Four Fresh Wheels
from Jim Motavalli

  editor - E magazine


Sustainable Switzerland - Nov 13
The Pretty New Prius - Oct 23
Debating Points - Sep 25
Fuelish Thinking - July 31


Sustainable Switzerland
Fast trains, smart cars…and SUVs?

11.05.03 :: ZURICH, SWITZERLAND -- There is indeed excellent chocolate in Switzerland, also far too many SUVs. What’s that, sport-utility vehicles in one of the most sustainability-minded countries in the world, where gasoline costs as much as $4.50 a gallon? Unfortunately true, as lumbering Jeep Cherokees (European owned now) and Ford Explorers crowd the narrow Alpine paths.

You could argue that the Swiss need four-wheel-drive because of their snowy winters and high mountain passes, but any number of excellent small cars are for sale there with all-wheel-drive, traction control and other advanced features. The road system (which offers few motorways) is also extremely well maintained. It must be the swashbuckling SUV image, which won’t die no matter how many nails I attempt to drive into it.

But the Swiss transportation picture is otherwise unbelievably good. Alongside those big SUVs are fleets of tiny DaimlerChrysler Smart cars, which get 60 miles to the gallon, emit very small amounts of global warming gas from their 50-horsepower engines, and cost only $10,879. The Smart, pictured above right, brainchild of Switzerland’s Swatch company, would perhaps be a bit scary on the interstate, but it suits the Swiss just fine.

Local trams (which operate at six-minute intervals) crisscross all the major Swiss cities. The Swiss rail system is one of the most densely concentrated and efficient in the world. Arriving at the airport, I walked right downstairs and onto a train, which whisked me to the city center in 20 minutes. With some companions on a Location: Switzerland sustainable business tour, I journeyed to an out-of-the-way town in the Alps. Using our Swiss Passes (good for just about any form of public transportation), we changed trains twice and never waited more than five minutes on a platform. The trains were fast, clean and quiet.

Seventy percent of Zurich’s residents use buses and streetcars regularly. The city removed 10,000 of its 60,000 parking spaces in 1991 and declared several residential areas “auto free.” Street “blockades” are also going up to aid in the international art of “traffic calming.”

Switzerland also has the largest car-sharing network in the world, set up in 1987. Since launch, Mobility CarSharing (which offers members the chance to share everything from a van to a convertible) has doubled in size every two years and was nationwide by 1998, when there were 20,000 members, and 900 cars in use at 600 locations. The system is quite high tech, with drivers using electronic cards to access the cars 24 hours a day.

If you do take a car, be careful to observe the 74-mile-per-hour speed limit on highways, because drivers who break the law are subject to on-the-spot fines. Drunk driving can land you in prison.

One of the biggest transportation issues in Switzerland is the trucks that rumble through on their way to other European destinations. The Swiss would like to limit the traffic, and public sentiment swung sharply in that direction after 11 people were killed in a fiery collision between two trucks in the Gotthard tunnel between Switzerland and Italy.

Switzerland seems expensive to visitors, but possibly not to residents, because salaries are high. Executive secretaries make an average of $67,899. It’s not surprising that the World Economic Forum’s Environmental Sustainability Index places Switzerland at the top, ahead of France, the Netherlands, Ireland and the U.S. It’s a decidedly livable place, that’s actually serious about meeting its global warming commitments under the Kyoto Treaty. Our tour stopped at the energy-efficient headquarters of reinsurance firm Swiss Re, where workers enjoy subsidized organic fare in the cafeteria and free visits from masseurs.


The Pretty New Prius
For 2004, Toyota’s hybrid is larger, more fuel-efficient, and still $20,000

10.15.03 :: TARRYTOWN, NEW YORK -- If like me, you thought the first U.S.-spec Toyota Prius hybrid car was pretty neat, then you’ll love the second generation, which is not only larger, it’s also even more fuel-efficient and better styled. In fact, given the whole range of innovative options, this new Prius has to be the high-tech car of the decade.

Even if you’re not a green, you’ll find yourself playing with such gadgets as the all-new throttle-by-wire and shift-by-wire systems, enhanced stability control, regenerative antilock brakes, electric inverter air conditioning (no belts), and “smart” entry system (touch the door handle with the “key”--an electronic remote--in your pocket and the doors automatically open). Japanese customers get an automatic parking feature, but the west is apparently not ready for it yet.

