Jim Motavalli's Wheels

Hijacking Hydrogen
War Jitters
The Myth of SUV Safety
That New Car Smell

Hijacking Hydrogen
Bush dangles an emission-free future, just out of reach

1.29.03  - President Bush was born again as an environmentalist during his State of the Union address, promising to “dramatically” improve our planet’s faltering health. Never mind that his “Healthy Forests Initiative” is a prescription to cut down more trees, or that his “Clear Skies” legislation guts the Clean Air Act and is essentially a giveaway to his friends in the energy business.

The speech’s environmental centerpiece was clearly the proposed $1.2 billion in funding for hydrogen-powered cars. Even Howard Stern was talking about it. “With a new national commitment, our scientists and engineers will overcome obstacles to taking these cars from laboratory to showroom so that the first car driven by a child born today could be powered by hydrogen and pollution-free,” Bush said. Of course, the commitment is not “new”--it’s simply an extension of the Clinton-era Partnership for a New Generation of Vehicles, which also contained hydrogen funding.

Bush’s speech was eloquent for what it left out. He didn’t mention federal incentives for gas-electric hybrid cars (so far produced by Japanese companies only) and said nothing at all about reforms to federal fuel economy standards. Instead, he has proposed tax incentives for the largest sport-utility vehicles, which would be a considerable setback for fuel economy. And he kept fuel-cell cars safely in the distant future, as a technology to be enjoyed “by a child born today.”

That strategy plays right into Detroit’s hands. “The auto industry is brandishing the promise of future fuel cells as a shield against using existing technology to dramatically cut our oil dependence and pollution today,” says Dan Becker of the Sierra Club. “We can’t afford for a single year to slack off on efforts to curb our appetite for energy,” adds energy analyst Therese Langer.

Further, there’s the likelihood that the Bush administration will try to use hydrogen as a back-door way to revive the ailing nuclear power industry. At the annual meeting of the World Nuclear Association in London last September, the group’s director general, John Ritch, touted what he called the “hydrogen-nuclear economy.” Speaking at the International Youth Nuclear Congress in South Korea last April, Dr. Leon Walters, former director of engineering at Argonne National Laboratory, estimated that nuclear power--now just seven percent of U.S. power production--could leap to 50 percent if it were harnessed to produce hydrogen for transportation. L.M. Wagner of Boeing says that hydrogen could be profitably produced in off-peak hours from fusion reactors (unfortunately, fusion reactors don’t exist yet).

Speaking anonymously, a high-ranking official in the Department of Energy’s Office of Hydrogen, Fuel Cells and Infrastructure Technologies says that many DOE scientists had concluded that nuclear generation of hydrogen “is the way to go.” Let’s keep a close watch on “George Bush, environmentalist.”

War Jitters
Will nerves and expensive gasoline put Americans into fuel-efficient cars? 

2.19.03 - Because of war fears and higher gasoline prices, drivers are postponing new car purchases as much as four months, reports CNW Market Research. The firm adds that even though gas is hitting $1.75 a gallon in some places (I just paid more than $2 for a gallon of premium), that's not enough to convince consumers to switch to a more fuel-efficient car.

The magic number, says the firm, is $2.25 a gallon, and it has to stay that way for at least six months. Disruption of supplies during a Middle East war would definitely cause that kind of prolonged price rise. Meanwhile, reports the Wall Street Journal, pre-war jitters alone mean that consumers will "most likely shelve plans to buy large sport-utility vehicles until gas prices come down."

OK, let me get this straight. We're going to war to protect the oil supplies, but fear of that war is likely to send motorists into small cars, meaning we won't need all the extra oil that justified the war? Or something like that.

Last week the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy (ACEEE) released its 2003 Green Book that serves as a consumer guide for environmentally correct cars. There's also a list of the "greenest" and "meanest" cars for the year. (Highlights of the book are available online at www.greenercars.org). 

Jim Kleisch, ACEEE's research associate and a co-writer of the guide, says, "We hope consumers will use the book to make sound environmentally conscious decisions, and we further hope that will convince the automakers to offer greener choices."

