An open-source engine?
Will the American cars of the future be powered by gasoline, biofuels, natural gas, or electricity? If the Set America Free Coalition has their way, the answer will be "all of the above."
Will the American cars of the future be powered by gasoline, biofuels, natural gas, or electricity? If the Set America Free Coalition has their way, the answer will be "all of the above."Skip to next paragraph
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Here's how Anne Korin, the group's chair, sees it: American transportation is subject to a monopoly of oil, which gives OPEC the ability to paralyze a huge chunk of the American economy. In order for the US to be truly independent, oil, she likes to say "needs to be stripped of its strategic value."
But switching all cars to some other fuel source would just swap one monopoly for another. Run all the cars on electricity, says Ms. Korin, and a single falling tree branch could cripple transportation for an entire region. Run them all on biofuels, and a drought could send fuel prices soaring.
"You don't want to go from 100 percent of one thing to 100 percent of another thing," she told me at an energy conference in Washington, DC, Thursday. "You want a system that's resilient."
The solution: an engine that runs on multiple energy sources, an "open fuel standard" platform that allows different fuels to compete with each other.
It's a little like a computer, whose hardware was built without specifying in advance exactly what software can and cannot run on it. Want to surf the Web with Firefox? Opera? Konqueror? Amaya? Flock? It's up to you. Your hardware doesn't discriminate.
Such engines already exist in what are known as flex-fuel vehicles, which make up more than seven million of the roughly 250 million passenger cars and trucks on America's roads. In most cases the vehicles can run on any combination of gasoline and ethanol, a combustible fuel made from corn, sugar, and other plants. But, as Korin tells me, many US drivers don't even know that their fuel tanks will accept anything other than gasoline.
The difference between a flex-fuel car and a conventional car is minimal. Ethanol and other biofuels tend to be more corrosive than conventional gasoline, so the fuel system requires some higher-quality parts. According to Korin, using these parts in manufacturing adds $100 to the cost of the vehicle.
The Set America Free Coalition's members, a relatively eclectic group that includes Tom Daschle, Gary Bauer, and former CIA director James James Woolsey, were among those who successfully got a bill introduced in Congress this summer. Titled the Open Fuel Standard Act, the bill would have mandated that, starting in 2012, 50 percent of new US automobiles be able to operate with E85 (a gasoline blend with 85 percent ethanol) or M85 (the same with methanol, a type of combustible fuel commonly made from methane gas), or be able to operate on biodiesel. In 2015, that figure would jump to 80 percent. [Editor's note: The original version misspelled Mr. Woolsey's surname.]
The bill died in committee, but its proponents plan to reintroduce it next year.
In 2007, automakers said that they could meet the 2012 target if enough ethanol-blend fuel is available.