Cleaner Than You Think

They're smelly. They're dirty. They're noisy. And they're slow. That is how many Americans feel about diesel-powered automobiles. While many Europeans swear by the economy and reliability of their diesels, Americans entertained only a brief flirtation with diesel-powered cars during the fuel crisis of the early Eighties, and that romance turned disastrous. American manufacturers converted some of their gasoline-engines to diesel, and those engines failed right and left, leaving a bitter taste with many consumers. With this as background, you might be amazed to learn that diesels are poised for a comeback in America. Not only that, but the future's diesels will provide excellent fuel economy while being environmentally clean.

The promise of excellent fuel economy from diesel engines is one of the great, if largely unreported, factors demonstrated by recent government research. The list of 2002 model-year fuel mileage champs was topped by two hybrid gasoline-electric vehicles, the Honda Insight and the Toyota Prius, followed by three diesel-powered Volkswagen models.

"For yet another year, the release of the 2002 Fuel Economy Ratings by the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection Agency again shows us that diesel-powered cars hold three of the top five government ratings for high fuel efficiency," said Allen Schaeffer, executive director of the Diesel Technology Forum, a government-industry group. "With today's very limited number of diesel choices for consumers, these rankings further underscore the importance of advanced clean diesel power to helping the U.S. meet energy and environmental goals."

The Diesel Technology Forum claims diesels can reduce fuel consumption by 30 to 60 percent in some automotive models, obviously a giant reduction. Further, those kinds of reductions can be accomplished with environmentally clean engines fitted with advanced exhaust emissions controls and after-treatment technology. That point of view was recently reinforced by a study by the National Academy of Sciences.

One example of the diesel future is a special Ford Focus recently unveiled by Ford Motor Company. The new diesel-powered research vehicle is said to meet California's Ultra Low Emission Vehicle II (ULEV II) standards. The vehicle uses co-fueling of diesel and urea, an ammonia-based compound, to reduce nitrogen oxide (NOx) emissions to levels previously not achieved with diesel technology.

While the combustion within a diesel engine might never be as clean as that in an internal combustion engine burning, say, compressed natural gas, catalysts and filters can make the exhaust emissions virtually as pure. The keys to the ULEV II Diesel Focus's low emissions are a very efficient NOx reduction catalyst and a soot-trapping particulate filter. The catalyst uses a water solution of urea sprayed on the catalyst to remove NOx from the exhaust. To ensure that urea is always added to the vehicle, a process called co-fueling is employed. Co-fueling fills the diesel and urea tanks at the same time, so the operation is seamless for the customer.

Along with the NOx catalyst, a particulate filter is used to trap carbon particles. The ULEV II Diesel Focus uses advanced filter technology to provide a diesel vehicle that has no smoke and no odor. The 2007 ULEV II standards for both NOx and particulates, which the Ford Focus will meet, are nearly 90 percent lower than today's standards.

"This prototype vehicle is an example of what could be done to make future diesels fully comparable to gasoline vehicles in emission control, with lower CO2 emissions and excellent fuel economy," said Dick Baker, corporate technical specialist for Ford's Advanced Diesel Systems group.

So one day in the not-too-distant future, our roads might well resemble those in Europe where advanced clean diesel engines already account for about one-third of all vehicles. In some countries, clean diesel cars have over 50 percent of the total market share and upwards of 60 percent of new-car sales. In America the growth potential for diesels is huge, because today diesel passenger cars make up only 0.27 percent of the vehicle fleet. With the big fuel economy advantage and new technology to fix the technology's shortcomings, a new age of the diesel engine may be arriving soon.

Luigi Fraschini, a Cleveland-based auto journalist, has often contributed to Driving Today.

What's With These Gas Prices Anyway?

The world is largely at peace. The world's macro-economies in the Americas, Europe, the Far East and Australia seem to be advancing with a comforting steadiness. And though dictators still rule many oil-producing countries, the despots seem to be in much less a saber-rattling mood these days. So just why have gasoline prices across the nation been so unpredictably high with such huge regional differences as we plunge toward the Fourth of July holiday?

