Think ethanol and hydrogen. U.S. auto manufacturers plan to manufacture vehicles that will use these renewable,cleaner-burning fuels,possibly replacing gasoline altogether.
But it's not going to be easy,auto-industry experts say. Other experts say better fuels need to be produced.
Dave Cole,chairman of the Center for Automotive Research,said that no one really knows what technology is going to catch on – not even car manufacturers.
“There's a lot of fantasy that's sort of abound in this world right now,” he said. “If it's too good to be true,it tends to be like that.”
He said technologies might look promising,but billions upon billions of dollars will be needed to make them realities. For example,shifting to a new fuel will require new refineries to process the fuel and get it to fueling stations.
“There's no such thing as a free lunch,” he said.
Cole said these challenges have affected the auto industry in unprecedented ways,leading to unusual partnerships.
“We're going to see a world characterized by discontinuous change,” he said. “That's why you see so much joint activity between car companies.”
Cole said he calls it “coopitition” – automakers working together in markets in which they will later compete.
He said companies are helping each other because of the high costs of producing technology such as fuel cells. GM invested more than $1 billion in its fuel cell program,he said. A fuel cell vehicle can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Fuel cell cars run on hydrogen and have virtually no polluting emissions.
Still,lawmakers and auto manufacturers are taking steps in the right direction,Cole said.
In a parking lot near the Capitol Wednesday,a green and yellow Chevrolet Impala bearing General Motor's mantra for corn-ethanol fuel – “Live green,go yellow” – stuck out among the black and white sedans.
The car uses E85 fuel,which is 85 percent ethanol and 15 percent gasoline. Ethanol comes from fermented biomass products such as corn.
Legislators signed a poster pledging to support a resolution calling for 25 percent of all energy consumption to come from renewable sources such as corn-ethanol by 2025.
Known as “25 by 25,” the non-binding initiative is being pushed by agriculture and energy officials to decrease American dependence on foreign oil. The House Agriculture Committee passed it unanimously Thursday.
But support for alternative fuels such as ethanol is a new thing for the U.S.,said Rep. Collin Peterson,D-Minn.,the senior Democrat on the Agriculture Committee.
“Brazil made the decision to do this back in the ‘70s,” he said,noting he's been interested in ethanol for 30 years. “Oil companies did everything in their power to drive us out of business.”
He said it took $3 a gallon gas to give Americans a reason to go green.
“We have to quit fighting wars over oil. We have to stop buying oil from people who hate us,” he said,adding that ethanol could change rural America by creating jobs that will attract people back to farms from cities.
“We think that agriculture and rural America can do a huge part of fueling this country,” he said.
Peterson said other crops such as potatoes or switch grass,which he described as the long stuff in road ditches,could be used for ethanol.
But James Jordan,a Polytechnic University of New York researcher who focuses on the future of electric vehicles,said that ethanol may not be the best choice – considering the U.S. is the world's largest food supplier.
In a July 2 Washington Post op-ed piece Jordan and co-author James Powell wrote,”Even if all of the 300 million acres (500,000 square miles) of currently harvested U.S. cropland produced ethanol,it wouldn't supply all of the gasoline and diesel fuel we now burn for transport,and it would supply only about half of the needs for the year 2025.”
In an interview,Jordan said that the world's population will probably grow from today's 6 billion to about 9 billion by 2050,which will put more strain on U.S. agriculture.
He said he understands the appeal of ethanol,”But the problem of it is the conflict with food.”
According to National Ethanol Vehicle Coalition,there are about 1,000 gas stations with E85 pumps,mostly in the Midwest,but the numbers are rising from coast to coast.
Peterson and Jordan said automakers should look beyond ethanol-based fuels. Jordan said electric cars could be the wave of the future and Peterson recommending hydrogen-fueled cars.
Last week,General Motors said it will loan more than 100 hydrogen-powered Chevrolet Equinoxes to consumers to test drive in the capital and in California and New York next year. GM also delivered a fuel-cell Equinox on Thursday for the U.S. Army to test.
The U.S. market has had some success in alternative fuel vehicles.
According to the Alliance of Automobile Manufactures,a trade association for the top nine automakers,there are 9 million alternative fuel cars,including hybrids that use electric motors to assist the gas engine,on the road today,up from 3 million in 2000. Almost a million such cars have been sold this year.
Fred Weber,AAM's chief executive officer,said there are 800 million vehicles of all sorts worldwide,and by 2020 there will be 1.2 billion – creating even more demand for fuel and better technology.