What a difference a month makes. In September, I proudly proclaimed my decision to join the ethanol revolution by filling my personal vehicle with E85. The goal was to try to do my part—no matter how little it may be—to help the U.S. reduce its dependence on foreign oil. After my first two tanks I was beaming like a proud father; proud of the sweet smell of my exhaust early in the morning and the ability to drive past the rest of the pack and use the shiny new yellow pump off to the side, where onlookers seemed to marvel at the guy using the “new” fuel.
Then reality set in. As the third tank full of corn was moving through the arteries of my 2006 Dodge Ram, the check engine symbol illuminated on the instrument panel. Thinking that I could wait a few days before having to drive off to my dealership, I continued to drive the truck, but began noticing it was getting harder to start. When I arrived at the dealer service counter I received some very bad news: Despite the fact that I called Dodge’s customer service line and checked the brand’s website to verify my truck was E85 capable, it wasn’t. Evidently, Chrysler made two 4.7-liter V8s, one that was flex fuel and one that wasn’t; and guess which one I had? You got it right.
My dealer told me that I probably didn’t do too much damage to the engine and the ancillary equipment that feeds it fuel, but I felt betrayed. I am sure that I am not alone. Let me make one thing very clear: I am not seeking to sideswipe Dodge here, but I feel it is incumbent upon me to provide a cautionary public service to those looking to join the E85 revolution: Triple check to make sure you’re vehicle can take the fuel. I also want to tell the auto industry to be more precise in its communications when it comes to promoting E85. Showing shiny new trucks and cars rolling through cornfields may be great advertising, but it’s important the messages include proper cautions. After all, there may be hundreds or even thousands of good-intentioned consumers who will make an honest mistake and that could have a more devastating impact as they tell their friends and family of the pitfalls of E85. Not to mention the fact that they could inadvertently void their powertrain warranties—as my own dealer warned me. Installing yellow filler caps on all E85-capable vehicles—as GM and Chrysler will do—is a great idea and one that should be adopted industry-wide, but until that’s complete, responsible communication is required. Otherwise, this step towards energy independence could turn into a stumble that forces early-adopters to turn their backs, stymieing potential. For me, it’s back to regular unleaded fuel and a feeling of remorse that I will never get to visit that little shiny pump off to the side again. Goodbye, my little yellow friend.