A New Age: 1955 – Present

A Nike missile. In the ultimate show of human ingenuity, these short-range, surface-to-air, nuclear-tipped missiles were posted near every major U.S. city to shoot Soviet bombers down before they could drop nuclear bombs on the cities. The irony of stopping a nuclear bomber near a city with another nuclear weapon was apparently not realized by the Strategic Air Command.

Since the launch of the U.S.S. Nautilus in 1954, civilian and military nuclear power began to expand. The Soviet Union and United States began to run every piece of military equipment around the concept of nuclear war. Aircraft, armor, and artillery were experimenting with using nuclear bombs, nuclear-tipped cruise missiles, nuclear-tipped air-to-air missiles, and nuclear-tipped artillery shells (!); submarines used nuclear-tipped torpedoes and could now remain submerged with near-infinite endurance running on a nuclear reactor; aircraft carriers could be stationed anywhere in the world running on nuclear reactors. [The first of these, U.S.S. Enterprise, was just decommissioned earlier this year, following a service life that began in time to participate in the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962; to show development since then, relatively modern Nimitz-class aircraft carriers run on 2 reactors, whereas Enterprise ran on 8.] The Soviet Union built the world’s first civilian nuclear reactor in 1954; the year could have been a matter of chance or an attempt to have a “world’s first”, which seemed to be a main point of the arms race between the two. [These evolved into several races for a multitude of projects, some of them insane; in the parody film Dr. Strangelove, a 1964 movie joking about the madness of nuclear war, the Soviet ambassador tells his American counterpart, “We built this machine because we could not compete with you in the Nuclear Race, the Space Race, and the Peace Race.” But I digress.]

The abandoned city of Chernobyl, Ukraine, site of the world’s most famous nuclear accident and the world’s largest ghost town. Following the 1986 accident, the world began to seriously question the safety of nuclear power.

Unlike their American counterparts, the Soviet Union was notorious for shoddy construction in order to cut corners so that they could keep up with the U.S. The most notable nuclear disasters in the U.S.S.R. were the reactor failure on the submarine K-19 (K-19 was a cursed submarine, with several major incidents over thirty years of operation; about five Soviet submarines were lost during the Cold War, but the K-19 was the most famous of them); and the total meltdown of the #4 reactor at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in Chernobyl, Ukraine, in 1986, which prompted the permanent evacuation of the entire town. Chernobyl is a standing relic today, a total ghost town of what a Soviet city looked like in 1986. The Chernobyl disaster was the worst nuclear disaster in world history, many times worse than the Fukushima Dai’ichi nuclear disaster in 2011, as it had a much wider area of impact (about twice the diameter, to 19 km) and was not caused by a natural disaster.

The Three Mile Island nuclear power plant. Site of a 1979 radiation leak, it was the worst nuclear accident in the West not caused by a natural disaster. Compared to Chernobyl, however, its fallout – both in the literal and figurative sense – was insignificant.

By comparison, the worst nuclear disaster in the West was Three Mile Island in 1979, where the #2 reactor had a partial meltdown caused by a breach of regulations and human error. The confusion during and following Three Mile Island among the plant operators, the politicians, and the general public heralded the beginning of the end of the civilian nuclear energy, despite the fact that only an insignificant amount of radiation was released in the disaster. The last nuclear reactor built in the U.S. was finished about the time of the Three Mile Island disaster, in California; since then, no new nuclear reactors have been approved for construction, and the use of civilian nuclear energy has been in decline as older reactors are phased out and not replaced. Chernobyl exacerbated the ‘nuclear problem’ in the eyes of the public, and after the Fukushima disaster in 2011, the general public is firmly against its use for power generation. Following the disaster, Japan has shut down all of its reactors (the source of 1/3 of its electric power), and is considering dismantling them; France (80% of power from nuclear energy) and the U.S. (about 105 operational reactors, 20% of the world’s total) are considering following suit. Aside from military purposes – and it is here that nuclear energy is most well-known for in the world today – nuclear energy is being stifled across the world, and aside from larger men-of-war, it is generally not in use or being phased out. This might be a good thing – nuclear energy produces hard-to-dispose radioactive waste, which cannot be easily recycled and does not degrade quickly – but it would seem that countries will not necessarily replace these energy-generation methods with clean energy, so there is a tradeoff involved.

