January 27, 2012

New car smell: good, bad or ugly?

Ah, the smell of a new car! It is the smell of success, an inextricable part of America's love affair with the automobile, the scent of a three-ton version of Proust's madeleine. But as we're finding out about the chemical origins and the biological consequences of that new-car smell, many of us are moving from "How do I preserve it?" to "How do I get away from it?"

Not much is being said or written about the dangers of toxins in car interiors, but it will come, as increasingly the chemicals used in the manufacture of car interiors are implicated in a wide spectrum of health problems, ranging from eye irritation to endocrine disruption and cancer.

Some of us are already in the process of de-toxing our homes, our food, our personal care products. So in a way, the car is the obvious next step. And I am sorry to bring bad tidings, but it's a nightmare in there.

If you haven't heard this news before, at this point I advise you to get a nice cup of tea, a glass of green juice, a stiff drink, a very deep breath, or whatever you lean on to steady your nerves, because the news is, frankly, unnerving. But if you read through the bad news, I promise a list of measures with which to fight the toxic onslaught.

I suppose it is, in principle, possible to ask a carpenter to fashion you a dashboard for your car out of maple wood, with a walnut oil finish. You could use untreated wool felt for the skirt around your shift stick. You could have the seats stuffed with organic cotton like the stuffing of your futons, and you could upholster them with low-impact leather. You would have to sign a thousand waivers promising not to sue anyone if any of that stuff catches fire. But your car would be chemically safe. And it would cost more than your house.


Toxins in your tin can

Mass-produced cars of the 21st century are affordable (and smell of new car) because most of their interior is made of plastic. Unfortunately, most of that plastic off-gas phthalates, a plastic softener that has been linked to birth defects and hormonal disturbances. The upholstery is treated with flame retardants, usually some polybrominated diphenyl ether (PBDE), known to cause problems in brain development and possibly liver poisoning. For good measure, there is also an alphabet soup of heavy metals and halogens in the brew.

A good primer on these man-made toxins that have become endemic in our environment is What's gotten into us?: Staying healthy in a toxic world by McKay Jenkins. And The Non-Toxic Avenger: what you don't know can hurt you by Deanna Duke is a courageous personal account of one family's examining the consequences of exposure to the toxins we encounter in modern life - and fighting back. Also, there is a study of the environmental safety of car interiors by the Ecology Center, Toxic At Any Speed (2006).

In its daily doings, your car collects all sorts of garbage, and I'm not talking about the wrappers of granola bars our children leave on the back seat. Brake pads used to be made of asbestos, a miracle material from a previous age. Those are phased out and replaced by newer materials, as yet unproven for health safety. All wear out, so you're leaving a trail of brake pad particles wherever you go. Unavoidably, some of those make it into the car, together with the other toxins. Flame retardants are now apparently endemic in our soil, which gets trailed in on our shoes (and other items of clothing, depending on how much of mud-bunnies your children are).

"L'enfer, c'est les autres", said Sartre: Hell is other people, and nowhere is that more true than on the road. I mutter it every time I get stuck in traffic. But more than that: while you are, by definition, ahead of your own exhaust plume, you can't avoid being in the exhaust of the car(s) in front of you. If that happens to be a diesel powered truck (those are still at large without soot filters or scrubbers), you're treated to a cocktail of soot particles, toluene, benzene, and a bunch of other volatile organic compounds (VOCs) that you were so careful to avoid when choosing your interior house paints.

But wait, you don't actually need other people to give you a lungful of crud: you can make it yourself, right in the comfort of your own car. For air conditioning is no longer a luxury but a standard fixture in cars. Of course, conditioned air tends to be dryer than the outside air, which is 90% of what makes it so pleasant. But once you turn it off, now you have a cold manifold which gets filled with nice humid air; the moisture from that air condenses on the pipes, and before you can say "humungous fungus" you have a mold problem on your hands. There is a reason molds and mildews smell bad: they off-gas waste product, what CelloPlayer with the usual lack of delicacy (but rather accurately) would call mold fart. Some strains of molds give mold fart that are neurotoxins. And this is what gets blown into your face the next time you start the car and its AC.

As your car gets older, its parts get worn, meaning they start to fall apart. The foam in the seats starts to disintegrate, the leather gets scratched, fabric upholstery has been losing lint throughout its lifetime. All those bits of dust and lint starts to float around inside your car, and all are laced with toxins.


What to do about it.

