Saturday, October 25, 2008

Going down the road feeling green.

Twenty years ago when I travelled all over the country to see the Grateful Dead, I always thought it would be cool to have a Westfalia VW van to travel around in. Cruising the parking lot of show I loved to poke my head in the Westfalia checking them out fantasizing about the owner's seemingly carefree life. Well that was a long time ago, and the idea has been stored way back in my subconscious, until now.

Flipping through Time Magazine's November supplement Style & Design I discovered the Westfalia Verdier Solar Power.  Created by Alexander Verdier, this hybrid camper is outfitted with solar panels that provide electricity for the on-board accessories while the vehicle is stationary.  There is an on-board computer and a GPS (Global Positioning System) that calculates the optimal position for the solar panels which are dubbed "Sun Tracker."

Some other improvements from the 1960's version include, a pneumatic suspension, which lowers the vehicle and sets its structure on the tires for improved comfort and a better stabilization in the stationary position. The sliding half-door on the passenger side that has an integrated folding staircase which makes the second stage area accessible from outside the vehicle. The passenger seat is transformed mechanically into stairs so that the second stage area (top level) can be easily reached from inside. A swivel cooking range makes it possible to cook outside as well as inside.  And of course, a multi-media computer with a wireless Internet connection.  To really see how cool this "van" is, check out out a video by clicking here.

Well Jerry Garcia is dead but the dream is alive today. I'm fantasizing right now about going with my husband and kids across country in this chic and environmentally friendly Westfalia rendition. Oh how I am ready to go on the road again! The Verdier will not be available until 2009 but they are taking reservations now.  Shoot, it's $129,000.  Ok the dream is dead.

Sunday, October 5, 2008

1908 Ford Model T vs. 2008 Ford Pick-Up

On October 1st, 2008, the Ford Model-T turned 100-years-old.  Back in 1908, the year my grandmother was born,  this "universal car" as Henry Ford called it, became the first mass-produced car and the symbol of low-cost reliable transportation. But more important than it's centenial, the Model T got 13-21 MPG (max speed 45 MPH), and it was the first flexible-fuel vehicle, running on gas, ethanol or both. According to Model T collector Stu Chaney of the Model T Ford Club of America who appeared on the The CBS Saturday Early Show, "It will run on moonshine, gasoline, kerosene, diesel fuel-- about anything you can put a match to. And, whatever it runs on, it would pass today's very strict emission standards, because it burns the complete charge in the combustion."

Call me crazy but why are we no better off 100 years later? According the the US Department of Energy's website,, the 2008 Ford Ranger Pick-Up gets 15 MPG (highway, city combine).  I drive a Acura MDX and hardly ever go above 45 MPH and I am only getting about 15 MPH, and neither of these cars are Flex-Fuel vehicles.  

Are you kidding me?  So the 100 year-old Model-T does better on fuel efficiency than cars made today and its a flex-fuel automobile.

Henry Ford knew there was a future in alternative fuel.  In 1925 he told the New York Times that "The fuel of the future is going to come from fruit like that sumach out by the road, or from apples, weeds, sawdust -- almost anything. There is fuel in every bit of vegetable matter that can be fermented. There's enough alcohol in one year's yield of an acre of potatoes to drive the machinery necessary to cultivate the fields for a hundred years."

In the late 1920's, Ford began to test crops for their industrial potential.  He actually used soybeans in gearshift knobs and horn buttons. This process of creating industrial products from agricultural raw materials is called Chemurgy.  Coined by the chemist William J. Hale, chemurgy in the 1930's during the Great Depression, many farmers and others were advocating the link between farm and industry. In 1935, the Farm Chemurgic Council (later renamed the National Farm Chemurgic Council) was formed to encourage greater use of renewable raw materials in industry. This sounds like a good idea to me.  If you've read some of my other blogs, you know that I feel strongly about the pervasive nature of petrochemicals in our everyday lives.  

So tell me what happened in the past 100 years.  Well, after Henry Ford began producing the Model-T oil-based gasoline emerged as the dominant fuel due to it availability, price, and of course lobbying from petroleum companies to maintain steep alcohol taxes. According to Hemp Car Transamerica (don't laugh this is both legit and important):  "Many bills proposing a National energy program that made use of Americas vast agricultural resources (for fuel production) were killed by smear campaigns launched by vested petroleum interests."  So big oil killed big agriculture's bid for our gas tanks?  We're dependent upon foreign oil due to American big oil efforts.

Hemp Car Transamerica continues, "One noteworthy claim put forth by petrol companies was that the U.S. government's plans 'robbed taxpayers to make farmers rich'. Gasoline had many disadvantages as an automotive resource. The 'new' fuel had a lower octane rating than ethanol, was much more toxic (particularly when blended with tetra-ethyl lead and other compounds to enhance octane), generally more dangerous, and contained threatening air pollutants. Petroleum was more likely to explode and burn accidentally, gum would form on storage surfaces and carbon deposits would form in combustion chambers of engines."  So this fuel is less efficient, dirtier, and more dangerous.  Great choice America.

Finally, Hemp Car Transamerica concludes,  "Pipelines were needed for distribution from 'area found' to "area needed". Petroleum was much more physically and chemically diverse than ethanol, necessitating complex refining procedures to ensure the manufacture of a consistent "gasoline" product. However, despite these environmental flaws, fuels made from petroleum have dominated automobile transportation for the past three-quarters of a century. There are two key reasons: First, cost per kilometer of travel has been virtually the sole selection criteria. Second, the large investments made by the oil and auto industries in physical capital, human skills and technology make the entry of a new cost-competitive industry difficult."

Back in 1974, the EPA began the Miles Per Gallon rating system.  In a 1999 press release announcing the 25th Anniversary of the rating system, the EPA Administrator Carol M. Browner stated, "Choosing the most fuel-efficient vehicle within a class can save drivers at least $1500 [in 1999] in fuel costs and avoid more than 15 tons of greenhouse gas pollution [in 1999] over the life of the vehicle as well as help reduce U.S. dependence on imported oil."

Well only now in 2008, 100 years after the first Model T rolled off the manufacturing line, are Americans and our government, seeing the health, economic and environmental effects of not listening to Henry Ford's original vision.  Well I'm not sure about this?  Are we leading the world, or or we lagging behind?  Can you guess?

Currently one country in Asia has fuel efficiency standards of 43 MPG.  Another has mandated 35.5 miles per gallon by 2010. Those crazy Europeans have mandated 47 MPG by 2012, and Australia is 34.4 by 2010.  But the US is waiting until 2020 to require cars to go 35 MPG. 

Guess who is at 43 MPG?  THE CHINESE.  Yes China, the land of coal fired power plants popping up like weeds is WAY ahead of us in this area.

Time to go vote.  Let your Senator or Congressperson know how you feel about this.  Now is the time.  Think Green on November 2.