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When I was younger, I was on track to become a professional dirt bike racer.

All right, maybe that’s not entirely true.  However, some other people in my life did want me to try to be a dirt biker, reasoning that there were fewer girls than guys racing dirt bikes so I had a better chance at getting sponsored and making money off the deal.  Good plan, except that I’m a terrible dirt bike rider who is scared of going above 15 mph, crashes through jumps, and occasionally tries to twist the throttle backwards.

Zero bike

Not your average motorcycle...

Needless to say, my professional career never took off.  However, looking at Zero Motorcycles, maybe it’s time I reconsider the whole dirt biking thing.

The company represents the “ultimate electric motorcycle technology.”  Considering the impressive background of the founder, Neal Saiki, this isn’t surprising.  He’s an aeronautcal engineer by trade, but his ultimate passion has always been motorcycles.  Over the years, Saiki has worked to design high-performance mountain bikes in between his time as a NASA engineer.

Now, he’s at the helm of a company that produces electric dirt bikes, sport bikes, and dual sport bikes.

Let’s delve into some specs.  The sport bike weighs 270 pounds, a range of 50 miles, and a top speed of 67 mph.  As you can imagine, the gas mileage is impressive; the motorcycle is certified to obtain the equivalent of 455 mpg, which comes in at a cost of less than one cent per mile.  The sport bike puts out 26 hp and 98 pound-feet.

The dirt bike models feature ultra-lightweight frames – each a mere 13 pounds – and can provide about two hours or 40 miles of ride time before the battery needs to be recharged.  All told, the motocross model weighs in at 172 pounds and the trail bike at 161 pounds (weights even I might be able to manage).

Zero frame

Made of 100% aircraft-grade aluminum

One of the perks (or drawbacks) of an electric bike?  It’s quiet.  There’s just the hum of an electric motor instead of an ear-splitting two-stroke motor or the roar of a Harley.  This is good for people like me, who get freaked out by loud noises, but also has significant downfalls.  Many people who ride motorcycles like the noise; it’s tough, intimidating, and let’s people know you’re coming, an important part of motorcycle safety, especially in this age of distracted drivers.

Electric motorcycles have been developed unsuccessfully over the years, never really taking off due to heavy batteries and engines.  But Saiki knew where to look for the technology to make electric bikes happen: in the military, where he also spent some time working in aerospace.  Small, super-powerful motors were used in torpedoes and other weaponry, and when the technology became available to the public, Saiki jumped on it.  He also credits his success to the recent developments in lithium-ion batteries.  Added bonus: these bikes can be plugged right into normal outlets!

Zero dirt bike

Picture this parked next to your Honda CRF250R

Protecting the environment was a big motivation for Saiki, whose bikes emit less than 1/8 of the CO2 as gas motorcycles and about 1/100 the NOx.  In addition, the bike’s materials are almost completely recyclable, including the battery.  Concerns of electric fire risks are greatly reduced by the Z-Force™ Air Induction System, which lets more airflow get into the engine and improves performance in addition to its safety benefits.

As a bonus, routine maintenance costs are diminished.  However, the initial price is pretty steep – about $10,000 for a street bike, although buyers are eligible for a 10% tax credit and other states have larger incentives in place, too.  If you’re in California, you’re eligible for $1,500 more back, thanks to Governor Schwarzenegger.

So will I hop on a Zero motorcylcle and recapture my racing dreams?  Not in the near future.  While I’m sure there’s a market for these bikes (think affluent, environmentally-conscious city commuters), I’m not sure if the average motorcycle rider will jump aboard this wagon anytime soon.  Just as with cars, there’s a lot of associations attached with each vehicle.


In what is becoming known as the “Earth Day Blowout,” a premier oil rig exploded and plummeted to the bottom of the ocean last week, ultimately sinking on the fortieth anniversary of Earth Day.

Deepwater Horizon

Crews working to put out the flames after the Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded.

The BP-owned Deepwater Horizon was staffed with over 100 employees, 11 of whom are still missing (and presumed dead) with several others still hospitalized.  Like the coal mining accident earlier this month, this Gulf of Mexico oil spill is bringing to light the damages done by accidents on oil rigs.  From 2001 to 2007, there were over 1,400 accidents involving oil rigs.  In these accidents, 41 people died and 302 were injured.  Investigations into these previous accidents show that human error generally accounts for causation of problems.  That’s to be expected; after all, we’re only human, right?  But the question remains: do we want to continue risking the lives of workers and the integrity of our environment to perpetuate offshore drilling?

