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1. An Age-Old Love Affair

I’m outside the Colorado State Capitol Building, and a 6-foot-tall otter in a pink dress waves its furry flipper “hello” at me. Parked around us this March day is a parade of new eco-friendly vehicles. Fully electric. Natural gas. Bi-fuel. They’re part of what’s called the Green Car Convoy, which until today—coincidentally a very green St. Patty’s—has been touring all of Colorado, culminating at the Denver Auto Show. I came here to learn more about the future of personal transportation. Why Mrs. Otter is here, however, is beyond me.

“Let’s play a game of ‘Guess a Fuel.’ ” I’m talking to two men from Chesapeake Energy who’ve decided to see if I can tell the difference when their Chevy pickup engine runs gasoline versus compressed natural gas.

The driver presses a button beneath the steering wheel, switching the tanks as the pistons pump. He gauges my reaction. Sound-wise the difference is non-existent.

Dan, a Chesapeake representative, levels with me matter-of-factly: “For the foreseeable future, electric vehicle technology is not going to get the goods in an 18-wheeler from here to Utah overnight.” The two men begin to bullet point natural gas vehicles’ appeal: CO2 emissions are 30 percent less. Hazardous emissions are 90 percent less. Corporations are converting their fleets to natural gas vehicles (NGV). Even T. Boone Pickens drives a Honda Civic GX that burns natural gas. “It’s a here-and-now technology with substantial long-term benefits.”

It also reaffirms that America’s love affair with cars involves a technological advancement we’ve hesitated interfering with for more than 120 years: the internal combustion engine. In a way, the recent boon for NGV has stunted progress in other alternate fuel developments. Although NGV’s are a quick fix, change is needed. Fossil fuels, available as they seem, are finite.

Ask the magic crystal ball what the next answer is, and it’ll reveal a question mark. The road is unpaved. And perhaps, in a very literal sense, it will be. One start-up, Solar Roadways, received $750,000 in 2009 to build the first prototype of a road, with a glass surface, capable of generating electricity via solar power photovoltaics. Solar Roadways is currently putting the final touches on a parking lot entirely comprised of this technology.

Then there’s Israel-based Phinergy who tested a car retrofitted with a lithium-ion battery capable of a 100-mile range and an aluminum-air battery that extends this range 1,000 miles. By interacting with air and water, each aluminum plate in Phinergy’s battery provides 20 miles of driving. The company is already signed with an original equipment manufacturer to have these battery extenders in commercial vehicles by 2017.

But how tangible and scalable are these green ideas? Most importantly, how marketable?

I needed to get a firmer grasp of Colorado’s destination in regards to personal transportation. So I peered into that crystal ball and saw an otter in a pink dress.

Perhaps Mrs. Otter is at the Green Car Convoy because she’s tired of oil spills in the ocean—her way of saying, “I’d much prefer a ride with less crude.” I approach her, and hesitate to ask, “Are any of these green cars yours?” Mrs. Otter points to the Fisker Karma luxury hybrid sports sedan and pantomimes shifting gears, faux fur head blown back by its incredible speeds.

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