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What Are Our Future Car Options?

European automakers at the Paris Motor Show this week presented various designs for "green" cars of the (hopefully) near future. They ranged from technologies ready to roll out in next year's cars to systems which would trigger a transformation of our entire transportation infrastructure. The next decade will be a very interesting time for both car enthusiasts and green techies.

French car companies seem to embracing (tentatively) hybrid-style technologies, with both Peugeot Citroen and Renault offering "Stop and Start" engine shut-off systems in upcoming vehicles. German companies, conversely, are looking towards the hydrogen future. At the Paris show, BMW displayed a H2-burner able to hit 300+ kph (185 mph), while DaimlerChrysler showed off a fuel cell Mercedes. All of them commented on the need to try a variety of approaches to figure out what will work best.

But it's not just a question of "hybrid" or "hydrogen." When talking about hybrids, do we mean parallel or plug-in? Gasoline, diesel or hydrogen? Yes, hydrogen hybrids are on the drawing board, because hydrogen-fueled cars can be either fuel cells or hydrogen combustion. And it's not just a question of how clean a given fuel system is at the tailpipe. How much energy does it take to make the fuel? Where does the fuel come from?

Green Car Congress dives deep into those questions, bringing together data from a variety of sources, including the California Air Resources Board emission cut proposal(PDF) and the MIT Laboratory for Energy and the Environment study we mentioned back in June. It's hard to get precise numbers for the energy demands of production and transportation for all varieties of fuel, but it's clear from the data that the situation isn't as simple as "biodiesel good" or even "hydrogen good, petroleum bad" (depending on how the hydrogen is produced, advanced gasoline and diesel hybrids can have lower overall greenhouse emissions than hydrogen fuel cell vehicles -- but a hydrogen hybrid could be best of all).

What is clear is that the era of the unmodified gasoline engine is drawing to a close. What will replace it is yet to be determined. For those of us who enjoy seeing technological experimentation and innovation in the name of making a better planet, the next decade is going to be a lot of fun.


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