Car Talk

What’s the Greenest Way to Go?


+/-On one issue, at least, American environmentalists are mostly in agreement: It would be wonderful to have walkable, bikable, mass transit-oriented towns and cities in which you wouldn’t need to have a car. But such a vision remains a work in progress. For most families in the United States, a personal automobile is a necessity. So, if you have to buy a car, what’s the greenest way to go? Journalist and author Jim Motavalli says hybrid vehicles and the new generation of electric cars are the most ecological option. Don Scott of the National Biodiesel Board argues that the most environmentally smart fuel is biodiesel made from recycled waste and other biomass.

Plug In, Drop Out

by Jim Motavalli

Jim Motavalli is the author most recently of High Voltage: The Fast Track to Plug In the Auto Industry (Rodale), and is a contributor to The New York Times, Car Talk at NPR, and the Mother Nature Network.

If I were buying a new car today, I’d reluctantly pass on ethanol (E85) and biodiesel options. My car of choice would be a plug-in hybrid – probably the Chevy Volt, although the Ford C-Max Energi and Honda Accord also look very attractive.

I see the plug-in hybrid as a transitional technology on the way to electric cars. Pure battery electric vehicles (EVs) are still pretty expensive, and on vehicles like the Nissan Leaf they’re still getting the bugs out. Some owners in Phoenix are finding out that running a car without active temperature control for the battery pack in 100-degree-plus weather reduces battery range. No doubt the second generation of the Leaf will be much better.

As talk show host Jay Leno told me with quite a bit of passion, the plug-in hybrid idea – 40 miles of all-electric range from a modest battery pack, backed up with a gas engine capable of another 300 miles or more – just makes sense. Leno bought a Volt, and promptly put 10,000 miles on it without using the gasoline engine much at all. The Volt, he said, is “the smart one.” Why? Because it’s “an electric car 95 percent of the time. But when you need to go to Vegas or San Francisco, it turns into a regular car. That’s the key.”

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