There’s also an ultracool Bluetooth-enabled navigation system, which interacts with your similarly equipped cell phone. Say, “I’m hungry,” and the screen pops up available restaurants in the area, with contact information. It will even dial their numbers for you (though you have to make the reservations). You can make and answer hand-free calls using the car’s built-in speakers and the navigation screen’s keypad. Meanwhile, you’ll be monitoring what the Prius’ hybrid drive, climate control and audio system are up to through menus with more graphic capacity than \ital\USA Today\end ital\. This is a $19,995 car ($26,000 fully optioned) that feels like a $40,000 car.

The centerpiece of the Prius, of course, is its Hybrid Synergy Drive, which combines a 76-horsepower Atkinson Cycle 1.5-liter four-cylinder engine with a 50-kilowatt electric motor (up from 33 kilowatts), a more compact, 38 percent higher output battery pack, and a controller that captures a greater amount of regenerative braking energy.

According to Dave Hermance, an environmental engineer with the Toyota Technical Center, this results in a mid-sized liftback that achieves 60 miles per gallon on the highway, 51 mpg in town. Formerly a compact, the Prius now rivals the interior space of the Camry, and the rear hatch combined with fold-down rear seats make it outstandingly versatile.

The best way to evaluate a car’s environmental performance is to give it a “wells to wheels” analysis, meaning that you follow the energy path from generation to use in the car. An independent evaluation might come up with different results, but Toyota’s own work shows the Prius’ 29 percent overall efficiency as rivaling the best of the current fuel-cell prototypes. The Prius’ super-low emissions are 90 percent less than a conventional internal-combustion vehicle, allowing it to meet the coveted Advanced Technology Partial Zero Emission Vehicle standard in California.

And it’s a blast to drive. I traded the wheel on a fall tour of the Westchester countryside with Ira Flatow, executive producer of NPR’s “Science Friday,” and we agreed that it handled superbly well, barely revealing its hybrid technology. With its constant-velocity transmission, the car never downshifts, so there’s just steady power when you put your foot in it, and zero to 60 times of 10 seconds. The weird joystick shifter took some acclimatization.

The new Prius will be followed by hybrid versions of the Lexus RX330 and Toyota Highlander SUVs. Nissan will also field a hybrid Altima using Toyota’s licensed technology. According to Prius’ marketing manager, Ernest Bastien, the company will produce 36,000 of the cars for the U.S. market in 2004, and about the same number for Japan. Given the 10,000 advance orders for this extraordinary car, expect them to sell out.

\bold\And Bear in Mind:\end bold\ The feds have released a study concluding that reducing vehicle weight can cause a greater number of fatalities, but the heaviest “Hummer-sized” vehicles also need to shed some poundage. I’ll have more to say about this later.


Debating Points
Are small, fuel-efficient cars unsafe, or essential for planetary health?

09.17.03 :: I spent time in New Orleans last week, heading a panel on vehicle emissions at the annual Society of Environmental Journalists (SEJ) conference. In addition to myself as moderator, it included a Toyota spokesman, a qualified mechanical engineer from the Environmental Defense green group, and an SUV-loving, small car-hating lawyer from the right-wing Competitive Enterprise Institute.

We agreed to disagree on many topics. John DeCicco, the man from Environmental Defense, is a contrarian on some green issues. He’s not sure we’ll ever be driving the bright, shiny zero-pollution fuel-cell cars that both the greens and the Bush administration see on the horizon. We still have to figure out how to get fuel cells to perform reliably under the hood of a car at a reasonable cost, conquer range issues, solve huge hydrogen infrastructure problems, settle on standardized methods of production, address manufacturability, and a whole lot more.

Dr. DeCicco says that instead of relying on fuel cells to solve all our problems, we should be addressing fuel economy issues right now, and making personal sacrifices for the good of the planet. If that means driving a small car incapable of hauling 10 kids and a large boat, so be it.

And he also wants you to know that carmakers’ fleets impose huge “carbon burdens” in their release of global warming gas. General Motors, his research shows, is the industry leader, producing 6.7 million metric tons per year, followed closely by Ford, with 5.6 million tons. In third place is DaimlerChrysler, with 4.1 million tons. The surprise of the report is that green-thinking Toyota is in fourth place, producing two million metric tons of carbon annually. DeCicco’s report says that Toyota’s carbon burden grew 72 percent since 1990, compared to 33 percent growth for the market as a whole.

Carmakers, says DeCicco, an ED senior fellow, “have put their design and marketing talents into anything but addressing their products’ harm to the planet and liability for oil dependence.”

The Toyota guy, environmental engineer Dave Hermance, took some exception to DeCicco’s analysis. Armed with a Power Point rebuttal, he claimed that DeCicco’s analysis was simply based on absolute increases in carbon emissions, and that a relative analysis of the carbon burden put his company in fifth place, ahead of Nissan but behind Honda.

