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  • Writer's pictureSecond Opinion Magazine

Green Your Wheels

by Diane Wolfe

What makes a car green? Apparently, design with the environment in mind. According to, design improvements developed by automotive engineers are the main reason that cars have improved, or become “greener”, over the past generation.

Thirty years ago, the average new car got no more than 13 miles per gallon. Its pollution controls were crude and unreliable. Engines are much more efficient, made with better components, electronic controls, and fuel injection instead of carburetors. Chassis and body parts are stronger and lighter, providing smoother, quieter rides, superior handling, and better crashworthiness. Radial tires grip and handle the road better, providing a smoother, more gas efficient ride. New plastics are also being designed with recycling in mind, and recycled plastics are being used for bumpers, as well as LED light bulbs for headlights. And, the comfort and convenience features now standard in most car models were absent from all but the most expensive vehicles 30 years ago. Like: air conditioning, power steering, power windows, or AM/FM stereo.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), new vehicles sold in the U.S. today go 50% farther per gallon of gas than in 1970, with less than one tenth the amount of tailpipe pollution. Less energy is consumed in making the materials and running auto factories in the U.S. Three quarters of auto steel gets recycled, under the watchful eye of unions, and the EPA as well.

While new vehicles produce less pollution per mile than years ago, air quality is still a concern because the overall amount of driving continues to grow. In the U.S., we now have more motor vehicles than licensed drivers, and we travel over 2 trillion miles a year, burning 120 billion gallons of gas. Speaking of gas, we hear everyday about the rising price of gas. People will quote the daily prices, or tell you about a place that they bought it 5 cents cheaper up the road. If we analyze the price of gas since 1975, it has only increased $3 a gallon in 30 years, or a mere 10 cents a year. The average price of unleaded gas in 1975 was 59 cents a gallon, and in 2005 it was $3.59, which is what it still costs today.

A vehicle’s greenness depends not only on its design, but also on how it is used. A car is greener the minute another person gets in for the ride. And even greener when it’s left at home when the owner chooses to travel by foot or bike. Consider your opportunities to reduce car use whenever practical.

Overall, we have to admit that the production and fuel efficiency of vehicles has improved greatly in the past 30 years. If you are considering buying a “green car”, rest assured you are probably already driving one, especially if it was made in this century. However, if you’re still curious about spending extra money on an alternative fuel vehicle, here are some pros and cons to the top 4 choices* available:


Pros: Potential for excellent fuel economy, run on existing gas supplies, and drives like normal, no behavioral changes.

Cons: Hybrid vehicles cost much more than similar models. Some do not live up to the gas mileage buyers may expect, especially considering the extra purchase price.

Plug-in Hybrids

Pros: All electric range can address short commutes for many drivers, home recharging infrastructure is available, and gas engine can extend range for long trips, no vehicle emissions, and cheaper per-mile cost when running in electric mode.

Cons: Expensive additional batteries elevate production cost, daytime recharging could strain electric grid, and requires plugging in to reap the benefit. Fuel-mileage benefits are highly dependent on driving habits.


Pros: Reduces demand for foreign oil, low emissions, can potentially be produced from waste materials, existing cars can use 10% blends called E-10, and more than 8 million cars already on the road use E85.

Cons: 25% lower fuel economy on E85 than gas. Less than 1 percent of U.S. gas stations carry E85. Federal fuel economy credits awarded to auto makers for E85 cars lower overall fuel economy for all cars. Ethanol made from any food crop can adversely affect food prices. Farm equipment involved in crop production runs on petroleum as well, so limiting the net benefits.


Pros: 30% better fuel economy than an equivalent gasoline vehicle, widely available, lower cost premium than hybrid vehicles, engines deliver lots of torque for a given displacement, and any diesel car can run on a blend of renewable biodiesel fuel. With effort and investment, older diesel engines can even be converted to run on pure waste vegetable oil.

Cons: Typically more engine noise and vibration. Currently higher cost of diesel fuel can cut the savings. Manufacturers won’t warranty biodiesel blends of more than 5 % biodiesel.

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