If you're starting to feel faint, take heart. Knowing about the problem is a huge part of the solution. We can start putting pressure on the relevant government agencies to start implementing some consumer protection policies, but we don't have time to wait for that to take effect. We need to act now for the safety of our selves and our families. Here are a few things we can do:

Stay out of the car.
I know: not all of us have the luxury of going totally car-free. I don't: just think of the endless groceries - oh yes, and the cello. But we can make a conscious decision to walk or bike whenever we can, and we can plan our trips to minimise the time we spend in the car. It's better for our health, better for our wallets, better for the global climate.

Choose your car with care.
Buying a used car is a great way to avoid the off-gassing that new cars do, up to two years after they come off the assembly line. When shopping for a new car, include chemical safety in your list of things to check. There is unfortunately not yet much detailed data; I know only of two studies that check for contaminants: the 2006 study by the Ecology Center, Toxic At Any Speed, which covers PDBEs and phthalates, and healthystuff.org's ratings for contaminants such as cadmium, lead, arsenic, mercury, chlorine and bromine.

My sense is that leather, once installed, is less toxic than fabric upholstery in the long run, but that's only because most of the very toxic chemicals required for its production stays at the tannery (and its effluent). If you can live with that idea, and if you can afford the price difference, leather may be a better option than cloth impregnated with flame retardants.

While you're pretty much on your own, your nose is a pretty good indicator of toxin trouble: learn to use it. When in doubt, beg or bribe a chemically sensitive friend to sniff out the car of your choice, keeping in mind that this might be hardship on them. I didn't marry CelloDad for his nose, but it has transpired that he is one of those few people who can sniff out bad stuff like mold fart of which I am blissfully but stupidly unaware. He's my canary in a coalmine, and I bring him whenever I suspect there are chemical minefields to be negotiated; like in a furniture store. (Sorry, CelloDad's nose is not for rent).

Fresh air is your friend.

In the acronym VOC, V is for volatile, meaning that at normal temperatures these toxic organic compounds tend to be gases. So when given a chance, they will leave the plastics in which they are embedded, and the higher the temperature, the faster they off-gas.

Air your new car long and often. Unless there is rain in the forecast, park it, in the shade, with its windows open by an inch or so, to allow the off-gassing VOCs to escape. Open all the doors for a few minutes before you get in. Drive with the windows open a little (do what you can to avoid getting stuck behind a Mack truck or inside the Holland Tunnel into Manhattan at rush hour).

Forego the airco.
Treat air conditioning as the luxury it is: reserve it for when your 80-year old grandma visits from Montana and she is visibly gasping for breath in the Houston humid heat. The bad old fluorocarbon-based refrigerants have been banned, but their replacements are to my mind as yet unproven; and they invariably leak out after a while. Air conditioning does a number on your fuel efficiency anyway, and for short distances the violent temperature swings are really hard on your body. And there's that mold fart to think of.

Doggedly go after the dust.
Dust inside your car is likely contaminated with all sorts of toxins, including those ubiquitous flame retardants. Avoid eating in the car, since you tend to ingest the dust together with the food. Vacuum clean your car often, using a cleaner with a HEPA filter so you're not blowing it around and breathing it. A HEPA-filtered vacuum cleaner is a must for the house, anyway.

Minimize carpeting, which harbours and contributes to dust. If you must shake out your floor mats, be sure to be upwind from the cloud that comes out. Consider replacing those carpet-like floor mats with real (not fake, plastic) rubber mats, that you can take out and hose down periodically.

A mild soapy solution will clean most surfaces, like the dashboard and the inside of the windows. You can brighten it with a squeeze of lemon juice, or a few drops of essential oil; peppermint or thyme are my favourites. This is a lot cheaper than a lot of specialised car cleaning fluids, and safer.

In Japan, which could be said to be the cleanest nation on earth, taxis are bastions of near-aseptic cleanliness. You never have to touch anything: the driver opens and closes the back door for you, like in a school bus. The entire back seat is covered with a white cloth that follows the contours of the seat, sometimes embellished with embroidery, and invariably looking as if a freshly laundered and starched one has just been spread out for your individual benefit. You're almost afraid to soil it by placing your jet-lagged bottom on it. I want one of those for my back seat. And corresponding ones for the front seats, for that matter. Just so I can take them off and put them in the laundry periodically, that would go a long way towards keeping dust in the car under control.