The answer to that question is not an easy one, but one thing is sure: today's prices, in un-inflation-adjusted dollars are the highest gasoline prices in history. And they are volatile. In the last month the nationwide average price for a gallon of gasoline has soared 13.3 cents, according to AAA. The organization's well-respected Fuel Gauge Report shows the national average price of self-serve regular unleaded gasoline is $1.644 per gallon, 49.6 cents higher than last July 4 when prices averaged $1.148 per gallon. Self-serve mid-grade unleaded is $1.745 per gallon, 14 cents more than last month and 53 cents higher than last year. Self-serve premium is $1.809, up 14.7 cents since May and up 54.6 cents in one year. Those are price hikes of more than 40 percent in just one year, obviously way ahead of any rise in inflation or wages.

The price hikes on a national basis have been made even worse in some areas by recent governmental requirements for the use of reformulated gasoline. Because of this factor, the Great Lakes region replaced the West as the most expensive area in the nation for retail gas prices. Major supply problems in Detroit, Chicago, and Milwaukee, some caused by shortages of reformulated gasoline, sent prices skyrocketing. Average gas prices climbed above $2 per gallon in some Midwestern metropolitan areas. In fact, AAA noted prices in Illinois, Michigan and Wisconsin exceed prices in Hawaii, which traditionally has had the nation's highest gas prices.

With the exception of a slight retreat in April, gasoline prices have been on a steady climb for the first six months of the year. The average price for a gallon of gas in January was $1.289. The price crossed the $1.50 mark in March, backed slightly below that in April, and shot back up over $1.50 in May. Now the price is well over the $1.60 plateau.

Though gasoline traditionally gets a bit more expensive as Americans cruise into the "summer driving months," this year that rise has turned upwardly much more sharply than in years past, and the current price is the highest in history. Just for perspective, the national average prices for self-serve regular unleaded gasoline in AAA's pre-July 4th survey for the last five years were: 1999, $1.148 per gallon; 1998, $1.108; 1997, $1.25; 1996, $1.303; and 1995, $1.288.

Oddly as prices rose to unprecedented numbers in the Midwest, gasoline prices in California actually dropped two to four cents per gallon since mid-May. Gas prices in the Golden State are still high, but at $1.626 a gallon in Southern California and $1.71 in Northern California, they are nowhere near what unlucky Midwestern drivers are paying right now.

What's going on here? According to expert analysis, there are at least four factors at work, depending on where you live, that have conspired to make your gasoline more expensive this summer.

One key issue is simple supply and demand. Try as he might, Lenin couldn't repeal the law of supply and demand; Stalin couldn't kill it as he killed millions of his countrymen; and Castro is losing his battle with it to this day. As it applies to the current fuel situation, crude oil prices have risen from roughly $10.73 per barrel at the end of February 1999 to more than $32 per barrel this month. This nearly tripling of the crude oil price has had a huge hand in increases gasoline prices at the pump.

Analysts at Detroit-based Comerica Bank believe crude oil prices have risen from extremely low levels because the U.S. and world economies are now expanding in tandem, whereas most foreign economies were still in the doldrums last year in the wake of the 1998 financial and economic collapses in Asia and Latin America. They cite the fact that oil producers actually put a lid on oil production in late 1998 and 1999. Now that demand for oil has accelerated in tandem with a year-long global economic recovery, crude oil prices have advanced swiftly. The rise has been hastened by the fact that oil supplies have been capped by the oil cartel, and, though OPEC nations have announced recently that they will supply more oil, it is doubtful the effect of this will be felt this summer.

A second factor compounding the pain of rising oil prices in the Midwest is an EPA regulation requiring reformulated gasoline to conform with Energy Department environmental targets. Reformulated gasoline costs more to refine, and refiners always seem reluctant to switch production, perhaps in fear of losing profits in the transition. Nationally, the new rules, effective June 2000, have added nearly 10 cents per gallon to the pump price, according to Comerica Bank, and in the Midwest, with the added difficulties resulting from blending the oxygenate ethanol, added costs per gallon amount to 35-40 cents. The cost escalation has been so great that AAA recommended an immediate 90-day "reprieve" from the Environmental Protection Agency's current requirement that reformulated fuels (RFG-2) be offered as a part of local clean air compliance in selected areas in the Midwest. Politically, chances of an EPA moratorium on its rule are slim.

