How Do Hydrogen Fuel Cells Stack Up Against the Competition?

Photo by the Zero Emission Resource Organisation, Flickr.

Photo by the Zero Emission Resource Organisation, Flickr.

With Toyota unveiling the Mirai this month and Hyundai announcing its Fuel Cell Tuscon, hydrogen fuel cell vehicles are beginning to seem like more of a reality than a science fiction dream. You won’t be able to buy a used hydrogen fuel cell vehicle for a number of years yet, but it is worth taking a closer look at the technology and how it compares to other environmentally friendly options on the market. After all, today’s cutting-edge vehicle is tomorrow’s used car.

The Big Question: Hydrogen Fuel Cells vs Batteries

So what exactly are the differences between a hydrogen fuel cell, and a battery-powered one?

At their heart, they both have the same goal – the fuel cell produces electricity, which then powers the vehicle. The battery is rechargeable, and depending on whether the vehicle is pure electric or a hybrid, will either require stopping at a “filling station” where it can plug it to recharge the battery, or in the case of the hybrid, will switch to gasoline to power the engine and recharge the battery for later use.

In a hydrogen model, the electricity comes from replacing the hydrogen as it is burned off.

In both cases, the infrastructure is going to be a major hurdle; there are limited options for both now, but electric battery charging stations are being planned and should see massive growth over the next few years, whereas hydrogen fueling stations are almost non-existent, with very new ones planned at the current time.

To date, Toyota expects there will be 20 hydrogen stations online by the end of 2015, with another 28 planned for 2016, including 12 locations outside of California.

Charging Stations Are Becoming More Common, Too

Compare that with multiple companies offering networks of thousands or more charging stations in the areas seeing the most electric growth. They tend to be more prevalent in urban areas, and states such as California or Oregon which tend to lead the pack when it comes to embracing clean technologies, but as the popularity of electric vehicles continues to rise, the stations will start spreading into more suburban and rural areas over time.

Plus electric cars can be plugged in at home overnight to start the following day completely charged and ready to go, no matter how much – or little – charge it had when it rolled into the driveway the night before.

So it is obvious electric has a clear advantage over hydrogen when it comes to convenient ways to “top up the tank” today.

And that would suggest that hydrogen is a lost cause, but Toyota is hoping to change that. The company plans to have its first hydrogen offering available in the United States by the end of 2015 – if only in the state of California – and it only plans to sell 200 of them to start.

However, by 2017, Toyota hopes to have more than 3,000 Mirais on the road – and more consumers buying and driving hydrogen-powered cars increases the number of companies willing to make investments in filling stations. Nihar Patel, a Toyota executive, told Forbes.com that, “It’s a no-brainer that I think the next evolution is to go to fuel-cell based technologies.”

What Does The Hydrogen Tomorrow Look Like?

The hydrogen vehicle of the immediate future won’t look all the different from the average gasoline or electric car on the market today. The differences will all be under the hood, so to speak.

One of the biggest differences will be the inclusion of a hydrogen storage tank, which will have to keep the fuel compressed to a very high pressure to increase driving range and make the vehicles practical. Another addition will be a fuel cell stack, which takes the hydrogen and mixes it with oxygen from the air outside to produce electricity. It is this process that will power the electric engine.

Batteries to help provide supplemental power to the engine – likely charged through recovering power via regenerative braking technologies – and some kind of power control unit to regulate the flow of power to the engine, and then to the rest of the car, will also be necessary.

The Toyota Mirai will go on sale for $57,500, although after state and federal incentives offered to purchasers of clean fuel vehicles are accounted for, the price will likely be closer to $45,000.

Estimates suggest a hydrogen powered car will have a driving range of 300 miles or more, compared with just 75-80 miles per charge of most full-electric vehicles on the market today.

It is possible to get higher ranges from electric vehicles – the Tesla Model S can get close to that 300 mile mark under good conditions on a full charge – using a larger, more advanced battery, but it drives the price up substantially: The full electric 2015 Toyota Prius starts at just $29,990, versus the Tesla Model S, which starts at $69,900 for the smallest battery with the shortest range, and goes up to $104,500.

This leaves hydrogen falling right in between the two electric strategies, putting it in a good position, price-wise, to compete with electric’s head-start on consumer awareness and convenience.

