Documenting 25 Years of Green Cars

ron-cogan-test-driverI was changed by the 1990 introduction of the GM Impact electric car prototype at the Los Angeles Auto Show, then again by the amazing array of electric, hydrogen, and ‘green’ vehicles I witnessed at the 1991 Tokyo Motor Show. I knew that ‘green’ cars would be important. So, for 25 years now, this has been my focus at Green Car Journal and also at, plus an additional six years while feature editor at Motor Trend.

Covering this field for 25 years lends an invaluable perspective that’s important to understanding not only where we’ve been, but where we’re headed. There’s plenty of ‘green’ car news to share these days so it’s important to place it in context…and yes, that comes again with perspective and having been there while this all unfolded.

It has been enlightening to document the early research and development of the vehicles we take for granted today. While there is no crystal ball for predicting the automobile’s future, I’ve long been fascinated by researching patents for advanced and alternative fuel vehicle technologies because this does reveal what automakers and their technology suppliers have in mind for the years ahead.

Several decades ago, many of these vehicles and technologies were but ideas to potentially pursue, the subject of technology deep dives I attended, or opportunities that allowed driving advanced technology test mules on the track at automakers’ proving grounds.

Two of these experiences come readily to mind – driving a Japanese-market Toyota model outfitted with an early gasoline-electric hybrid drive and a Geo Storm equipped with a prototype battery electric powertrain. These powerplants evolved to become the Hybrid Synergy Drive powering Toyota’s Prius and the electric drivetrain powering the GM EV1. The production versions were worlds better than the early prototype powertrains, lending the perspective to see just how far the technology had come.

Early developmental electric drive vehicles were often quirky and unexpectedly noisy in myriad ways, with high-pitched motor controller frequency noise and gear noise very apparent against a near-silent background devoid of internal combustion. The first natural gas vehicle prototypes often suffered from an annoying high-volume gaseous fuel injector clatter. Developmental hydrogen fuel cell vehicles sacrificed loads of space for large and cumbersome fuel cells and hydrogen storage. High efficiency diesel vehicles of decades past were unacceptably loud and emitted soot. Gasoline cars with high fuel economy were small, often lacking the creature comforts consumers expect and an illustration that sacrifice was required to achieve efficiency. Accomplishing extremely low tailpipe emissions often came at the expense of performance.

1996 EV1 The First Modern-day Electric Propulsion SystemDrive an electric, natural gas, hydrogen fuel cell, high mpg gasoline, or clean diesel personal-use vehicle today and they are quiet, usually quick, and ‘normal’ in all respects. A great many conventional internal combustion vehicles are now near-zero emission…not that you’d know it because they achieve this so seamlessly. We have great ‘green’ vehicles today because a lot has transpired over the past 25 years. Perspective.

I am confident that all of these vehicles, technologies, and fuels will play an important part in our motoring future. If the past 25 years are any indication, the vehicles we’ll be driving in the years ahead will be just amazing.