A U.S. Department of Agriculture bio-diesel bus powered by a mixture of soybean oil and diesel fuel pulled up to the steps of the U.S. Capitol May 14 this week. The bean bus was one of dozens of environmentally friendly vehicles in the 2002 Tour de Sol road rally and festival.
"I'd like to welcome you to the 14th Annual Tour de Sol," said the announcer. "You know we used to say you come to the Tour de Sol to see the future. You are not seeing the future anymore. You are seeing the present.
Washington is the first of six stops of the Tour de Sol: The Great American Transportation Festival. The event features a 500-kilometer road rally from Washington to New York with vehicles powered by alternative fuels.
During the weeklong tour the vehicles also transform downtown areas like this 2-block stretch in front of the U.S. Capitol into an exhibit space for clean transportation options. Organizer Nancy Hazzard says the Tour is designed to educate.
"The whole purpose of this festival is to showcase environmentally friendly ways of getting around," explains Ms. Hazzard.
SKIRBLE: "So, is this a road rally? A showcase for alternative vehicles?"
NANCY HAZZARD: "It's a little bit of everything. The festival part is a showcase, but we also have a road rally competition here. And the people who participate in the road rally are both people who own some of these new hybrid-electric vehicles as well as a number of students and individuals around the country who have built all kinds of vehicles. Most of them are battery electric, hybrid-electric, solar assisted-electric. We have everything from motorcycles to buses."
Tour de Sol organizer Nancy Hazzard says while alternative vehicles can cut pollution, save money and reduce oil imports, it is hard to get that message across to American consumers.
"To get really efficient vehicles we need the consumer to say, 'We want these vehicles.' That is one of the parts of the Tour de Sol to educate people about the fact that you can make a difference," she explains. " If you are concerned about the energy security or the national security of the United States it is important to do your part, and you can do your part. You (Americans) can go to your [auto] dealer and buy vehicles that use less gasoline per mile."
Gasoline guzzling sport utility vehicles represent half of all new cars sold in the United States. Along with cars and light trucks they emit 20 percent of the carbon dioxide pollution in the country. While the demand for these vehicles is expected to remain high, American car dealerships are beginning to provide some greener options.
The Honda Civic Hybrid is making its U.S. road debut as the official pace car for the 2002 Tour de Sol. Ford is exhibiting its all electric TH!NK, expected soon on the U.S. market. DaimlerChrysler spokesman Max Gates demonstrates the Town and County Natrium, the company's prototype fuel cell vehicle.
"It runs on an extremely unusual fuel called sodium borohydride, which is related to borax, the compound that is used in laundry soap and other applications. Our vehicle running on that fuel has a range of 300 miles, zero emissions, and the fuel is recyclable, clean and non-flammable. So it is safe, very efficient and very clean," he says.
SKIRBLE: "What is it going to take for a manufacturer to make the transition from fossil fuel powered vehicles to alternative fuels or hybrid vehicles?"
MAX GATES: "First of all we are going to need informed consumers because this technology is different. Our job is to make this technology as transparent to the customer as possible. That means to offer them the same performance, utility, looks, and comfort in a vehicle that they are used to but do it with a cleaner power train. I think one other issue that we have to confront - no matter what alternate fuel you are talking about, whether it is all electric, battery powered vehicles or, hybrids running on gasoline or diesel fuel, or fuel cell vehicles - is that we are all competing against gasoline which is still quite cheap in the United States. And that makes it very difficult for an alternative fuel to have a major impact in the market place."
A 20-year-old electric truck modified to include a hydrogen fuel cell is also in the road rally. The truck is the work of Team New Jersey, a group of college students led by automotive engineer Mike Strizki. He says the vehicle, dubbed "Electric Blue," is among the greenest vehicles on the Tour.
"As you can see from behind us we have a solar array that we can carry along with us and use to top off the battery with sunlight," says Mr. Strizki. "But the real news about this whole project is that fuel cells are real. I just want to drive home the point that if a group of students, a couple local engineers and a few businesses can put together a fuel cell vehicle in just a couple of months at a very reasonable cost, it shouldn't be far off for the major auto manufacturers and we should shortly be seeing it in a lot of home applications as backup power and in small battery applications."
SKIRBLE: "And the chassis, where does it come from?"
MIKE STRIZKI: "This is probably the oldest electric vehicle of all times. The truck itself was built by Jet Industries back in the 1980s to go out to have the meter-readers collect the meter readings. The utility companies basically abandoned these vehicles a few years ago, and we found this one in a junkyard growing weeds."
Ben Fratto a recent college graduate with a degree in chemical engineering spent nights and weekends getting "Electric Blue" ready for the road.
"We put the brand new fuel cells and batteries in but the core of the car is the same," Mr. Fratto says. "The motor is the same as it was twenty years ago. There hasn't been any maintenance on it or any changes and so it shows if I buy an electric car today it is going to be working 20 to 30 years down the line with just regular driving."
SKIRBLE: "You are judged [in the Tour de Sol] by your fuel efficiency, your low green house gas emissions, range, acceleration and handling. How do you figure the vehicle will stack up against the rest?"
FRATTO: "We actually have one of the higher acceleration scores because of our motor technology and our handling should also be good because when I was doing the engineering with the other members of the team we decided we would sink the batteries and lower the center of gravity of the truck so we have better handling than other cars and trucks might have."
Ben Fratto says he hopes someday to play a role in getting fuel cell technology into American cars at a reasonable cost. But for the next few days at least he will drive a prototype of that dream on American highways in the Tour de Sol from Washington to New York.