Dear Chicago: Green the fleet

Scientist urges the city to invest in environmentally-friendly vehicles.

March 28, 2011


 

Between sanitation trucks, fire engines, and police SUVs, the City of Chicago owns its fair share of motor vehicles - nearly 13,000 in all, according to the Department of Fleet Management. And fueling them up is not cheap: in 2010 the city spent more than $24 million on gasoline and diesel fuel.  

Compare that with only $164,000 spent on alternative fuels and you might have a hard time squaring reality with outgoing Mayor Richard M. Daley’s stated desire to improve the city’s environmental record.

In a 2006 Time Magazine article Mayor Daley said the city was “aggressive in terms of the environment,” and his claim bears out in some cases. Daley founded the Department of the Environment in 1992 and is credited with planting thousands of trees and remediating thousands of acres of brownfield sites in the city. He even had a rooftop garden installed on City Hall. 
 
In addition, the city launched its Climate Action Plan in 2008, with a goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions to 25 percent below 1990 levels by 2020. The plan includes improvements to the fleet, but a publicly available progress report suggests most improvements come from changes to the Chicago Transit Authority's bus fleet, not improvements to vehicles under the city's direct control.  
 
This has not been enough to satisfy some, such as scientist Forrest Jehlik, who want the city to address its fleet’s impact on global warming faster and more aggressively. Jehlik, 38, is an environmentalist, but he’s not wed to weepy, low-performance vehicles; in fact, he loves muscle cars and stock car racing, and hopes to buy a classic British chopper motorcycle this summer. But as a research engineer at Argonne National Laboratory he is also pioneering technological advancements that could make all automobiles greener and more fuel efficient.  
 
Here, Jehlik explains why he wants this city to put its money where its mouth is and green its fleet.
 
Dear Chicago is a project of WBEZ’s Partnerships Program. Forrest Jehlik was nominated for the series by Argonne National Laboratory.
 
Dear Chicago,
 
For a long time now you’ve portrayed yourself as a green city. Let’s make sure those words aren’t just a dream. 
 
I love cars. I really, really do. I went to a horror movie when I was 10 or 11 years old and in the movie there was this car, a 1970 Plymouth Hemi ‘Cuda, and I thought it was the coolest thing I’d ever seen. It’s a classic Chrysler car, and from that day on I was sold. I went out and read and learned about cars and knew that was my dream car. To me, cars done right aren’t just a utility; they’re pieces of art.
 
I’m also passionate about trying to reduce our reliance on foreign petroleum, and looking for solutions that are domestically generated, helping support industry in the United States.
 
I was at General Motors for 5 years. My job was in research and development working on diesel engine systems for the North American marketplace. Our fuel economy targets were really aggressive at that time, and diesel engines are inherently anywhere from 25 to 40 percent more efficient per gallon than a gasoline engine.
 
Now I work at Argonne National Laboratory on two different projects. The first thing I’m working on is the effect of temperature on fuel consumption in advanced vehicles like hybrids.
 
Let’s say you have a Toyota Prius or some advanced vehicle that you were driving around the city. If you were to drive the same route every day, driving at the same speed, and for the sake of argument you didn’t turn on the air conditioner or the heater, you would notice a tremendous increase and decrease in your fuel consumption depending on the temperatures outside. I’ve been working on techniques to characterize what the fuel consumption is relative to those ambient conditions and what engineering solutions could be applied to that loss, which could really benefit the consumer with increased fuel economy.
 
Then, I got involved a little over a year ago with a green racing program. Racing has an enormous volume of fans in this country, whether it’s motorcycle racing, stock car racing, indie racing, or American Le Mans series racing. It’s second only to the NFL [National Football League]. It’s the perfect platform to say, hey, this race car has this whiz-bang gadget or this new advanced technology and your production cars could have this too.
 
The results have been amazing. Last year we were able to record a 40 percent reduction in petroleum use over a whole American Le Mans race series as well as a 40 percent reduction in well-to-wheels greenhouse gas emissions. It was pretty staggering.
 
There are a lot of technologies on the horizon that Chicago could look at to diversify their fleet and become much more sustainable environmentally.
 
The first step is we really need to find out what their driving habits are. Engineers tend to be a lot more rational than we are political. I think the key is doing the research and seeing what makes the most sense for the driving route, driving conditions, seasonal driving distance, loading conditions and so forth. Certain technologies lend themselves better to certain things. It could be anything from electric power vehicles to compressed natural gas for busses. There’s not one silver bullet. There are more like a lot of silver shotgun pellets, and you need to find the right shotgun pellet to address the issue.
 
The image a city portrays is a global thing, and it can really make the difference between people wanting to invest and become a part of the city or looking elsewhere. So the City of Chicago has touted itself for a long time now as a green city, but what does green mean? Well, in my opinion green means sustainable. The city definitely has the potential to be a world leader in this movement. We can really start down that path where we’re not reliant on just petroleum-based products that will ultimately become too expensive for the world to use.
 
What I’d like to see the city do, if it really wants to make good on its green image, is take a look at the entire transportation sector to see what the free market could do to reduce their petroleum use and greenhouse gas emissions, and truly reflect the image of Chicago as a leader of clean transportation.