- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 15, 2003

Tomorrow is getting closer all the time, particularly when it comes to automobiles. As the industry — spurred by economic concerns, environmentalists and the public in general — looks toward the eventual phase-out of internal combustion engines, various technologies are being investigated as alternatives.

Among the leaders are hydrogen fuel cells, gas-electric hybrids and clean diesel engines, but all ideas are open for consideration.

In the past week, the District has been the focal point of a number of organizations in their efforts to show the world what’s available now and what’s coming in the future.

The Great American Green Transportation Festival Tour de Sol came into town Wednesday, showing off vehicles powered by alternative fuels (hydrogen, methanol, natural gas, propane, biodiesel, used vegetable oil, batteries and solar power).

The Tour de Sol is sponsored by the Northeast Sustainable Energy Association (NESEA), a nonprofit organization that promotes responsible energy use for a stronger economy and cleaner environment.

The purpose of the Tour de Sol is to demonstrate to the public that there are choices that can be made in today’s vehicles that are environmentally friendly, less expensive to operate and less dependent on foreign oil.

According to NESEA Director Nancy Hazard, “If all Americans reduced their use of gasoline by just 10 percent, it would move the nation decisively in the direction of a more secure future, a healthier economy and a cleaner environment.”

On hand at the Tour de Sol exhibit on the Mall were demonstration vehicles from GM, DaimlerChrysler, Toyota, Geo and Honda. Production hybrid or all-electric vehicles on display included the Toyota Prius, Honda Insight and Heibao EV (China-Canada).

Of particular note were the “homemade” vehicles, either the products of individuals, research labs or universities.

• The Veginator car, designed by Trenton, N.J., high school students, used cooking oil salvaged from the school cafeteria.

• The SunPacer solar-powered electric car returned for the 11th year to the Tour de Sol.

• A motorcycle (actually, a cycle) called the Electric Hog uses lithium-ion batteries and an AC motor for power and performance. A sidecar houses a small biodiesel generator to extend range for long trips. Designer Carl Vogel drives the Hog anywhere, any time.

Master of Ceremonies Dennis Weaver (“Gunsmoke,” “McCloud” TV series) was on hand to tell about his efforts to promote an environmentally responsible society. His Institute of Ecolonomics sponsors the Drive to Survive educational tour to bring public awareness to environmental and security concerns about the continued use of fossil fuels.

Mr. Weaver has long been a proponent of a hydrogen-based energy supply.

Last week General Motors brought its Technology Tour to town to demonstrate what the world’s largest automobile company is doing. What they showed was impressive:

Available today:

• VTI variable transmissions, in which the gears have been replaced by two pulleys and a steel drive belt for [practically] infinite gear ratios. GM claims 7 percent to 11 percent better fuel economy with the transmissions, currently available in Saturn models.

• Flexible fuel vehicles that use either compressed natural gas or ethanol, or a combination of both. Various 2003 GM vehicles are offered in this configuration including Chevy Express, GM Savannah, Chevy Tahoe and Suburban, GMC Yukon and Yukon XL and Chevy Silverado and GMC Sierra, and Cavalier.

Coming soon:

• In 2005 the Saturn VUE hybrid will be available, featuring 40 miles per gallon with no loss of performance.

• Chevrolet Equinox vehicles will use gas-electric hybrid drivetrains that yield 15 percent higher fuel economy. Chevy Malibu will offer the same system for 2007.

• Displacement-on-demand engine configurations will be available in GM pickups and full-size SUVs in 2007, with phase-in on pickups sold for fleet use later this year and for retail customers in 2004. Fuel-mileage increases of as much as 20 percent are expected.

And beyond:

• GM recognizes the importance of fuel cell drivetrains for the future. These drivetrains will use hydrogen as an energy source in the fuel cells, in which an electrochemical reaction creates electricity to power an electric motor, and water as the only “waste” material. GM has as its goal to be selling one million fuel cell vehicles a year beyond 2010.

• GM introduced several of its fuel-cell prototype vehicles, the HydroGen3 and the futuristic Hy-wire. Driving the HydroGen3 is very much like driving any other production vehicle, with the exception that it is quiet — no engine noise. Driving the Hy-wire requires a little adjustment, because the entire vehicle is a drive-by-wire system without conventional controls. It’s the future and it’s fun.

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