Arctic Cat's 700 Diesel gets 30 percent better fuel economy and lower emissions than a gasoline ATV.
In late 2007, a group of ATV riders discovered an unusual set of footprints near the Arizona border in Kane County, Utah. The tracks, numbering in the thousands, were the fossilized imprints of 190-million-year-old dinosaurs, ranging from bird-sized raptors to 35-foot vegetarians. Local ATV clubs and natural resource committees agreed to cordon off the area, and the dinosaur experts were brought in.
Sadly, most ATV riders are better known for the environmental damage their vehicles cause than scientific discoveries. And while environmental groups have made ATVs their enemy for years, a new breed of cleaner and greener ATV is emerging that may change the four-wheeler's reputation.
All-terrain vehicles â€” a subset of recreational four-wheeled off-road vehicles sometimes called "quads" â€” have become increasingly popular with farmers, ranchers, firefighters, land management specialists and forest rangers. According to the Specialty Vehicle Institute of America, there are over 7 million ATVs in the U.S., with 856,000 of them sold in 2006 alone. But with high gas prices, a changing world climate, and rising complaints from conservation groups, the ATV may be ripe for reinvention.
The Return of the Diesel
Sportsmen, farmers and off-road enthusiasts all love their ATVs, but diesels have been hard items to find over the years. As the U.S. auto market starts to see more cars and light trucks with efficient and tough diesel engines under the hood, the ATV market could be following suit.
Kubota and Kawasaki now both make diesel four-wheelers geared toward utility applications such as farms and commercial fleets. Arctic Cat, one of the leading American makers of all-terrain vehicles, also makes its 700 model with a twin-cylinder diesel. In bringing the four-wheel-drive 700 to market, Arctic Cat distinguished itself by running factory tests with biodiesel, a renewable diesel substitute made from vegetable oil.
Arctic Cat tested the ATV with a 20-percent biodiesel blend (B20) and was very pleased. Ole Tweet, vice president of new product development, told CarJunky.com that his company was " . . . very impressed with B20. The blend burns cleaner than conventional diesel, producing fewer carbon dioxide emissions and lower levels of hydrocarbons, carbon monoxide and particulates." Arctic Cat also loves the idea of making a vehicle that can run on fuel produced by some of its best customers: farmers.
ATVs Go Shoeless
Out in California, an upstart called Barefoot Motors is trying to push the boundaries of what clean ATVs are all about. Max Scheder and Melissa Brandao, both veterans of the electric car company ZAP, are building the world's first "earth utility vehicle." They call it simply the Model One.
There are a smattering of sporty and light-duty electric ATVs on the market from companies such as ZAP and EVS, but nobody has yet confidently stepped into the heavy-duty arena. The vehicle that Scheder and Brandao have created is no toy. "We're building a workhorse for industrial applications," Brandao says, and the Model One has the muscle to prove it. With a 1,000-pound towing capacity, it is powerful enough to compete with the burliest ATV.
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Gas-powered ATVs get relatively high fuel economy, but their two- and four-stroke engines produce emissions that are far dirtier than your average car. The Model One has no internal combustion engine whatsoever, which means no tailpipe and no exhaust. According to Barefoot Motors, replacing a gas-powered ATV with an electric one is the equivalent to taking four cars off the road.
An electrical outlet is all that's needed to fuel up the Model One's lithium-ion battery pack. Based on preliminary tests, the Model One can put in about two hours of heavy use per charge. It is also about 100 pounds lighter than a comparable gasoline model, is more evenly balanced, and does away with vibration and heat issues. It's also virtually silent â€” a feature that could appeal to farmers, nature enthusiasts, or hunters on the prowl.
Michael Lock, the CEO of Ducati North America and one of Barefoot's advisors, recently test-drove the electric prototype and gave it very high marks. "He was thrilled," Brandao said.
Now on sale in California, the Model One will have a cost premium compared to fuel-burning models. But according to Scheder, charging an electric ATV with power from the grid, rather than paying $3.00 a gallon for gasoline, could save owners $1,000 a year. For farmers and others who make their own electricity with solar panels or methane digesters, the Barefoot entrepreneurs hope to see them fueling their electric ATVs for free.
Biodiesel fuel and lithium batteries can cut back on greenhouse gasses and fossil fuel dependence, but they won't get rid of rutted trails, soil erosion, and disrupted habitats. Scheder and Brandao know this, and they are realistic about the fact that a cleaner ATV does not make a perfect one. But they are cautiously optimistic that cleaner technologies will encourage responsible behavior.