The "meanest" cars for 2003--even worse than any SUVs--are the Ferrari E nzo and the Lamborghini L-147 Murcielago, both V-12s that get eight or nine mpg in city driving. They're also, of course, the cars the car magazines go nuts over every month, presenting them as normal transportation. The only thing keeping them out of the hands of the average Main Street cruiser is their astronomical price.

So what's best? How about the Honda and Toyota hybrid cars? It's a shame for Detroit, but 18 of the Top 20 greenest vehicles for 2003 are Japanese made. (The Ford Focus and Focus wagon also make the ACEEE list, barely.) As it happens, I'm driving a Honda Civic hybrid this week and for the life of me I can't see why it isn't in every garage in America. It's quiet, practical, versatile and no great hardship to own. No, you don't have to "plug it in." Ever!

The $21,000, 2,700-pound Honda Civic hybrid gets 47/48 gas mileage with a continuously variable automatic transmission, not quite as good as the 70-mpg two-seat Insight, but still excellent. In California, it yields super-ultra-low emissions because of the availability there of low-sulfur fuel; the rest of us get an ultra-low version. So be ahead of the pack: buy a hybrid while they're still available, before the war sends fuel prices zooming up.

The Myth of SUV Safety
Keith Bradsher reports the hard facts
High and Mighty is well-researched and utterly damning.

1.23.03 - “I bought an SUV because they’re safer.” “I like to sit up high.” “I need four-wheel-drive to get through the snow in the winter.” “I hate minivans because of the image--people would think I was a ‘soccer mom.’” “I have dogs.” How many times have you heard these justifications for buying a sport-utility vehicle? Keith Bradsher’s excellent new book High and Mighty: The World’s Most Dangerous Vehicles and How They Got That Way (Public Affairs, $28) demolishes these points one-by-one and convincingly demonstrates that these lumbering gas-guzzlers are a menace not only to the planet but to the safety of everyone who comes near them (including their occupants).

Bradsher’s book couldn’t come at a better time. “After years of steadily gaining market share, the SUV can finally be crowned king of the American road,” said analyst Lonnie Miller last year, pointing out that sport-utilities had become the most popular vehicle among women buyers (they gained that distinction with men in 2000). Four million SUVs were sold in 2002, with projected growth to 4.2 million by 2007.

Among the many revelations in Bradsher’s book, this one stands out: SUVs arenot safer than cars. “SUV occupants die slightly more often than car occupants in crashes,” he writes. “The occupant death rate in crashes per million SUVs on the road is six percent higher than the death rate per million cars.” Further, SUV rollovers kill a thousand people a year who would not otherwise have died, and added air pollution caused by these vehicles is estimated to kill another 1,000 from respiratory ailments. 

What’s more, SUVs are \ital\not\end ital\ particularly good in snow. (The four-wheel-drive is really only useful in accelerating without slipping, but it’s of no use at all in emergency stops, when it’s disengaged.) “I don’t consider four-wheel drive as a safety feature or as a safety-beneficial technology,” says Volvo safety engineer Christer Gustafsson. And SUVs have terrible brakes for the most part, with long stopping distances that makes them poor performers in accident avoidance. Read my lips: Four-wheel drive is no help in braking. Another myth is that sitting up high makes you safer. Tall cars roll over more, and they also impede the view of drivers around you.

Don’t want to listen to me or Keith Bradsher about SUV safety? Jeffrey Runge, a Bush appointee as head of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, recently excoriated automakers at an industry conference for not making these road hogs safer. He said he wouldn’t allow his family to ride in an SUV “if they were the last vehicles on Earth.

The “I need the space” argument also fails because SUVs provide no more seating room than mid-sized or large cars, and access and versatility are both bad. If you want space, buy a minivan. If the environment matters to you at all, be aware that big SUVs are allowed to emit up to 1.1 grams per mile of smog-producing nitrogen oxides, compared to 0.2 grams for cars. The history of SUVs avoiding environmental regulation, fully detailed by Bradsher, will make you cry. And now, to make things worse, the Bush administration is proposing dramatic new tax write-offs for the largest SUVs. Where once first-year deductions were limited to $25,000, now they would soar to $75,000, allowing businesses to write off the entire cost of huge Hummers and Ford Excursions.