A Union of Concerned Scientists report was friendlier to Toyota, putting it 10 percent below the big six manufacturers, and crediting it as “the only company whose greenhouse gas emissions dropped from 2000 to 2001,” a noteworthy achievement considering its shift to producing more trucks.

As for Sam Kazman and the Competitive Enterprise Institute, well, he sees no bad SUVs, only bad environmentalists who would take them away from consumers. He particularly decries the Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) law that imposes penalties on carmakers whose fleets guzzle too much gas. “CAFE kills people by forcing manufacturers to make vehicles smaller and therefore less crashworthy than they otherwise would be,” he said. Arming your family with larger and (in his view, safer) SUVs is only common sense, he believes.

But it is equally commonsensical to point out that large SUVs are a menace to everything else on the road, and that Keith Bradsher’s High and Mighty shows them to be no safer than cars for their own occupants.

This whole debate was proceeding against a heartening development in California. The very regulation decried by Kazman has produced whole fleets of super-clean partial zero-emission (PZEV) vehicles on state roads. These editions of the Honda Accord, Ford Focus, Toyota Camry and other cars offer both drastically reduced emissions and excellent fuel economy, at a cost estimated at $200 to $500 per car. Some of them will soon go national, giving consumers the best of both worlds.


Fuelish Thinking
Gas today costs less than bottled water

7.23.03 :: According to the American Automobile Association, the total cost of owning a typical car has more than doubled since 1980, from $3,176 to $7,533. Even taking inflation into account, that’s a big hike, from 21.2 cents per mile to 50.2 cents.

But as an analysis posted on MSN Money points out, most of that increase was due to astronomical insurance rates and depreciation. Gas and oil costs didn’t rise at all, in real or adjusted terms. Fuel cost 5.9 cents a mile in 1980, and the exact same amount in 2002. Yes, fuel prices rose, but they were offset by the gain in automotive fuel economy from the early 1980s to the early 1990s. (We’ve been going backwards more recently.) Gasoline has actually gone \ital\down\end ital\ as a percentage of your total auto costs since 1980 (27.9 percent then, 11.8 percent now).

It gets better (or worse, depending on your perspective.) In 1981, the average cost of a gallon of unleaded regular in the United States was $1.38, according to the American Petroleum Institute. In today’s dollars, that $1.38 equals $2.53, but what do consumers actually pay? The national average for unleaded regular is around $1.50, so gasoline is a relative bargain today, with prices comparable to 1970. Bottled water costs more!

Other costs are definitely up. Maintenance costs rose five percent between 1980 and today, tires 4.1 percent. But gas, well, it’s not surprising that people don’t complain too much about how expensive it is.

Despite all this, I’m still going to recommend you buy a fuel-efficient car. Why? Because it’s the right thing to do, not only for your wallet but for the environment as well. Fuel-efficient vehicles lower our dependence on foreign oil (a major factor propelling us into war in the Middle East), and they also tend to be good on emissions.

If you want to buy American, support our troops (by helping bring them home) and protect our country’s future, do I have the car for you! The 2003 Ford Focus PZEV has achieved California’s strict certification as a partial zero-emissions vehicle, even though, unlike the Honda Civic Hybrid and Toyota Prius, it is solely powered by a gasoline engine. The feat was achieved by moving the catalytic converters closer to the exhaust manifold, allowing quicker warm-up times, and improved recirculation of exhaust gas to ensure more complete combustion. “It emits fewer smog-causing hydrocarbons per day than a small pine tree,” claims Electrifying Times.

The PZEV powertrain, built around a fuel-efficient 2.3-liter, four-cylinder engine, is standard in all Focus cars sold in California, New York, Vermont and Massachusetts this year, and it will go national in 2004. Focus cars begin at $12,820. Fuel-economy specifications for the PZEV model are not yet available, but the standard car with a 110-horsepower engine can achieve 36 mpg on the highway.

I spent a week in the PZEV recently and it fulfilled all of my automotive needs, even some of my fantasies. Weighing just 2,600 pounds, it’s far more fun to drive than the lumbering Volkswagen Touareg I had the week before, has nifty leather seats and a whompin’ stereo. The Focus is handsome in a very modern way, but it’s also practical: There’s room for four, plus luggage, and great visibility all around.

In seven days of regular use, I used up only a half tank of fuel. But who cares, right? The Middle East may have two thirds of the world’s oil reserves, but in America, in 2003, we’ve got gas to burn.

© Copyright Jim Motavalli

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