Green Drivers in Green Cars

Does the vehicle you take driver's education in make a difference? California teen Haley Jacoby is among many who think so. She recently completed her driver's training at Drivers Ed Direct, a Los Angeles driving school that uses hybrid vehicles exclusively. Not only was Jacoby positively giddy about learning how to drive, she was also excited about the vehicle she trained in as well.

"I absolutely love the Escape Hybrid," Jacoby said. "Not only is it a great car to drive and be in, the fact that it's a hybrid just makes me smile."

The popularity of hybrid vehicles in southern California is one of the keys to Drivers Ed Direct's success since it launched in June 2005, said Jimmy Leach, the company's president. By training in hybrids, Drivers Ed Direct students complete thousands of miles of training but use less fuel and create fewer carbon emissions than other drivers' education services that use conventional vehicles.

"Interest is definitely growing," Leach said. "Our instructors teach kids not only how to drive safely and responsibly but also how they can take a proactive role in reducing oil consumption and greenhouse gases. By learning their driving skills in a hybrid they're more likely to want to buy and drive a hybrid."

Drivers Ed Direct sees itself as an alternative to the standard driving school formula of old cars, impersonal classrooms and cookie cutter instruction. In addition to "behind the wheel" training, it also offers Web-based drivers training in Florida and Nevada and offers drivers ed-related products such as training DVDs nationwide. For in-vehicle instruction, the school offers its students a choice between Ford Escape Hybrid and Toyota Prius, encouraging students from "SUV families" to drive the Escape Hybrid for at least a portion of their training.

"As long as SUVs remain popular it's important for young drivers to understand and master safe driving techniques that are appropriate for SUVs," Leach said. "The Escape Hybrid is a terrific SUV to train in, but unlike most SUVs it's a fuel efficient 'green' vehicle."

The driver's school experience turned out to be a marketing tool for Ford. Jacoby says that after her experience in the hybrid SUV, she's recommending it to friends and family and hopes to be driving one herself some day soon.

"Everybody remembers the car they learned to drive in," said Usha Raghavachari, Ford Escape marketing manager. "It's great that kids like Haley can learn critical driving skills and about environmental responsibility in one of the most innovative vehicles Ford has ever built."

For more information on the driving school, visit Drivers Ed Direct.

Cleveland-based auto journalist Luigi Fraschini has taught a number of people how to drive but feels that it is a task best left to professionals.

You Don't Know Beans

While the media has followed the success of the Toyota Prius gasoline-electric hybrid vehicle, it has been virtually silent on the success of the Jeep Liberty CRD diesel, which comes pre-filled with a mixture of conventional diesel oil and biodiesel.  While sales of the Liberty CRD have been more modest than the Prius (just 10,000 units versus the Prius's 100,000+) the Liberty's sales figure has been double DaimlerChrysler's projections.  And it indicates that, against odds, there could be a growing U.S. market for diesel-powered vehicles, especially in light of the potential benefits of biodiesel, which has environmental advantages and can help wean the U.S. off foreign oil.

Biodiesel is a cleaner burning, renewable alternative fuel that can be made from any fat or vegetable oil, such as soybean oil. The market surplus in soybean oil from one bushel of soybeans makes 1.4 gallons of biodiesel, offering up a lucrative new market for America's farmers without detracting from the nation's food supply.  When you add to that the anti-pollution and fuel efficiency of the Common Rail Diesel (CRD) engine technology, you have a potent one-two punch that can benefit the nation if -- and it's a big if -- consumers can be convinced to give the new clean diesel-biodiesel technology a try.

"At DaimlerChrysler, biodiesel is part of our vision for an America that is less dependent on petroleum, that protects and preserves the environment, and that values a strong and sustainable economy," said Deb Morrissett, vice president -- regulatory affairs for the Chrysler Group.

Morrissett noted that in addition to the 30 percent improvements in fuel economy with clean diesel technology, biodiesel has the potential to reduce our nation's reliance on petroleum, much of it from overseas sources. While new clean-diesel technology reduces so-called "greenhouse gas emissions" up to 20 percent, biodiesel can further improve the carbon dioxide balance. Biodiesel also cuts tailpipe emissions significantly. And it is homegrown, thanks to America's farmers.

