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Many cars already on the road can burn advanced biofuels—say, 15 percent gasoline and 85 percent ethanol, ideally cellulosic ethanol made with new processes from woody plants such as switchgrass or crop wastes. An ultralight hybrid car burning such "E85" fuel could cut its oil use by another three-fourths, to just 7 percent of the current level.

Brazil has already eliminated its oil imports, two-fifths via sugar-cane ethanol that now competes without subsidy. Three-fourths of Brazil's new cars can burn anything from pure ethanol to pure gasoline, although all of its gasoline is at least 20 percent ethanol. Sweden plans to be oil-independent by 2020, chiefly via ethanol made from forest wastes and the requirement that its top-selling 60 percent of filling stations offer renewable fuel by 2009.

In the longer run, one can make a robust business case for tripled-efficiency, ultralight-hybrid cars to use compressed hydrogen gas as fuel and turn it into electricity in a fuel cell. A heavy, inefficient car would need an excessively bulky tank and a big, costly fuel cell. But an ultralight, aerodynamic car would need two-thirds less propulsive energy and smaller tanks.

And just 3 percent as much cumulative production volume would be needed to make the three-fold smaller fuel cell cost effective—thus it could become cost effective many, many years earlier. Such cars when parked (which is 96 percent of the time) could even become profitable power plants on wheels, selling electricity back to the grid when and where it's most valuable.

In a parking structure, there would be a pipe to get hydrogen into the car and wires to get electricity out. At times of peak power demand, you could turn the fuel cell on and the car could run as a power plant, crediting the owner's account.

Meanwhile, adding more batteries to conventional hybrid cars, if cost effective, could displace fuel now used for short and, perhaps, medium trips.

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