What Are The Best Cars For The Environment?

June 7th 2015

Dante Atkins

It’s true: Millennials are spending less time driving. The reasons vary: student debt, flat wages, and underemployment prevent many of us from being able to afford  cars—and even if we do own them, gasoline and upkeep are still expensive. Many of us prefer to live in dense urban centers and can get around with walking, biking or transit. Others don’t feel obligated to drive long distances to see friends when we have FaceTime to see them anywhere in the world. Finally, environmental consciousness is an important factor: many of us would rather do our miniscule part to fight climate change by not burning gasoline when we can help it.

But even though we’re not as reliant on cars as previous generations, most of us still use one on a regular basis: according to data from the the Urban Land Institute, 90 percent of Millennials use a car at least once a week. So given this reality, what are the best options for those of us who have to drive, but still want to protect the environment and minimize our impact on the earth?

Electric is nice, if you can get one

When one thinks of a climate-friendly car, an electric vehicle is probably the first thing that comes to mind. Purely electric cars have a distinct advantage: they charge directly from the power grid and don’t consume any fossil fuels on their own. But that doesn’t mean that driving one is pollution-free: the power needed to charge an electric vehicle comes from the same sources we use to power our homes and businesses—and more often than not, that power is generated from fossil fuels like coal and natural gas. So does that mean it’s even-steven and using an electric car doesn’t help the environment? Not at all. It takes significantly less carbon pollution to produce the juice needed to power an electric car than it does to burn the gasoline in a comparable traditional car. Furthermore, an electric car will only get greener over time as renewable sources replace fossil fuels in the power mix of your local utility.

While Tesla’s luxury sedans and sports cars may be the sexiest line of all-electric cars on the market, there are plenty of others to choose from for those on a more limited budget. The best-selling EV in the country is the compact Nissan Leaf, which is expected to have a battery range of 105 miles in its 2016 model. Chevrolet, Volkswagen, and BMW also have all-electric vehicles for sale. The biggest downside, of course, is that electric vehicles aren’t the most convenient for all people, especially apartment-dwellers in cities. Electric vehicles need a reliable place to charge, and most people who live in apartments and have to park their cars on the street or in a basement garage simply don’t have a reliable place to charge overnight. People with long commutes or who frequently drive long distances in the same day may also feel limited by how far electric cars can go between charges.

Which brings us to…plug-in hybrids!

If you want a car that can act like an electric car for day-to-day use but can also go on a roadtrip where there are no charging stations, then plug-in hybrids are for you. Some manufacturers call these “extended-range electric vehicles.” Like a traditional hybrid vehicle, they have both an electric and a gas-powered motor—but instead of having the electric motor to supplement the gasoline engine, the systems are capable of operating independently. The electric motor has a fairly limited range, and then the gas motor kicks in when the electric one runs out of charge. The two most popular models are the Toyota Prius plug-in hybrid and the Chevy Volt. This version of the Prius is capable of going 11 miles at a top speed of 62 miles an hour using only the battery, while the Volt can go a total of 38 miles before switching to gas power. This is an ideal solution for those who have access to a garage with a plug at home but don’t want to feel constrained by the limited availability of chargers—perhaps like a nicotine patch for those trying to wean themselves off of gasoline.

What if you can’t go electric at all?

If you don’t have convenient access to a charger, maybe electric won’t work—but all is not lost. If you have to rely on fossil fuels, simply look for the most fuel-efficient model that will suit your needs. More traditional integrated hybrid drives, which use an electric motor to supplement the operation of a gas engine but can’t charge from a socket, are usually the way to go here. In addition to hybrid-specific models like Toyota’s Prius, many manufacturers now make hybrid versions of common gas-powered models. But keep in mind that efficiency is still king: a gallon of gas burned in a hybrid engine will emit the same amount of carbon as a gallon of gas burned in a traditional engine. So if you’re trying to choose between a traditional engine with higher miles per gallon and a hybrid with lower miles per gallon, there’s nothing more environmentally friendly about picking the hybrid. And as gasoline costs go up and automotive fuel economy standards continue to become more stringent, carmakers have increasing incentive to increase the fuel economy of their vehicles—which could eventually squeeze traditional hybrids out of the market.

Another option to look at is diesel. Many manufacturers, especially German import brands, are making diesel-powered cars that bear no resemblance to the black smoke producers you might normally think of when you hear the word. These cars typically get higher fuel efficiency than their gasoline-powered equivalents, and have the added advantage of being able to use a blend that incorporates up to 20% biodiesel, which can be manufactured from agricultural and cooking oils instead of from petroleum extraction. (Really dedicated people can retrofit diesel engines to run entirely on cooking oil from restaurants, but you probably shouldn’t try it at home!)

Coming soon: hydrogen fuel cells

Electric cars aren’t the only alternative to fossil-fuel engines: Toyota and Hyundai have both introduced hydrogen fuel cell cars that produce water as their exhaust. Seriously. Here’s how it works:

A fuel cell generates electricity from an electrochemical reaction between hydrogen and air. Hydrogen atoms compressed and stored in high-pressure tanks—the Mirai has two that together hold about 11 pounds of hydrogen at 10,000 psi—are sent through a platinum-coated membrane that separates their electrons and protons. Those electrons produce an electrical current to power a drive motor, in this case a synchronous AC unit capable of 151 horsepower and 247 lb-ft of torque. The freed protons combine with oxygen on the other side of the membrane before exiting the tailpipe as water. How much water? About 100 cc per mile, according to Toyota, or a little less than half a cup.

For now, hydrogen fuel infrastructure isn’t very widespread: It’s most developed in California, and there are only a handful of stations across the entire state—so the Toyota version will only be sold on the West Coast for now. Still, having your car’s emission be water instead of smog is a cool concept for sure. How green it is, of course, depends on how the hydrogen is produced: The most standard method of producing pure hydrogen for industrial applications is to strip the hydrogen atoms off of natural gas, a process which uses fossil fuels and emits carbon dioxide. The other process involves using electricity to separate water molecules into hydrogen and oxygen; this is cleaner, but also more expensive. Either way, most of the country won’t have this as a viable option for many years.

So what’s the upshot?

If you can avoid using a car and can get around by transit, walking or biking—great! That’s conservation at work. But if you need to have a car for routine use, try to get something you can plug into a socket. And if you can’t, then just look for the most mile efficient option that suits your budget.