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I’ve long said that the future of the automobile won’t rest on any one new technology. Volvo apparently took this to heart and threw several of the latest alternative-fuel technologies into one model, which could appear on the market as soon as 2012.

There were few details released, but here’s what we know about the first model to embody Volvo’s “Drive towards Zero” mission:

  • It will use a diesel engine and lithium batteries
  • It can run on battery power alone for about 30 miles
  • Emissions would be below 50 grams of CO2 per km
  • The new technology will make the car really expensive, so Volvo is encouraging governments to offer subsidies and incentives

Photo of the concept Volvo hybrid courtesy of Volvo Cars.

Ratan Tata, chairman of Tata Motors, told the Cornell Global Forum on Sustainable Enterprise that he plans to bring the uber-inexpensive Tata Nano to the U.S. by 2011. The car is slated to go on sale in Europe that same year.

According to a Reuters report, Tata mentioned the fact that before it can be sold in America, the Nano would need to meet U.S. safety and emissions standards. He didn’t mention that doing so would raise the price of the Nano significantly, since the EPA and the NHTSA set a pretty high bar for these things. Higher, even, than in Europe, where emissions standards are voluntary.

So, if the Nano does make it here, expect it to be safer, cleaner, and much more expensive than the version sold in Tata’s home market of India, where the teeny car goes for about $2,300.

The 2009 Audi Q7 TDI is being billed as “the world’s cleanest diesel SUV,” with 50-state emissions compliance and 17 city/25 highway fuel economy. It’s not cheap to buy race-proven diesel technology in an SUV, though: the Q7 TDI starts at $50,900. This doesn’t include the $825 destination charge, but it also doesn’t factor in the $1,150 Alternative Motor Vehicle Credit from the IRS.

In addition to getting 600 miles per tank, the diesel engine delivers significantly more torque, which is useful for those who actually utilize their sports utility vehicles, say, when climbing a steep hill. The Q7 also produces 25% less carbon dioxide than gasoline engines and emits 90% fewer nitrogen oxides than the stinky, old diesels of yore, according to Audi.

On March 26, President Barack Obama pushed new fuel economy regulations for 2011 through the Department of Transportation. The regulations give some teeth to an initiative begun by the Bush administration to reduce emissions and our dependence on foreign oil.

The new standards were drafted quickly to give automakers time to retool production lines to meet the requirements. The 2011 model year was targeted so that the accelerated standards could be implemented quickly while not affecting the aggressive plans Obama has for future fuel economy and emissions standards.

Here’s how the mpgs will play out in 2011:

  • Passenger cars (sedans, compacts, etc.) must average 30.2 mpg
  • Light trucks (pickups, SUVs, etc.) must average 24.1 mpg
  • National fuel savings: 900 million gallons
  • Cost to the auto industry: $1.4 billion

These are small increases — smaller even than in the Bush proposal — that are expected to be met with little drama by embattled U.S. auto makers. Keep an eye on California, though, as it’s allowed to set its own fuel economy standards in the next few months, along with any other state that should fancy cleaner air and less time at the gas station.

Oh, Americans, when will we ever learn? We the people freaked out during the spring and summer of 2008, when gas prices hit $4 a gallon, and bought small, low-gas-mileage, low-emissions, Earth-friendlier vehicles by the boatload. Small cars that had languished on dealership lots for months were snapped up in seconds as the price of gasoline climbed. And heaven forbid you had a Mini Cooper or hybrid on your shopping list. They were scarcer than hens’ teeth.

In the wake of this fuel economy frenzy, articles were written (including one by me) about the plight of the large truck. Pickups and SUVs were left on the lot by new-car buyers, despite deep discounts and dealer incentives to get these things to go away and make room for the smaller cars people wanted.

But now, though we all talk a good eco-game, truck sales are inching back up. This despite the fact that all signs point to the current low-ish price of gas being an anomaly. Not to mention that whole reducing the ol’ carbon footprint idea. Here are the top five vehicles ranked by sales in May and November, according to industry publication Automotive News, with city and highway mileage plus the annual carbon dioxide output numbers from the EPA:

May 2008

  1. Honda Civic (53,299 sold, 25/36, 6.3 tons of CO2)
  2. Toyota Corolla (52,826, 26/35, 7.3 tons of CO2)
  3. Toyota Camry (51,291, 21/31, 7.3 tons of CO2)
  4. Honda Accord (43,728, 21/31, 7.7 tons of CO2)
  5. Ford F series (42,973, 14/19, 11.4 tons of CO2)

November 2008

  1. Ford F series (37,911)
  2. Chevy Silverado (29,534, 15 city/20 hwy, 10.8 tons of CO2)
  3. Toyota Camry (25,224)
  4. Toyota Corolla (21,807)
  5. Honda Civic (17,690)

Mercedes-Benz has gotten a lot of press recently about AdBlue, the additive that makes its new BlueTec clean diesel SUVs and wagons so clean. I called up Larkin Hill, a PR rep at Mercedes, and asked her to explain to me what this AdBlue and BlueTec stuff was all about.

“Twenty years ago, 80% of Mercedes sales were diesel,” said Hill. “But they had a reputation for being loud, slow, and sooty. The BlueTec diesels are quiet, fast, and clean. You can stand behind one in a white linen suit and not get dirty.” This, she said, is due to AdBlue, an exhaust treatment fluid used in all the BlueTec diesels to neutralize nitrous oxide emissions.

