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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.

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It’s been awhile, I know, but trust me, the Milwaukee School of Engineering Supermileage Vehicle team has not been sitting idle.  The team members have been working like maniacs to make sure their car is in great shape for the competition on June 10 and 11.

The carbon fiber body was completed a few weeks ago, but are you curious to find out how exactly those engineers made it happen?  Take a look at this video to watch how they did it!

The body is now fully assembled and the car is running.  Last weekend, the team spent a rainy Saturday in the rain testing the vehicle.  They put about fifteen (wet) miles on the car – talk about dedication!  While the testing team was outside, the rest of the crew was working on the electronic fuel injection (EFI) engine.

Testing

Testing

Testing

This week, the team is putting on the top of the car and will begin testing with the entire car.  After putting at least 30 more miles on the vehicle, the team will begin the final preparation stage to get ready for the competition.

Full body

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.

The other day, I talked about the new gas mileage law, which will require car manufacturers to increase the fuel economy their fleets obtain by 2016.  For the environment, this is a step forward, leading to decreased overall carbon emissions and better mpg’s in cars.  Naturally, this will also increase new car costs as car makers dump resources in R and D to create more efficient vehicles.  But this bill might provide an unexpected injury to another part of the auto market: the luxury car industry.

James Bond Aston Martin

Will James Bond have to give up his trademark Aston Martin?

Remember that car manufacturers must have a fleet average of about 35.5 miles per gallon.  For large companies like GM and Ford, this is pretty feasible, considering the high number of models these firms produce.  Even lower-end luxury brands like BMW should be all right meeting these standards, especially considering the high mileage makes already coming out.  But what about the really high-end performance cars like Porsches and Aston Martins?

If the makers of the fast cars are large manufacturers, these regulations should be pretty easy to overcome.  Consider Ferrari, which just released the fastest road car in the company’s history, the 599 GTO.  Ferrari is owned by Fiat SpA, which luckily is already selling fuel efficient vehicles in the US.  But brands that don’t sell cars besides luxury autos in the US are scrambling for ways to meet this regulation, like developing smaller, more fuel efficient cars (both Aston Martin and Jaguar are trying that route).  Tiny (fewer than 5,000 vehicles sold per year) manufacturers are hoping that the EPA makes special allowances for them since the government agency has said these companies will get their own rules.  Larger car makers (50-400k cars) are allowed to have 25,000 cars per year exceed mileage targets without being penalized.

Ferrari 599 GTO

The fastest Ferrari road car ever made...

And let’s not forget that fuel efficiency and carbon emissions regulations are not unique to America.  Most developed countries in the world have to adhere to standards which get more strict all the time.  In fact, the US is lagging behind in the regulations game.

So what exactly does this mean?  Will our favorite high performance car makers be able to punch out a few efficient models to keep the sportiest vehicles on the road?  I’ve said this before – I love fast cars, even if I may never own one.  But can they remain on our highways indefinitely?  Or will there come a time when they’re chained to closed tracks?

Maybe others agonized over a similar decision decades ago when horses were replaced by horsepower.  Maybe carriage drivers were sad to put their high-stepping ponies in the barn and resigned themselves to riding and driving them for sport instead of transportation.  Will luxury cars as we know it be kept merely for hobby instead of a way of getting around?  I know that most Aston Martin drivers aren’t slogging through their daily commutes like James Bond, but these new regulations may dramatically change the fast cars we all love.  The divide between transportation and sport might keep growing.

Not to be outdone by its German counterpart, BMW received the 2010 Green Car Award from The Independent in the United Kingdom a few days after VW became the producer of both the best and greenest cars in the world at the New York Auto Show.  Leave it to the Germans to be constantly searching for more success, even when their own countrymen take home the prizes.

The specific model that won the award was the 320D EfficientDynamics.  Like the VW, the 320D isn’t a hybrid; it simply gets stellar gas mileage, coming in at about 68.9 mpg.  The 2-liter engine puts out 161 hp, maxes out at 140 mph, and goes from naught to sixty in 8.2 seconds.  Its CO2 emissions are pretty good, as well.  The 320D is rated at about 109g/km.

BMW 320D

Over 60 mpg? Yes, please!

Like other efficient gas models, this BMW sports some unique features that allow it to sip instead of slurp fuel.  It has slimmer tires (reminiscent of microcars), improved suspension, and a system that eliminates vibration for a smoother ride at lower engine revs.  And of course, it helps that the car is a diesel – we are getting farther and farther away from the smoke-belching trucks of our past.

German Flag

Need a green car? The Germans will hook you up!

And as with the VW, the 320D isn’t available in the United States, despite clamor in US markets. With Prius sales through the roof and waiting lists for the Leaf and the Volt, it seems to be clear that there’s a market for European cars with super fuel economy.  Considering most of the best-selling cars in America are smaller cars that get good gas mileage, the demand is there, even with likely increased costs due to importing and such.  The question remains: will the US give car buyers the quality German engineering they desire?

