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Green Wheels: Contest proves there are 50 shades of green

Published April 18, 2013

“We say that as fans of plug-in vehicles, it seems the Automobile Journalists Association of Canada got this list of finalists wrong.”

Thus, one of my favourite car websites, Inside EVs, began its short review of the inaugural Canadian Green Car Award.

This band of EV enthusiasts, like many others, is incredulous and unhappy that none of the four battery-electric vehicles entered in the competition were among the five finalists, let alone the winner.

The short list included three conventional hybrids, a plug-in hybrid and a highly efficient internal-combustion vehicle. A hybrid, the Ford Fusion, won.

Another critic posted this on the website of AJAC, which ran the competition in conjunction with Green Living Enterprises: “All (the) top finalists still burn fossil fuel. I guess that’s green enough for Canada as our tarsands set the bar pretty low.”

Since I’m heavily involved in the award, I’ve paid close attention to the comments — not all negative, by the way. I don’t feel any need to defend the award, but I like the debate about what exactly are a green car, and the greenest.

For some, they’re simply the vehicles that consume the least fossil fuel and, at the tailpipe, spew the fewest pollutants and greenhouse-gas emissions. If that were the only criterion, battery power would always be on top.

Toss in the fuel required to generate the electricity for the EV’s battery, or measure the energy required to build the vehicle, and it gets more complicated. Still, except where most electricity comes from burning coal, EVs are still in line for the smallest environmental footprint.

But there’s more than footprint to consider: EVs have loads of torque, most handle well and some are luxurious, so they can score well in those areas.

EVs falter, though, on price, range and refuelling time. For that reason, sales, despite recent big percentage increases, remain in the thousands around the world — in a market of tens of millions — and the hundreds in Canada. At those numbers, even if they did zero environmental harm, they have no impact on climate change, air quality or anything else.

So, is it better to have a few of these “clean” vehicles on the road, or tens of thousands — hybrids and advanced internal-combustion — that still burn gasoline but at a slower rate than conventional vehicles? Which option offers the biggest environmental bang for the buck?

Some argue today’s EVs should be recognized for encouraging drivers to be open to more than internal combustion, or because they’re blazing a path for the many to follow if and when batteries get better and cheaper?

All this raises knotty questions: Should green car judges reward EVs because of their innovations or their future possibilities — without being able to forecast when or how they might become mainstream. Or should they focus on environmental benefits in the here and now? Should awards be designed to boost EVs — which appears to be the view of their advocates? On the other hand, should anything with internal combustion be severely downgraded simply because they burn gasoline or diesel?

This is what makes green car contests so tricky and interesting.

EVs are getting better. Nissan’s new Leaf has more range and a lower price tag. Tesla promises a cheaper car. GM says it’s developing a battery with 300-kilometre range. Several new plug-in hybrids will arrive soon. Internal combustion continues to improve.

The only certainty is that the competition, and debate, will get tougher.

UH OH! CANADA: A couple of weeks ago, in a column about Hyundai’s Sonata hybrid, I wrote that the battery pack comes with a lifetime guarantee. Unfortunately, I was looking at Hyundai’s American website when I got that information. In Canada, the warranty, covering the battery, traction motor and other hybrid components, runs eight years or 160,000 kilometres, whichever comes first.

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