Complete control.
As those with multiple chemical sensitivities (MCS) know, you need to be vigilant about your environment. If you give your car to someone for cleaning or detailing, make sure you know what they use, because it's you who has to live in that car afterwards. Skip the air "fresheners": they are just perfumes designed to mask any bad odours - and in many perfumes the carrier solvent is toxic. A good cleaner should be willing to use cleaning products provided by you: after all, it's your car.

Good luck. As I said, we're pretty much on our own on this one right now. But knowledge is power, and knowing about the problem, as unwelcome as the news might be, is half the solution. If you know of anything else that helps in the fight for clean car interiors, please share it.


Note added 28FEB2012:
A bill for an improved Safe Chemicals Act (S.847, introduced April 2011) is still in Congress. The Environmental Working Group has a good summary of the issues, as well as an opportunity to sign their petition to pass this act. You can track the (glacial) progress of the bill at opencongress.org.

Note added SEP2012:
New car smell made visible: an experiment that turned out way more successful than I would like - "What six weeks of new car smell looks like".



You may also like:
1. A Non-Toxic Cleaning for your Car Interior
2. So you want a seven-seat car that does better than 30 mpg
3. Cars for People with Multiple Chemical Sensitivity - and Everybody Else
4. October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month


January 24, 2012

Review of Three Mouseketeers: Toyota Aygo, Citroën C1, Peugeot 107

These three city cars may be small, but they are very brave! Fun little workhorses (workponies?), they will carry four passengers (sans cello) and perhaps two or three large grocery bags in the back, all for a reported real-life 46mpg.

A collaboration between Toyota and PSA Peugeot Citroën in 2005 resulted in a platform for a city car that each manufacturer has subsequently packaged to fit with the rest of its offerings: the Toyota Aygo, the Citroën C1 and the Peugeot 107.


The Toyota Aygo (top photos; not for sale in Japan) has a more curvy body, a slight protrusion on the centre of the hood, and a very distinctive set of three rear lights. The C1 (bottom right) has a cleaner-lined, bullet look; the 107 (bottom left) has its own Peugeot flavour. On the five-door models, the rear doors go all the way to the back, meaning that there is really no metal at the rear corners (meaning they will probably have a hard time entering the US).

All three have a glass-only hatch. So far, I've heard or seen no complaints about leaks on the rear hatch, so that must be working out. In general, the three mouseketeers have an excellent record for requiring little repair.

All three cars are powered by the firing of three -- not exactly muskets, but small enough cylinders, inline, with a total volume of just under 1.0L. It is a testament to the development of the internal combustion engine that such an odd-cylindered, tiny engine is still good for 68 HP, more than enough to negotiate all but the very steepest of city streets with verve and style.

For they come in a few colours you don't see in the US, including a "Botticelli blue" for the C1, and that to-die-for metallic lilac on the Peugeot 107. Although I could do without the pink flower graphic (I mean, on the tachometer? and on the floor mat? A bit much).

Toyota Aygo Dashboard

They are not large. They don't even pretend to carry an optional fifth passenger: there really are only two sets of seat belts in the back. But I sat in a C1, and felt comfortable, and far from claustrophobic; this is because of the large windows and the mostly upright sidewalls that don't lean in on your shoulders.

The dashboard is clean-lined and uncluttered. One might say sparse. Bells and whistles are strictly optional here - but options do include a GPS and air conditioning. Very optional is a tachometer which is tacked on to the large round speedometer, and ends up looking like an oversized lollipop.

A cello would have to go on the back seat, where it will just fit - just. You might need to angle it a bit. So these cars wouldn't work for CelloMom on any continent. But if you are a young cellist and you need to move from home to study to concert without getting your cello sodden or frozen, you could do much worse than a car like these.

With a top speed of 98mph they are highway worthy, and I've seen plenty of them darting around heart-stoppingly, dodging the tonnage of trucks and larger BMWs - since they are mostly steered by the young and impatient. Larger than the Fiat 500 "road lice" from the 70s, this batch of city cars remind one more of mosquitoes. There is no doubt that they are agile: just watch the hilarious Aygo football match put up by the zany guys at Top Gear. Oh, that's soccer.


A Tale of Three City Cars.

