What Is the Next Big Thing in Automobiles?

Algae Biodiesel

Santa Fe’s own Fred Vang, an automotive consultant, gave a provocative seminar on the future of automobiles to a packed house on November 17. This seminar was the fourth in a series on Sustainable Living that was presented by the Northern New Mexico Group in 2009. The talk and discussion included both short-term and long term issues related to cars.

Three things for right now:

1) If you live in a cold climate, strongly consider buying dedicated ice/snow tires. These new ice/snow tires are life-saving technology. Four-wheel-drive has little benefit if your car has tires that don’t have good traction.

2) Go out to your car and throw away your old, inaccurate tire-pressure gauge and buy a new one with a good dial gauge. Then, use it to check your tire pressure monthly. This will save you 5% of your fuel usage.

3) If you live at high altitude (5,000 feet or above), you should know that cars without turbo or supercharging have their horsepower (hp) rating significantly overstated. For example, if you have a non-turbo engine that has a rating of 140 hp, you really only get about 100 hp in Santa Fe. The same engine with a turbo will realize 200 hp. So, why buy a big engine without a turbo that increases the vehicle weight and reduces fuel economy? Thus, buy a car with a smaller engine with a turbo.

Near-future considerations:

1) New-generation diesel-powered vehicles are very fuel efficient, environmentally clean, and quiet, and use existing infrastructure. New-generation diesel cars realize 40-50 mpg. About 50% of all cars in Europe are diesel powered. Many new fuel-efficient diesel-powered
vehicles will be available in the near future. For example, Subaru has been selling its Outback with a diesel engine in Europe for two years. Diesels can also use alternative fuels.

2) Many new hybrids will become available that take advantage of the inherent efficiency advantages of electric motors at low driving speeds. However, many people believe that hybrid/electric fuel is totally clean. You should realize that 60% of that electricity comes from dirty coal-fired power plants.

Longer term:

We should expect to see new materials to build cars and new fuel sources. Rocky Mountain Institutes’s Amory Lovins has been a major proponent of lightweight carbon-fiber vehicles that would reduce the weight of vehicles by about 50% and still meet safety requirements. It is quite possible that this vision will become reality. Unfortunately, the first vehicles with this technology will likely come from Japan. The Japanese government is funding R&D in advanced materials for cars and will make this technology available to Japanese automakers. We don’t know of any similar R&D activity in the United States. Production of corn-based ethanol has been shown to consume as much energy to produce it as it creates, so it will not be a long-term fuel source. However, cost-effective organic fuel sources are certainly possible. Algae (pond scum) grows so rapidly that it could become a major source of fuel. So, if you have a diesel, you have a pond scum-ready car. Some of this R&D on algae is taking place right here in New Mexico. Senators Jeff Bingaman and Tom Udall applauded the recent announcement that a planned bio-refinery in Columbus, New Mexico, will receive a $50 million economic recovery grant and up to $54.5 million in guaranteed loans to build the facility and develop algae-based bio-fuels for use in jet fuel and diesel. So, there is no silver bullet (or next big thing). The automotive future that reduces environmental footprint and improves our energy security will be a combination of many technologies. —David Van Winkle

To get involved with the chapter's transportation program, contact Chapter Conservation Chair and Transportation Chair Ken Hughes (505/474-0550, b1family@comcast.net).