How to Go Green: Cars

how to go green cars photo

Cars are one of the great mixed bags of our time. They are at once wonders of engineering and a threat to life on Earth. They create convenience and comfort and also snarled traffic and sprawling suburbs.

In the U.S., about 20 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions come from cars and light trucks like SUVs, contributing to climate change, air pollution, and disease. If you are truly trying to lighten your environmental footprint, the first thing to do is ask if you do in fact need a car. If the answer is yes, there are many things you can do to make your driving life greener.

Top Green Car Tips



  1. Drive a green car
    There are now hybrids to match almost any need: two-door, four-door, SUV, luxury sedan. They get better mileage than their conventional counterparts, have cleaner emissions, and save money on gas. If a hybrid isn't in your future, try for a car with the best MPG you can find; and remember that hybrids aren't always the most efficient option, either. Biodiesel can now be found in almost any state in the U.S. This clean, domestic, veggie-based, carbon-neutral fuel will run in any diesel car or truck with little or no modification to the engine. Straight vegetable oil is an option for the more ambitious green driver and can make fueling up almost free. Another veggie fuel is ethanol, and there are between 5-6 million flex-fuel vehicles already on the road--you may even be driving one and not know it. Also, affordable, practical electric cars and plug-in hybrids aren't too far off, either. But whether or not you drive a hybrid or alternative-fuel vehicle, there's lots you can do to green your car right now.

  2. Use green driving best practices
    Driving technique has a lot to do with your fuel economy. Avoid sudden starts and stops and go the speed limit. Not only does speeding and herky-jerky driving kill your MPG, it's dangerous. And even if no one gets hurt in a fender bender, how green is it to get a new bumper or have your car re-painted? As a general rule of thumb, keep your engine speeds between 1,200--3,000 RPMs, and up-shift between 2,000--2500 RPMs. Also, drive wise and minimize unnecessary miles by doing errands in one trip, getting good directions, and calling ahead.

  3. Stay in tune
    Getting regular tune-ups, maintenance, and having clean air filters will help you burn less gas, pollute less, and prevent car trouble down the line. Pump up: if every American's tires were properly inflated we could save around 2 billion gallons of gas each year! (Check your manual for optimal pressure). Lastly, get the junk out of the trunk! All that extra weight is sapping your fuel economy.

  4. Offset your car's carbon
    There are many services out there now that can help you calculate your yearly emissions from driving and offset those greenhouse gasses through various means. Read our How to Go Green: Carbon Offsets guide for more.

  5. Carpool
    Of course. Find coworkers, neighbors, and fellow students headed the same direction. Start with one shared trip per week. Also look into car sharing programs like FlexCar and ZipCar.

  6. Leave the car at home
    For shorter adventures, walk, take public transit, ride your bike (regular, electric-assisted, or something fancier, skateboard, rollerblades, or even look into an electric scooter. Carrying groceries or other bulky stuff can still be done on a bike with a backpack or some slick modifications. Check out the Xtracycle, for example.

  7. Drive part of the way
    If getting where you're going by bike or public transit alone isn't going to happen, consider driving part of the way and then jumping on public transit or your bike (a folder would be perfect). A great way to beat traffic!

  8. Take it easy on the AC
    Use the windows to help keep the car cool. Or try an electric or solar fan. Parking in the shade and using a reflective windshield shade can keep your car cooler when parked, meaning it takes less to cool it off when you get back in. If you car is new, however, let it air out. That new car smell is not friendly stuff.

  9. Telecommute
    Drive less with the wonders of working from home (or internet café, treehouse, Mojave desert, etc.) With instant messaging, video chat, teleconferencing, and other world-flattening technologies, making the rush-hour trek to work and back might not be that necessary. Ask your boss or offer your employees a teleconferencing day once a week. Hey, it works for TreeHuggers and 44 million Americans.

