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The Greenest Machine Around Gets No Respect

June 19, 2002|ALLEN DUSAULT and DEAN KARNOPP | Allen Dusault is senior project director at Sustainable Conservation, a San Francisco-based nonprofit organization. Dean Karnopp is a professor of mechanical engineering at UC Davis.

Imagine riding to work in a vehicle that will turn more heads than a Lamborghini, outmaneuver a Porsche, cost less than a Honda Civic, go zero to 60 faster than a BMW and get two to three times the gas mileage of a Toyota Prius hybrid.

Although it may be hard to believe, such a vehicle was developed 20 years ago by the big auto makers. But don't expect to be able to drive one anytime soon.

During the oil crisis of the 1970s and early '80s, auto makers began exploring radically different vehicles with greatly enhanced fuel economy. With more than 90% of commuters driving alone, they recognized that a vehicle designed for only one or two people could be much more efficient.

What they came up with was the three-wheel vehicle. By eliminating one wheel, the vehicle could be made much lighter and have significantly less friction and much lower drag.

The major problem was the instability of three wheels. They solved that problem by making the vehicle lean like a motorcycle--which also made it a blast to drive. And because the body was designed like a crash helmet, it could be made very safe.

But the oil crisis faded, SUVs became all the rage and the lower profit margin of "tilting three-wheelers," or TTWs, meant the vehicle never went into production.

Fast-forward 20 years: Global warming has arrived, there is renewed conflict in the Middle East, oil drilling is proposed in our national parks and air pollution is so severe that some regions of California are badly out of compliance with the Clean Air Act and may lose billions of dollars in federal highway funds. This would seem to be a great time to reassess a vehicle that is a "green" alternative.

Yet the natural advocates of TTWs--the environmental community--do not have this eco-friendly vehicle on their agenda. Instead, environmental groups have poured their energies into the electric vehicle, the 80-mile-per-gallon family sedan and the fuel-cell-powered car. Although these are worthy pursuits, there is a growing realization that they are long-term visions and not immediate, practical alternatives. The makers of the fuel-cell vehicle, for example, say it will be 10 to 20 years before they can produce a commercially viable car. One would think, then, that three-wheel vehicles would be something that the auto companies might reconsider. No such luck. SUVs are more profitable than three-wheelers.

State officials involved in long-range transportation planning should logically be TTW fans. Unfortunately, these officials haven't given much consideration to TTWs. They are nowhere to be found in the California Energy Commission's 20-year blueprint on transportation strategies to reduce petroleum use, a document submitted to the state Legislature. Neither are they found in a similar report by the California Air Resources Board. And it is not because the report writers don't know about them.

What is more troubling is that the state and federal governments have given the large auto companies hundreds of millions of dollars to develop green four-wheel vehicles, yet they have given almost nothing to several companies interested in producing the more efficient three-wheel vehicles, including Corbin Motors, a manufacturer based in Hollister, Calif.

If a major goal is to reduce fossil fuel use, why would the government give cash incentives for the 45-mpg Prius hybrid but not for 90- to 140-mpg three-wheel vehicles?

This is not about being envious of the Prius. It is about being able to take a different path to the future--a road that was paved 20 years ago. Unfortunately, it has yet to be traveled.

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