As if the news weren't bad enough for cash-strapped motorists, an early-June break in a pipeline that carries nearly 30 percent of Michigan's gasoline has ratcheted pump prices upwards by approximately 45 cents per gallon in that highly populated state, and other states also dealt with pipeline shutdowns.

Some might blame government taxation for part of the gasoline price problem. After all, a significant portion of the price you pay per gallon of gas goes to federal and state governments in the form of excise and, in some cases, sales taxes. To be fair, however, the federal government last hiked the excise tax per gallon of regular unleaded gasoline by 4.3 cents in October 1993 (to 18.4 cents), and it has remained there. Several states, though, have upped their excise and sales taxes since then, helping boost the overall cost of gasoline to the average motorist.

Is any relief in sight? Comerica Bank believes that by late summer the worldwide demand for oil will decelerate as world economies slow down. It also predicts oil producers, encouraged by rising prices and profit potential, will increase oil supplies, placing downward pressure on prices for the balance of 2000. The bank's experts point to growing incentives on the part of oil producers to "cheat" on the cartel production quotas. They suggest, despite efforts to discipline member and non-OPEC member oil producers, the history of the oil markets reveals a clear pattern of cheating by nations eager to capture revenues before prices plummet.

How soon this will affect prices at the pump remains a mystery. Some experts predict that gasoline prices will remain high throughout the summer, not declining until the fall. Others, including Comerica Bank, say if no further tax or regulatory burdens are imposed on the industry, and if the unusual factors plaguing pipelines and refineries are contained by early July, retail prices of unleaded regular fuel should be down nationally by at least 30 cents per gallon by late summer. Meanwhile, fill 'er up at your own expense.

Rockefeller Getty writes about the oil and gas industry on a regular basis from his office in Denver.

Hybrid Electric Vehicles

Four year ago when General Motors put its reputation on the line by introducing the GM EV1 electric vehicle it seemed as if vehicles powered by batteries would be the answer to the long-term problem of polluted air. There is more than a little debate over how much of our air pollution is actually caused by moving sources (read cars, trucks and buses), but there is no doubt that a significant percentage arises from these sources, even though the gasoline-powered cars of today put out just a tiny amount of pollutants compared with their predecessors of the 1960s, so the introduction of the EV1 as a car for the general public was a significant step. But, as it turns out, it might have been a misstep.

Recently General Motors announced that it had recalled all of its 1996 model year EV1s because they could catch fire during the lengthy recharge process. Not only was that a big strike against them, but GM also announced that the recalled cars wouldn't be fixed until sometime next year. Though some 1999 EV1s are now scooting around the urban areas of the American Southwest, it is doubtful whether the 1996 models will ever again see the light of day. Luckily for the lessees who drove them, GM let them out of their contracts with no early termination charges.

Despite the GM miscues with the EV1, some argue that the electric vehicle, as a clean-running, non-polluting concept, is still worth pursuing. They may be right. In the real world, however, EVs from the Baker Electric of the early 1900s to the modern GM EV1 to the discontinued Honda EV have never been able to overcome the problem of range. Current electric battery technology seems unable to produce a storage medium that will hold sufficient energy to give the vehicle adequate cruising range, at least at a price we working humans can afford.

What is adequate cruising range? Well, again, debate will ensue, but it is certainly on the high side of the fewer than 100 miles the EV1 offers before it is forced to go through a lengthy re-charging process. The typical gasoline-powered car offers a range of 300 to 400 miles on a tankful of fuel. Further, when you add in the fact that gasoline and diesel-powered vehicles can be refueled in a matter of minutes, for practical purposes they have unlimited range. Certainly putting in a 1,000-mile day in a typical automobile on a cross-country journey is something many of us have done routinely - a feat virtually impossible in a storage-battery electric car.