"Alternative fuels, including soy biodiesel and ethanol, are included in the President's energy plan," Amy Sigg Davis, chairman of the Ohio Soybean Council.  "I can see nothing but a bright future for soy biodiesel, the nation's farmers, our economy and the environment."

In addition to B5, a blend of 20 percent biodiesel and 80 percent regular diesel fuel called B20 (how do they think of these names?) has recently been approved by Chrysler for use in its Dodge Ram pickup trucks for government, military and commercial fleet customers effective with the 2007 model year. DaimlerChrysler is the first U.S. automaker to specifically approve of B20.

The downside of the picture is that recent consumer research indicates that American consumers still have lingering doubts about diesels, many born in the diesel boom-bust debacle of the late 1970s and early 1980s.  But with green biodiesel leading the way, the diesel engine might be poised for renewed success.  You can learn more about biodiesel by going to their Web site.

Based in Cleveland, Luigi Fraschini covers the auto industry with a particular emphasis on environmental and safety issues.

Five Fuels -- No Waiting

Are you bi-fuel curious? Volvo can go you one, er, actually three better.  It's imaginatively named Volvo Multi-Fuel is a five-cylinder prototype car designed to run on, well, multiple fuels. At least one of them you have probably heard of -- Volvo charmingly calls it petrol, but you probably refer to it as gasoline.  Others in the mix are natural gas (which you might burn in your stove but not in your car), hythane, biomethane, and bioethanol E85.  For those of you who aren't chemistry majors, hythane is a mix of 10 percent hydrogen and 90 percent methane.  Bioethanol E85 is a mix of 85 percent bioethanol and 15 percent gasoline. 

The two-liter five-cylinder engine produces 200 horsepower, which gives the vehicle spritely performance.  With the benefits of turbocharging that has been tuned for optimized use with all five fuels, it can accelerate from zero to 62 miles per hour (100 km/h) in just 8.7 seconds. This makes the car responsive and fun to drive. As you would expect, the Multi-Fuel is just as safe as all Volvo vehicles, with the added bonus of being exceptionally clean. One of its benefits is that combustion of pure renewable fuels like hydrogen, biomethane and bioethanol make negligible net contribution of fossil carbon dioxide to the atmosphere.  Carbon dioxide has been tabbed by some as a contributor to global warming.

"The whole car is optimised for high performance, driving on any of the five different fuels," said Mats Mor

The Science of Potholes

Spring has sprung.  Across the country flowers are beginning to peek their way out of nascent bushes.  Robins are returning from their winter vacations, and another harbinger of the vernal season has started to emerge from the snow and slush -- potholes.

Winter weather doesn't just take its toll on us human beings; it also plays havoc with our roads.  Repeated freezing and thawing can chew up a road surface, filling it with holes, some so deep they can easily swallow up a wheel and tire.  Often filled with water that disguises their true size and depth, potholes can cause serious damage to your vehicle.

How should you deal with this menace?  We asked the engineers at Ford Motor Company whose Ford, Lincoln and Mercury vehicles are subject to stringent testing that can reduce the chance of damage caused by chuckholes. To validate its vehicle designs, Ford has designed its proving grounds to offer a wide variety of road conditions, including pavement filled with potholes, and what it describes as "torture devices" to test and improve the durability of the entire vehicle.

Ford Motor Company has several tips for drivers to help prevent damage to their vehicles from the chuckhole danger:

Pay attention to tire pressure. Keeping tire pressure at the manufacturer's recommendation will help protect your vehicle's wheels and tires from being damaged by potholes. Tire pressure varies from vehicle to vehicle and from season to season, so pay close attention by checking your tire pressure with a tire gauge at least once a month.
 
If you see a pothole at the last minute, resist the urge to swerve to avoid it. Swerving can create a situation where the front wheel and tire on the car can hit the edge of the pothole at an obtuse angle, which might do more damage than hitting it squarely. It might also put you unsafely into another lane of traffic.

If you approach a chuckhole at speed, don't brake heavily as you near it. Heavy braking compresses the front suspension of the car and will have a tendency to force the tire and wheel down fully into the pothole, potentially causing greater damage than your car might experience if it "skimmed" over it.