Many, many years ago today, one small family had a very memorable day; I showed up.  To be more specific, I was born.  So, to celebrate, I’m going to talk about something that’s more important to me than some other aspects of the automotive industry: trucks and trailers.  I care about this because I’m a horseback rider and animal lover; in fact, I just got back from the Midwest Horse Fair, where (among other things) I talked to a German who’s ridden in so many Bentleys he can’t stand the sight of them and took a lesson with an Olympian who’s one of the best riders in the world.  And how did the horses get to the fair?  Trucks and trailers.

Truck and trailer

Horses have to get around somehow, too!

All right, so maybe it’s a stretch to think there’s such an overflow of horse trailers on the roadways that they’re the number one concern in the green automotive industry.  It’s also a stretch to think that the MSOE SMV will be hauling around a few thousand pounds of aluminum and horses anytime soon.  Still, they’re a piece of the puzzle, and they’re related to an even bigger part: the trucking industry.

We might not hear much about trucking, but think about it for a moment.  How do most products get anywhere?  You got it.  From bananas to books to basketballs, many things are shipped around the country to get where they need to be.

Of course, there have been improvements in the trucking (and truck) industry over the years.  Ultra low-sulfur diesel is now standard, truckers are idling less, vehicles are becoming more aerodynamic, and new engines are reducing particulate matter pollution.  And trucks are moving beyond simply diesel; companies with fleets are looking to alternative fuels to cut down on future costs and protect the environment.  More than20% of the UPS fleet are hybrid vehicles.  FedEx, Coca-Cola, and AT&T are also jumping into the hybrid trucking game and spokespeople say they are already reaping the benefits.  Companies in Europe are already using all-electric vehicles.

Semi

Moving the products of our lives one highway at a time...

And commercial trucks aren’t alone in their quest for greener paths.  While many car companies undoubtedly spent too much time pushing fuel-hungry big trucks and SUVs,  manufacturers are trying to step up their games in the light truck market, too.

Still, no matter how you slice it, trucks are bigger than most vehicles and are more polluting than most vehicles, too.  But they are a part of our societal structure.  There are certainly ways to cut down on the costs of trucking, like those hybrids and the improved structures of big trucks.  And there is more to be done, like considering other forms of transportation (trains) or simply trying to reduce hauling (grocery stores selling local in-season produce).  Trucks are like cars; they aren’t going anywhere, but we can keep looking for ways to improve their fuel efficiency and reduce their environmental impact.

After all, those horses aren’t going to haul themselves.

As you may remember, I’m from Madison, Wisconsin.  We have lots of noteworthy things in and around Madison: a university, Indian mounds, beautiful lakes.  And we have bikers.  Not the Hell’s Angels tattoo-sporting kind, the Lance Armstrong kind.  They’re everywhere, and that’s mostly a good thing (except when they travel in three abreast packs on country roads amongst cars).  Bicycles don’t produce carbon emissions, require only manpower, and do not use up dwindling energy resources.  As an added bonus, you get some exercise!

Happy cyclist

With help from LaHood, he can ride off into the sunset...

Ray LaHood, the Transportation Secretary, thinks that biking (and walking) are underrated ways of getting around – and he’s planning to give them the recognition (and resources) he believes they deserve.  In a recent blog post, LaHood said that Americans want more transportation options and he’s ready to give the people what they want: more bike paths, safer and better-maintained bike lanes, and perhaps most importantly, equal treatment for motorized and non-motorized forms of transportation.

That’s a pretty big statement, especially considering that almost 90% of people in the US drive to work and almost 80% of those drivers make the trip alone.  Some people have called LaHood delusional.  Still, he says that we as a country simply cannot create “livable and sustainable communities” without offering alternatives to vehicular transportation.  That makes sense; people cannot change their ways (even if they want to) if new forms of behavior are not supported or not viable.  And with obesity rates skyrocketing, encouraging exercise is a pretty good idea.

And as you can see in cities like Madison (and tandem-friendly San Fran), alternative forms of transportation seem to be increasing in popularity.  Still, you have to have the infrastructure to support those alternatives, like Madison’s extensive bike and walking path system.

Cars aren’t going anywhere.  LaHood knows that.  But he also knows what we know: we have pretty big problems in the transportation department with the climate change and the oil dependence and all that fun stuff.  In the hubbub of new cars, alternative fuels, and green technology, let’s not forget the solutions right in front of us.

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.

A couple weeks ago, 59 judges from 25 countries at the New York Auto Show decided that the best car in the world isn’t the Prius or the Smart car.  No, they went with the good quality German engineering of the VW BlueMotion Polo Mk5.