Until the 1973 Arab Oil Crisis, caused by an embargo of oil to the U.S. from the Middle East over the U.S.’s involvement backing the Israelis in the 1973 Yom Kippur War, alternative energy sources were not widely considered over gasoline, excepting nuclear power, which is part of a separate military-derived field of energy production. As gas-guzzling muscle cars suddenly cut into paychecks, alternative energy sources were now considered for all types of vehicles. The rest of this article will discuss non-nuclear sources of energy in relation to the changing dynamic of transportation.

The Lunar Rover. It was the most successful electric vehicle from the 1900s until the 1980s, since internal-combustion engines had superseded almost everything else up until that time. A total of three were launched, one for each of the last three Apollo missions to the moon. Had it not been for the 1973 Arab Oil Crisis, it might still be retaining the title of “most successful electric vehicle”.

Prior to 1973, the biggest advancement that electric cars had made since the 1920s was the Lunar Rover, used to drive astronauts across the moon on battery power, which would work in oxygen-deprived areas. [Recall that fuel oil needs oxygen in order to combust.] After 1973, work in electric cars began in earnest again, but had a lot of catching up to do to become competitive against gasoline-powered vehicles, and was not considered successful until General Motors presented an electric-powered prototype at the 1990 Los Angeles Auto Show, which entered production as the EV1 electric vehicle in 1996. The car suffered numerous teething problems, and production was stopped by 1999. Among the worst of them was that the car had relatively short range, a relatively high price compared to gasoline-powered vehicles, and like many other GM cars, seemed to spontaneously catch fire under certain conditions. In short, the EV1 was a flop for its time, simply because the expertise and technology required were not there.

The General Motors EV1 debuted in 1996. The world’s first modern electric car to enter mass production, it was a near-total failure.

But GM was not quite finished – in 2010, it produced its first electric vehicle since the ill-fated EV1, the moderately successful Chevrolet Volt. The Volt is powered by lithium-ion batteries that are much more powerful than their earlier counterparts, but is backed up by a conventional gasoline engine; the Volt is therefore not a true electric vehicle, but because of its primary powerplant – the batteries, with gasoline for backup, and not the other way around – it is listed here. The Volt can travel on pure electric power for short hops, about 40 miles, putting it toe-to-toe with many electric ‘city cars’, but widely outclasses them by being a plug-in hybrid and having the gasoline engine give it extra range. It is also about 1/2 of the price of comparable electric vehicles, including the Tesla Roadster, an electric supercar costing about $100,000 but debuting a few years prior, in 2006. The Volt’s only major problem is that in true GM tradition, it can spontaneously combust in collisions. The Volt is also under a cloud from policymakers that funded GM during a financial ‘bailout’, cited as being a waste of money. At about the same time as the Volt, also in 2010, Nissan released its own electric vehicle, the Nissan Leaf; this has a relatively low cost (about $35,000), decent range for an electric vehicle (about 100 miles), and has been widely successful. Unlike the Volt, the Nissan Leaf is all-electric, giving it an additional boost in sales; as the Volt is a hybrid, it competes with many other manufacturers, whereas the Leaf appeals to the all-electric niche of vehicles. Both the Volt and Leaf are still in production, and are the most widely-known of the electric-car field.

The Chevy Volt. It has enjoyed moderate success since its launch in 2007, and although technically a hybrid, it is considered an electric car because of its battery-powered propulsion system used primarily for short-range travel.

But again, Volt is not a true electric car – it is a hybrid – so it is only fitting to discuss the role that hybrid vehicles have played in curbing energy consumption across the world. While not “alternative vehicles” per se, they deserve to be recognized here, as they help in reducing our dependence on fossil fuels; however, we should remember that these only serve as temporary solutions towards true ‘clean energy’, but any solution that helps by any degree (with minimal cost) is better than nothing. Please note that we are talking about the primary type of hybrid vehicle, a “hybrid electric vehicle” that couples battery/electric power with gasoline power; other types, which combine gasoline with something other than electricity (compressed air, for instance) will not be discussed.

[It has been mentioned before that World War II submarines ran on diesel/electric power, with batteries installed for underwater propulsion. Late in the war, Helmut Walter devised the schnorkel (snorkel), which allowed for the diesel engine to remain in use if the submarine stayed at a shallow depth. Early snorkels had teething problems, not least of which was that they sometimes sucked air from inside the boat before converting to outside air, and occasionally the exhaust vents to outside air stuck open even if the boat was diving, leading to many popped eardrums, headaches, and probably a few accidental sinkings. These were used in U-boats during the latter stages of the war, but eventually migrated to U.S. and Soviet boats as well; in the U.S., these were referred to as “Guppies”, with the first three letters standing for “Greater Underwater Propulsion”. These were used prior to nuclear power, and are still in use in many submarines today, especially in those with non-nuclear propulsion. Therefore, we could say that many modern-day submarines are already hybrids.]

