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A letter from Stew


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Newsletter No 38
May 2003


Whew, at last, our cars are going to be “green”, energy efficient, and pollution-free!  So said our president during his last State of the Union address, referring to the hydrogen car.

With over one billion dollars of federal money set aside for research and development, we can all breathe a sigh of relief that we are at last on the high road to clean cars and a better environment.  According to the president, the new cars will use “a simple chemical reaction between hydrogen and oxygen (and emit from the exhaust pipe) only water, not exhaust fumes”. And all of this to happen in (maybe) ten years!  I don’t know about you, but that certainly gets my red, white and blue blood pumping.

The hydrogen-based energy and transportation system seems inevitable. 
But there is one teensy little problem:  politics.  And one teensy little question:  what will be the source of our hydrogen?  The energy and automobile interests like the way things are right now.  Somehow, I can’t imagine the oil companies just saying “oh well, we knew the Oil Age was going to end sometime” and going gently into that moneyless night.  How can the oil companies turn the end of the Oil Age into a new profit center?  Easy – make us get the hydrogen from oil!

One of my favorite statements (if you know who first said it, let me know) is this:  “The Stone Age did not end due to a lack of stones”.  I believe the evidence is clear that the Oil Age will not end for lack of oil.  All we need is a constant price per barrel (similar to what we have seen during this current war) and the tar sands continue to be economically viable.  And there is said to be enough of that to last thousands of years.  My personal conviction is that humanity will not withstand the political and environment costs of using fossil fuels for another thousand years.

Unfortunately, our president is so “embedded” with the oil interests that he doesn’t seem able to consider the alternatives to fossil fuels.

This is an excellent opportunity for renewables to be developed, most notably wind.  Wind can be used to generate the electricity to feed our existing grids, and during off-peak times the surplus energy can be used to create the hydrogen from plain water. This technology is already proven viable and is far more environmentally friendly than the oil economy.  Besides, we wouldn’t have to manipulate foreign countries into giving us deals on oil.  We have the opportunity to make our country energy independent if only we could move on it.


I’ve had quite a few inquiries about the hybrid (gas/electric) cars, so let me share what I know about them.

Owning a hybrid car is one of the few things you can currently do as a car driver to make a political statement, because hybrid sales and customer satisfaction levels are being carefully watched.  This doesn’t mean that if sales soar and people love them they will be further developed (think of electric cars), but it can’t hurt! 

The future is great for hybrids for several reasons.  Hybrids are the only technology that offers a real possibility for a quantum leap in fuel economy.  The current hybrids don’t offer a huge improvement in fuel economy, but that may be as easy as tweaking the on-board computers.

The individual technologies of the hybrids are already well proven.  And, most importantly, the Japanese government is solidly behind them.  When a country with a planned economy decides a technology is in their national interest, it’s safe to say it isn’t going away. 

From a “hands-on” standpoint, I don’t know much about the hybrids yet.  They’re still under manufacturer warranty, and we won’t see too many of them for a while.  I would very much like to, though.

The manufacturers (as usual) are trying to set things up so the independents are out of the loop on repairs and information.  This is to be expected with any new technology.  We are a resourceful lot, and I will be briefed on the pattern failures and foibles long before I ever work on one!  This is true for all the cars we work on.  Besides, having built an electric car from scratch, I’m really looking forward to comparing engineering.     
If you are looking for a new or slightly used car and one of the hybrids fits your needs, go for it!  Take a test drive. Get on the web and look at the owners’  web pages, and read the clubs’ web pages, but take it with a grain of salt.

The majority of things that will break and wear out on a hybrid are the same things that are breaking and wearing out on regular cars.  The battery packs are the only unusual items.  It is unknown how long they will last.  The expectation is that they will last at least seven to ten years, and the warranty coverage reflects this.  After the warranty expires, you may be on your own to replace the battery pack.  Its current price is about $3,000, but the expectation is that this price will come down as production ramps up and the technologies are refined.  This is a reasonable expectation, but you never know.  The answer may depend on how many are sold.

So, it is a decision that has some risk. 
And don’t worry about your gasoline car or hybrid car or diesel car becoming obsolete due to the hydrogen car.  Changes will happen in our energy  distribution system,  but they will happen slowly.  Even if pure hydrogen is dispensed at the pump directly into your car, there will likely be a pump for diesel and a pump for gas, too.  Hydrogen can’t easily replace gas and diesel in some applications yet, either.


Feeling a little green right now?  Read on.

The MREA (Midwest Renewable Energy Association) is holding their annual Energy Fair in Custer, WI (near Steven’s Point and Amherst) from June 20 – 22, 2003.  If you’re interested, their web site is  Details on the Fair will be posted in May.

They have displays, demonstrations, vendors, and workshops on things such as wind energy, hydropower, alternative fuel cars (including electric, hybrids, and used vegetable oil  -- if you really love the smell of French fries), photovoltaics, solar heating, sustainable landscaping, green building techniques, kids’ programs, and home tours.  Whew!  I highly recommend it.

Go on and treat yourself to a green day... I know you’ll have the time of your life. And the diesels that run on used vegetable oil really do smell like French fries!  Hey, it’s a lot better thanGo on and treat yourself to a green day... I know you’ll have the time of your life. And the diesels that run on used vegetable oil really do smell like French fries!  Hey, it’s a lot better than diesel fumes.


We’ve seen many more cars towed in this past winter.   

And we’ve noticed over the past year that we’re doing less maintenance and more repairs.

Well-maintained older cars can and do have sudden failures, but the main reason we’re seeing more tow-ins is because maintenance is being deferred.  That’s understandable in these trying economic times, but unfortunately it can make the car more prone to an avoidable failure (example:  an $80 tow  because the car had gunked-up battery cables and wouldn’t start on a cold morning).

I am certainly looking forward to better times, when economic uncertainties ease up.  I for one would rather do scheduled maintenance than try to cope with unplanned emergency repairs.


Pauline (our two-door red Saab) has now joined the flock of  retired Saab 900’s grazing in our Swedish pasture.  Mechanical problems forced her retirement – it’s just another Saab story. 

We have acquired another loaner car – a blue Volvo 740 named Miles.  He’s not quite driveable yet, so we appreciate your continued patience during this time of restricted loaner car availability.

Our loaner cars are now all 4 door Volvo 740’s or 760’s with automatic transmissions.  Easy to drive, room for the kids, and highly reliable.

We’ve had some misunderstandings this winter involving the loaner cars, so I’d like to take the time to clarify our policy and our expectations of you, our loaner car driver.

If you have a loaner car reserved and you can’t make your scheduled appointment, please let us know in advance.  On more than a few occasions, we have paid for a car rental for a customer we promised a loaner car to.  Meanwhile, the other loaner car ends up sitting here all day because of a customer no-show.

Also, if you do have a loaner car, we expect you to be in communication with us when your car is here.  If your car is ready, we need the loaner car back no later than 8 a.m. the following morning unless other arrangements have been made in advance.    On a few occasions, we have had to pay for more car rentals because of customers we could not reach.

If we are going to have loaner cars for your convenience, the next person in line should be able to expect the same level of convenience and service.

Hope to see you soon!

Stop in to visit us, or if you have any questions about your cars, call us at 651-635-0395.


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