Toyota Aygo Citroën C1 Peugeot 107
Type 5-door
Berline XR
Year 2012 2012 2012
Emissions rating EURO5 "A" EURO5 "A" EURO5 "A"
MSRP € 9,700 € 9,450 € 10,900
CelloMom Rating      
Fuel Economy:
City/Hwy quoted      
Avg. quoted 4.5L/100km (52mpg)    
Avg. actual 46mpg 46mpg 42mpg

1.0L 3-cyl

Power 68hp    
Gears 5-spd man    
Fuel unleaded    
Length, mm(in) 3415mm (134.4in) 3435mm (135.2in) 3430mm (135.0in)
Width, mm(in) 1615mm (63.6in) 1630mm (64.2in) 1630mm (64.2in)
Height, mm(in) 1465mm (57.7in) 1470mm (57.9in) 1470mm (57.9in)
Weight, kg(lbs) 890kg (1962lbs)    
Trunk volume      
Turning radius, m(ft)      
Top speed, kph(mph) 158kph (98mph)    

January 13, 2012

Ford "New To US" Fusion

When people buy a used car, they have an endearingly self-deprecating custom of calling it their "new to us" car. The marketing material for the Ford Fusion Ecoboost, coming to the US in 2013, has the word "NEW" all over it. But a little due diligence reveals that Ford has been selling the similar Mondeo with that very engine since 2010. Just not in the US.

At the 2012 Detroit Auto Show this week, a lot of fanfare accompanied the presentation of the 2013 Ford Fusion, a large sedan with updated look and updated engines. A hybrid version fits right in wih the hybrid and EV heavy auto show, where carmakers get to show what good companies they are for not complaining to much about the CAFE2025 standard for fuel efficiency.

Here is real progress: the 2013 Fusion Hybrid gets significantly better mileage than the 2012 version: 47 / 44 mpg (cty/hwy) is really more than decent for a car this size.

Another version, the Fusion ImageBoost - sorry EcoBoost - is finally coming stateside. This one comes with a choice of Ford's 1.6L EcoBoost engine which was introduced in 2011, or its 2.0L EcoBoost, which has been used for the Ford Mondeo since 2010. In fact, the 2013 Fusion itself is based on the Mk4 version of the Ford Mondeo, a car that has been extremely popular in Europe.

So why is the word "NEW" applied to this fine car?

"New" is the word used surprisingly often both in the breathless reports from bloggers who have been invited to the Detroit Auto Show, and in rather a few magazine articles written by professional automotive journalists, who should know better. I guess they're expected to deliver "news".

But this is 2012 now, and we have the internet on which to do research, and it's easy to see that the ford.co.uk website, which doesn't even require translation except from imperial to US gallons, presents the Mondeo with the EcoBoost engines without much trumpeting - because it's been around for a while.

The table below took an hour to compile.
For the Mondeo, the MPG numbers in quotation marks, duly translated from imperial to US gallons, is the mileage as measured by the European standard, which consistently over-states the actual fuel efficiency. Actual, real-life efficiencies are from the Honest John database. The prices are from Ford's price list in the Netherlands, which taxes gas sippers pretty hard, and gas guzzlers punitively. Just to remind you that cars are cheap in the US.

The taxation scheme is the reason why the Mondeo powered by the Duratorq diesel engine, which merits the coveted "A" rating for CO2 emissions, is really not that much more expensive than the one with the 1.6L EcoBoost which is good for a "B". There are additional savings in the annual road tax, and of course at the pump.

For those who sniff at the merely adequate 114hp delivered by the 1.6L Duratorq engine, the least efficient diesel Mondeo for sale in the EU has a 2.2L Duratorq engine and a Durashift 6-spd automatic transmission, that puts out 200ps (198hp) and gets a real-life 37mpg. I repeat, that's the least efficient diesel for the Mondeo. Starts at €47,700 ($60,500).

Ford doesn't offer a hybrid version of the Mondeo, probably because generally in Europe diesel cars have a fuel efficiency and a price point that makes them compete rather successfully with the hybrids. Nor do they offer the 2.5L and larger Duratec engines in the EU: they would not find many buyers.

At least the 2013 US version of the Fusion is starting to catch up with its global brethren, that's something.

(By the way, the US Fusion is not to be confused with the European "Ford Fusion", a good-looking and practical mini-MPV that gets up to 50mpg. No batteries required, other than the one for starting the diesel engine.)


