Coming Diesel Sea Change
By Bill Moore
|Edouard Michelin stated in the opening ceremony of the 2003 Michelin Challenge Bibendum that the purpose of the annual competition, now in its fifth year, is to measure the progress of clean, green, sustainable automotive technology.||
That progress can be summed up in three words: hydrogen, hybrid and diesel. This week we focus on the the progress of modern diesels.
As EV World reported last week, a number of battery electric vehicles participated in the Bibendum, some by invitation, a couple on their own initiative, but their role was clearly over-shadowed -- in sheer numbers alone -- by state-of-the-art vehicles powered by propane, natural gas, gaseous and liquid hydrogen, gasoline, both biodiesel and conventional diesel fuel. The variety of vehicles, more than one hundred total, and fuels served to underscore that the future will be significantly different than the past; there will be no single fuel and no single engine type.
Sometime before 2010 the North American market for diesels and hybrids, the latter fueled by gasoline, diesel fuel and possibly even hydrogen, will become statistically significant. The introduction of low-sulfur diesel fuels in North America starting after 2006 should help kick-start the diesel market in the US.
Assuming clean air regulations remain enforce and continue to tighten in the coming years at the state and federal level, we can expect to see cleaner engines gradually make their way into the marketplace, though not without manufacturer and refiner foot dragging or consumer resistance.
Manufacturers will complain about the cost of adding clean engine technology, oil refiners will lament their already razor-thin profit margins as they gear up to reduce sulfur concentrations from hundreds of parts per million to ten ppm and lower. Consumers will probably balk at the cost of both the technology and the fuel, but ultimately they will have little choice. Sooner of later, America will have to accept the fact that the cost of cheap oil is simply too high a price to pay. The ultimate result will be cleaner air and more fuel efficient vehicles, but it will not come without pain or protest.
So what's the future going look like? If the Challenge Bibendum is any indication -- and we definitely think it is -- here's what we can expect starting with diesel engines.
Here Come The Diesels
If Bosch has its way, Americans will be driving a lot more diesel-powered cars, minivans, trucks and SUVs in the coming years. That's why they brought to Infineon Raceway a dozen different diesel-powered vehicles, but not the old, noisy, smelly monstrosities most of us associate with these century-old compression ignition engines. These cars are quiet, powerful and amazingly fuel efficient.
Surprisingly, they are also getting cleaner, but here there is still work to be done to reduce particulate emissions, the smoky part of the exhaust, and NOx, the principle precursor of smog. Bosch seems confident that the combination of low and no-sulfur fuels and particulate traps will solve the PM problem. They also believe they eventually can reduce the nitrogen oxide emissions.
The result will be engines as clean as most gasoline engines, but with significantly better fuel economy and lower CO2 emissions. Such engines are already widely available in Europe where consumers are willing to pay the 15% premium for diesel because of the high cost of gasoline (petrol) where a liter in Ireland, for example, costs the equivalent of one US dollar . That translates into more than US$4 a gallon. At these prices, it takes only about three years to pay for the difference in engine options. This is why more than 40% of all new car sales in Europe are diesels.
We drove two of the vehicles Bosch brought in from their North American headquarters in Detroit: a Chrysler PT Cruiser and a Mercedes E320d. Both are common-rail, turbo-charged engines that are amazingly responsive. I am not sure how many Americans are ready to drive a diesel with a manual transmission like the one I found in the PT Cruiser, but I don't know of too many people who would turn up their noses to the luxury and power of the E320d and its automatic transmission. I didn't ask how much the Mercedes cost because as the old saying goes, if you have to ask you can't afford it.
Bosch brought an impressive array of European diesels for the media to drive including an Audi A8 4.0 TDI quartto, four BMW's and a diesel MINI, the E320 Mercedes, a Peugeot 607 Hdi, two Volkswagens and three Volvo's.
Beside the PT Cruiser we drove, Chrysler also brought a Voyager minivan and Ram 2500 pickup powered by modern diesel engines. GM included an attractive FIAT Stilo diesel. The University of Wisconsin demonstrated to of their FutureCar/Truck competition vehicles featuring diesel-electric hybrid engines.
The American Biodiesel Association and Pacific Biodiesel demonstrated three vehicles, all diesel-powered Volkswagens, two running on biodiesel.
Speaking of biodiesel, I had discussions with Bosch engineers and representatives of the Diesel Forum about the future of biodiesel. From their perspective, they are less than enthusiastic about this green fuel, essentially because of a lack of standards in this nascent industry. Experimenters are willing to use the fuel in older diesels at ratios from 5% soy or vegetable oil esters to 100%, but manufacturers seem reluctant to endorse anything above 5%, known as B5 until fuel standards can be set and verified. I learned that efforts are underway in Europe to establish such a standard, which may eventually serve as a model for North America.
In the meantime, older diesel owners use biodiesel at their own risk, though it seems inevitable that this CO2-neutral green fuel will continue to gain adherents for environmental, economic and strategic reasons.
All this activity strongly suggests that a sea change is about to take place in North America, one that has already occurred in Europe. Still, companies like Chrysler and Bosch may have a major marketing job on their hands. Selling fuel efficient diesels in Europe where payback is fairly rapid because of high gasoline (petrol) prices is one thing, convincing Americans, who are spoiled by some of the lowest fuel prices in the developed world, will not be as easy. In addition, the perception that diesels are dirty, smelly, noisy and generate more pollution, including carcinogens -- which is rapidly becoming less true as the technology advances -- is very real, if inaccurate.
And the environmental community can be expected to be less than enthusiastic, but as the technology improves and fuels get cleaner and greener, that resistance should gradually give way to acceptance.
In the end, it will be the planet that benefits from this sea change.
Next week... Hydrogen Heroics
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