Just as electric cars seemed about to be discredited again with the EV1's failings and the public's indifference to Ford and Honda electric vehicles, a new breed of electrics has regenerated (sorry) public interest and excitement. Dubbed generically hybrid electric vehicles (HEVs), these vehicles combine many of the best attributes of electric vehicles with those of conventional internal combustion-engine cars.

What is a hybrid car?

As the federal government defines it, a hybrid electric vehicle is a vehicle that has two sources of motive energy. What this usually means is some type of internal combustion engine combined with electric motors getting their power from storage batteries. Unlike in so-called "pure" electric vehicles, the batteries are not charged by an outside source e.g. plugging them into an electric socket in your garage. Instead, their batteries are charged by an in-vehicle charging system. Thus, they are self-contained except for the need to re-fuel their internal combustion engines.

Of course, there are many hybrid system concepts getting currency including some that use fuel cells, gas turbines, diesels, and lean-burn gasoline engines in various combinations with flywheels, batteries, and ultracapacitor storage media. Many, including the Department of Energy (DOE) Hybrid Vehicle Propulsion Program, believe HEVs have several advantages over traditional internal combustion engine (ICE) vehicles.

Among the advantages, many hybrid vehicle concepts have "regenerative braking capability," which means that during deceleration some of the energy that in conventional cars is simply dissipated as heat is used to recharge the storage device - most often a battery but perhaps a flywheel. The internal combustion engine used in the vehicle can be sized to deal with average load, not peak load, since the auxiliary stored power - usually electric battery power used to activate electric motors - is used to deal with peak load such as hill climbing. This has the benefit of allowing the installation of a smaller, lighter and less fuel-thirsty engine.

Largely because they have smaller, less powerful engines, fuel efficiency of a hybrid electric is significantly better than with gasoline-powered vehicles, while emissions are greatly decreased. Using "re-generative" braking also increases overall efficiency.

The use of smaller engines means that HEVs can be equipped with powerplants using alternative fuels. The DOE's Hybrid Vehicle Propulsion Program sees this as an advantage since the HEVs need not be dependent on fossil fuels.

All these benefits are well and good, but they offer no advantages if the buying public turns its collective back as they have with electric vehicles up to now. The beauty of hybrid electric vehicles, in the eyes of manufacturers, is that they will help improve air quality with no appreciable loss in vehicle performance, range or safety. In short, most hybrid electric vehicles will perform as well or better than internal combustion engine-cars of similar size.

The major difference between the "pure" EVs and the HEVs is the use of an engine, most often an internal combustion engine using conventional fuels. By using engines, instead of a motor/storage battery combination, vehicles can achieve long ranges. In fact, fuel economy can be phenomenal, because the engines need only propel the vehicles at cruising speeds on flat ground. In the rarely encountered more challenging situations, the energy storage devices (batteries) in the HEVs provide the additional power for climbing hills and acceleration. Plus, because HEVs use conventional fuels, virtually no change in infrastructure is required for their use. In contrast, "pure" EVs require special charging stations.

According to the DOE's Hybrid Vehicle Propulsion Program, "most experts agree that the car of the future, that has the same versatility as a conventional vehicle, will be an HEV of some kind. The energy density of electric batteries will never equal that of liquid or gaseous fuels, necessitating that these fuels remain a critical part of future vehicles to maintain the driving range and quick refueling found in today's conventional vehicles."

It noted that even fuel cells, which are a promising long-term technology for personal transportation, will most likely be put in an HEV configuration with a high power energy storage/buffer device onboard. Rather than having only one propulsion system choice when buying a future vehicle, it may be possible to select the propulsion system in the same way that one selects a 4-cylinder engine or a V 8.

In the future, you may be able to select a vehicle, and then decide if you want a conventional engine, batteries only, or an energy storage device (batteries, flywheels, ultracapacitors, or some combination) and an propulsion unit (fuel cell, turbine, diesel engine, Stirling engine, or conventional internal combustion engine).

Just what this world needs, more choices.