At the end of the day, consumers looking for environmentally friendly alternatives to their daily drivers should be keeping a close watch on both technologies. To this point, hydrogen was just a technology that was touted as a potential future for vehicles, but was never implemented outside of flashy one-off, auto show centerpieces.

With Toyota and Hyundai both bringing hydrogen to production model cars, it will give consumers the chance to test and compare how it really stacks up in practical situations. And more choices will drive competition, leading to better driving ranges, better pricing and more advanced features in the years to come. Which is a win no matter how you chose to look at it.

 

 

How To Protect Yourself From Airbag Fraud

Photo by Tom Mascardo, Flickr.

Photo by Tom Mascardo, Flickr.

Most of us consider airbags to be an important safety feature of any car we buy — new or used. But consumers need to be aware of potential airbag fraud, and know how to protect themselves so they don’t discover the problem when it’s too late.

The National Highway Safety Administration (NHSA) has a PDF from the National Insurance Crime Bureau (NICB) that notes that there are around 50,000 airbags stolen every year, resulting in an annual loss of more than $50 million to consumers and insurance companies alike, not to mention the human toll of these devices not working properly—or being missing completely—when they are needed most.

Why Is Airbag Fraud So Common?

The reason, the report notes, that airbags are so big on the black market is that they cost several thousand dollars when purchased new from a dealer, and only a few hundred dollars when purchased from less reputable sources. A shady repair shop can charge the insurance company full price, then install a stolen airbag and profit the difference. Or worse, there are reports of disreputable shops stuffing the airbag compartment with rags, packing materials, and even old shoes or beer cans, rather than installing the airbag they were hired to replace.

So what can a consumer do to protect themselves? When buying a used vehicle, the first and most important step is to deal with a reputable source. Buying from a licensed dealer with a good reputation is not a 100 percent guarantee the airbag is in perfect working condition, but it will increase the odds. That doesn’t mean buying from private sellers is completely off the table, but it does mean that you will need to be more aware in those cases. If you have a mechanic you trust, have them look over the vehicle before you purchase to ensure everything looks correct.

Another way to protect yourself is by obtaining a vehicle history report. Again, while those reports can be incorrect or not give the whole picture, if a vehicle has been in a major accident at any point in its history that is a sign you will need to pay closer attention to the airbags.

What Can You Do Prevent Airbag Fraud?

Even non-mechanics can learn a few things to check for when looking over a vehicle to see if there are warning signs for airbag fraud. Those include:

  • Make sure the steering wheel looks uniform—the center portion where the airbag lives should be the same color, material and texture as the rest of the wheel.
  • Check for gaps between the center and the rest of the steering wheel. The airbag compartment should be an exact fit, as the manufacturer designed them that way.
  • On the passenger side, check for gaps in the dashboard or discoloration or non-matching textures as well. Also, check for things like scuff marks or scratches around the airbag compartment.
  • Check the upholstery around the door airbag compartments. Make sure the stitching is even and matches the quality and color throughout the rest of the car.
  • Check to see if the seatbelts are mechanically noisy, or don’t match the color or material of the rest of the car.
  • Check the airbag light on the dashboard. It should operate according to the owner’s manual; in most vehicles it will come on briefly when the car is first turned on, and then turn off. If it stays on, blinks or behaves in any other way, get the airbags checked.

Unfortunately, many of these warning signs can be circumvented or hidden by a shady mechanic who wants to hide what they are doing. There are ways to hack the warning light system, for example, to give a false “okay” when the airbag is non-functioning or missing. At the end of the day, trust your instincts. If you are buying a used car, and the price seems too good to be true, it probably is. Be aware of the warning signs, and do your homework before purchasing any used car. And when in doubt, bring in a third-party mechanic you trust to give the vehicle a clean bill of healt

Teen Driver in the House? Here Are Five In-Car Features You Want in the Car You Let Them Drive.

Photo by Andrew Watson, Flickr.

Photo by Andrew Watson, Flickr.

If you ask any teenager what they are looking forward to doing the most as they get older, at the top of most lists is probably being able to drive. After all, being licensed to drive gives teens a great sense of freedom – they can now come and go as they please; they are no longer dependent on mom and dad to get them where they need to go.