In order for the Mercedes BlueTec diesels to meet the U.S. Bin 5 emissions standard, the company had to guarantee that the customer would put AdBlue into the exhaust system. “You get many, many, many warnings,” said Hill. “The car gives you twenty chances. It counts down the number of starts you have left.” When you’re out of AdBlue and the countdown reaches zero, you can’t start the car without adding another quart.

The reservoir is easy to find and easy to fill, though, as it’s located in the spare tire well in the back. And you can go 10,000 miles of normal driving without worry. Most people will have their M-B dealer top off the AdBlue tank during regular maintenance. For those who do a lot of towing or want peace of mind, BlueTec owners can buy and carry extra quarts. It’s available at 1500 outlets, like Pep Boys.

Right now, there are three 2009 vehicles with BlueTec clean diesel: the ML320, the GL320, and the R320. Hill said the company plans to release an E320 sedan with BlueTec and AdBlue later this year. And yes, she said, AdBlue is indeed blue.

Drive Flex Fuel stickerDriveFlexFuel.com sells conversion kits for cars, trucks, RVs, motorcycles, and boats so that they can run on E85, gasoline, or a combination of the two. The kits are available for any fuel-injected engine (which covers a lot of ground) for a few hundred bucks.

As a hypothetical demonstration, I’ll use my little red GMC pickup truck. The picture of this particular conversion kit looks intimidating: a box with a lengths of “plug and play” connectors coiled around it. It’s available for less than $400, though, which seems like a bargain. (They also have kits for the likes of your 12-cylinder Ferraris and Aston Martins for about $700.)

Like most other alternative-fuel web sites, there’s a carbon footprint calculator, which tells me that I’m emitting nearly 5,000 pounds of CO2 annually (the EPA estimator says I’m putting out more like 6,000 pounds. Either way, it’s not great). By using an E85 converter from Drive Flex Fuel, though, I could reduce my annual CO2 emissions by more than a ton. Intriguing.

Where to gas up, though? Using the zip code where my little red truck lives in Portland, Oregon, Drive Flex Fuel came up with eight locations within 50 miles. Two of these, though, were for government vehicles only, and a few seemed to be for commercial vehicles, not passenger vehicles.

This seems like a project for experienced home mechanics only — not a DIY weekend deal, unless you’re converting a non-essential car just for kicks. But if you’ve got the greasemonkey chops and want to green your ride, this seems like a relatively inexpensive and easy way to do it.

If you want to try sharing a ride — to work, to school, for spring break — look no further than the magical Internets. There are several sites out there for hooking up with a driver or riders, whether you want a daily commute into the city or a one-way from New York to San Francisco, Kerouac-style. Here’s a round-up for easy reference:

  • Roadsharing This site skews toward Europe, but what a way to get around the Continent. It’s way more reliable than sticking out a thumb and hoping for the best. Terms and conditions, as of this posting, are only in Italian.
  • Zimride This ride, carpool, and cabshare finder is also available as a Facebook app, a widget, and, as of September 2008, on your mobile phone. Free registration.
  • Carticipate Get this rideshare app for your iPhone via iTunes. Free.
  • PickUpPal An ticker at the bottom of the homepage tells you how many potential tons of CO2 have been kept out of the air thanks to the site’s bidding system for rides. Free registration.
  • Ridester A clean, simple web interface for finding a commute buddy. Ticket Fee, Driver’s Fee, and Processing Fees.
  • Divide The Ride Carpooling for families who have to deal with soccer, ballet, Little League, the school paper, etc. The same people have launched CarLine Manager for after-school pickup, too. Free.

Many communities also have local rideshare boards online (like San Fransisco’s rideshare.511.org), so search for sites in your city for a local commuting option to save gas and seriously cut down on traffic and emissions.

Speaking of GM\'s Recycling Efforts ...GM reported last week that it’s taken a large stride in its goal of making 80 of its largest manufacturing facilities “landfill free.” Another 33 plants have been added to the roster, bringing the total number of sites recycling 96% or more of their manufacturing waste to 43. In addition to high recycling requirements, the facilities must also convert at least 3% of their waste  to energy.

While recycling and reusing leftover car bits has an undeniable environmental impact, it affects GM’s bottom line, too. Its global scrap metal recycling efforts have reached $1 billion a year, with another $16 million coming from the sale of recycled wood, cardboard, oil, and plastic.

Most of the factories on the list so far are outside the U.S., but so is most of GM’s manufacturing. The original list of 10 landfill-free facilities included five U.S. plants and five foreign. The addition of the next 33 has locations from Bupyeong, Korea, to Wixom, Michigan, and covers everything from powertrains to assembly.

GM said in a press release that it will recycle or reuse 3 million tons of waste this year, and keep 3.65 million metric tons of CO2 out of the atmosphere. Half of the company’s facilities will be landfill-free by 2010, according to the release.

Photo by EuroTraveler.

In Sioux Falls, South Dakota — just up the road from this week’s Sturgis Motorcycle Rally — one Harley-Davidson dealership has taken a bold step in the future of bikes. J&L Harley-Davidson has added Vectrix electric motorscooters to the mix on its showroom floor.

A recent story in the Argus Leader said Harley riders were open to the idea of an electric bike. The browsers quoted in the story didn’t say they were ready to give up their hardtails and ape-hangers for a 60-mph electric scooter, but they did like that the Vectrix was a zero-emissions vehicle.

Keep in mind, though, that Harleys are no slouch in the mileage department themselves. The 2009 Sportster 883 Low, to pick a model at random, gets 54 mpg in the city and 60 when you get your motor runnin’ and head out on the highway. But what comes out the other end, while hard to pin down with exact numbers, is apparently bad enough to warrant a California emissions fee of a couple hundred bucks.