The Toyota Prius debuted in 1997. Although originally a failure, Toyota improved what would eventually become one of the most recognizable and most successful alternately-powered vehicles in the world.

About the same time as the EV1 was released, Toyota had worked on pairing an electric battery with a traditional internal-combustion engine. The battery would be used for short distances and at low speeds, after which the gasoline engine would take over. But unlike traditional all-electric vehicles, the battery would be recharging when the vehicle braked, coasted, or drove downhill, and the vehicle would shut off if it were stopped; the responsiveness and torque-producing characteristics of batteries would ensure that it could start up again and accelerate quickly if the driver wished within a matter of tenths of seconds, unlike traditional internal-combustion engines, which require a few seconds to start. The Toyota Prius debuted in 1997 to lackluster sales, but had stellar fuel economy at about 50 mpg, and a decent price that has progressively dropped from $40,000 to an impressively low $20,000 today, allowing it to undercut its competition. Consequentially, whereas many other alternative-energy vehicles before and after its debut collapsed, the Prius shined, and when fuel prices began to shoot up, the Prius became legendary, especially as its prices continued to drop and its teething problems were ironed out. The Prius debuted a plug-in version in 2011, and the all-new Prius v is currently just coming off the blocks; similar to an SUV in size and shape, it can still compete with the most fuel-efficient gasoline-powered cars, with about 40 mpg, double than that of many contemporary SUVs for a slightly higher price. After the Toyota Prius was debuted, Honda was the first of its competitors to see the field of hybrid vehicles as lucrative, and decided to introduce its own hybrid, the Honda Insight, in 1999; Ford produced the first hybrid SUV to hit North America, the Ford Escape Hybrid, in 2005; and today, nearly every car manufacturer in the world is producing at least one hybrid vehicle, of all types. [Mercedes Benz, Audi, and GM have all gotten in on this; traditionally, they have made fuel-inefficient vehicles, showing how far the idea has spread.]

Flex-fuel, a mixture of gasoline to ethanol, is a possible alternative to fossil fuels. However, corn-derived ethanol used for fuel production cuts into already scarce arable land, and the price of the gasoline/ethanol blend can vary wildly based on food prices. Ethanol is also less efficient than gasoline, with mpg ratings topping out in the 20s.

Flex-fueled vehicles were available until 1919, when Prohibition cracked down on anything involving alcohol. The field started with the Ford Model T, but disappeared until embargoes forced Brazil to build or convert standard vehicles into having ethanol-driven engines in the 1970s and 1980s. E-25 fuel and E-100 fuel appeared there shortly after, whereas the United States received E-85 fuel in the 1990s; E-85 is the general maximum for the United States, due to the colder climate (below 15°C/59°F). ‘E’ stands for ‘ethanol’, and the number stands for the percentage of fuel made out of ethanol, with the remaining percentage made out of traditional gasoline. [Standard fuel has 10% ethanol or less; many vehicles can be run on E-25 gasoline, but the higher temperatures involved have led many manufacturers – including Nissan and Toyota – to warn drivers that using it will void the engine warranty.] Ethanol, however, is not a very good alternative energy source. Ethanol is usually harvested from corn or sugarcane, depriving people of already scarce arable land now earmarked for energy production; it also has a lower energy content than its fossil-fuel counterpart. These two factors make ethanol more pricey than a similar amount of regular gasoline, and are directly related to highly-variable, fluctuating food prices. [For a comparison of gasoline to ethanol, see the “Current Models” tabs of the same names.]

We have so far discussed hybrid vehicles, including plug-in and non-plug-in models, flex-fuel vehicles, electric vehicles, and nuclear power. The next thing that will be discussed are vehicles that use non-standard, relatively rare fuels, specifically hydrogen-powered, compressed-natural-gas (CNG), and compressed-air-powered vehicles. We will then conclude by showing a few more ideas that do not use alternative sources of energy, but improve fuel economy in other world-changing ways. [Note that this is not a catch-all list; there are other types of alternatively-powered vehicles, but we will not discuss them at all or just briefly.]

Hydrogen fuel-cell powered vehicles are in the late-experimental stage, with vehicles being tested for mass production. While promising, the main problem with hydrogen-powered vehicles is that there currently is little infrastructure to support them, and hydrogen power is still relatively inefficient.

