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For Flexible Fuel, the Future is Now
by Jonathan Eisenthal

When is 85 percent alcohol and 15 percent gasoline just the right cocktail to make an automobile perform exactly the way it should, while emitting fewer pollutants and reducing greenhouse gases?

The answer is the flexible fuel vehicle.

Henry Ford invented a Model T that could run on any combination of gasoline and alcohol in 1927, so the idea has been a reality for a while. But cheap oil won out, until the Arab Oil embargoes of 1973 brought the idea back to life. However, the contemporary advent of ethanol-based flexible fuel engines began in the 1990s, and interest has slowly grown since then.

It took the shocks to the world oil market in 2007 and 2008 and growing awareness of global climate change to push American car makers to become more aggressive in their production of these vehicles, manufactured to run on any combination of ethanol and gasoline.

One auto industry expert estimated America’s light-duty vehicle fleet at 200 million vehicles, and of these about 6 million are flexible fuel vehicles (FFVs), or 3 percent. Some estimates range as high as 8 million FFVs still on the road – the first models date to the late 1990s.

At that time, General Motors began offering its Chevrolet S10 and GMC Sonoma pickups; Chrysler brought out flexible fuel minivans in its Caravan, Grand Caravan, and Town and Country models; and Ford Motor Company produced flexible fuel Ranger pickups and Taurus sedans.

That handful of vehicle models has slowly grown, with the current American marketplace now offering more than 50 different vehicle models as FFVs. In select markets, Nissan and Toyota now offer their largest SUVs and Pickups in optional FFV models.

If the big three domestic car makers hold to their promises, the FFV fleet should begin expanding quickly in 2012.

General Motors Vice President Tom Stephens, speaking at the Renewable Fuels Association’s national ethanol conference in February, reiterated GM’s promise to ramp FFVs up to 50 percent of the company’s production by 2012. Ford and Chrysler have made similar commitments.

Automotive industry expert Gary Herwick believes the domestic car-markers will follow through, and that the percentage of FFVs may well grow from there. He feels the industry is very much aware of the approach of governmental mandates regarding low carbon fuels and they see FFVs as an approach that will help them support those imminent rules, which will help accommodate the amount of ethanol that will be required by the Renewable Fuels Standard 2, voted into law in 2007. That law requires 15 billion gallons of grain ethanol and a total of 36 billion gallons of alternative fuels by 2022.

“If you calculate the total U.S. new car sales at 10 to a little more than 11 million vehicles a year, and the domestic car makers represent half that market, then half of their production comes to about 2.8 million vehicles a year,” said Herwick, president of Milford, Michigan-based Transportation Fuels Consulting. Herwick spent 35 years with General Motors as an expert in emissions, transportation fuel quality, and alternative fuels.

“GM is spending about 0 million dollars a year adding flex fuel capability to our vehicles,” Stephens said during the RFA conference. “We can’t afford to leave this capital stranded.”

What does it take to make an FFV, and what are the additional costs?

While experts interviewed for this article were reluctant to name an exact dollar figure, Herwick said, “It’s not zero cost to build an FFV compared to a gasoline-only compatible vehicle.”

Auto engineering expert Bruce Jones identified the fuel injector as the main hardware cost in changing a vehicle over to an FFV. E85 requires a higher volume of fuel be injected into the combustion chambers compared to conventional gasoline. Jones is director of the Minnesota Center for Automotive Research at Minnesota State University-Mankato, where he has been a professor since 1990.

Though material upgrades may be necessary for the fuel systems of some vehicles, many domestic vehicle models use the same parts required for an FFV in both conventional and flex-fuel vehicles , Jones said. This is partly driven by the economic decision to have one set of parts instead of two – being that the size and shape of the parts is often exactly the same in a particular model’s conventional and FFV versions.

Some experts have estimated the per-vehicle cost for upgrades to FFVs at between and 0. Stephens’ statement about GM’s investment of 0 million a year in FFV upgrades, spread over an estimated 900,000 to 1 million vehicles, does approximate the 0 per vehicle estimate. Herwick and Jones were both reluctant to name an exact dollar figure.

As time has gone on, car companies have realized savings through the continued improvement of the engineering in FFVs. The first development that allowed the manufacture of FFVs was the invention of a sensor that could be placed right inside the vehicle’s fuel line to measure the amount of alcohol in the fuel. Then it was discovered that oxygen sensors were already used as primary components of every vehicle’s emission control system and could be used to regulate fuel delivery – only new software was required to make the calculations for the engine. So the manufacturers saved on materials in that instance, Herwick noted.

Another savings came via new federal evaporative emissions rules in the late 1990s, Herwick said. In order to comply with these, a variety of materials upgrades in the fuel system were made in all vehicles. Still, this did not cover everything, and additional materials upgrades are required in most FFV models.

The other half of the equation is the intellectual property development.

