As the internal combustion engine sputters into the 21st century choked by the rising cost of gasoline, public attention is turning, however, fitfully, towards alternatives to the old-fashioned gasoline powered buggy.
Automakers are looking to Washington for help in dealing with rising fuel costs but the alternatives to gasoline engines are pretty widely known and already in use in other parts of the world.
Readily available alternatives to the gas-powered engine include diesel, biodiesel, E85 and even such exotic-sounding solutions as coal and oil shale. Hydrogen is drifting out there somewhere.
Not Your Father's Diesel
Because diesel engines can produce excellent fuel efficiency, diesel technology is at the top of the list for many companies and developers as they scramble to come up with technology that meets clean air standards while producing exceptional mileage.
In Europe, diesel engines have long been highly rated and valued by automotive consumers but the technology gets low marks with the same type of consumers in the U.S.
Once a stepchild in the automotive industry as well as with consumers, diesel technology is emerging from the dungeon but the industry still must transform diesel's image from that of a grimy, smelly mess if diesel is to become a serious contender for the future.
Nevertheless, today's diesel engines provide as much as 40 percent better fuel economy and offer more torque at lower RPM when compared to their gasoline counterparts. The engines can be substantially less harmful to the environment if cleaner fuel and improved engine technologies are used.
At least one group of diesel engine and truck manufacturers say they are ready to meet new, cleaner emissions standards starting in January.
In a recent gathering hosted by the Diesel Technology Council, the manufacturers displayed their next generation of cleaner-burning trucks. They used white handkerchiefs to demonstrate that the exhaust from diesel trucks contains no smoke or visible soot.
Combined with existing hybrid technology, clean-burning diesel power could help in the effort to slow global warming as well as carry lots of folks to the grocery store and beyond.
While some automakers don't have plans to offer diesels in light-duty passenger vehicles just yet, all of the major manufacturers are taking a long and hard look at diesel technology.
Diesel power would reduce U.S. dependence on foreign oil and of all the types of internal-combustion engines, diesels remain the most powerful and efficient.
One gallon of diesel fuel can make more power than the same amount of gasoline. As a demonstration of the power and performance of a diesel engine, a diesel-powered Audi sports car won the 24-hour endurance race this year at Daytona International Speedway.
But much like hybrids, diesels require automakers to develop and implement more sophisticated technology to achieve a price that consumers are willing to pay.
Biodiesel and E85
Biodiesel is an alternative fuel for the diesel engine and is high on the list of choices by environmentalists. It's more environmentally friendly than conventional diesel fuel and helps reduce pollutants and engine wear, according to proponents.
Biodiesel fuel is a "drop-in replacement," meaning any diesel engine can use it without modification.
In California, Pacific Biofuel is delivering biodiesel to the greater central coast as it offers a high-quality, clean fuel made from vegetable crops grown on U.S. farms.
The biodiesel can be used as a pure 100% fuel or mixed in any ratio with petroleum diesel.
Pacific Biofuel claims greater engine longevity and improved performance with the use of its biodiesel fuel. The company says that everything in its biofuel comes from "Mother Earth." (Of course, petroleum does too but let's not quibble).
E85 is an alternative to gasoline and is comprised of 85 percent ethanol and 15 percent gasoline. There are some vehicles on the market now or already manufactured that are capable of burning E85.
They are called flexfuel vehicles and were manufactured in part to help automakers comply with U.S. fuel mileage standards. The 2003 Ford Explorer is an example of a flexfuel vehicle.
The trouble is, E85 is hard to find.
The government provides tax breaks to filling stations willing to offer E85 in the form of federal income tax credit for the installation of E85 fueling systems. So far, not a lot of stations are signing up for E85. The tax credit was part of the 2005 Energy Policy Act and provides a 30% federal income tax credit, up to $30,000 per property, to install alternative fuel dispensing systems.
Besides being hard to find, E85 is less powerful per gallon than gasoline. More E85 will be required to cover the same distance traveled with a tank full of gasoline and you will have to fill up more often.
Many automotive dreamers are looking at hydrogen technology as the yellow brick road into the 21st century for the automotive industry.
They see a global hydrogen economy as a new structure in which hydrogen is a realistic alternative to the world's present wide-scale use of hydrocarbon fuels.
A green hydrogen car might achieve 99 miles per gallon emission-free. Imagine that. Sound too good to be true? Unfortunately, it is, at least right now.
A handful of automakers are designing hydrogen-powered cars. The trouble is, they have not made much headway over the last five years.
In this summer of our internal combustion discontent, for only a moment let's follow the dreamers' path and imagine cars that run on hydrogen, the most abundant element in our universe.
Hydrogen burns twice as efficiently in a fuel cell as gasoline does in an engine, and produces a single waste product, water.
Hydrogen cars would make the country less dependent on fossil fuels coming from the Middle East and reduce atmospheric carbon dioxide and global warming and other environmental problems.
This is pleasant indeed to contemplate, but hydrogen technology costs a lot of money. Gasoline-powered motors are still easier on the wallet than hydrogen fuel cells and right now, according to the U.S. Department of Energy, the cost of hydrogen fuel is 100 times too high for hydrogen cars to have any impact in the market place.
So the dream may be just that for now. While you pour another few bucks into the ExxonMobil or BP Amoco pot of profits, just remember that a trip in a hydrogen car is probably not too far away -- maybe 10 years or so up the yellow brick path.