Auto industry initiatives for cleaner-running and more fuel-efficient vehicles have been making headlines for years. But for a large portion of the car-buying public, hybrid technologies and alternative fuels are not yet feasible options. The supply of popular gasoline/electric hybrids isn't meeting demand in many areas, and they sport substantially greater price tags than comparable gas-only vehicles. Also, alternative fuel stations are rare and often restricted to the general public.
But in spite of these roadblocks, the green spirit continues to grow with escalating concerns about the environment and oil supplies. More and more people are becoming interested in getting greener behind the wheel — especially when it can mean saving money at the gas pump — but they may be discouraged by not yet being able to change their gas-only ways.
For those drivers, there's good news: you don't need an electric or ethanol-powered car to make a big difference for the earth. Cleaner, more fuel-efficient vehicles are not just the wave of the future — they exist today as part of widespread efforts by the auto industry to clean up its act, and many newer model cars have available technology that further boosts fuel efficiency.
A Greener Industry
The framework of Tier II Emissions Standards, a major milestone for automotive cleanup efforts, was put in place by the U.S. Government back in 1999. The effects of these standards are already prevalent, and by 2009 they will be implemented industry-wide to reduce emissions from every consumer vehicle in the U.S. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates that the full implementation of Tier II Standards will have the effect of taking 164 million cars off the road.
Although the auto industry has introduced several new technologies for vehicles to burn fuel more efficiently, these technologies would mean less for the environment without concurrent efforts to clean up the fuel itself. In particular, Tier II Standards call for techniques to drastically reduce the amount of sulfur in all types of fuel, which provides two major benefits. First, when sulfur combusts, it turns into a major precursor for acid rain; also, sulfur deposits can severely corrode and damage engine parts, including the cutting-edge electronic systems now used to monitor engine efficiency.
In addition, research continues to reduce emissions in all vehicles as catalytic converter technology advances. Catalytic converters have been widely used in vehicles since the mid-1970s to change the chemical composition of smog-forming and otherwise toxic byproducts of fuel combustion.
Finally, automotive recycling is a multi-billion dollar industry in itself, which also continually refines its processes. Today, the Automotive Recyclers Association estimates that about 75 percent of the materials in every past-life vehicle are given new life, either as part of a new model vehicle or another useful consumer product.
Regular Cars, Greener Features
But as automakers become more committed to doing their part, it's up to the general public to follow suit by supporting the groundbreaking technologies for improved fuel efficiency. So what can you look for in a newer model vehicle to give you a break at the pump? While you're waiting for the next big technology to make its splash, or for current technologies to become more accessible, here are some options to consider.
In most cases, going greener means going smaller. If your lifestyle doesn't demand increased towing capacity and cargo room, the best way to improve fuel economy is lightening your load. Compact and subcompact cars are now popular solutions for A-to-B drivers, and automakers have further increased this popularity by packing their small cars with the same stylistic flair and modern touches as bigger models. Subcompacts are also among the most cost-effective cars on the market, so you'll be saving loads of money well before your first trip to the gas pump.
Greener Engine Options
If a smaller car is not conducive to your lifestyle, opting for a smaller engine will greatly impact your overall fuel economy. But if you can't give up that V-6 or V-8 engine, look for cylinder deactivation technology, which simply shuts down half an engine's cylinders during low-stress driving situations such as highway driving at a consistent speed. Similarly, many new cars are built with Integrated Starter/Generator (ISG) systems, which completely shut the engine down while idling, and start it back up immediately upon acceleration.
Other new technologies exist to streamline the engine's processes, so fuel is burned more precisely. Key features to look for while comparing cars include variable valve timing, direct fuel injection and supercharged engines. These technologies work in various ways, but they all ensure that more power is made from each drop of fuel.
Greener Transmission Options
New transmission technologies are also on the rise, such as the Continuously Variable Transmission (CVT) and Automated Manual Transmission (AMT). CVT technology has been around for over a century, but it is just now seeing its time in the sun because improved materials technology has made it compatible with some larger engines.
The idea behind it is simple. Typical transmissions have a set number of gears, with each gear corresponding to a certain group of engine speeds. CVTs, however, operate more efficiently by constantly changing with the engine's power output. Because of this, CVTs produce a more efficient ride than typical transmissions, and they also lack the slight jolt that comes with moving from gear to gear. However, CVT technology is still unable to support the most powerful performance vehicles.
For those vehicles, AMTs are a viable option. Also called dual-clutch transmissions, these behave according to the same principles as typical manual transmissions, with a couple of key differences. First, computers and other components are responsible for shifting, so there is no clutch pedal for the driver to operate. Second, although there is no clutch pedal, there are actually two clutches, each responsible for alternating gears. So as one clutch releases, the other instantly catches. A large boost in fuel efficiency is then possible because there is always a connection between the engine and transmission.
A Greener Tomorrow
Many look forward to the day when alternative fuels and groundbreaking engine technologies dominate the road, but in the midst of this transitional period, there are plenty of fuel-efficient and earth-friendly features to consider that are now easily attainable in conventional vehicles.
Also, this transitional period may not last as long as some think. The automotive industry is the world's leader in funding research and development of new technologies and streamlining existing ones. As more people embrace the green spirit, the industry responds by reexamining and cleaning up every step of a vehicle's life — from the factory, to the gas pump, to the open road, to the recycling center, the innovation is just getting started.
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