Thing. Who says history doesn’t repeat itself?

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