Oil spill

The oil from the Deepwater Horizon making its way towards the US coastline.

Right now, the oil spill is leaking at the rate of 42,000 gallons per day from a pipe 5,000 feet below the surface.  The spill covers an area of 1,800 square miles –  larger than the entire state of Rhode Island.  Originally, the slick of oil on the ocean’s surface measured a mere two miles by eight miles.  BP sent 32 vessels to try to contain the spill before it hits the Gulf Coast, where it has the potential to damage an already fragile Louisiana coastline.

This is not a concern to take lightly.  We’ve seen in the past that oil spills can have devastating effects.  For example, look at the Exxon Valdez oil spill of 1989.  That accident spewed 10.8 million gallons of oil into the Prince William Sound, covering 1,300 square miles.  Wildlife are still feeling the effects of that accident today.   At the time, thousands of animals perished.  Birds became soaked in oil and were unable to fly to safety.  Some otters, covered in oil, froze to death in the Arctic waters, while others tried to lick the oil off their fur and poisoned themselves to death.  Two short years later, the largest oil spill in history occurred: the Gulf War oil spill, which dumped up to 462 million gallons of oil into the Persian Gulf, covering an area 42 miles wide by 101 miles long.

Covered in oilAre we okay with this?  Are we okay with painful accidents like the Deepwater Horizon and others in the fossil fuel world, such as the loss of 29 miners in a West Virginia coal mine explosion earlier this month?  What price are we willing to pay to fuel our dependence on fossil fuels?  Accidents like these are sad and heart-wrenching.  But hopefully, they spark new ways of thinking about energy and ways of obtaining it.  There are more options and better options.  We have to pay for renewables and alternatives, and it’s up to us to decide what is more valuable: our people and our environment or cheap fuel.

My mom called me the other day (bless her).  She had heard about this guy in Madison who was foreign and drove a special car, so she thought I should know about it.  After much confusion and several Google searches, I figured out what she was talking about, and it was pretty exciting.

There’s a team in Madison that  is a contender for the Progressive Insurance Automotive X Prize competition; they’re now in the final 31.  The apparent team leader is Chris Beebe of Foreign Car Specialists.  Reading about Chris and the X Prize, it sounds a lot like SMV.  Except maybe that there’s $10 million up for grabs.

Progressive X Prize

If $10 million doesn't motivate you, I don't know what will.

Basically, the X Prize is trying to get automotive engineers (or people who are really good with cars) to build a production-ready high-mileage vehicle that is reasonably priced.  They say their goal is “to inspire a new generation of viable, super-efficient vehicles that help break our addiction to oil and stem the effects of climate change.”

There are two main categories, similar to other competitions of this nature: the mainstream class and the alternative class.  While both categories specify that cars be “road ready,” there is more room for the imagination in the alternative class.  The mainstream class must fit at least four adults and drive like a reasonable car that could be on the roads today (drive at highway speeds, have cargo space, and so forth).  The best car in this class will win its team $5 million.  The alternative class has two options – tandem seating and side-by-side seating – and allows teams to be a little more creative in their design.  The two winning cars will each receive $2.5 million.

While the SMV competition is two days in length, the X Prize has several stages teams must go through, culminating with competition and testing of the eight to 15 vehicles late this summer, with the winners announced in September.  Almost all of the testing occurs in Michigan, although one phase occurs down in Illinois.  Considering the rigorous testing, this seems like a huge deal.

To Chris Beebe, I’m sure it is.  He’s given up working in his car shop to devote his time to the two cars he’s working on for the X Prize (sounds like some dedicated SMVers I know).  There’s no telling where he’ll go; the self-educated guy is up against a wide range of competitors, from students to other companies to manufacturers.  With that much money on the line, it’s hard not to want to get involved.

I have to say, these X Prize people seem to know what’s up.  As their website explains, there are huge barriers keeping the automotive industry from moving forward to create a green supercar.  Well, let me rephrase that: there are huge barriers keeping the automotive industry from building a consumer-ready green supercar.  Prototypes abound, and that’s spectacular.  But at the end of the day, to affect real change, we need to get different cars in the hands of the masses.

Maybe the best thing about this competition is that it’s admitting there is a real, urgent problem that needs action, not someday, not maybe, but now.  Admitting there’s a problem is the first step, and while there’s certainly reluctance even there, it’s so exciting that there are programs like SMV and X Prize out there.

The Chevrolet Volt takes on the Nissan Leaf.  Who will come out on top?

