In L.A., the hybrid is, like, so last year

While carmakers at the LA Auto Show tout hybrids, the eco-friendly buzz in Southern California is now around biodiesel. Photos: More from the LA Auto Show

Stefanie Olsen Staff writer, CNET News
Stefanie Olsen covers technology and science.
Stefanie Olsen
3 min read
LOS ANGELES--Here at the LA Auto Show, many carmakers are buzzing about new fuel-efficient hybrid cars. But little do they know, Hollywood tastemakers and hipsters are already onto another gasoline alternative: biodiesel.

Long a green fuel for hippies, biodiesel is an alternative fuel that's made from the fat of animals or vegetables such as soy beans. The fuel runs in any diesel-engine car or truck, so its use doesn't require more than an old diesel-engine car like the Mercedes or a new diesel for sale outside of California. (California prohibits the sale of diesel-engine cars because their use of regular diesel fuel does not meet the state's tough clean-air standards.)

That's why some Hollywood hipsters are trading in their hybrids for old Mercedes and fueling up with biodiesel, which doesn't cause greenhouse gases and is a renewable energy source.

"Actors, writers, PR agencies--these people are driving biodiesel-fueled cars and their main intention is to get rid of the dependence on foreign oil," said Oliver Schmidt, an engineer with an automobile design think-tank called Moonraker, based in nearby Malibu.

Still, fueling up is harder than fighting L.A.'s rush-hour traffic. Biodiesel drivers must travel to L.A.'s harbor area, Ventura or San Diego, few of the only places with a station.

But on Friday, eco-friendly drivers in a group called The Biodiesel Co-op, which includes designers and engineers from Volkswagen who are living in Malibu, plan to open an "unofficial" biodiesel station, called the Biodiesel Fueling Trailer, in nearby Marina del Rey.

This should be good news to celebrities like actresses Daryl Hannah and Alexandra Paul of "Baywatch," who are longtime green-energy supporters. Even the public relations company that previously supplied actors with hybrid cars for the Oscars are now turning to biodiesel-fueled cars for the same task.

Some celebrities are already on a biodiesel awareness campaign. Singer Willie Nelson has long been a champion of the clean-burning fuel. He makes and sells his own alternative fuel, called B20 (or biowillie). The singer Bonnie Raitt, who's touring the country in a car fueled with B20, hosted an educational event touting biodiesel last month in Knoxville, Tenn.

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According to the National Biodiesel Board, manufacturing of the green fuel was up threefold in 2005 from the year before to 75 million gallons. That's thanks in part to a first-ever government tax break for makers and a mandate in Minnesota to cut all diesel fuel with biodiesel.

Still, electric-gas hybrid cars are the topic of much interest at the LA Auto Show this week, which hosted media days on Wednesday and Thursday, and will be open to the public through Jan. 15.

VW is currently developing clean-diesel technology that it plans to introduce with the Jetta in 2007. The car will be a bit more expensive, but buyers could receive a tax break from the IRS.

At the auto show, Honda showed off the third in a line of hybrid cars it has introduced since 1999. The 2006 Civic Hybrid, which came out in October, has already been named Motor Trend's Car of the Year. It gets 50 miles per gallon and starts at $21,000.

"The awareness of the hybrid is certainly at its highest level ever," said Sage Marie, Honda's manager of public relations.

In the cutting-edge realm, Honda also showcased its hydrogen-powered fuel cell car, the EPX. It's currently being tested and driven by a family in California.

The car is run on fuel cells that bind oxygen and hydrogen to create an electrical current that powers the motor. The natural byproduct emitted from the tailpipe is water. The process reduces local air pollution.

At the show, Porsche executives also talked about plans to introduce a hybrid version of its sports utility vehicle, the Cayenne. While unveiling Porsche's newest sports car, the Cayman S, the company promised a hybrid Cayenne by 2010 that would improve fuel efficiency by 15 percent.

BMW executives talked briefly about alternative cars on Wednesday, but gave no indications that it would develop a hybrid vehicle. They did, however, give the nod to diesel. That's not a surprise, given that most of BMW's sales in Europe are for diesel vehicles.

"(Biodiesel) is another technology that offers possibilities in the United States as a green technology," BMW executive Tom Pervis said Wednesday during a speech.

With regards to hybrids, Pervis added, it's clear that "no one technology will dominate the industry ever again, at least not like gasoline has in the 20th century."