VW Polo

Do you think Ralph Lauren drives one of these?

Wait, blue what?  Yeah, that’s what I thought.  If you don’t know about VW’s BlueMotion series, which took home the Best Green Car award, don’t feel bad; none of the cars are available in the United States, the country with the second highest carbon emissions in the world.

Volkswagen introduced the BlueMotion line of cars in 2006 and has been consistently producing more cars with the technology.  The lineup now includes models of the Polo, the Golf, and the Passat.  The idea behind the name?  Combine VW’s corporate color with an action that cars tend to do.  The idea behind the technology?  Increase fuel efficiency.

Most of the BlueMotion cars use a 1.3-liter three-cylinder Turbocharged Direct Injection (TDI) diesel engine that gets 60 mpg and emits 102 grams of CO2 per kilometer.  The new engine (that was in the winning Polo) has a 1.6-liter engine that achieves 62 mpg.  There are other reports of higher gas mileages and lower emissions, but because the series is not in the United States, there are no official EPA numbers.

Of course, one does not win international competitions on engines alone (or even SMV competitions, for that matter).  In addition to revamping the engine with diesel particulate filters and oxidizing catalytic converters, VW lengthened the last two gear ratios on its transmission.  The bodies of the BlueMotion cars have also been updated with revamped spoilers, lowered suspensions, and more aerodynamic undercarriages.  The result?  A car that beat one of the most popular green cars in the world: the Toyota Prius, which gets about 50 mpg and emits 88g CO2/km according to the EPA.

Toyota Prius

Move over, Mr. Hybrid. Clean diesel cars are coming to town.

“It is not necessary to add an electric motor and a heavy battery pack to achieve class-leading efficiency,” one judge said.  “Based on Volkswagen’s common-rail diesel engines, the BlueMotion models are among the most fuel-efficient vehicles on the market. In fact, the Passat BlueMotion can travel just about 1,000 miles on one tank of fuel in the European cycle. As far as internal combustion engines go today, these models are the ultimate you can get.”

1,000 miles on a tank?  Sign me up.  Volkswagen has recently talked about bringing the BlueMotion cars to the United States, although I’ve yet to find an exact timeline or other info.  Their reluctance to bring these cars to the US market (which is certainly hungering for environmentally-friendly cars) is likely due to our preconceived notions of diesels.  Rather than super-efficient small vehicles, we tend to associate diesel engines with huge, powerful trucks spewing black exhaust.  Audi has been trying to combat this image by marketing their clean diesel technology (remember the green police?) and perhaps they can help clear the path for the BlueMotion lineup.

I have a friend, J, who lives in San Francisco, arguably one of the more environmentally-friendly cities in the nation.  Last spring, I jetted out West to visit her and was amazed by all the different forms of public transportation they have:  buses, ferries, streetcars, cable cars, trains, you name it, they have it.  While I was out there, we even hopped on a tandem bike and cruised across the Golden Gate bridge.  Well, it wasn’t quite as simple as that; we nearly crashed three times within the first five minutes, got passed by other tandem riders at least twice our age, and dragged our butts only halfway across the bridge.  The guys who rented us the bicycle were truly surprised to see us return relatively able-bodied.

While in SF, J and I also went on a GoCar tour.  It was basically a tour of the city that was led by a “GPS-guided storytelling car,” which is almost like a microcar (it even has three wheels!).  That was a ton of fun, even though our car’s GPS was broken and didn’t talk to us, let alone offer guidance, the entire trip.

Gocar

Yeah, they're smiling now, but wait until they try to make it up a giant hill and some creepers think about hopping in the back of that thing.

While these might not be practical everyday commuting solutions, San Francisco has this public transportation thing down.  And traveling with other people is a super way to reduce carbon emissions.  San Francisco does a great job encouraging alternative forms of transportation and is often ranked as one of the best cities to commute in.

It’s not practical for all cities to be like San Francisco, and certainly not all people can live like that.  But there are definitely things we can do to challenge ourselves to make our cities a little bit greener.  Maybe bike to work on those nice days.  (Worried about getting fit enough?  Check out this blog for tips.)  Hop on the bus (maybe even a hybrid if you’re in Madison) if you’re not in a big time crunch.  Even just carpooling with friends or co-workers can reduce carbon emissions in your city.

Tandem Bike

This could be you and your fave SMV friend!

Of course, there are lots of people who will argue that these small steps aren’t enough to do any good for the environment or anything else.  And they’re probably right; at this point in time, we may need drastic measures to stop or reverse climate change and damage to the earth.  But that doesn’t mean a single person’s actions don’t mean anything.  Everything adds up, good or bad.  So dust off that old two-seater bike and pedal away with your best bud.  It might be a little perilous, but at least it’s something!

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