Eco Area

Car Talk's Eco Area
Part 3: Electric Vehicles and other Wacko Ideas

Driving and Maintenance tips
New car options
Ideas from the Fringe
Share Your Ideas

Driving a fuel-efficient conventional car or being environmentally thoughtful about how you use your current car not enough for you? You might be ready for ... the wacko fringe.

We caution you, however, that the ideas that follow are only for the most tofu-empowered among us. They involve sacrifices in comfort and flexibility that many of us may not be willing to make.

But, hey, somebody's got to be a pioneer, right?

With that said, here's what little we know about ...

Electric Vehicles | Biodiesel Vehicles
Propane Vehicles | Natural Gas Vehicles

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Electric Vehicles
Tree-Hugging Factor: 5 out of 5 trees

Electric vehicles are not for most people. They have one enormous downside: their range. The electric version of Toyota's RAV4, for example, has a stated range of 126 miles.

Since your typical American drives only about 27 miles a day, an electric vehicle might be fine for most days. The downside, however, comes when you need to run some errands, forgot something at work and have to drive back, want to take that weekend trip out of town or make an emergency trip to the bowling alley. If an electric vehicle is your only car, you might find your style seriously cramped. But if it's a second car and used only for a commute to work, it could be a good choice you.

There are other downsides to electric vehicles as well: reduced acceleration and the prospect of possibly needing to replace all those batteries when they're worn out.


How do electric vehicles work? They actually use no gasoline at all. The electric motor (or motors) that turns the wheels are powered by a large bank of batteries inside the car which need to be recharged frequently--usually on a daily basis.

The good news with electric vehicles is their lack of emissions: there aren't any. Not from the car, anyway. Since electric vehicles get their power from the electrical outlet in your house, the pollution comes from the increased demand at the nuclear (or, more likely, coal) power plant down the street. However, since electric generating plants have elaborate emission-control systems (at least compared to your run-of-the-mill Taurus), driving an electric car will result in about a 95 percent net reduction in pollution compared to a conventional car.

Finally, because there's no internal combustion engine in an electric car, a lot fewer repairs are needed. No timing belts, water pumps, radiators, fuel injectors, or exhaust systems means fewer boat payments to your mechanic. And you'll never have to pay for a tuneup or oil change. But you will be paying some of this cost up front, due to the high cost of most electric vehicles.


Right now there are several electric vehicles from which to choose: Electric versions of the Toyota Rav4, the Ford Ranger, and the Dodge Caravan Epic; and an entire line of vehicles from a company called Solectria.

Electric Vehicle Resources:

How Electric Cars Work

Electric Vehicles: Explains advantages and limitations

Electric Auto Association: Information Directory for electric vehicles

Electric Cars: The Immediate Years Ahead

The Green Car Guide

Electric Drive Vehicle Links: Large repository of electric vehicle links

Research specific models, find an electric vehicle dealer near you, or get your questions answered at the Department of Energy's Alternative Fuels Data Center

Electric car rentals in California and Florida and electric scooter sales: Zapworld

Places to recharge your electric car in California: the Clean Car Map


Biodiesel and Vegetable Oil
Tree-Hugging Factor: 5 out of 5 trees

Ever heard of running your car on vegetable oil? Neither had we, until one of our flakier listeners who actually drove a van that ran on used vegetable oil (no, we're not kidding) called in. Where'd he tank up? From the fryer at his local diner, of course!

There are two major downsides to running your diesel vehicle on vegetable oil, though. First, in very cold temperatures, a vehicle that runs on vegetable oil can be hard or impossible to start. You'll need to modify your vehicle with a second, conventional diesel fuel tank and a fuel switch, so you can start your can with good, old-fashioned diesel fuel.

Second, the oil may rot rubber parts like hoses and seals. You'll need to replace any natural or butyl rubber hoses and seals in your fuel line with more-durable "fluoroelastomer" components.

Finally, you run the risk of being followed by hungry teenagers, who are known to follow the smell of french fries just about anywhere.

Biodiesel is a less daring alternative fuel option. Biodiesel is a form of fuel that's made from vegetable, plant, or seed oil. It can be used in any vehicle that runs on diesel fuel. Usuallly it's mixed in with regular diesel fuel, but many vehicles can run on 100% biodiesel.

Biodiesel is much better for the environment than regular diesel. Pure biodiesel has no lead or sulfur dioxide emission and reduced levels of carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide, and particulates -- all of which are some of the causes of acid rain, global warming, soot, and smog. Biodiesel reduces toxic particles in the air by up to 90%, compared to regular diesel fuel.