  10. Aspire to living car-free
    Not everyone is going to be able to do it, at least not cold carkey. It will probably entail a shift in thinking and some time, but living carfree might be more within reach than you think. Living closer to work and school is a big part of it. Walking, biking, public transport, car sharing, car borrowing, and teleconferencing are an arsenal of tools to help reduce the need for a car. Give it some thought.


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Interesting Facts about Green Cars



  • 25 percent: The percentage increase in MPG you can create by keeping up on your cars' maintenance by doing things like: regular oil changes, air-filter changes, and spark plug replacements.

  • 4 tons: The amount of carbon released into the atmosphere when producing a single car, in addition to 700 pounds of other pollutants.

  • 2 million gallons: The amount of biodiesel produced in the US in the year 2000; in 2005 it produced around 75 million gallons. In September of 2006, sixty-five companies reported having plants currently under construction and thirteen more are planning expansions.

  • 22.1 MPG: The peak fuel economy of the average passenger car, which was reached in 1987. The EPA estimates that 2006 average fuel economy, despite two decades of improvements in automobile technology, is 21 mpg.

  • 13 MPG: The peak fuel economy of the average passenger car, which was reached in 1987. The EPA estimates that 2006 average fuel economy, despite two decades of improvements in automobile technology, is 21 mpg.

  • 62 hours: The amount of time the average rush-hour commuters spent in traffic in the year 2000.

  • 11 percent: The percentage increase each year in the amount of traffic congestion in small urban and rural areas, a growth rate twice as fast as in urban areas.

  • 159,000: The number of trips to the emergency room attributed to high smog pollution, in addition to 53,000 hospital admissions and 6 million asthma attacks.

  • $4,826 to $9,685: The estimated average yearly cost of driving a single-occupant car. In comparison, the average cost of a year's worth of public transportation is between $200 and $2000.


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Green Car Definitions: Biodiesel, Veggie Oil & Plug-in Hybrids


What is biodiesel, anyway?
Biodiesel, the common name for fatty acid alkyl esters, is a biological-based fuel that can substitute petroleum fuels in diesel engines. It can be made from virgin vegetable oil, animal fats, algae, or from recycled oils like those used by restaurants for deep-frying. Biodiesel burns cleaner than fossil fuel diesel and has less carbon monoxide, aromatic hydrocarbons, and particulate matter (soot). It does, however, release more nitrous oxide than regular diesel, a factor in smog. Biodiesel is often called a carbon neutral fuel because while it does release carbon dioxide, it is the same carbon absorbed by the plant (or animal) source from which the fuel came. Fossil fuels, on the other hand, release carbon dioxide that could otherwise remain sequestered below the earth's surface, out of the atmosphere.

And what's veggie oil?
Diesel engines can also run on straight vegetable oil (SVO), but modifications are most often required. Since vegetable oil has a higher viscosity (is thicker), it needs to be heated before it can flow properly. A veggie oil conversion is a system that, in one of several ways, heats the vegetable oil to the appropriate temperature before burning it in the engine.

What is a plug-in hybrid car?
A plug-in hybrid (PHEV) resembles a typical hybrid car but has additional battery capacity that allows it to travel significant distances on electric power alone. A PHEV functions like an electric vehicle for local driving, but has a gasoline motor which can kick in if the car's charge is depleated. Plug-ins can get 100 miles per gallon or more but, unlike EVs, can always be refueled with gasoline if need be. Currently, no car manufacturer sells a plug-in hybrid, but several companies are developing the technology and retrofit kits are available on the market for the Toyota Prius and the Ford Escape hybrids. A number of advocacy groups like CalCars and Plug-in America are also pushing hard to see plug-ins on the road. Keep reading for more info!

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Where to Find Green Cars, Hybrid Cars, and More


Hybrid Cars

Electric cars

Car-sharing services

Carbon offsets and more

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Green Cars: From the Archives


Dig deeper into these articles on Cars from the TreeHugger and Planet Green archives.
Electric Cars
Ever since the death of GM´s EV1, electric cars have fallen off the radar somewhat. They´re coming back now and many experts think it won´t be long before we're seeing them all over the roads.