However, the time when teens begin to drive can potentially be the most deadly. Every day seven teens ages 16 to 19 die from injuries sustained in a motor vehicle crash. And the crash rate is 3.7 times higher for 16 year old drivers compared to drivers all of all ages, and 2.7 higher for drivers aged 16 to 19.

For parents that are conducting a used cars search for appropriate vehicle options for their teen drivers, how can they help them stay as safe as possible? Here’s a look at five in-car options to look for during their used cars search.

Side Airbags

Although everybody knows about airbags as a safety component in vehicles, some may not realize the importance of side airbags. A study conducted in 2006 conducted by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety found side airbags that protected driver’s heads helped reduce deaths in cars that were hit on the driver side by about 37 percent. Not all used vehicles will have side airbags — SaferCar.gov offers a list of vehicles to help start your used cars search.

Electronic Stability Control

Photo by waltarrr, Flickr.

Photo by waltarrr, Flickr.

ESC works through speed sensors that are placed on all wheels and the steering wheel to help drivers when on roads that are slippery or very curved.

If the ESC system notices the vehicle is about to go in an opposite direction from where the steering wheel is pointed, is will break the necessary wheels to help keep the car under control. ESC can be found vehicles from 2012, and even earlier.

Crash Avoidance Technology

Over the past few years, vehicle manufacturers have unveiled a crop of new applications to help drivers avoid car accidents. These crash avoidance technologies work by providing the driver with warnings, or in some instances even automatically putting on the brakes. Examples of these technologies to look for in a used cars search include blind spot detection, adaptive headlights, lane departure warning, and front crash prevention.

Anti-Lock Brake System (ABS)

An ABS is another safeguard against slippery roads, as well as inexperienced young drives that may find themselves “panic braking” in certain situations. The ABS helps ensure the brakes on a car do not lock up, which could cause a driver to lose control of the vehicle. ABS on the rear wheels allows the vehicle to keep moving in a straight line, while ABS on all wheels allows the driver to maintain steering capabilities.

Seat Belt Reminder System

Although the “ding, ding, ding” that reminds you to buckle up every time you’re in the car can be rather annoying, studies show they do save lives. For instance, a study published in 2008 found 97.5 percent of passengers put on a seat belt when in a vehicle with a reminder system, while only about 86 percent did in cars without a reminder. And teens need all the reminders they can — a 2002 study found that only 69 percent of teens ages 16 to 24 wear their seat belts, and more than two-thirds of teens killed in car crashes were not wearing seat belts.

5 Easy Ways to Save Money on Car Maintenance

Photo by Torbakhopper, Flickr.

Photo by Torbakhopper, Flickr.

When you’re in the midst of used car shopping, there’s lots of things to consider. However, one item that sometimes used car shoppers overlook are maintenance costs — how much is this vehicle going to cost you over the long term? After all, the last thing a car buyer wants is to bring home a used car or truck that is going to drain their bank account dry with lots of issues.

Luckily there are a few low to no cost ways that car owners can help their vehicle run great and stay out of the shop. By following these suggestions — and doing the proper homework when used car shopping — car buyers can look forward to happy years with their used vehicle.

Read The Owner’s Manual

Yes, believe it or not you should actually take the time to read the owner’s manual of your used car. The manual can tell owners important information, such as routine maintenance information or dash lights that may come on that are telling you there’s a problem. If the manual did not come with the car, contact a local dealership or look online for a copy.

Regularly Check The Oil

Photo by Robert Couse-Baker, Flickr.

Photo by Robert Couse-Baker, Flickr.

All car owners know about the importance of oil changes, however, most just automatically assume everything will be fine between changes — why would they need to check their oil on a regular basis? The reason is because if your car runs out of oil, your engine will be toast and before you know it, you’ll be used car shopping all over again.

Taking the time to simply using a dipstick to check the engine oil level can save you from potential hassles.

Keep An Eye On Fluids

As mentioned previously, reading your car’s owner’s manual will tell you what the regular maintenance schedule is for your vehicle. That includes not only oil that we already talked about, but all the other fluids that makes your car run — coolant, transmission fluid, brake fluid, power steering fluid, battery fluid, and even windshield wiper fluid. All of these fluids can be easily checked by the owner with some guidance from the owner’s manual and a little know-how.

