Gas may be cheap these days, but untethering from the local Citgo is still an attractive idea. For many, electricity is the obvious choice when opting out of gas cars. Tesla continues to be the dominant and popular choice in this realm, although Chevrolet is preparing to launch the all-electric Bolt (and its 200-mile range) before the end of 2016, and the Nissan Leaf, Kia Soul EV, and Ford Focus Electric, among others, are currently available at more reasonable prices than the higher-end Tesla cars.
Electricity has plenty of appeal: It’s relatively cheap and clean and incredibly accessible. That said, electricity isn’t the only alternative fuel out there. Hydrogen has been making small inroads, particularly in California, and ethanol continues to creep into fuel pumps around the country. Even compressed natural gas (CNG)—historically more prevalent overseas—has started appearing more often in the United States.
An enormous appeal of hydrogen cars is that they operate in an almost boringly similar fashion to regular gas-powered cars. Outside of the tailpipe emissions (the only thing leaving a hydrogen-powered car is water), the ownership experience of a fuel-cell vehicle shouldn’t differ too much from that of a gas-powered one. It doesn’t carry electricity’s range anxiety, and filling up on hydrogen isn’t too different from pumping gas; open the fuel door, attach the pump to the receiver, and let the hydrogen flow. The Toyota Mirai is the leading hydrogen vehicle on the market today, with a range close to 300 miles, but it isn’t the only fuel-cell car around—you can also find the Hyundai Tucson Fuel Cell and the Honda Clarity Fuel Cell. Accessibility to the actual fuel is increasing, too, but if there is one downside to these cars, it’s their lack of widespread availability. Americans will need to take up residence in California if they’re interested in joining this wave of future motoring.
Unlike hydrogen, which still seems far-fetched and remote to many, ethanol-enriched gas is a very real, if controversial, option. Around the country, almost all fuel currently includes ethanol—up to 10% at most pumps, but 15% at some. There are undoubtedly some concerns surrounding ethanol, with its potentially damaging effects on engines sitting at the forefront. But if the goal is to lower emissions without drastically changing the way you operate your car, a Flex Fuel vehicle like the Jeep Grand Cherokee or Chevy Tahoe is worth a look. Ethanol increases fuel’s octane rating and burns hotter than gasoline. The result is a car with more power and possibly fewer greenhouse gasses pouring out of its tailpipe. Flex Fuel vehicles are specifically built to run on E85 gasoline, so concerns of reliability should wane, and more than 3,000 Flex Fuel stations exist nationwide. If there’s one downside, it is the diminished fuel economy—ethanol also generates less energy than pure gas, so you can expect your mileage to take a hit.
Both hydrogen and ethanol, however, require you to stop at a filling station to fuel up. One of the appeals of electricity is that you don’t have to leave your home to charge your car—you can plug it in right in the comfort of your garage. If your home has access to a natural-gas line, you can enjoy that same convenience with a CNG vehicle. Conflicting reports regarding CNG’s impact on the environment mean you shouldn’t look at this fuel necessarily as a clean alternative, and you won’t save money until you start fueling up, as CNG-equipped cars (like the discontinued Honda Civic Natural Gas) and conversion kits are pretty expensive. That being said, the vast majority of natural gas consumed in the United States is also produced in the United States, so if the goal is to relinquish your dependence on oil, CNG is worth consideration.
Frankly, all of these avenues have their benefits and drawbacks. Hydrogen generates extremely low emissions, but it’s also expensive and hard to find. Ethanol is plentiful, burns cleaner than gas, and costs less, but lowers fuel economy. CNG can be pumped right in your home, but the cars and kits are expensive, and the green benefits are questionable. These are all valid options for someone looking to drive away from gasoline, but there’s a reason electricity remains the most popular alternative fuel today.
Would you rather your car run on hydrogen, ethanol, CNG, or just good old-fashioned electricity?
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