Chevy Volt

Can this much-hyped (semi) EV take on the new Nissan?


If you’re looking for speed, the Volt is probably where it’s at.  The Chevy delivers 150 hp and boasts a top speed of 100 mph.  On the other hand, the Nissan has 110 hp and tops out at 87 mph.

Winner: Volt


Both cars can charge to full battery capacity in about eight hours (assuming you have the Nissan charging station).  The Nissan offers a support network, LCD display, helpful charging functions, Bluetooth connectivity, XM radio capability, and roadside assistance.  Volt offers much of the same, including some advice on how to obtain the best fuel efficiency while driving.  The Leaf is a bit roomier, but I think the Volt has a nicer overall look.

Winner: Volt


This really depends on what your driving goals are.  If you are content to use the car for commuting and short distance driving, then go for the Leaf, which has a range of 100 miles.

At first glance, it appears that the Volt can’t go as far; its electric motor will power it for merely 40 miles.  However, after the first 40, a 4-cylinder engine powers an on-board generator, which then powers the electric motor.  The car can then go for up to 300 miles.  GM says that 40 miles will cover the average American’s daily commute, which is about 33 miles.

Winner: Volt

Environmental Impact

Obviously, the Leaf does not burn any gasoline whatsoever, meaning it does not emit carbon dioxide from its tailpipe.  But that doesn’t mean that the Leaf is emissions-free.  It is still obtaining electricity from the grid, and the CO2 emissions from the electricity used depends on the source of the power.  In states where the electricity comes from renewable or low emissions sources, like solar, wind, hydro, and nuclear, CO2 emissions are slight or none.  But burning “dirty” coal puts more pollutants into the air, so the overall emissions varies depending on location.  Regardless, the Leaf wins this battle, as the Volt still burns gas to power the generator.

Winner: Leaf


Here, it looks like the Leaf has the Volt around the neck.  Both vehicles are applicable for a federal tax credit of $7,500, and some states offer more rebates, too.  While Chevy hasn’t announced its price officially, estimates are coming in at around $40,000.  The Nissan is slated to come out significantly lower at $32,750.  In today’s economy, which isn’t expected to turn around dramatically anytime soon, that seven grand can make a big difference.  Also, some consumers might harbor some resentment towards GM for killing the electric car all those years ago.

However, it should be noted that the Leaf needs to be plugged into a special home charging station, which will run about $2,200.  The feds will pay for half of that, but still, that’s an extra $1,000 on top of the base price.

Winner: Leaf

Fuel Efficiency

The Volt: For the first 40 miles, the Volt uses stored electricity from its battery.  Beyond that, its electric motor is powered by a gas-fueled generator.  The EPA estimates that the Volt is expected to get 50 mpg from its gasoline motor while in the charge-sustaining mode.  Its difficult to estimate the overall fuel economy, since the car runs off both gasoline and grid electricity, and the EPA is working to create standards that would make more sense for consumers.  Their closest estimates for the Volt are 85 mpg.  GM came out with some interesting estimates using complicated math that puts the car at 230 mpg.  Upon hearing those estimates, Nissan stifled a laugh and claimed that using that math, the Leaf gets 367 mpg.

Winner: Leaf

Overall winner: Leaf.  It’s not perfect, but when it comes to being a great new green car, the Leaf is where it’s at.

Nissan Leaf

Oh yeah, you know you love me.

I have a confession to make.  I like to know things.  No, not just that.  I like to have actual expertise about different subjects.  So I tend to ask a lot of questions, amass some knowledge, and go out into the world a little smarter than before.  Usually, I’ll put my foot in my big mouth, screw up, and crawl meekly back to my hole to start learning all over again.

However.  The more you know, the more you know you don’t know, and that’s getting ingrained in my brain as I go out and learn more about SMV and green automotive technology.  I really just don’t know much at all, but I’m working hard at figuring it all out.

So when resident mechanic Andy handed me the latest edition of Diesel Power and told me to read the article about the “Diesel Electric Supercar,” I was all over it.  I love to read.  I was going to own that article.

Yeah, right.

So it is now with great humility (and lots of extra research) that I can tell you what the article was about: the Capstone CMT-380 supercar, which is essentially a Ford GT40 kit car with a Capstone C30 microtubrine. Basically, the car is a hybrid of sorts: it runs on an electric motor (which has a range of about 80 miles) that can be plugged in or recharged with a diesel microturbine, which will kick in to run the vehicle when the electric motor is run down to a predetermined amount.  Take a look at this ad about the car.

