What Makes a Vehicle “Green?”

Green vehicles have been picking up a lot of traction in the automotive industry over the past few years, but many people still have questions and hesitations about them. Since it’s almost Earth Day, we wanted to discuss the pros and cons of some of the most common green technology that defines these automobiles and makes them efficient and environmentally-friendly.


A hybrid is a vehicle with more than one powertrain. There are many potential hybrid technologies, but those currently in production are gas/electric hybrids, which combine a conventional gasoline engine with an electric motor/generator, a battery pack, and a controller.

Hybrids take advantage of the efficiencies of the two powertrains to increase a vehicle’s overall fuel efficiency. Electric motors are very efficient in stop-and-go city driving, and gasoline engines are more efficient when driving at higher speeds. Hybrids are almost always equipped with regenerative braking. That means when you coast or brake, the electric motor functions as a generator and converts the vehicle’s kinetic energy into electricity to charge the battery pack.

What’s Cool About This

  • Gets better gas mileage and produces less pollution thdan most conventional cars
  • Reliable technology

What’s Not

  • Can cost more than comparable conventional cars
  • More complex than conventional cars, which could lead to higher repair costs.

Featured Hybrid: 2013 Ford C-Max Hybrid SE

Vehicle Type: Hatchback
Fuel Type: Regular
MPG: 43/43
Base Price: $25,995

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Plug-in Hybrids

The plug-in hybrid electric vehicle (PHEV) has a larger battery pack than a typical hybrid, which can be recharged by connecting it to an external electric power source. The larger battery packs allow PHEVs to go farther on electricity alone (typically 15 to 50 miles, depending on the vehicle and driving conditions) before they have to operate as conventional hybrids. That is, once the battery is depleted, the gasoline engine seamlessly kicks in, and drivers can travel until they need to stop for gas and/or recharge their battery pack.

Because PHEVs run solely on electricity more of the time, their overall fuel economy is better than a conventional hybrid’s. In general, the cost of the electricity to recharge a PHEV or electric vehicle (EV) is significantly lower than the cost of gasoline or diesel fuel, especially for utilities that provide discounts for off-peak nighttime charging. Most PHEV batteries can easily be recharged overnight.

What’s Cool About This

  • Higher fuel economy than standard hybrids
  • Fewer greenhouse gas emissions
  • You can “fuel up” your vehicle by plugging it into an outlet at home or at work
  • No range anxiety
    • What’s Not

    • Higher vehicle cost than hybrids
    • Difficult for some people (apartment dwellers, those without a garage) to recharge

Featured Plug-in Hybrid Vehicle: 2013 Toyota Prius Plug-in

Vehicle Type: Hatchback
Fuel Type: Regular
MPG: 95/95
Base Price: $40,320

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Electric Vehicles

Electric vehicles (EVs) are powered by an electric motor (or motors) that draws a current from a rechargeable battery pack. EVs are efficient, quiet, and powerful, and provide instant, smooth, and strong acceleration. They also burn no fossil fuel and therefore produce zero emissions at the tailpipe.

Most EV battery packs produce only enough electricity for an EV to travel 75–100 miles (the notable exception at the moment are Teslas), and require 4 to 8 hours at 240 volts to recharge fully. “Quick charges” to 80 percent capacity can be done in just a half hour.

What’s Cool About This

  • Cost of electricity less than cost of gasoline or diesel fuel
  • No fossil fuel burned, therefore no CO2 produced by the vehicle
  • Clean running—zero tailpipe emissions
  • Strong initial acceleration
  • Smooth and quiet to operate
  • EVs reduce dependence on imported oil
    • What’s Not

    • Higher vehicle cost (even with tax breaks, rebates, and other incentives)
    • Limited range—typically 75–100 miles—before a recharge is needed
    • Slow “fill-up” (i.e., long recharging times), especially on a 110-volt outlet
    • Limited places to recharge, especially for apartment dwellers
    • Cold and hot weather reduce their range
    • Expensive to replace the battery

Featured Electric Vehicle: 2013 smart electric drive

Vehicle Type: Coupe/Convertible
Fuel Type: Electricity
MPG: 122/93
Base Price: $25,750

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CNG-powered Vehicles

Compressed natural gas (CNG) has some great advantages as a vehicle fuel. First, the U.S. has vast reserves of it, so we’re not dependent on other countries for a supply. Second, CNG is relatively clean. When burned, it produces 60–90 percent fewer smog-producing emissions and 30–40 percent fewer global-warming gases than gasoline. CNG is also less expensive than gasoline.