Ford Fusion (2012, 2013) / Mondeo (2012)

2012 Fusion US 2013 Fusion US   2012 Mondeo UK
  Energi Plug-in
  Duratorq (€30,500)
(diesel; 2012)
1.6L TDCi start/stop
115 ps
"55mpg" - 41mpg act.
Hybrid ($29,495)
2.5L iVCT + Electr.
156 / 191 hp
41 / 36 / 39 mpg
2.0L eCVT/ Electr.
185 hp
47 / 44 mpg
158 hp
26 / 37 mpg
  EcoBoost (€28,700)
1.6L SCTi Start/Stop
160 ps
I4 Duratec ($20,995)

2.5L 6spd man.
175 hp
23 / 33 / 26 mpg
    EcoBoost (€35,700)
2.0L SCTi powershift
203 ps
"31mpg" - 24mpg act.
V6 Duratec ($25,495)
3.5L auto
263 hp
18 / 17 / 21 mpg
For US, mpg numbers are for city/highway/combined.


Disclosure: I was given no monetary compensation for this post. No-one paid for my expenses to attend the North American International Auto Show in Detroit. I am not your average carmaker's cup of tea; more like a cup of moderately diluted hemlock. The opinions expressed in this post are entirely my own.

January 11, 2012

Review: Toyota Matrix / Verso

CelloPlayer is very fortunate to be in the classroom of Mr. S., an outstanding teacher who is loved by both students and parents. When told that our state is known for its good schools, CelloPlayer, with quiet authority, said, "Well yeah: it's because of Mr. S." Unbeknownst to his students, he is also a car afficionado who can tell you the latest tidbits about most any car.

One day, CelloMom found Mrs. S., also a fabulous teacher, with whom our eldest graduated, putting her groceries into their car, a Toyota Matrix. "CelloMom!" she said. We got to talking and CelloMom asked if it was allowed to take a peek into the car, to see if a cello would fit in the cargo space. "Why don't you take it for a spin?" she offered.

So, just a few days later, CelloMom found herself behind the wheel of that Matrix, while Mr. S. had the keys to our Golf and put her through her paces. The two cars are similar in width, but the body of the Matrix is longer by 24cm, or nearly 10 inches. That makes all the difference for the cello: where in the trunk of the Golf it has to be stowed on the body diagonal, it fits comfortably in the back of the Matrix, with plenty of room for growth for when its player needs a full sized cello.

The Matrix is based on the popular Toyota Corolla which, like many other cars in the US, has grown wider and longer over the years. But the Matrix has grown mostly in height: while not the full height of an SUV, its seats are higher than in a Corolla, easy to get into without climbing up or sinking down, and affording a better view of the road.

Mr. S. likes the fun instrument panel, and finds that with its front wheel drive it's very good to handle in the snow. Really the only complaint is that the raised back (and therefore smaller rear window) makes it difficult to see where you're going when backing up, or parking.

This car is pretty zippy: putting your foot down, especially from a standstill, makes it jump forward, meaning that its 132 horsepower, 1.8L engine is probably well oversized for its weight. It's built more lightly than a comparably-sized car of German extraction like an Opel Zafira, where you really have to haul at the doors to close them.

The extra height of the Matrix makes it easier to help children in and out of the car, especially for parents as tall as Mr. S. This Matrix, which they've had since their youngest was a baby, is the 1.8L XR version from 2007. Unfortunately, in the 2008 design change the car lost its third side window. When Mr. S. took a test drive in a new Matrix with his children, they declared that they felt like they were sitting inside a cave, and much preferred their own car. What is it with automakers' determination to take light and air away from the children on the back seat?


The Matrix is a US-only offering by Toyota; not even its body is available in Japan or Europe. The closest relative is the Toyota Verso, just a touch larger than the Matrix in all directions, and (best of all) available in a 7-seat option, where both the second and third rows of seats can be folded down to give a completely flat cargo space for large items. So it's "Verso" for versatility. But I suppose that when the grandparents come along the cello will have to go on someone's lap.

One of the options for the Verso is a 1.6L gasoline engine that gets a quoted 35mpg which is corroborated by real life users. And since Europeans are less worried about rollover issues they can afford to put a huge window in the roof - nice for those more northerly places with only a little sun!