Hydrogen-powered vehicles are highly experimental, and are being studied in everything from automobiles to aircraft. Harkening back to the Type XVII and Type XVIII “Walter” U-boats, these run on hydrogen fuel cells, which contain hydrogen that is either burned or reacts to charge a battery. [Hydrogen peroxide reacts to produce hydrogen gas and oxygen gas.] These are non-renewable sources of energy, and have to take hydrogen from water or another source. Hydrogen gas is hard to contain and produce, and is inherently explosive; therefore, it will produce a lot of energy, but is still inefficient due to the energy costs involved in transporting it, with only an efficiency from producer to consumer of about 20%. The infrastructure is also not really there to refuel and maintain these vehicles. However, if and when the infrastructure gets into place, this is a very promising, clean-burning field of energy production.

Compressed Natural Gas (CNG) is another promising field, but as with hydrogen-powered vehicles, there is little infrastructure to support it.

Compressed natural gas has been studied on and off since the 1973 Arab Oil Crisis. It is not as efficient as gasoline, but also does not create as many greenhouse gas emissions. It is used in the Middle East and Far East, and has been in use on many U.S. public transportation systems. The main problems with CNG are threefold. First, it is a gas, which takes up more space than gasoline for the same output. Second, it is still a non-renewable fossil fuel drawn out of the ground. [Note, however, that an alternate source – which has yet to be used for reasons that this author does not understand – is simply capturing methane coming off of wastewater treatment plants or landfills, so it can be a renewable energy source if the industry wants it to be.] Third, and most importantly, the infrastructure for containing, transporting, and disseminating it is not in place. The field is promising, but still needs improvement before it is used in large quantities.

Compressed air vehicles have been in experimental stages for about two hundred years, and have never seemed to enter mass production. These would probably work by coupling the compressed air mechanism to an electric vehicle, whose batteries would power an air compressor. The emissions are negligible, and very little energy needs to be inserted for a large result. The main problems with this are that while they would not require much improvement in infrastructure, and would produce a comparable amount of energy as a traditional gasoline-powered car, they are not easy to maintain, and require hot air to run (cold air does not produce as much energy). The air would have to be compressed from an engine intake, which would be problematic if the intake were blocked. However, this author thinks that the technology shows quite a bit of promise, and does not really understand why it has not been implemented.

A possible future depiction of ships with retractable solar sails to use the wind and sun to their advantage. This can be retrofitted to ships already in service, and is being explored by several shipping lines around the world as a possible method of reducing fuel consumption.

So alternative fuels aside, how can we power our vehicles more efficiently on traditional gasoline engines? Solar cells are being made more efficient and experimental versions can be wrapped around any object; however, these are very expensive to install and do not have much benefit for the high cost involved. The Swedes have recently proposed a new type of ship that would be flat-bottomed, shaped in such a way as to create an air bubble underneath the ship between two thin hulls; this would decrease the amount of energy-sapping friction around the boat, and could theoretically increase fuel efficiency by 20%. This proposal works for ships under construction, but cannot be retrofitted onto ships already built, as it requires a redesign of the entire hull. It has also been proposed to retrofit ships with “solar sails”, which would raise to increase the amount of the ship exposed to the wind (hearkening back to the old sailing ships of yore), as well as provide some energy from solar panels installed on them. If sailing against the wind, the sails could be retracted; therefore, when possible, natural elements could reduce fuel consumption by a small amount, the savings of which would build up over the lifespan of the ship. [This author does not think the solar panels necessary, but likes the idea of returning retractable sails to ships to reduce energy consumption.]


This concludes this detailed four-part history on alternative vehicles. We have now sailed from the past to the future, by land, air, sea, space, and submarine. We have seen just about every idea proposed that has made it into the history books, yet not filed under “good idea, but shelved and never reached widespread use”. [Note that there are undoubtedly be a few minor inconsistencies – although this author has reviewed the text multiple times, has taken the data from critically acclaimed sources, and cannot find any of these.] Books have been written on every type of alternative energy source used in transportation; this was merely a brief history, and therefore not all technologies will have been discussed. My only hope is that you now understand more about the history of alternative energy than you knew before reading this. Therefore, I welcome any and all opportunity to hear your thoughts, so please comment below. And don’t forget to visit other tabs and my reference page!

And my heartiest congratulations on reading this entire history to the end. Let us hope that we find clean, cheap, and renewable sources of energy. We must remember that if we don’t look deep into history, then we shall become a part of history. So most importantly of all, if no other lesson is drawn from this, then let us hope that someday, we will learn to look deeper into history to save ourselves from ourselves.

Date of Posting – December 17, 2012. All data is current, relative to this date.

J. Z.

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