Capstone says that the car produces very low emissions and meets the toughest emissions standards.  It has a range of about 500 miles (although can supposedly get about 210 mpg in a special testing mode) and can run off all kinds of fuels, including unprocessed waste gases.  The micorturbine has no liquid lubricants – it’s totally air-cooled and air-lubricated.

And because it’s a supercar, the prototype gas a top speed of 150 mph and can go from naught to sixty in under four seconds.


Capstone's microturbine

Capstone’s microturbines are already installed in buses and other kinds of transportation, as well as other types of industry.  The idea is pretty neat.  I can find one main thing it really has going for it: simplicity.  The process seems elegant compared to what’s underneath other hybrid hoods.  But nowhere, except in various comments I found, could I find a mention of price.  While Capstone says it has no interest in creating commercial cars for mass production, price (especially now) plays a huge role in consumer decisions.

So this car, like many other concept cars, is pretty cool.  But where is it going?  That’s the big question for a lot of these technologies.  Any ideas?

This week marked the 26th Shell Eco-marathon, a competition where innovation reigns supreme.  Laval University from Canada took top honors at the Houston, Texas event, as did Purdue University and the Cicero North Syracuse High School team from New York.


While the Eco-marathon (a competition similar to SMV that encourages teams of students to build fuel efficient vehicles) as we know it has only been around since 1985, Shell scientists held their own version of the event way back in 1939.  Of course, this involved a bunch of scientists taking bets on whose car could get the best miles per gallon, so it is a little different from the competition today.

There are two types of competitors at the Eco-marathon: prototype models (cars that try to be the most fuel efficient while meeting basic safety measures) and UrbanConcept (vehicles that are similar to cars you’d see on roadways but are still as fuel efficient as possible).  Car models can run on pretty much anything, including:

  • Diesel
  • Petrol
  • Liquefied Petroleum Gas
  • Biodiesel
  • Ethanol
  • Solar
  • Electric
  • Biofuels
  • Gas to Liquids

Prizes are awarded based on categories.  This year in the Prototype section, Laval got 2,487.5 miles per gallon in the combustion engine category.  The Cicero team took top honors in the fuel cell/hydrogen cars with 780.9 miles per gallon while Purdue won the solar competition with 4,548 mpg.

Purdue Solar Car

Purdue students were undoubtedly pretty thrilled about their performance in the solar category.

Over on the UrbanConcept side, the Mater Dei High School from Evansville, IN won the combustion engine category with 437.2 mpg.  Other awards, such as People’s Choice, Design, and Best Team Spirit were doled out, as you can see in this complete list of winners.

So it’s clear that this competition is set up a little differently than the Supermileage Vehicle event.  It’s run by a private company (all Eco-marathoners run Shell fuels, natch), there are fewer specs for the vehicles, and it’s open to students from all walks of life, rather than collegiate engineers.  Put simply, I think the whole thing is great.  Hopefully I can learn more about it and report back, but from what I do know, the set-up seems pretty neat.  Shell is encouraging fuel efficiency in any form and giving kids a chance to experiment and think about different ways of doing things without having to invest millions of research dollars (although I think those investments are important, too).  Students are a fantastic resource, and as a student, I say capitalize on us!  Use us (within reason)!  We need experience, you need people doing work, and we may as well be doing work that can make a difference, right?

If I’ve figured out anything, it’s that there is no single clear way forward.  There are a million ways to skin a cat, and while hopefully we won’t have to figure out a million different paths forward from here on out, we certainly need all these ideas and skill sets.  Way to go, Eco-marathon competitors!

When I nearly got mowed down by a silent Prius the other day, I just had to think of this.  Sorry the quality’s not so great, but maybe it will give you some ideas for any street fights/duels you happen to get into over the weekend.

In all seriousness, the Prius and other EVs and hybrids do pose a concern to those with vision problems, the blind, and children, like this boy who biked into a hybrid a few years ago.  While several solutions to this downfall have been proposed, none seem to have been adopted.  Of course, Toyota has bigger fish to fry with the Prius.

For those of us who have the ability to do so, let’s try to remember: look both ways before bopping across the street, especially in Prius-saturated areas.

So let’s take a look at an idea that has gotten…less than favorable feedback.  It’s a big idea, and it’s out there, but let’s keep this in mind: at this point in the green revolution, it’s not all or nothing.  This concept doesn’t specifically have to do with cars, but rather the roads cars drive on.