Reduce speed if you feel a sudden vibration or ride disturbance. If you can't avoid a pothole and suspect your tire or vehicle has been damaged from it, immediately slow down but, of course, don't come to a dead stop on the roadway. Instead drive with caution until you can safely pull off the road to check for damage.

No matter how carefully you drive, there's always the possibility that you may experience a flat tire on the freeway, Interstate or other highly traveled route. If that occurs, drive slowly to the closest safe area out of the way of traffic. While this may further damage the tire, that expense is not as important as your safety.  Unfortunately, each year scores of tire-changers are struck and killed by passing cars.
 
While potholes can damage your vehicle, the good news is that vehicle engineers, like those at Ford, design chassis and suspension components to handle potholes and other imperfections in the road effectively, balancing them for numerous customer driving conditions. To give drivers a fighting chance with monster spring potholes, engineers tune shock rebound rates to keep the wheel and tire suspended for a fraction of a second, helping the driver get through a pothole with minimal or no damage at all.. Good shock absorbers can prevent a tire from fully dropping into the break of the pavement and impacting the edge of the tire and wheel.

With a keen eye for danger and the help of modern suspension technology, you can make certain a chuckhole doesn't swallow you up this spring.

Based in Villeperce, France, Driving Today Contributing Editor Tom Ripley covers the auto industry and the human condition, both of which are filled with potholes.

Katrina Cars Still Haunt Market

Hurricane Katrina devastated the Gulf Coast and New Orleans seven months ago, but the fury of the storm continues to bedevil car buyers across the country.  Why?  Because vehicles damaged by the hurricane's vicious winds and destructive flood waters continue to land on the used car market, and those who buy a "Katrina car" without being informed of its damage are being duped. 

How big is the problem?  Industry estimates indicate that more than half a million cars were damaged by Hurricanes Katrina, Wilma and Rita as they crashed into Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana and Texas. The National Insurance Crime Bureau, which disseminates information regarding insurance fraud, has assembled a database of more than 200,000 vehicles reported storm-damaged by the various insurance companies that covered their losses.  You can tap into that database by learning the Vehicle Identification Number (VIN) for a car or truck you are considering and then searching for it at the NCIB (National Insurance Crime Bureau) Web site.

But while that has the potential to shortstop a lot of potential hurricane-related vehicle fraud, it is only an aid, not a panacea.  The database lists fewer than half the vehicles that are estimated to have been damaged by the unprecedented series of storms.  That means that hundreds of thousands of storm-damaged cars are out there, many of them on the used car market, and there is no simple way to determine if they were damaged.

CarFax, a company that specializes in vehicle histories based primarily on vehicle title information, is a good resource as you research potential used car purchases.  But, depending upon state regulations, vehicle titles may or may not disclose flood or wind damage, especially if the damage was not severe enough for the vehicle to be "totaled."  Additionally, the storms affected many new cars and trucks that had never been titled, which gives unscrupulous sellers an opportunity to refrain from disclosing pre-existing damage.  The illegal practice of "title washing" can also be used by crooked dealers to defraud buyers.  This often involves re-titling a storm-damaged car in a state with relatively weak titling regulations, essentially removing the taint of storm damage with a "clean" title that does not indicate the vehicle's dubious history.  Private-party sales might be even riskier, since vehicles sold by individuals are most frequently sold "as is," leaving buyers little recourse if they discover later that the car had been damaged by one of the storms or its aftermath.

Remember, it is not illegal to sell a storm-damaged vehicle.  It only becomes fraud if the seller does not disclose flood- or other storm-related damage prior to the sale.  In fact, sold to the right person who knows what he or she is getting into, a storm-damaged vehicle can be a good, bargain purchase.  But for those who want to avoid storm-damaged cars, there are some simple things to watch for that can tip you off to a potential problem-car.  Among them are new and/or mismatched upholstery, rust and/or silt in the interior and trunk, and electrical accessories like power windows and windshield wipers that don't operate normally.  If the car has any of these attributes, you are well-advised to shop elsewhere.

Cleveland-based auto journalist Luigi Fraschini has bought several salvage cars, repaired them and driven them himself, but it is not something for everybody.