Low Emission Vehicles

Environmental Action: Make Your Next Vehicle Purchase a Low-Emission Vehicle

Why buy a low-emission vehicle?

The internal combustion engine found in traditional cars highly contributes to global pollution. Alternatives to traditional engines are rapidly being developed. Driving one of these vehicles can dramatically reduce the negative impact that cars have on our environment.

How do our cars negatively impact the environment?

The amount of fuel a vehicle burns directly relates to the pollutants it produces. Some of the toxic substances from fossil fuel emissions include:

  • Carbon Dioxide (CO2)–Contributes to global warming. Cars give off 20 lbs. of CO2 for every gallon of gas consumed. Americans burn an average of 200 million gallons of gas per day. This causes the release of about 4 billion pounds of CO2 into the atmosphere per day.
  • Sulfur-Can cause acid rain.
  • Carbon Monoxide (CO)-Toxic invisible gas.
  • Nitrous Oxide (NOX)-Causes smog and acid rain.
  • Hydrocarbons (HC)-Causes Ozone Smog. Contributes to Benzene emissions, which are considered carcinogenic. Causes groundwater pollution.
  • Fine Particulates-Can cause respiratory illnesses, and worsens the condition of those suffering from them. Some particulates are also thought to be carcinogenic.
  • 3-Nitrobenzanthrones is released in this form, and is thought to be the most toxic substance known.

What are low-emission vehicles (LEV’s)?

Different tiers have been developed to categorize fuel efficiency in vehicles. In California, the categories are low-emission vehicle (LEV), ultra-low-emission vehicle (ULEV), super-ultra-low emission vehicle (SULEV), and zero-emission vehicle (ZEV) standards. For example, passenger cars and light-duty trucks certified to California’s low-emission vehicle standards provide the following emissions reductions when compared to the minimum (Tier 1) standard:

Passenger car emissions reductions HC CO NOx
Transitional Low-Emission Vehicle(TLEV) 50% NR NR
Low-Emission Vehicle (LEV) 70% NR 50%
Ultra-Low-Emission Vehicle (ULEV) 85% 50% 50%
Super-Ultra-Low-Emission Vehicle (SULEV) 96% 70% 95%
Zero-Emission Vehicles (ZEV) 100% 100% 100%

Many well-known and popular cars available today fall into these higher standards. For example, the Honda Accord and Civic GX, the Nissan Sentra CA, and the Toyota Prius are SULEV vehicles.
For a more complete listing of vehicles, see the California Air Resources Board web site at www.arb.ca.gov/msprog/ccbg/ccbg.htm

As technology advances, many more options are being developed as we move towards zero-emission vehicles. Promising options include Electric cars and hybrid cars, which are on the market today, and fuel-cell cars, which are projected to be available within the next two years.

Electric Cars

The principle of the electric car is simple: they contain huge rechargeable batteries which power an electric motor, and thus drive the car. Most can go from 50 to 100 miles on a single charge, and have no emissions except those created by the power plants producing the electricity (much fewer emissions than cars.) The best models have rapid acceleration (General Motors EV1’s performance measured at 60MPH in 9 seconds.) They also feature regenerative breaks, which produce electricity to power the engine every time you step on them.

Electric Cars–The down side:

  1. Not convenient for long trips (best application as a commuter car.)
  2. The batteries can take over an hour to charge.
  3. The batteries need to be replaced every so often. (The good news-these batteries should be recyclable much in the same way common household batteries are now. Go to RBRC.com for more information.)
  4. They are still relatively expensive, due to high production costs (e.g. the General Motors EV1 ranged from $33,000-44,000.)

Hybrid Cars

Adapting the efficiencies of the electric car motor, the hybrid car adds an internal combustion engine. This combination offers several advantages: optimized performance and emissions control through interaction of the powerplants, and retrieved energy through regenerative braking. Its biggest advantage is overcoming the biggest objection to the electric car-recharging. The hybrid car requires no recharging. The battery recharges itself through the action of the engine and the brakes. The interaction of the two power sources allows a highly efficient vehicle (up to 70 mpg) without the sacrificing performance and utility consumers expect as a standard. The two most popular cars are the Honda Insight and the Toyota Prius, both available now in the U.S. (They are competitively priced, and reasonably affordable.)

Hybrid Cars-The down side:

  1. Very low emission, but still utilizes some fossil fuels. Still, they are a highly affordable and environmentally-friendly option currently option available.
  2. The Toyota Prius has a 3 to 4 month waiting list. (The Honda Insight is more readily available.)
  3. Test drivers indicate that there is a small learning curve when driving the Insight, as you get used the engine shifting between the power plants. Beyond that , the car’s performance is very strong, and great for highway driving. The more popular Prius was designed to drive like a traditional vehicle, but gets slightly less MPG.

Fuel Cell Cars

Fuel-cells have no moving parts, which makes them very durable and efficient, and therefore perfectly suited for vehicle use. The cost and size of fuel-cells has been dramatically shrinking, and they are now viable for use in cars. The estimated cost for a fuel-cell engine (once mass production starts) is about that of an internal combustion engine. The long term costs of operating one should be far less, due to the lack of moving parts. Fuel-cell cars have all the advantages of electric cars, including excellent acceleration (similar to a V6,) with out the major disadvantage of limited range. Fuel-cells used in cars use hydrogen, which is the lightest and most abundant element in the universe. They combine hydrogen with oxygen on board to make their own electricity, and run the car’s electric motor. It’s only emission is clean water. Refueling with hydrogen will also be faster than recharging an electric car. This technology shows such promise that major automobile companies are investing billions of dollars in fuel-cell development. Most major car companies plan to have a fuel-cell vehicle available for sale by 2004. Toyota plans to market the first one in 2002.

Hydrogen Fuel-Cells ( the down side)

  1. Hydrogen is not readily available in its pure form. It will need to be extracted from fossil fuels, so while the operation of cars will be cleaner, there will still be emissions from the extraction process. The ultimate goal should be to split water into hydrogen and oxygen using solar power. Then, when the fuel-cell burns the hydrogen, clean water will be produced, completing the cycle.
  2. The initial costs of producing fuel-cells in enormous. This will quickly be overcome in mass production.
  3. The biggest concern will be the transition in the marketplace of having hydrogen pumps available in gas stations. However, consumer interest will drive demand for this technological change as long as gas prices remain high.
  4. There is a concern about the safety of Hydrogen due to flammability. Tests being performed for the U.S. Department of Energy have found that the technologies being tested for storing hydrogen in a fuel cell vehicle are actually SAFER than storage of gasoline.

If not in the market for a car, what can we do today to help reduce automobile emissions? Adopt greener driving habits. To maximize fuel economy, keep your car tuned up, tires correctly inflated, and fuel filters clean. Don’t leave your car idling unnecessarily, and avoid carrying unnecessary weight.

Walk, ride a bike, carpool, or take public transportation. If 1% of cars in America were left idle just one day a week, it is estimated that 42 million gallons of gas would be saved each year, and 840 pounds of CO2 would be kept out of the environment.