Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Wall Street Journal Article

Cleaning Up Diesel's Image

Volkswagen, DaimlerChrysler
Unveil New Cars Engineered
To Meet California Standards
November 29, 2006; Page B1

For many Americans, diesel cars bring to mind an image of the vehicles that spouted soot and smoke in the 1980s.
Much has changed since then. New, cleaner diesel engines, running on low-sulfur fuel, produce far less soot than old versions.
This week at the Greater Los Angeles Auto Show, Germany's Volkswagen AG and DaimlerChrysler AG are unveiling several new diesel vehicles clean enough to sell even in California, which has the toughest clean-air standards in the U.S. The vehicles are part of an effort to position modern diesel technology as a fuel-saving rival to gas-electric hybrids. The new models will be branded "Bluetec," an umbrella term for a variety of diesel technologies.
[Fuel for Thought]
"We're convinced that the future of the diesel engine has only just begun with this [Bluetec] technology, especially in North America," said Thomas Weber, head of research and development at DaimlerChrysler.
Separately, BMW AG, which is working on its own diesel technology, said it will also have diesel vehicles meeting regulations in all 50 states for 2008.
Offering diesels that meet California's standards marks a major breakthrough for diesel technology. The current diesel versions of the VW Jetta and Mercedes E-Class sedan can be sold in only 45 states. But persuading American consumers to buy diesel cars and light trucks will remain a challenge -- both because of diesel's old image, and because the hardware that makes some of these new models so clean requires more attention than many American drivers are likely to give.
The German auto makers have a lot riding on this latest diesel push. The rise in gasoline prices over the past few years has increased interest in fuel-saving vehicles, and diesels are about 30% more fuel-efficient than comparable gas engines. In Europe, modern diesel engines now power about half of all cars sold. Yet in the U.S., diesel has been stuck in neutral, accounting for just over 3% of U.S. new-vehicle sales in 2005. Meanwhile, gas-electric hybrids like Toyota Motor Corp.'s Prius have grabbed the spotlight, even though they made up only 1.5% of U.S. new-vehicle sales last year. (Hybrids and other "green" vehicles will also be in the spotlight at the Los Angeles show, where, among others, BMW is unveiling a version of its 7 Series sports sedan that burns either gas or hydrogen.)
[Go to Video]
Chrysler Group Executive Vice President Frank Klegon discusses whether there's enough demand for diesel-powered vehicles and changing the image of the diesel engine.
VW and DaimlerChrysler plan to promote the Bluetec diesel cars as both fuel-efficient and fun to drive. Diesel engines offer more of something American drivers love -- torque, what a driver feels when a vehicle accelerates. Diesels have a longer piston stroke than gasoline engines, which produces more torque, and now with turbocharged diesel engines like the ones Volkswagen produces, torque is even more prominent.
The auto makers will also play up the idea that diesel can help reduce U.S. dependence on Middle East oil. The companies cite a recent Environmental Protection Agency study that found the U.S. would save 1.4 million barrels of oil a day -- equal to the amount of crude oil the country imports daily from Saudi Arabia -- if one-third of all light-duty vehicles in the U.S. were operated with modern diesel engines.
"There can be no clearer statement for the benefit of diesel," Mr. Weber says.
Still, the German car makers face an uphill battle to change the thinking of American consumers. According to a study by automotive researcher Kelley Blue Book, the number of U.S. car buyers who would be "somewhat likely" to consider a diesel-powered vehicle has remained relatively flat for the last year and fell slightly to 28% in October, down from 32% in October 2005. That compares to a 59% consideration for hybrids.
And now some of the hybrids are making a bid to focus on performance by tuning the engines to boost horsepower -- for instance, the new Lexus GS450 has a particularly high 340-horsepower engine, greater than the norm for hybrids and even for conventional gas engines. Meanwhile, the new diesels are mainly counting on higher torque to attract buyers who are interested in performance.
The diesel technology that's at the center of attention in Los Angeles is an updated version of a contraption invented in the 1890s by a Paris-born German scientist named Rudolf Diesel. Unlike the traditional internal-combustion engine, which generates a spark to ignite fuel compressed with air in a cylinder, a diesel motor compresses the air inside the cylinder much more, making the air so hot that when fuel hits it, it explodes without need of a spark. The so-called "compression ignition" process produces more energy per unit of fuel than the spark method does. But the process also has a tendency to produce more nitrogen oxide, which contributes to smog.
The U.S. has the toughest emission standards in the world, and a patchwork of state regulations that make it difficult to produce diesel vehicles that can be sold in all 50 states. California sets the bar the highest and a handful of other states follow its lead, including New York.
Meeting the requirements of all 50 U.S. states became easier in October when new low-sulfur diesel fuel mandated by the federal government went on sale at service stations. Modern diesels work properly only with low-sulfur fuel.
Some of the new-generation diesels cut emissions further with the injection of an odorless liquid, urea, into a special tank. This releases ammonia, which converts nitrous oxide, a greenhouse gas associated with global warming, into harmless emissions. The hitch is that drivers will have to replenish the supply of urea every 10,000 miles. Auto makers say urea tanks can be filled when owners have their oil changed, but environmentalists and the EPA have raised concerns about the issue.
"If people continually forget or bring in their systems late, it's a loophole that's going to have health impacts," says David Friedman of the Union of Concerned Scientists, an organization based in Cambridge, Mass. "If the system fails, you'll just reinforce diesel's bad image."
One idea that's been floated by environmentalists would be to give customers no choice but to refill the urea tank -- for example, by preventing the engine from starting if the tank is empty.
But DaimlerChrysler officials are leery of that approach, fearing it would result in some customers being left stranded -- and angry at the company. Mercedes says it's working with oil companies and auto repair shops to ensure that customers will always be able to find urea when they need it. But in most cases, the work of injecting the urea will fall to its Mercedes dealers, the company says.
[Different Ways to Go]
Mercedes's diesel models will have audio and visual warning systems to alert drivers when they're running low on urea. In Europe, commercial vehicles with diesel engines also use urea, and refilling them hasn't been a problem, according to Mercedes.
The new diesel vehicles announced at VW yesterday include the Jetta compact and a new VW compact sport-utility vehicle called the Tiguan, both available in 2008. Both will have clean-diesel technology that needs no extra additive. In 2009, VW will add the Touareg sport-utility vehicle. Its diesel engine will require urea -- a potential stumbling block in the market. VW unit Audi's diesel version of the Q7 SUV, available at the end of 2008, will use an additive called AdBlue, which is put in the exhaust system as opposed to a separate tank, as urea is. Audi said customers won't have to add AdBlue and instead dealers can take care of it during service intervals for the vehicle.
Mercedes-Benz plans to offer diesel versions of its M-Class and GL-Class SUVs and its R-Class wagon in all 50 states in 2008. And DaimlerChrysler's Chrysler Group will have the Jeep Grand Cherokee diesel. They, too, will require the additive urea to meet emissions standards.
BMW declined to say what models would be available in diesel and whether they will require special additives.
Pricing for the new diesel vehicles won't be announced until closer to their sale, but they will likely be relatively competitive. For example, the 2007 Mercedes-Benz E320 Bluetec has a starting price of $52,325, only $1,000 more than the Mercedes-Benz E350 with a gas engine.
Other auto makers are also working on cleaner diesel engines. General Motors Corp. has developed a 6.0 liter V-8 diesel that it expects to offer in its pickup trucks and possibly also Cadillac cars in 2008. Honda Motor Co. is also working on new clean diesels for the U.S. market.


Andrew said...

Good article. I wonder what if any thought is being put into how these new engines work with biodiesel...

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