Pay Attention To Tire Pressure

If your tires are in bad shape, your car is not going anywhere. Plus not having tires that are properly inflated can make for a less than comfortable ride, as well as a safety concern. Your vehicle’s tire pressure can easily be checked on a regular basis using a tire air pressure gauge that can be picked up any auto parts store. The gauge measures the pounds per square inch (PSI) of each tire, and you can find out what the correct PSI of each of your tires should be through a sticker on the driver’s side door or in the owner’s manual. Is your PSI off? Free air is available at most gas stations and just takes a few minutes to fix.

Replace Your Air Filter

If you think about it, a lot of the time you’re in the car your windows are closed, so having a good working air filter is important for making sure you and your passengers are breathing nice, clean air. Plus studies have shown having a clogged air filter can cause issues for your engine and even lower fuel efficiency. With a little bit of research, car owners can easily replace their own air filters.

 

Common-Sense Techniques To Get Better Mileage

Photo by Kyle May, Flickr.

Photo by Kyle May, Flickr.

Even with gas prices falling across most of the country, most of us would still like to get the most miles for our money. There is quite a bit of advice out there on ways to increase the number of miles per gallon (MPG), but let’s take a look at a few that will save you the most money.

One caveat: all cars are different. Someone driving an SUV will still get fewer MPG than a person driving a four-door family sedan. And they will still get fewer MPG than the person driving a two-door coupe, who will in turn see less MPG than the person with a hybrid. The type of vehicle you drive is still a major factor, with the size of the engine and the weight of the car playing a role, as well as the age of the vehicle – newer cars were designed to work more efficiently, and so will see greater MPG numbers.

Better Mileage Through Hypermilling

One of the most extreme ways of increasing MPG is through a series of techniques known as “hypermilling.” These techniques were even explored in an episode of the Discovery Channel show MythBusters, who found that they were effective at increasing the MPG of both new and used vehicles. However, they also found that most of the techniques employed were either frustrating for them or the other cars around them, or could be dangerous if not done correctly. Some of the techniques they tried include:

  • Never drive above 45 miles per hour
  • Turn off the engine at red lights
  • Keep the windows rolled up and the AC turned off
  • Overinflate your tires
  • Drafting a vehicle in front of you

While there were other techniques tested as well, and these did contribute to better MPG, try them at your own risk – and discomfort.

Better MPG for the Average Joe

So what are a few less extreme options for those who want to maximize their MPG without putting themselves or other vehicles at risk, or making themselves so uncomfortable that they don’t want to drive at all?

Photo by Upupa4Me, Flickr.

Photo by Upupa4Me, Flickr.

First of all, make sure your car gets proper, regular maintenance. While it might be tempting to push that oil change a few extra miles, or put off replacing a part that is worn but still functioning, doing so will decrease your MPG. Fueleconomy.gov found that keeping an engine tuned properly can improve MPG by as much as 4 percent. They also found that by using the proper grade of motor oil, and changing it at the correct intervals, can increase MPG by up to 2 percent. And while changing the air filter on a modern car won’t impact the MPG, in an older used vehicle, it can change the MPG by several percentage points. While all of that might not sound like much, these percentages add up over time, leading to real savings you can feel in your wallet.

Another way to improve MPG that anyone can easily take advantage of? How and when you fuel up.

Weight, as I mentioned earlier, is a big factor in MPG numbers, and heavier cars will simply require more fuel to move them the same distance as a lighter vehicle. Gasoline adds weight to the car – as much as 60 pounds depending on the size of your fuel tank. If you keep your tank filled to between half and quarter full, you will find the right balance of giving you vehicle the fuel it needs to operate at its most efficient, while keeping the weight down to the bare minimum.

Your Fuel’s Octane Matters

Another thing to look at while at the pump is the quality of fuel. In this case, the cliché of “you get what you pay for” is true. Cheaper gasoline contains a higher percentage of ethanol, which burns faster. That doesn’t mean you need to pay the premium price, however. Different brands use different fuel mixes – try a few of them, and keep track of which brands give you the best MPG. It might be a bit more work upfront, requiring you to not only track your MPG carefully but also to potentially go out of your way to fill up at different brands, but once you have those numbers, you will have a better idea of the best gasoline for your specific car.

At the end of the day, most of these are basic techniques that don’t require much work, and that everyone knows they should be doing anyway. But if you are trying to squeeze a few more miles out of your gas tank, they really do make a huge difference over time.