Will Diesels Hit the High Road?

In this day and age of truly outrageous gasoline prices, surely the development of a technology that would deliver 20- to 50-percent better fuel economy than the gasoline engines we currently use would be hailed as a breakthrough and perhaps even a miracle. If that technology would further enable us to use the fuel delivery infrastructure that is already open for business, that miracle would be all the greater. Well, that miracle is here, and it stands ready to be enjoyed by all. The big question is: Does anybody care?

Are you kidding me? More than 20-percent better fuel economy?! Who wouldn’t care?!  Well, here is the issue: The breakthrough we talk about isn’t exactly new. In fact, it dates to the predawn of the automobile age, and it lacks a catchy, high-tech acronym.  Instead, it is named after the man who developed it: Rudolph Diesel. And we ask if anybody cares, because sales in the marketplace and market research studies demonstrate that the American car-buying public doesn’t seem to have much interest in diesel-powered vehicles. Hybrids, and even the pie-in-the-sky of hydrogen fuel cell vehicles, rate higher than diesels in one widely reported recent consumer study. In the technology sweepstakes, diesels are an also-ran right now.

That is a shame, but the current state of affairs seems undeniable. Diesel brings with it a hundred years’ worth of baggage. And you could probably repeat the typical consumer’s litany on diesels yourself: “They're smelly, they're dirty, they're noisy and they're slow.” 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 1980s, 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.

In the face of this negativity, the promise of excellent fuel economy from diesel engines is one of the obvious facts demonstrated by recent government and automaker research. The Diesel Technology Forum claims diesels can reduce fuel consumption by 30 to 60 percent in some automotive models. Further, those kinds of reductions can be accomplished with environmentally clean engines fitted with advanced exhaust emissions controls and after-treatment technology. While the combustion within a diesel engine might never be quite as clean as that in an internal combustion engine burning gasoline, catalysts and filters can make the exhaust emissions virtually as pure. The keys to clean diesel’s low emissions are in both the combustion process itself, which can be made more precise and complete using computerized controls and sensors, and in the treatment and capture of exhaust emissions after the combustion process.

Critics might argue that diesel fuel is derived from petroleum, and because of that and its skyrocketing current price level, it doesn’t represent much of an advantage over gasoline. But that point of view fails to take into account that a diesel engine can burn a wide variety of fuels including crude oil, vegetable oils, animal fats and even coal dust. It is frankly none too particular about what it burns, and it brings to the party high efficiency. By using a higher compression ratio than a conventional gasoline engine, the diesel engine is able to extract more power from the same amount of fuel. In addition, diesel fuel offers more power by 15 percent or so than does gasoline. The combination results in more bang for your buck. There is some disagreement as to just how much more efficient diesels are than gasoline engines, but the general consensus is that they are at the very least 20, and perhaps as much as 50, percent more efficient in typical applications.

So while the diesel engine carries with it some serious baggage, its many virtues speak loudly that it should gain more consideration in the marketplace. Will American car-buyers finally develop a love affair for diesels? Time will tell, but if we were shopping, we’d look long and hard at diesels before making our decision.