“Where most of the cost comes in developing these FFVs is in what I would call the calibration, the programming of the computer, so that the vehicle has good drivability, gas mileage, low emissions, and so on,” Jones said. “That’s where I would estimate most of the cost is, in the development side. Whenever a vehicle is developed, there are different formulations of gasoline out there in different markets. There is not one gasoline that they calibrate the engine for. When you go to an FFV, you throw from zero percent ethanol up to 85 percent, and the question becomes what blends do you calibrate for as you go up? Some of the manufacturers do a very good job at all the points along the continuum and others do not do a good job at all, because the calibration on those midpoints is not good at all.”

Jones is optimistic that America’s domestic car makers will make good on their pledge to increase their production of FFVs.

“Why the manufacturers are able to increase FFV production now comes from a number of factors,” Jones said. “The materials are improving, they are learning just what it takes to do flexible fuel vehicles right, and finally, it is a scale of economy they can take advantage of now. It’s analogous to how airbag equipment has developed in cars. The first airbag systems put on cars were incredibly expensive… as airbag technology developed, it got cheaper and cheaper, and you saw more and more of them – to the point where nowadays you often see a dozen airbags in a car.”

Jones found the General Motors estimate of its investment of 0 million a year in additional costs for FFV production plausible, but he said once the vehicles are developed and calibrated, it makes perfect sense for the proportion of FFVs manufactured to grow, especially if government incentives like CAFÉ standards and a possible carbon tax or incentive system comes into play.

Herwick agreed that economies of scale will favor continued expansion of the proportion of FFVs beyond the halfway point for domestic car makers, but he cautions that the process of developing an FFV version of a conventional vehicle is not an overnight occurrence. It may take three to five years to integrate the necessary changes into a vehicle and to align with manufacturers’ vehicle change cycles.

“Mandates could help bring the foreign auto makers into it more fully,” Herwick said. “Incentives are probably the most desirable way to increase the number of FFVs. They work very well.”

According to Wikipedia, Brazil continues to be the front edge of flexible fuel development. Since 2003, they have had cars that can run on any level of ethanol, from zero to 100 percent. American fuel providers and car makers agreed on 85 percent ethanol and 15 percent petroleum in order to avoid cold starting issues.

The Brazilian vehicles instead featured a small auxiliary gasoline tank that would inject gasoline when air temperatures fell to 59 degrees Fahrenheit or lower. Most recently, Volkswagen has developed a flex fuel vehicle that can operate any mixture of alcohol and gasoline, up to pure ethanol, without an auxiliary tank. Honda launched the first commercially available flexible fuel motorcycle in Brazil in March 2009, according to the Internet-based encyclopedia service.

The American Coalition for Ethanol believes more flex-fuel vehicles are centrally important to U.S. efforts toward energy independence, and they feel stronger action is warranted.

“While ACE appreciates the voluntary commitment many automakers have made to produce more FFVs, it is important to do more to break the grip Big Oil has on consumers at the pump,” said Brian Jennings, Executive Vice President of ACE. “The fastest and most cost-effective way to accomplish true consumer fuel choice is if every automaker produces every car as an FFV. That is why ACE supports legislation pending in Congress to mandate FFV production.”

Car makers call for more refueling infrastructure

Herwick and Jones think the car makers are doing their part by increasing FFV production and that GM’s Tom Stephens’ point about the need to increase E85 infrastructure is a point well taken.

“Ninety percent of the registered flex fuel vehicles do not have an E85 pump in their zip code,” Stephens told his audience at the national ethanol conference. “And nearly 50 percent don’t have E85 in their county.

Stephens urged ethanol producers, fuel retailers, and government to work together to make sure that the nation’s population centers get adequate coverage of E85 fueling sites. He noted that GM had worked with Alabama, Kentucky, Tennessee, and Indiana to create an 800-mile highway corridor of E85 infrastructure, along which a driver is “never more than a quarter-tank away” from the next refueling site.

Ron Lamberty, ACE’s Vice President / Market Development and long-time fuel marketer and

gas station owner, cautions that the talk about E85 refueling locations is the wrong focus. He

believes the vehicles need to come first, then the pumps will follow in a natural progression.

“If Henry Ford would have waited to create his automobile until the first gas station was put in, we’d all still be riding horses,” Lamberty said. “The vehicles have to come first, and then petroleum marketers will see the advantage of putting in the pumps and will be able to justify the expense.

“I don’t see what the advantage is for the car companies to make vehicles that are not flex-fuel,” Lamberty continued. “If they can do it for so little money, what’s the reason not to?”

The best bet for pumps is not a standalone E85 dispenser, but a blender pump, which can dispense a range of gasoline-ethanol blends in the same footprint as standard equipment. About 200 blender pump locations are found nationwide today, and many more will be available through efforts in various states plus the national “Blend Your Own Ethanol” campaign. “BYO” is a joint effort between ACE and the Renewable Fuels Association, working with gas station owners nationwide to explain and assist with the installation of blender pump infrastructure. The hope is to open up the retail marketplace to greater fuel choice.

The combination of blender pumps and FFVs can make that future fuel choice happen today.

© American Coalition for Ethanol, all rights reserved.
The American Coalition for Ethanol publishes Ethanol Today magazine each month to cover the biofuels industryís hot topics, including cellulosic ethanol, E85, corn ethanol, food versus fuel, ethanolís carbon footprint, E10, E15, and mid-range ethanol blends.
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