Here´s a quick look at the EVs available to US drivers. Phoenix Motorcars is one of the companies with its sights set on affordable, practical electric cars for everyone. George Clooney´s EV of choice, the Tango, may seem a bit, well, narrow, but take a look at the acceleration and then look again. While Smart city cars zip through the streets of Europe, the yanks can´t seem to get them so easily. Maybe they´ll leapfrog right on to the electric version. And don´t forget that the trusted Toyota RAV4 EVs are still out there if you can find (and afford) one.

The Tesla made big waves when the news broke that a high-performance electric sports car was hitting the market. TreeHugger has been somewhat obsessed with the clean speedster and has made some initial observations as well as done some deeper digging (1 and 2). And according to the makers of the Tesla, they´ve also got more practical, family-friendly autos on the way.

Hybrids and Plug-in hybrid electric vehicles (PHEV)
Your first stop should be the How to Go Green: Hybrid Cars guide. Then, dig deeper into what the plug-in fuss is all about. Also see how Google is getting in on the action, how Ford may be game, and what's going on with conversion kits. And of course make sure to see TH TV´s coverage of a plug-in conversion from start to finish. The folks at Tesla Motors weigh in on the issue, and there´s some more discussion and breakdown of the battery issues. Also check out a few other keen (non-plug-in) hacks for the Prius.

Biodiesel
Now that biodiesel has a earned its place in the dictionary and is enjoying commodity status, people are paying a lot more attention to this earth-friendly, farmer-friendly, fryer-friendly fuel. Celebs seem to love the stuff. Biodiesel adventurers can now find their nearest pump with a phone call or an interactive map. The veggie fuel can now be seen (and maybe smelled?) in the famous Le Mans race, and travelers in LA can rent a bio Beetle for their touring pleasure. For those interested in homebrewing, look here and here, and you might even consider heating your home with it. Making biodiesel from algae is an idea that´s gaining traction as well (1, 2).

Fuel cells
While hydrogen fuel cell vehicles are still overcoming some intimidating obstacles, worldwide interest continues to grow. Honda has the FCX concept, GM has the Hy Wire, and Chevy´s Equinox will be testing in the hands of everyday drivers in 2007.

Concept cars, prototypes, and green dream cars
Innovation is born of imagination, and we're always on the lookout for the latest succulent designs coming out of the audo design studios. Some are pure fantasy, some are one of a kind, and some help lay the groundwork for more practical developments in green transport. The Mercedes-Benz Recy recycled roadster is designed from wood, metal, and plastic and can could the loop at the end of its life (if it´s ever born). Citroën´s C-Métisse is a diesel hybrid concept James Bond could get behind. Daimler Chrysler has taken cues from the fishes in its biomimetic Boxfish. Volvo has the beautiful 3CC electric two-seater concept. The Ford Reflex is a diesel/electric hybrid with some solar flare. Venturi promises that its solar/electric hybrid, the Astrolab, will be on the market before too long. You might not want to drive the Wrightspeed X1 to Whole Foods for groceries, but for beating the pants off a Ferrari it could be the perfect thing. Smart has a boxy and beautiful urban concept , and Ford has a Cradle to Cradle SUV called the Model U. The Audi R-Zero is a French-designed electric beauty that will not likely ever touch the pavement. Toyota´s full of strange and intriguing species like the multi-directional Fine-X fuel cell the Fine-N fuel-cell hybrid, as well as their i-unit personal mobility concept.

We've also got the goods on 5 ways to power the green cars of the future, as well as a great list of the top 10 sexiest green cars, and a View & Vote: Green Car ratings. For more green car eye candy, check out our green car slideshows, too.

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Green Cars: Other Resources and Further Reading

In addition to TreeHugger and Planet Green, other organizations have put together resources that may be helpful as you continue to green your life. 

Tags: Green Basics