Flex Fuel Vehicle History: % Alcohol Content Display

If you're familiar with flex fuel vehicles (FFVs) in the United States today, you may already know how to identify them among gasoline-only models, but it hasn’t always been easy to recognize FFVs. Before the yellow fuel caps, fender badges, and window decals we see on FFVs now, a person had to decipher the 17-digit vehicle identification number (VIN) to know for certain whether it was an FFV.

Some FFV models, specifically the 1996 and 1997 Ford Taurus E85 FFVs, came equipped with another unique identifier: a “PUSH FOR % ALCOHOL” button. On the instrument panel in these vehicles (pictured below), a driver pushed the button and a digital readout appeared in a window at the lower left of the instrument cluster. The FFVs were designed with an in-line sensor that measured an approximate alcohol content of the fuel entering the engine.

For example, if you had E85 in the fuel tank, an "80" blinked for a few moments when you pushed the button. That number represented denatured ethyl alcohol (ethanol) and gasoline blended to about 80-percent ethanol content. Recollections of people who remember (and loved) driving the FFVs are that they were accurate to within 10-percent.

The alcohol indicators were a holdover from the early 1990s when Ford Motor Company built M85 FFVs for use in the state of California when a program there successfully constructed 100 fueling stations for M85, the methyl alcohol-blended alternative fuel. Early FFVs were produced in relatively small quantities and were sold exclusively to local, state, federal, and utility fleets for them to comply with alternative fuel requirements of the Energy Policy Act of 1992.

Years before FFVs were mass-produced for the driving public as they have been more recently, you only found M85 and E85 FFVs in vehicle auctions when they were cycled out of fleet service. Owners manuals of the era caution drivers that FFVs were calibrated for fueling with gasoline and/or specifically one or the other of the alcohol-based fuels.

So before Bluetooth wireless technology and GPS navigation, alcohol indicators were driver-controlled gizmos that appealed to the early alternative fuels adopters. When Ford and other automakers began building FFVs as standard equipment for the U.S. consumer market, alcohol indicators were phased out – presumably as a cost-savings measure.

Today, more than 20 million FFVS are on U.S. roadways. And the dashboard alcohol indicators are just a quirky footnote in the history of flex fuel vehicle development.

Learn if your vehicle is a flex fuel vehicle here
Read more about the alcohol display in the 1996 Ford Taurus Owner Guide, page 9-11

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