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Four green driving stories from California

The Ford Focus Electric car is displayed next to a home charging station at the LA Auto Show in Los Angeles, Thursday, Nov. 29, 2012.

Jae C. Hong/AP Photo

There's always a lot going on in the automotive industry in California, which I got a chance to observe close up while attending the Los Angeles Auto Show. Here are four stories from the left coast that have caught my eye.

1. Palo Alto, Calif.-based Tesla is having a run of positive publicity at the moment. It won both Motor Trend Car of The Year and the Automobile Magazine Car of The Year for its handsome and fast Tesla S all-electric sedan. This came shortly after Mitt Romney called the electric vehicle start-up a "loser" because of production delays. Tesla has soaked up lots of government loans, but the S is a joy to drive and the company is basking in additional enthusiastic media coverage here in California for launching new charging stations called Superchargers.

There are six stations in operation, all in California, but the company says there will be more than 100 stations along well-travelled routes from Vancouver to San Diego, Miami to Montreal and Los Angeles to New York in 2015. They're designed to provide only a Tesla S with half a charge in about half an hour. That's 150 miles of range with the 85 kWh battery and it's free.

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Constructed in secret, the first six Supercharger stations feature solar power. Each solar power system is designed to generate more energy from the sun over the course of a year than is consumed by Tesla vehicles using the Supercharger. Elon Musk, Tesla Motors co-founder and CEO, said, "We are giving Model S the ability to drive almost anywhere for free on pure sunlight." There is no word if Mitt Romney is adding one to his fleet.

2. A new fuel of a non-electrical type is now on sale in California and this one is made from algae. San Francisco's Solazyme is selling its biofuel at four Bay Area gas stations. It's called Biodiesel B20 and is made of 20 per cent algae and 80 per cent petroleum. Algae biofuels may be a viable alternative to corn-based fuel.

Solazyme grows algae in dark, stainless-steel containers. The algae converts sugar into various types of oil that is processed to make diesel and jet fuel. The company is selling it to the public at the same price as conventional diesel but it burns much cleaner. California intends to transition 80 per cent of new vehicles to clean fuel technologies by 2050.

3. The U.S. Department of Energy says there are only nine public hydrogen refuelling stations in the United States and they are all located in California. The great "Hydrogen Highway," once touted by former governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, never became a reality and electric cars were the big story at the L.A. Auto Show. However, hydrogen fuel cell cars are far from over. Hyundai, Toyota, Daimler and Honda are all planning to build vehicles that run on hydrogen and produce only water vapour as an emission.

Fuel-cell vehicles can travel much longer distances than battery-powered ones before needing to be refuelled. They can also provide enough power for large, heavy vehicles, which are still way beyond what batteries can deliver. Hyundai has said it will sell a fuel-cell version of the Tucson SUV in 2015. That will be only 1,000 vehicles but Hyundai intends to get up to 10,000 fuel-cell vehicles a year quickly. Toyota and Honda have also said they will each release a fuel-cell car in 2015. Having driven a Mercedes fuel cell car half way across China a couple of years ago, I can tell you they work beautifully. Now if they can only get the price down to something affordable; and, of course, we'll need Arnold's hydrogen stations, too.

4. The city of San Francisco is pushing car-sharing very hard. Only about 1,500 of the city's 400,000 registered cars are shared vehicles, but city hall believes that, if the number of shared vehicles increased fivefold, total car ownership could potentially drop by 25 per cent. That would ease grid-lock.

There are nearly 30 car-sharing companies worldwide, many of them in the Bay Area, operating with many different business models. One of the main roadblocks has been the question of insurance, particularly when individuals rather than corporations rent out their cars. Insurance companies typically invalidate a personal auto insurance policy if there's any commercial use of the vehicle. California, along with Oregon and Washington, have passed laws aimed at ensuring drivers are covered while protecting the vehicle owner.

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San Francisco is offering all kinds of encouragement and support to get car-sharing, truck-sharing, electric-scooter sharing and bicycle-sharing up and running. But it's early days and the movement hasn't yet taken hold in a significant way.


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