Scott Brusaw of Solar Roadways has a vision for America: replace existing roadways not with oil-based asphalt, but solar panels.  Well, solar panels covered by high-tech, non-slip, self-cleaning glass.  The idea is: use the infrastructure already in place as a convenient space to capture, store, and transport solar energy.  Take a look at this video for a better explanation.

Gotta admit, it sounds a little wild.  It’s expensive (about $7,000 for a 12′ by 12′ panel or about $35 trillion to replace all of the roads in America), it has that “too good to be true” feel about it, but more importantly, it’s never been done before.  That’s the scary part.  We’re talking about solar energy (still in its infancy here in the States), glass panels to cover them that have never been made before, and a way to electrify our country that hasn’t really been considered. There’s a lot of fodder for the naysayers right there.

No one likes to fail.  Unfortunately, that’s a part of being successful.  If the numbers are right, if the projections are right, Scott might actually be on to something here.  I think it’s at least worth trying out in some sunny place, and Scott did get a $100k grant for his work, so hopefully a trial is in the future.  The US is beginning to lose the clean energy race, and if I know anything, we don’t like to lose.  Remember: failing and losing aren’t the same thing.  Which one are we going to choose?

It heats the planet, tans our skin, and makes us squint when there’s too much of it.  Yup, I’m talking about the sun, and when it comes to turning it to fuel, there is no easily reachable conclusion.  Can solar energy be used to power cars?  Sure thing.  Is it extremely practical?  Not so much, but that doesn’t mean we can rule out solar-powered vehicles yet.  Take a look at these videos to get a feel for what I’m talking about.

This gives a brief overview of a solar car from ETS in Montreal.  If you thought your car was expensive, think again; this car has a price tag of $700k.

Here’s a car from the University of New South Wales, Australia that competed in the Global Green Challenge down under.

And if you thought you were living sustainably, you might want to think again after seeing this guy!

So what have these videos shown?  Solar powered cars are definitely a possibility.  However, their expensive price tags and limited capabilities mean that such technology maybe isn’t very practical for the roadways.

Of course, there are ways of incorporating the use of solar energy into cars.  There’s been talk of Toyota introducing a Prius with solar panels to give the hybrid a 15km energy boost.  Some Prius models already have a solar panel on the sunroof, which helps out the car’s ventilation system.  And students around the world work hard to compete in various solar car competitions, hopeful to develop new technologies that will make commercial solar cars more than a pipe dream.

And solar power itself seems to have great potential.  After all, it’s renewable energy that’s already shining down on everything anyways.  While it might not make sense at this point to cruise around in a solar-powered car, it certainly might not be a bad idea to put up some solar panels on your house or garage.

I’m going to be honest here.  I don’t drive the greenest car at this moment in time.  It’s a ’94 Toyota 4Runner that gets about 20 miles to the gallon.  It’s not terrible, but it’s not great, and will likely meet its death soon due to various health problems.

For anyone who’s not quite sure what a 4Runner is like, just picture the kinds of SUVs that cruise around the African desert, the kind that can go through monsoons and still look all right, or even the kind that can sit on top of an exploding building and drive away from the wreckage (at least I’ve been told they can do that).  My car’s pretty sturdy, which has let to numerous people believing they should bomb around in it as a rally car.  Because I do indeed like my car and need it to get around, I have politely declined all these years.  Perhaps I’ll let someone take it on one last hurrah before it’s retired.

Electric car

Rally car? I guess! This guy's all set for e-Miglia.

One rally my car won’t be participating in is the new e-Miglia rally, slated to happen August 3-6.  The rally is open to four different kinds of electric vehicles, including two, three, and four-wheelers, as well as hybrids.  The rally is organized by the same people who put on the Transsyberia Rally, but e-Miglia will run over paved roads between Germany and Italy, focusing on how well the electric vehicles run and their overall consistency.  There’s 10,000 Euros in prize money to be had, which should give some incentive to fill the 50 open slots for drivers.

Rally car

Electric rally car? Not so much.

The original Miglia rally, the Mille Miglia, ran almost 25 times between 1927 and 1957 and helped to showcase some of the nicest car companies in the world (Porsche or Ferrari, anyone?).  The goal of the e-Miglia rally is to do the same for electric cars: put them in the spotlight and show off their sportiness, reliability, and versatility.  These electric cars probably won’t be cruising through the bogs like other rally cars, but hopefully the event will raise awareness to everything that electric cars can do.

Wanna join the rally?  Check out their website (speaking German is a plus there) and book your plane tickets.  Apparently all you need is a driver’s license and an EV!

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