Lack of consumer education has held back the expansion of ethanol fuel consumption, which is why Colorado Corn officials are participating in a series of E85 promotions this summer.

Lack of consumer education has held back the expansion of ethanol fuel consumption, which is why Colorado Corn officials are participating in a series of E85 promotions this summer.

Colorado Corn executive director Mark Sponsler said even though there are an estimated 250,000 flex-fuel vehicles on the road in the state, and nearly 18 million nationwide, car dealerships seldom discuss the feature when talking to potential car buyers.

Car companies receive federal incentives to produce cars with greater fuel efficiency, but not necessarily to promote them, he noted.

“Since about 1994, car manufacturers have earned credits for producing cars with better fuel economy, but there was never any real obligation to inform consumers about why they might want to choose a flex-fuel vehicle,” Sponsler said. “There are hundreds of thousands of consumers who are driving them but don’t even realize they are flex-fuel vehicles.”

Many motorists who stopped in at a recent E85 promotion in northeast Colorado Springs purchased a vehicle without realizing it would run on E85, including Lance Dowlen, who is from Tennessee but is stationed at Fort Carson.

“I had no idea until I opened the gas tank,” he said of his Ford F-150 pickup.

Since 2006, car manufacturers have used a bright yellow fuel cap to signify a vehicle is flex-fuel. Initially caught off-guard, Dowlen called Ford to get more information. A Ford representative advised him to fuel his truck with E85 combined with roughly 15 percent premium gasoline for the best result.

That’s the kind of urban legend that makes Sponsler’s engine run hot.

“He can burn any combination of ethanol and petroleum gasoline, but there’s no benefit whatsoever to blending it at the pump if you have a flex-fuel vehicle,” Sponsler clarified a few minutes later.

Ironically, Ford, along with Chevy and Chrysler, are the three car companies that offer the most flex-fuel options, although nearly every automaker has at least a few flex-fuel models, added Sponsler, who himself drives a flex-fuel 2005 Ford Taurus.

Andrew Morin, who was literally on his way home from the hospital with his wife and their new baby, had stopped at the station to fuel his 2007 Chrysler 300. It wasn’t a flex-fuel vehicle, but he said he wished it were.

He had learned from a drag racer friend that any car could be computer programmed to run on E85 and wondered if he could take his car into the dealership and have the settings changed.

“It is possible, but a dealership is not going to do it,” Sponsler explained a moment later. “Technically it’s illegal for a dealer to modify the computer settings. But there are literally hundreds of independent shops that will do it. It generally costs 80 to 100 bucks.”

Most drivers already have the option of safely using at least some E85 fuel.

“Any car model from 2001 or newer can use it up to 15 percent,” Sponsler said. “EPA hasn’t completed the testing on prior models.”

Jeff Michael was aware of that and was taking advantage of it by topping off his 2008 Subaru Legacy with cheap E85.

“I checked my manual first. I didn’t want to hear knocks and pings and have the warning lights coming on,” he said.

Computer settings make it possible to run a car on E85, but they don’t optimize its performance for an ethanol-blend fuel, which is why there is often some degree of mileage drag, Sponsler said. The amount varies by engine.

Colorado Corn commissioned a two-year research project at Colorado State University that showed the modifications required for E85 optimization were minor ones.

“We turned our GMC Yukon over to a CSU senior design team and told them to take the engine and change out whatever components they needed to most effectively optimize it for E85,” he said. “They found a few very simple drop-in changes that could be done at the factory for minimal cost: different pistons, a different cam and computer settings changes. That’s it.”

Looking to the future, he can envision a day when car dealerships offer an E85 optimization option anytime someone custom-orders a new car.

“Wouldn’t it be cool if, when an order sheet was filled out, you could select flex-fuel and have it optimized for E85? I think that is possible,” he said. “We just need to keep talking about it.”