Mike's Corner - Hybrid Vehicles and the Future of Fuel

A few weeks ago my crew and I attended a training class (about our third) on hybrid vehicles. As you might guess, when a group of automotive techs get together, sooner or later the conversation turns to cars and all of the changes going on in our industry. During one of the breaks, a very diverse group - as far as experience and age -  began discussing what will power the car of the future? Right now I am not sure anyone knows, but here are some of the possibilities.

Of course, today almost all vehicles on the road use gasoline. With all of the technical advances being made, the economy and performance of gasoline engines keep improving. Diesel fueled vehicles have also been on the market for a long time, but they have been largely thought of as big noisy Mack trucks with smoke stacks giving off smelly black smoke. Not any more! Now some of the SUV's and larger pickups are using diesel engines, and the number is increasing. Some sources are projecting diesel fuel vehicles to make a major comeback over the next few years. Their thoughts are based in large part on the new bio-diesel which is cleaner and more efficient, and manufacturers are moving into the car market now. I have even heard talk of a diesel hybrid vehicle.

Ethanol fuels have also been around for many years and are a blend of ethanol and gasoline. One example of an ethanol fuel, gasohol, you may remember from the fuel shortages of the 1970's. Another example is a product called E 85 which has a much larger percentage of ethanol. Let me warn you that-unless your vehicle is designed to use E 85, do not use it, as it can cause serious engine problems. I have several customers using E 85 with no problems, but we verified that their vehicles were designed to use it as an alternate fuel. There continues to be discussion over the reduction of fuel mileage and the cost verses gasoline.

More recently, I have seen a lot written about hydrogen fuel cell vehicles. This may the fuel of the future, but I believe this alternative is still in the early developmental stage. The University of South Carolina is doing major research and development in this area, but only time will tell. We have had vehicles running on propane and natural gas for years. It does burn cleaner than gasoline, although I am not sure about the cost and economy.

Have you ever heard of liquid coal? According to an article I read in one of the investment web sites, this is the up-and-coming fuel source for our country, and the article encouraged investors to get in on the ground floor. I found the article very interesting, but I am not planning to call my stock broker! However, it may warrant watching.

Other alternative fuels I found while doing research are reprocessed cooking oil and vegetable oil fuels. I talked with someone who had purchased the equipment to process the used cooking oils into a useable fuel source for his diesel truck. He said the vehicle performed fine, but now he was hungry all of the time! Instead of the diesel smell he was accustomed to when he walked into his garage, it now smells like a fast food restaurant. I even found a web site that claims people are running a vehicle using only water. At this time I do not recommend you grab your garden hose when your fuel gauge reads empty, but who knows what the future may hold!

What do you see when you think about the car of the future? Is it something like the vehicles in cartoons which appear flying through the air or does it have solar panels using the sun's power to propel it down the road? For the time being I recommend, if you are looking at a vehicle that uses any type of an alternative fuel, you do your homework before you buy it. Sometimes great fuel mileage is not cost effective. No matter what fuels we are using in the future, it is going to be interesting!