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Choosing to go yellow

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Flexible fueled vehicles offer choices to the consumer

Since late 2005 car manufacturers have stepped up production of Flexible Fueled Vehicles (FFV's) in response to consumer demands in light of sky rocketing fuel prices. An FFV, also known as a dual-fuel vehicle is an automobile that can typically alternate between two sources of fuel. A more common example are vehicles that can accept gasoline mixed with different levels of ethanol.

The engine and fuel system in a flex-fuel vehicle is adapted slightly to run on alcohol fuels because they are corrosive. A special sensor in the fuel line to analyze the fuel mixture and control the fuel injection and timing to adjust for different fuel compositions is also needed. The flex-fuel vehicle offers car owners an environmentally beneficial option whenever the alternative fuel is available.

Vehicles that can operate using ethanol were first developed way back in 1826 when Samuel Morey developed an engine that ran on ethanol and turpentine. In 1860, a German inventor, Nicholas Otto, used ethanol as the fuel in one of his engines. Otto is famous for his development of a modern internal combustion engine in 1876.

In 1896 Henry Ford built his first automobile, the quadricycle, which ran on pure ethanol. Then in 1908 Henry Ford produced the Model T. It was a flexible fuel vehicle that could run on ethanol, gasoline, or a combination of the two.

Nearly ninety years later, in 1997, major U.S. auto manufacturers began mass production of FFV models that were capable of operating on E-85, gasoline, or both. Then despite their ability to use E-85, most of these vehicles used gasoline as their only fuel because of the scarcity of E-85 stations.

In 2002 U.S. auto makers continued to produce large numbers of E-85-capable vehicles to meet federal regulations that require certain percentages of fleet vehicles to be capable of running on alternative fuels. At that time over 3 million of those vehicles were in use. Although several states were encouraging fueling stations to sell E-85 only 169 stations across the country were selling the fuel. As a result most E-85 vehicles were still operating on gasoline.

From around 1980 onward North American vehicles are able to run on a blend of 10-percent ethanol and 90-percent gasoline (E10) with no modifications to the engines. Prior to that many cars imported into the U.S. containing rubber, aluminum, and other materials experienced problems since those materials are generally non-compatible with any ethanol in their fuel delivery systems. E10 is now widely available and cars built after 1970 in the U.S. can run on E10 with no modifications.

General Motors Corporation introduced their first light truck in a flexible-fuel configuration in 1998. In 1999, Ford Motor Company introduced a FFV option on its Ford Ranger pickup trucks, and it has also been an option on the company's Taurus models. Other manufacturers such as Mercedes-Benz, Chrysler/Dodge are also producing FFV's. An FFV can often be identified on the driver's side door, on the inside of the fuel fill access door, and by the VIN number. A government website, www.eere.energy.gov has an abundance of information regarding FFV's and other alternative fuel vehicles.

As of 2005, most of the vehicles available to the public with flex-fuel engines are sport-utility vehicles or others in the "light truck" class. Sedans, wagons, and others are mostly available in the FFV configuration as part of fleet vehicle purchases by companies.

The widespread availability for standard models intended for non-fleet use has now begun in 2006. Mark Cmelik, Sales Representative at Rasmussen Ford in Cherokee reports that consumer demand has driven Ford Motor Company to produce the Ford F150 5.4L V8 in the FFV configuration. He said many farmers in the midwest requested it and the company followed through with the 2006 model. If the owner's F150 was built after December 2005 it is a FFV.

Cmelik also reports that the 2005-06 Ford Explorers with the 4 L 6 cylinder engine are FFV configured and some of the Ranger models with the 3 L engine will also be available. He adds that some of the Taurus and Ranger models built after approximately 2000 are FFV able to run on E-85. He said eventually all new models produced will be equipped with flexible fuel technology.

Bruce Dagel, Sales Manager at Brown's Chevrolet and Buick in Cherokee also shares information regarding the models his company carries in stock. FFV's are options on 1/2 ton pickups and standard in the 2006 Chevy Impala LS and LT, 2006 Chevy Silverado, and the 2007 Chevy Tahoe. Currently Buick does not manufacture any FFV's.

Dagel feels that FFV's are great because they reduce greenhouse gas emissions and the ethanol used to operate the vehicles is grown in the U.S. and is renewable, and ethanol boosts the performance of engines. He also shares that using ethanol reduces the dependence on oil. For every 37 gallons of ethanol used, this country can save one barrel of oil. At the end of 2006 General Motors plans to have 2 million FFV's on the road.

Randy Voss, Sales Representative at Brown's Chevrolet and Buick and car enthusiast says that the cost of the FFV engine was previously a $300 option, but now is no additional cost to a new vehicle. He says to identify a FFV people can open the gas cap door and find a sticker identifying the vehicle as able to use E-85. GM models will move to a yellow gas cap in the new model year to identify FFV.

Automobiles not currently fitted with a flexible-fuel system can be converted at a price that may or may not be worth it depending on the value of the car. Voss estimates it would probably cost $1,500 to $2,000 or more to convert an auto to a FFV.

Choosing to buy a FFV depends entirely on the consumer. The vehicles offer the flexibility to choose which type of gasoline to use and there are advantages and disadvantages to each. For example, while ethanol is generally less expensive than gasoline, the vehicle's gas mileage may be a few gallons less per mile. On the other side of the coin, while gasoline may provide better gas mileage, ethanol provides more horsepower (that's where increasing the cars performance comes in).

In the end ethanol is better for the environment and for the agriculture industry. Having the flexibility to choose is better for the consumer and the auto industry.

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