Toyota Matrix / Toyota Verso

Matrix Verso
Type 1.8L
5-spd manual
1.6L manual
"Comfort" 7-seat
Year 2012 2012
Emissions rating EURO5
MSRP $ 18,845 € 24,640 ($31,500)
(Cars are Cheap in the US)
CelloMom Rating
Fuel Economy:
City/Hwy quoted 25 / 32 mpg 5.8 / 8.6 L/100km
Avg. quoted   6.8L/100km (35 mpg)
Avg. actual 30 mpg 35 mpg

1.8L 4-cyl VVT-i

Power 132HP @6000rpm 132HP @ 6400rpm
Gears 5-spd manual 6-spd manual
Fuel unleaded gasoline Euro unleaded
Length, mm(in) 171.9in

4440mm (174.8in)

Width, mm(in) 69.5in 1790mm (70.4in)
Height, mm(in) 61.0in 1620mm (63.8in)
Weight, kg(lbs) 2844 lbs 1395 kg (3075 lbs)
Trunk volume, liters(cuft) 19.8 / 49.4 cuft  
Turning radius, m(ft) 36.0 ft 10.8m (35.4)
Top speed, kph(mph)   185 kph (115mph)

January 6, 2012

The dinosaur on the driveway

Once, CelloMom convinced her parents' landlady to replace the ancient fridge in the apartment by a new, EnergyStar rated fridge - we contributed half the purchase price. Within a single year, we got our contribution back in electricity savings. (That old fridge was a real dinosaur).

CelloMom's stingy streak is totally gratified by the conservation aspect of the green movement: Conservation of energy, done in the name of doing your bit for the planet, usually leads to serious dollar savings.

You know the kind of thing those of us do who try to be responsible citizens of planet Earth: We improve our home insulation. We set the thermostat at 60F in the winter, 85F in the summer. We shop locally. We trim the grass with a push mower. We're ready for the lighting revolution: not only are compact fluorescent bulbs found throughout the house, we actually turn them off when leaving the room.

After determined energy auditing, insulating, whittling, and replacing of old appliances, we emerge triumphantly clutching our utility bills, which prove beyond a doubt that we beat the national average by a factor of two.

Actually, average energy use in the US is stunning: about 12,000 kWh of electricity, and close to 80 MBTU (million British thermal units) for gas heating every year. It's more for suburban homes, less for city dwellings, and higher for regions that get very hot or very cold, but overall we burn a lot of coal and gas to be comfortable and go about our daily business.

And because the burning of coal and gas makes CO2 as a byproduct, all that energy use comes to a load of CO2 going up through our collective chimneys. To be precise, on average it's 1.35 lbs CO2 for every kWh of electricity, and 117 lbs CO2 for every million BTU of natural-gas heat (or 13.4 lbs CO2 per therm).

Armed with these numbers and your latest utility bill, you can estimate your personal household CO2 emission. For comparison, in the average US household the emissions are:
Electricty 12,000 kWh * 1.35 lbs CO2/kWh = 16200 lbs CO2
Gas heat 80 MBTU * 117 lbs CO2 / MBTU = 9440 lbs CO2
Total about 26,000 lbs CO2.

Quite apart from the CO2 molecules emerging from the furnace, CelloMom tends to have a mental picture of dollar bills flying out of her chimney. Cutting the number of those dollar bills in half feels really good.

Now we've dealt with all the low-hanging fruit: buying a new fridge is fun (if you like doing that kind of thing), and super easy compared to, say, installing a geothermal unit on your property. But wait, the driveway is part of the property too, and parked right there is the elephant in the room - or rather, the dinosaur on the driveway.

Okay, our car is 11 years old: not as old as the dinosaurs who went extinct from a drastic climate change 65 million years ago. And they, in turn, came way after the carboniferous, during which most coal beds on the planet were laid down, and which ended 300 million years ago.

Still, if a car the size of a VW Golf gets just 20mpg, in CelloMom's mind it qualifies for the "dinosaur" designation. It's SO twentieth century. Replacing it with a more gas-frugal car could save a huge chunk of the household CO2 emissions, since the burning of every gallon of gas gives 23.4 lbs CO2.

15,000 miles per year at 20mpg == 750gal == 17,550 lbs CO2. ($2400)
15,000 miles per year at 40mpg == 375gal == 8,775 lbs CO2. ($1200)
15,000 miles per year at 50mpg == 300gal == 7020 lbs CO2. ($975)
Electric car:
15,000 miles per year at 0.25kWh/mi = 3750 kWh == 5000 lbs CO2. ($ 400)

Here is an opportunity for CO2 savings, especially when switching to an electric car (whose honest emissions are not zero, but merely quite small). There is savings in the gas expense too; the annual gas expense are listed above assuming $3.25/gallon for gas.

