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Can Diesel Ever Become Fashionable In The U.S.?

There has been overwhelming response to my story this week, “The 65 MPG Ford The U.S. Can’t Have.” The fact that the story has gotten picked up on so many news aggregators, blogs and other sites tells me there is a huge appetite for fuel efficient cars despite the recent drop in oil and gasoline prices. When we do a three column story, there are always nuances and information that get cut for space. So, I wanted to use this blog entry to add some of them to the discussion.

1. A few motor-head blogs challenge whether the ECOnetic Fiesta will really get 65 mpg. Ford says it has tested at 63-65 miles per U.S. gallons. If Ford were to have the car put through the EPA’s paces, it would not likely earn a government certification as high as that on www.fueleconomy.gov. But “real-world” fuel economy, especially for small cars, runs considerably higher than EPA’s official ratings.

2. Two of the biggest enemies of diesel cars catching on are the state taxes on diesel that make it so much more expensive than gasoline these days, and the lack of enough refining capacity, which keeps it in short supply. A national energy policy that specifically addressed those two issues could unleash new interest in clean low-sulfur diesel cars.

3. California, especially keen to regulate CO2 emissions, only recently approved some low-sulfur diesel cars for sale in the state. The Volkswagen Jetta TDI and Mercedes-Benz Bluetec cars are among them. Those cars have pollution traps that have to be maintained. One of the worries of California regulators is that people won’t maintain the traps as they should. The supply of urea in the Mercedes system, for example, required to clean the nitrogen dioxide from the exhaust, is said to be good for 10,000 miles, so it only needs to be refilled at the vehicle’s normal service intervals. Maintaining the system, so owners wouldn’t be lax, can be achieved through a trip switch that won’t allow the car to start if the urea tank is empty. Volkswagen’s Jetta TDI will manages without a urea injection system by using a NOx-storage catalyst. Like the particulate filters in place on this car as well as other diesels, this catalyst is basically a trap that temporarily holds the offensive emissions. Periodically, the engine will switch to an air-fuel mixture that will burn off the material in the traps.

Also, the EPA or Congress could mandate that all 50-states, like New Jersey (to name one state), conduct annual vehicle inspections to keep all cars whose emissions systems are compromised or in disrepair off the road. This also keeps unsafe cars off the road.

4. Critics of diesel say the fuel isn’t offered everywhere, so people won’t buy it. I think that’s hogwash. Every community has stations that pump diesel. Owners of diesel cars and trucks come to know where they are and go to those stations. People aren’t that stupid. On the highways, stations are equipped with diesel pumps to service trucks.

But Kiley! People don’t want to cue up behind tractor trailers to fill their tanks! Also, nonsense. VW has a waiting list for its Jetta TDIs. I’ve done it lots of times. It’s no big deal. And if we put enough crs on the road, the oil companies and gas station owners will follow by installing more diesel pumps that are away from the truck pump.

5. Why won’t Ford make the investment in an engine plant and lead the market? Aside from the fact that Ford is fighting for its life financially, I don’t see other companies building a small-block diesel engine plant in the U.S. either. To make sense financially, my story says that a new engine plant would have to be able to sell 250,000 to 300,000 a year. Ford just can’t make the numbers work to operate such a plant profitably. The diesel engines that go into cars are not the same as those that go into pickups. The best chance for a diesel car engine plant being built for U.S. consumption is if three companies combine on a joint venture plant the way GM, DaimlerChrysler and BMW collaborated on the hybrid technology that is going into vehicles from all three companies.

6. When you hear the Bush Administration, the Obama or McCain campaign talk about energy policy and future transportation, you really never hear them talk about diesel. It’s always hybrids and bio fuels. "Diesel" is about as popular a name as Frances Ethel Gumm (Judy Garland’s real name). That’s why VW calls their engine TDI, and Mercedes calls their engine Bluetec. As my story says, “diesel” just sounds low-tech to most people who aren’t familiar with it. It makes you wonder what the Diesel jeans people were thinking.

7. If Honda, Nissan and Hyundai are making moves to try diesel cars out on America, that is a sign that those companies see potential for the technology to catch on. Honda for years resisted making a diesel engine until it came up with a design that met its high green standards. Check out this Honda diesel engine ad from the U.K. If this ad ran in the U.S., it would get a lot of people's attention.

8. In my years of covering the auto industry, I see no actual conspiracy against clean diesel in the U.S., but rather a kind of inertia. Selling it to the American public and resistant regulators will require an effort that involves cooperation among automakers to source engines and pollution control devices in North America and market he benefits of low-sulfur diesel and help by the Federal government to provide more generous tax credits to get the attention of consumers. It would also help if the winner of this year’s election was a gear-head and diesel booster, and used the bully pulpit to drive attention to it. But I’m not holding out much hope of that. Hybrids, electrics and plug-ins are the darlings of the green consumer…except those on the waiting list for VW Jetta TDIs.

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