You don’t need an SUV! Want something safe and versatile that’s not a minivan? Consider the 26-mile-per-gallon Subaru Outback H6 3.0 VDC, a wagon with both four-wheel drive and a great technology called Vehicle Dynamics Control that helps to ensure stability--and keep the car in a straight line--under extreme conditions. I’m driving one this week and I’ve never felt safer. The McIntosh stereo is pretty cool, too.

That New Car Smell
A new study shows that what's perfume to some is poison to others
Dr. Steve Brown tests new car smell. (CSIRO Photo - not included)

12.27.01 - I drive approximately 52 new cars a year, and every one of them has "that new car smell." Sounds good, right? That odor is so intoxicating that a company called International Flavors and Fragrances, which also provides aromatic "cues" to such products as Downey Fabric Softener and Irish Spring soap, has developed an aerosol-based spray, "Evolution," that mimics it.

What does it smell like, exactly? Money? For the first six months of the car's life, waves of this unique aroma--a combination of natural plant resins, animal esters and sexual steroids--waft through the car's interior and remind us that we're affluent enough to afford a new car. Then it fades, and the dangling air freshener does a poor job of reproducing the same scent.

Writing to the "Car Talk" guys, Susan Sprecher notes that new plastic shower curtains give off an excellent facsimile of new car smell. "May I suggest that people save themselves from a very expensive form of chemical dependency by carrying a little piece of new shower curtain in their pockets?" she volunteers.

People think I'm very lucky to drive all these new cars, but I get headaches when I drive sometimes. And now I think I know why. A new study by the Australian government research branch, CSIRO, reveals that new car smell may be hazardous to your health. CSIRO's Dr. Steve Brown says, "Just as air inside our homes and workplaces is often much more polluted than the air outside, so sitting in a new car can expose you to levels of toxic emissions many times [safe levels]."

According to an account of the study published by Environmental News Network, some motorists, especially the chemically sensitive, have reported various types of discomfort in new cars. These range from feeling drowsy to eye or throat irritation, headaches and just feeling "spaced out."

Two Australian-made cars were tested and found to have 64,000 micrograms per cubic meter of volatile organic compounds (VOCs), a dangerous level that decreased 60 percent after the first month. The Australian indoor air goal is 500 micrograms per cubic meter. David Lang of the Australian Automobile Association says the study shows the need "for further study on motorists to identify any effects that may impair driving."

An earlier study of a 1995 Lincoln Continental found 50 different VOCs. The research suggested that they were emanating from a combination of lubricants, solvents, adhesives, gasoline and plastics.

We now know that it's the plastic that are basically the problem. According to Dr. David Ozonoff, chair of the department of environmental health at Boston University, "new car smell" is caused by chemical phthalates released by the plastic. More than half of the plastic in new cars is in the interior, replacing such traditional materials as cloth, leather, metal and wood. Among the chemicals "offgassing" from this plastic are benzene (a known carcinogen); acetone (a nose irritant); cyclohexanone (a possible carcinogen); xylene isomers (toxic to developing babies); and ethylbenzene (a "systematic toxic agent").

Jeff Gearhart of the Michigan-based Clean Car Campaign says the new findings support the group's call for a phaseout of polyvinyl chloride (PVC) plastic in car interiors. "What you're seeing and what they're testing is outgassing from the vinyl, also sealers and adhesives, sound-deadening materials and trim components," he says. General Motors and Volvo have both responded to the call with PVC reductions and phaseouts.

It's long been known that indoor air is four times worse than outdoor air, but few knew that our cars were extensions of our chemical-dosed homes. The low-tech solution to new car smell-related problems is to open a window, though that may be somewhat impractical in these winter months. Motorists may also be reluctant to take any steps that eliminate this intoxicating scent, which was part of the reason they bought a new car in the first place.

Jim Motavalli
E/The Environmental Magazine
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