Why not go to the dealer tomorrow? Because a new car is expensive: here is one example where doing the green thing does not get you ahead dollar-wise. You don't trade in your gas-guzzler for a new car just to lower your gas expenses, because gas is still too cheap for that.

But when it is time to replace your car anyway, consider the extra savings you can get from buying a gas sipper. Keep in mind, just going without excessive horsepower that you don't really need, e.g. by by buying the model of your choice but outfitted with a smaller engine, saves both in the purchase and at the gas pump. And if you wait a little, CAFE2025 rules will kick in and models will finally be for sale in the US that are real gas sippers.

January 3, 2012

EV Unplugged: the TRULY zero emission electric car

There has been a lot of noise lately about plug-in electric vehicles. Of course, those are not really zero-emission cars: in the US, the typical 2011 plug-in EV runs on coal and gas, and causes CO2 emissions only slightly lower than that of, say, a Toyota Prius. But let's put this issue in a different light: to be precise, sunlight.

Putting solar cells on a car would make it truly zero emissions to operate, as well as more mobile, nice for those with range anxiety. One example are the solar race cars driven across the Australian desert: those are basically a magic carpet of PV panels with one bubble for the driver. Very cool, but it won't do for CelloMom, who needs space for the rest of her crew - not to mention the cello.

Another example is the solar car operated by the University of Central Florida: a van fitted with three PV panels on top. You can't miss it. And it would have plenty of room for crew and cello. But you wonder how far it can stray from campus.

Well, just for fun and out of curiosity, let us do the math. The total solar energy falling daily on the surface of the earth is about 25MJ/m2 = 7kWh/m2 (it is less at latitudes higher than 45degrees). A typical passenger car is 1.8m wide and 4.5m long, and let's say that you can find 5m2 of area on the roof and hood to put your PV cells: those would catch a total of 35kWh of sunlight on each sunny day.

The best currently commercial PV panels have an efficiency of about 15%, so the car's area can be good for an output of about 5kWh after a day's charging. Considering that the efficiency of a 2011 electric car like the Nissan Leaf is 0.25kWh/mile, a one-day charge could get you 20 miles of travel.

That, you might say, does not relieve range anxiety at all: considering that the average US car does 12,000 miles per year, that comes to an average of 33 miles a day, quite a bit more than the 20 miles we arrived at. CelloMom herself has been logging 8000 miles a year, but that still comes to an average of 22 miles a day - and what of non-average days?

But take heart: solar energy research is proceeding at a furious pace, and CelloMom is confident that power generation efficiencies higher than 15% will be commercially available when the price point is right. Already, the best demonstrated PV systems have close to 40% efficiency, and recent research on semiconductor quantum dots have yielded tantalising glimpses of quantum efficiencies higher than 100% at selected wavelengths - but let's have no illusions about this: if 35kWh of sunlight falls on your car, you will not get more than 35kWh out of your PV installation.

The other part of the equation is the efficiency of the car: vehicles like the Nissan Leaf and the Chevy Volt were designed to impress the zip-loving car afficionados who have to write the favourable reviews. For a mom like CelloMom there is way too much power in those cars; CelloMom would be more than happy driving in a far less powerful EV, especially if that means increased energy efficiency, say, 0.1kWh/mi instead of 0.25kWh/mi.

At a car efficiency of 0.1kWh/mi and a PV efficiency of 40%, the 35kWh of sunlight hitting the car could give it a range of 140 miles: enough to assuage the anxiety of all but the most determined of commuters.

Caveats: the numbers will work against you if you live in a place like Scandinavia (far away from the equator, it's mighty dark in winter), or you live in a place like the Netherlands (60 days of sun a year). This is a place-appropriate technology, but for the right place, the technology has the potential to work out beautifully.

To venture into the realm of the wishful physicist: quantum dot technology is particularly attractive because solar cells made that way don't have to be flat, and can in principle be applied to fit the contours of the car (in fact, a photovoltaic paint called Sunbelievable can be applied with a brush - cheap, but the efficiency is currently only 1%). And the submicron semiconductor particles, when embedded in the right matrix, effectively act as solar concentrators, which boosts the efficiency because even if a few photogenerated charge carriers are trapped at defects, there are plenty more to skate over the now-occupied trapping centers and reach the back electrode. Of course, the steel car roof itself can serve as the back electrode; moreover, it must be designed to be gloriously clean-lined, in order to optimise the capture of sunlight. CelloMom loves an elegant solution.