Automakers Accelerate Green Future

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Automakers Accelerate Green Future

In the May 7, 2007, issue of Convenience Store News, I presented a first-hand look at the latest production and concept cars sporting alternative-fuel technologies and earth-friendly features showcased at the 2007 New York International Auto Show. Among the most interesting and unique models were the Lincoln MKR, a sedan with soy-based seat foam, and the Chevy Volt, a hybrid, plug-in car that can run solely on electricity for up to 40 miles. I concluded then that alternative- fuel vehicles would quickly become mainstream.

My annual pilgrimage to the auto show, held March 22-30, 2008, at the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center in New York, has always been a rewarding experience -- I sit in cars I will never be able to afford; happily shop for cars I can afford, minus the pesky salespeople; and let's not forget, pay $8 for a soda and a hot dog from an opportunistic street vendor.

This year was no different; however, I set out with a goal -- to find out what strategies automakers will use to comply with the new Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards going into effect in 2020, which were adopted with the passage of the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007. The standards call for an average fleet fuel economy of 35 miles per gallon (mpg).

While 2020 is still a long time away, automakers are already gearing up for higher fuel economy standards, with numerous models boasting improved mpgs available as early as this year. Many of the new models do not rely solely on petroleum-based fuels -- effectively reducing consumers' pain at the pump and limiting trips to gas retailers -- a threat to c-store profits indeed, I think.

One such vehicle is the 2008 Honda Civic GX NGV, a vehicle I believe was one of the most realistic and innovative gasoline-free displays at the show. On the outside, it looks like any other Civic on the road today. But underneath the paint, a unique fuel system eliminates consumers' gasoline usage and provides nearly zero emissions. How? Through a natural-gas powered engine and a FuelMaker's Phill refueling station in the owner's garage. The fueling system hooks up to existing natural gas lines and can refuel cars overnight. With a full tank, drivers can travel more than 250 miles before refueling, a gasoline equivalent of 24 mpg city/36 mpg highway.

The Civic also comes in a hybrid version, utilizing both electric and gasoline powerhouses to attain upwards of 40 mpg. No worries there about reaching the new CAFE standards. Later, the advantages of a hybrid become personal, when I use Honda's online savings calculator to compare the mileage of this hybrid to my Volkswagen Jetta. During the five years I will pay off my current car's financing, at an average fuel price of $3 a gallon, I could be saving nearly $2,500 -- the equivalent of a nice vacation, I sadly conclude.

Nearby, garnering much attention from the crowd is another Honda displaying what today holds for hydrogen-powered cars. Called the FCX Clarity, the burgundy-colored sedan is powered through fuel cell technology, and is closer to becoming a reality than most other vehicles powered by hydrogen here -- it will be available in southern California this summer, costing $600 per month for a three-year lease. While the price seems steep, all maintenance and service will be paid by Honda.

While not immediately available, the concept Lincoln MKT, which combines fuel efficiency and earth-friendliness into a sleek sedan, showcases what the short-term future can hold for a gasoline-dependent nation. The new concept car is lighter -- allowing it to use less fuel -- and features "upcycled" materials, which was explained by a brand representative as being better than recycling because it chemically changes materials.

Small is the New Big
Instead of using alternative fuels to increase mpgs and lessen gasoline use, some carmakers are improving fuel economies by taking cues from Europe and rolling out petite vehicles with pint-sized and efficient engines.

Ford is taking a small step toward small cars in the U.S. with its Verve concept. Equipped with a 4-cylinder engine, the sporty looking four-door is based on the automaker's European cars, and is the foundation for a small-car design coming to America in 2010. Maybe it's the American auto design, but to me it doesn't look small, or anything like the typical boxy European style.

Speaking of Euro design, Mercedes-Benz' Smart USA brand -- a joint venture created in the 1990s between Mercedes and watchmaker Swatch -- is making its debut in America this year with three styles of the Fortwo coupe. Looking at the tiny sub-compact, it reminds me of a smiling rabbit.

The car is powered by a 3-cylinder, 1-liter engine for 70 horsepower and max speed of 90 miles per hour -- which equates to a car I would never be able to drive in the left lane of a highway. However, the 40 highway mpg that the Fortwo doles out is respectable, even attractive if you can get past the dual-colored exterior and the required 91 octane fuel.

If the boxy Smart Fortwo looks like a rabbit, Mitsubishi's minicar looks like a streamlined bug (of the insect variety, not the iconic Volkswagen). The concepts come in three flavors -- i, i MiEV and i MiEV Sport -- all with different engines. The gasoline i model provides 64 horses -- virtually a go-cart with cupholders -- while its i MiEV Sport electric model is powered by three motors and generates "fuel" through solar panels on the roof and wind turbines in the front grille.

Big Goes Green
If Americans have a love for automobiles, they certainly have a lust for SUVs. One automaker is satisfying that desire while also relieving pain at the pump for owners of notorious "gas guzzlers."

Chevrolet is rolling out a hybrid version of its full-size Tahoe this year, which is capable of reaching 21 city mpg, a positive step from the 14 mpg seen in the non-hybrid model. The vehicle achieves increased fuel economies through two electric motors and fuel management technology that shuts off four of its eight cylinders when not needed. But bypassing the gas pump more often will cost consumers a pretty penny -- the vehicle costs more than $50,000 -- about $15,000 more than the base model.

In the future, for those who want to be green and can spend some green, the concept Cadillac Provoq SUV is sure to please. The automaker claims the fuel-cell and battery-powered luxury vehicle can travel 300 miles on a fill-up, and comes with a solar panel roof to power interior accessories, along with a 0-60 acceleration of 8.5 seconds -- all while boasting zero carbon emissions.

So SUVs can be green.

As record gas prices continue and the availability of alternative-fuel vehicles increases, some c-store operators are going to be in danger sooner than expected.

If today's consumers lessen fuel costs by embracing automakers' fuel efficient vehicles, they will become less dependant on the gas pump and the c-store beside it. This should serve as a warning to retailers to find innovative ways now, rather than tomorrow, to secure traffic drivers beyond the pump.