One downside to running your vehicle on biodiesel? It costs a bit more than old fashioned petroleum diesel. However, biodiesel is available all around the country. It can even be ordered in 55-gallon drums.

Biodiesel Resources

Automakers Getting a Taste for Vegan Values

General biodiesel information is available at the Biodiesel Information Centre

Here's a book that's been called "the ultimate biodiesel primer": Biodiesel: Growing a New Energy Economy

The Pacific Biodiesel is a commercial source for biodiesel fuels and information.

Check out the veggie van that's been driving around the country, and get info on how you can use biodiesel at the Veggie Van Web site.

Comprehensive Alternative Fuels Directory

The National Biodiesel Board web site has lots of practical information on using biodiesel fuel -- including what blends to try, how to get biodiesel in your area, answers to many frequently asked questions, and even a biodiesel bulletin board.

Propane Vehicles
Tree-Hugging Factor: 5 out of 5 trees

Can cars really run on propane ... just like your gas grill? You bet. In fact, propane-powered vehicles have actually been around for nearly 60 years. Many taxis, buses, and other high-mileage vehicles in major cities are powered by propane.

Propane, or Liqufied Petroleum Gas (LPG), is a by-product of natural gas processing and petroleum refining. In use, it emits far less pollution than regular gas. And, there's tons of it available right here in the U.S.

Propane vehicles get about the same mileage as conventional cars and propane is actually less expensive than regular gas. There's also less wear and tear on propane engines -- lousy news for mechanics everywhere.

There are a number of factory-produced propane vehicles, including Dodge Ram trucks, Ford Crown Victorias, Toyota Camrys, Chevy Caviliers, and Ford's F-150 Series Pickup. Some of these vehicles are even "bi-fuel," meaning they have two separate gas tanks, and will run on propane or conventional gas.

There are over 10,000 propane filling stations throughout the U.S. and Canada so, if you do ever decide to go for it and get a propane-powered vehicle, you shouldn't have too much of a problem filling it up. And, if worse come to worse, you can always tap into your neighbor's gas grill.

Propane Vehicle Resources:

The Department of Energy's Fuel Data Center for detailed information on propane-powered vehicles, including manufacturers.

Natural Gas Vehicles
Tree-Hugging Factor: 5 out of 5 trees

Natural gas vehicles have actually been around since the 1930s. For the eco-correct, there are several upsides. Natural gas adds fewer pollutants to the air, costs less than regular gas, and is non-toxic. Because it burns more cleanly than regular gas, natural gas also reduces wear and tear on vehicles. And, if you've ever visited our garage after a stop from the Ralph's lunch truck, you know that there's no shortage of natural gas right here in the U.S.

How does a natural gas powered vehicle work? The gas is stored in cylinders installed in the rear, under carriage, or on the roof of the vehicle. Inside the cylinders, the gas is under high pressure -- between 3,000 and 3,600 pounds per square inch. When gas is required, it travels through a fuel regulator located in the engine compartment and is then injected through a specially designed mixer, to get the correct air-to-gas mixture.

There are about a million natural gas vehicles in use world wide (not counting Tommy on his bike), and about 30,000 currently in use in the United States.

There are several downsides. First, the driving range is less than one half of a gasoline-powered vehicle. Second, fuel stations are less common, although the number is growing -- there are currently more than 1,300.

There are a number of natural gas vehicles available now, including the Honda Civic GX, Dodge Caravan, Ford Crown Victoria and Contour, most GM pickups, Chevrolet Cavalier, Toyota Camry, and the Volvo S70 and V70. Many of these models are also available in a bi-fuel configuration, which can run on either natural gas or gasoline. New natural gas vehicles cost $3,500 to $7,000 more than gasoline vehicles. The good news is that natural gas costs significantly less than gasoline or diesel. For many consumers, the upfront costs can be recovered over the life of the vehicle.

Regular, gasoline-powered vehicles can also be converted to run on natural gas. The typical cost to convert a vehicle ranges from $3,000 to $5,000.

Natural Gas Vehicle Resources:

The natural gas vehicle page for a list of current manufacturers of natural gas cars and trucks.

Natural Gas Vehicle Technology Forum

The natural gas vehicle coalition is a national organization that encourages the development of the natural gas vehicle market.

Driving and Maintenance tips
New car options
Ideas from the Fringe