January 11, 2010
Diesel may be better fuel deal for U.S.
What could be an important milestone in the U.S. auto industry took place in early December at the Los Angeles Auto Show. Amid the hype surrounding hybrids, plug-ins and fuel cells, a diesel car -- the Audi A3 TDI -- was named "Green Car of the Year." A week later, The Detroit News selected the same diesel as its "Car of the Year."
Today, consumers want to reduce their fuel bills, auto companies must meet stringent fuel economy standards (35.5 miles per gallon by 2016), and the U.S. wants to reduce its dependency on foreign oil and cut carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions.
Enter the diesel engine.
Compared with a conventional fuel-injected gasoline engine, a modern diesel provides 30 to 40 percent improved fuel economy. The savings go up to 60 percent during towing or driving at higher speeds. In addition, diesels emit 10 to 20 percent fewer greenhouse gases.
Diesel sales less than 2 percent of the U.S. vehicle market, while they account for more than half the market in Europe. This could change a little. So far in the U.S. this year, Volkswagen Jetta sales are over 35 percent diesel, the Audi Q7 is 30 percent diesel, the Mercedes-Benz M Class is more than 25 percent and the BMW X5 is 20 percent.
The message is clear: If we build them, consumers will come.
In general terms, the U.S. passenger vehicle mix is one-third small, one-third midsize and one-third large, including pickups and SUVs. If we assume that, on average, small cars get 40 mpg, midsized cars get 30 mpg and large vehicles get 20 mpg, the math tells us that large vehicles consume about 47 percent of the fuel at the pump, compared with 30 percent for midsize cars and 23 percent for small cars.
Thus, to make the largest savings, our focus should be on the largest oil consumers. Sure we need to keep improving the small cars, but the real payback is in making the big vehicles cleaner and more efficient.
Historically, American motorists have shown a preference for larger vehicles. The Ford F-Series pickup truck remains the top selling vehicle in America. The Chevy Silverado and Dodge Ram pickups aren't far behind. And as the economy continues to recover, many analysts believe consumers will continue to choose large vehicles.
According to the Environmental Protection Agency, if one third of the U.S. passenger vehicle fleet were powered by diesels, foreign oil imports could be reduced 1.4 million barrels per day. By comparison, that savings is 40 percent greater than the one million barrels the U.S. imports from Saudi Arabia every day. This reduced crude oil consumption would cut carbon dioxide emissions by 180 million tons per year.
Even when you consider the added cost required for filters and exhaust treatment technology to remove particulates and nitrogen oxide pollutants, the diesel is a more cost-effective package -- and offers more residual value -- than gas-electric hybrids and other technologies over the life of the vehicle.
So if the diesel has so many advantages, why doesn't the United States provide more motivation to support potential diesel buyers? We can't expect the auto companies to offer rebates for diesel sales -- we need them to be healthy and profitable. That leaves Washington to send a signal that diesel is not just good, but in many applications superior to technologies that receive more attention and funding from government. That signal doesn't need to be in the form of subsidies, but rather priorities and policies.
The diesels now winning honors as "cars of the year," could signal just the beginning of a real boom in diesel popularity in the United States. Given its advantages, the diesel can be -- should be -- the vehicle of choice of increasingly more American motorists.
Steve Dawson is president and chief executive of SinterCast, a Swedish company that has developed technologies for producing high-strength iron. E-mail comments to [email protected]