Only Honda makes a natural gas–powered car for the public, the Civic NGV GX, and is now only sold in 38 states. Which brings up a related point: There are only about 500 CNG fueling stations open to the public in the U.S. They’re concentrated mostly in urban areas, but their number may be expanding in the near future. However, Honda does offer a home refueling station that compresses the CNG piped into most homes for a “slow fill,” which takes overnight. A list of CNG fueling stations can be found at cnglocator.net.

What’s Cool About This

  • CNG is cheaper and cleaner than other motor fuels
  • CNG is abundant and domestically produced

What’s Not

  • Only one CNG-powered car—the Honda Civic GX—is produced in the U.S.
  • CNG vehicles are more expensive than comparable gas-powered vehicles
  • Fueling stations are scarce, especially outside of urban areas

Featured CNG Vehicle: 2012 Honda Civic NGV GX

Vehicle Type: Sedan
Fuel Type: Natural Gas
MPG: 27/38
Base Price: $27,655

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Hydrogen Fuel-Cell Vehicles

Hydrogen-powered fuel-cell cars, often considered “the cars of the future,” are propelled by electric motors; they create their own electricity through a chemical process involving hydrogen fuel and oxygen from the air. They emit no pollutants—only water and heat. And the hydrogen they use can be produced from renewable sources, including solar power.

While Honda has produced the FCX Clarity, a fuel-cell sedan, in limited numbers since mid-2008, it’s currently available mainly in just Southern California. Other companies—notably Hyundai, Mercedes-Benz, and Toyota—have promised to introduce their own fuel-cell vehicles for general use. Still, there are many hurdles to overcome before fuel-cell vehicles become readily available.

The technology is still very expensive and unproven, and the infrastructure for hydrogen refueling is practically nonexistent. In addition to hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles, several manufacturers have explored a “bridge” technology that uses hydrogen to power conventional ICEs in conventional or even hybrid vehicles. This technology will produce fewer emissions than even partial zero emission vehicles. Their development may help familiarize motorists with hydrogen as a motor fuel and thus encourage further infrastructure development.

What’s Cool About This

  • The ultimate clean vehicle—zero tailpipe emissions and no electricity required

What’s Not

  • High vehicle cost
  • Lack of supportive infrastructure—extremely limited number of fueling stations
  • Extremely limited number of vehicles available to the public

Featured Hydrogen Fuel-Cell Vehicle: Hyundai Tucson FC EV

Vehicle Type: SUV/Pickup
Fuel Type: Hydrogen

Flex-Fuel Vehicles

A flex-fuel vehicle has an engine that can run on both gasoline and blends of gasoline and alcohol in ratios up to 85 percent alcohol. Initially, the alcohol used was methanol, but this has been supplanted by ethanol. E85 (85 percent ethanol and 15 percent unleaded gasoline) is available in many service stations, most of them in the Midwest. E85 is a little more scarce in other areas.

Ethanol is domestically produced (it comes from corn), so using it reduces the need to import as much oil. Ethanol burns cleanly and reduces greenhouse-gas emissions from vehicles. Unfortunately, recent studies have shown that producing ethanol at current levels creates roughly as much extra greenhouse-gas emissions as it saves at the tailpipe. Also, ethanol has lower energy content than gasoline, resulting in lower (about 25–30 percent) MPG figures.

What’s Cool About This

  • Domestically grown alternative fuel reduces the need to import oil
  • Higher octane means better performance
  • Burns cleaner than gasoline, pollutes less

What’s Not

  • Limited availability of E85
  • Lower MPG than gasoline
  • Diversion of corn to fuel production may increase food prices

Featured Flex Fuel Vehicle: 2014 Ram 1500 SLT Outdoorsman Crew Cab 4x4

Vehicle Type: SUV/Pickup
Fuel Type: Regular
MPG: 16/23
Base Price: $39,445

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Advanced-Technology Internal-Combustion Engines (ICEs)

The most common type of “green technology” in automobiles today, Advanced-Technology Internal-Combustion Engines, are helping many vehicles meet high fuel economy and achieve low emissions standards. Such vehicles use a variety of technologies to achieve these high standards, such as turbo-charging, direct fuel injection, and continuously variable transmission.

What’s Cool About This

  • Proven, reliable technology
  • Gets better gas mileage, pollutes less than conventional vehicles
  • Generally less expensive than other types of green vehicles
  • Vehicles that run on diesel and meet California’s emission standards

What’s Not

  • Not as fuel efficient or clean as other kinds of green vehicles

Featured Advanced-Technology ICE Vehicle: 2014 Mazda 3S Grand Touring

Vehicle Type: Sedan
Fuel Type: Regular
MPG: 28/38
Base Price: $29,485

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