More Automotive Future: Clean Diesel

My essay a few weeks back called A View of Our Automotive Future stirred up a lot of controversy and generated a lot of reader email. It’s easy to forget that as wound up as people get about Microsoft, Apple, and Linux, nothing compares to what happens when you poke people where they really live: their automobiles.

I also managed to anger a whole ton of people with my comments about climate change being — to my mind — man-made. Almost no one wrote me to disagree that we’re experiencing climate change; but many SFNL readers wrote to tell me that global warming is not caused by the significantly increased CO2 levels generated in part by humanity. OK, well, everyone is entitled to their opinion. My concern is that the polar ice cap is melting, and we’re standing around debating whose fault it is. My tendency is to focus on solving the problem.

I’m happy to report that another huge batch of readers wrote to tell me that they, too, have purchased a hybrid gas/electric vehicle of some sort. Interestingly, though, a lot of people also wrote to tell me hybrids aren’t really the answer. Of course they’re not the last word. They still burn nonrenewable resources, don’t they? The point many were trying to make is that the complexity and weight involved with internal combustion/electric hybrid vehicles makes them imperfect — especially as replacements for larger vehicles. They also make small vehicles heavier with their battery packs. This is all true. It’s the engineering trade-off for a vehicle that has two means of propelling itself. But that doesn’t change the fact that even my wife’s relatively heavy Toyota Highlander Hybrid gets better gas mileage than its lighter nonhybrid Highlander brandmates. It also gets nearly two times the miles per gallon delivered by the SUV it replaces in the Finnie household. And it generates fewer harmful emissions.

The truth is, there’s a lot of cult-like support out there for this or that kind of automotive technology. Some pundits hate hybrid technology and prefer diesel. Others say that hydrogen can’t be done — and it’s true that a number of issues have to be solved before hydrogen has its day, if it ever does. There are even wild alternative approaches bouncing around the Internet, like “burning” saltwater (video). (I’m told this isn’t a hoax, but I have no way to prove that.) Or how about pouring water over aluminum alloy to generate hydrogen? Then there’s the ever popular engineered egg shells generating hydrogen.

I’m not saying these are proven technologies nor am I intending to make fun of them. A certain amount of experimentation will be required before good ideas are adopted and strung together to make a usable solution. People scoffed at the internal combustion engine in its infancy too.

Clean Diesel in the U.S.
European markets are way, way ahead of the U.S. marketplace in at least one way. Until recently, the dirty diesel fuel sold here with its inconsistent cetane ratings caused diesel engines to run with excessive noise and vibration, emit more noxious fumes, and experience hard starting in cold weather. European standards had been much better than U.S. standards. So much so that diesel engines designed for European markets didn’t do well on U.S. diesel without modification — making it expensive for automakers to sell diesel-engine vehicles in North America.

But last year, the U.S. began the adoption of ultra-low sulfur diesel (ULSD), which is roughly comparable to the diesel fuel sold in much of Europe. ULSD on its own doesn’t solve the emissions problem. Cleaning up diesel’s mess requires exhaust-control devices, such as catalytic converters, that would have been hampered by the high sulfur levels of the previous-generation diesel fuel sold in the U.S.

Many SFNL readers wrote to ask me why I didn’t include diesel as a competitor to hybrid technology in the U.S. Simply put, it’s very hard to buy a new diesel automobile in the U.S. that isn’t either a truck or a very expensive luxury car. Many of these models also aren’t rated to get dramatically better fuel mileage than their gasoline-powered counterparts. What’s known as “clean diesel” technology is on its way, but it’s not going to be here for another year or two, and it’s not going to be as serious as hybrid technology already is in the U.S. for another four to five years.

I’ve been watching diesel for a long time. It costs more in the U.S. right now than regular gasoline, but that might change if there were more demand. Many of the engines now being designed to address the Clean Diesel initiative in North America will also be able to accept at least a percentage of biodiesel, which as its names implies, is generated from a renewable resource: vegetable oil. Clean diesel and biodiesel are excellent alternatives to hybrid technology, but it’s not all there yet. ULSD and biodiesel burning in today’s diesel engines emit particulate matter and high levels of nitrogen oxides. These things can be addressed at least in part by pollution-control technologies, but in the U.S., clean diesel engines are only just beginning to emerge.

DieselForum.org has a list diesel vehicles under development, many of which are designed to get better fuel mileage and reduced emissions. Audi and Volkswagen have very strong offerings in Europe, and the two makers have near-term plans to ship their advanced TDI diesel vehicles to the U.S. in the near future.

Because I’m the practical type: The VW Jetta SportWagen TDI, due in 2008, is one of the models I’m partial to.

The VW Jetta SportWagen
The Volkswagen Jetta SportWagen

For more info about Volkswagen’s diesel plans, which include a new small SUV called the Tiguan, the Passat, and the Jetta sedan, check out this January 2007 press release.

Another vehicle I’ve got my eye on is the 2010 Honda Accord. Honda is said to be working on clean diesel 4- and 6-cylinder engines for the U.S. market. The automaker is expected to deliver a clean diesel Accord model by 2010, according to CNET.

Both VW and Honda are pledging to reduce nitrogen oxide emissions significantly in their forthcoming diesel engines. Both will meet the toughest emissions standards in both the U.S. and Europe.

It’s not clear to me that biodiesel is the future, but the fact that it’s one of the few fuels, like ethanol, that’s renewable is encouraging. Improvements to diesel emissions, the advent of biodiesel, and the fact that the diesel engine is more efficient than the gasoline engine are all strong pluses. Even so, my guess is that diesel-powered automobiles are still a transitional solution.

We’re still in search of a better, cleaner, renewable way to power the world’s automobiles. And we have a long way to go.

9 Responses to “More Automotive Future: Clean Diesel”

  1. DaveR Says:

    You must have delusions of being a movie star or sports figure.

    They appear to feel that because they have a platform, it makes them all-knowing and thus are mandated to pontificate on any subject that catches their fancy.

    C’est pour rire! (It is to laugh)

    Perhaps you could have a section entitled:
    ‘In My Opinion’

  2. swattz101 Says:

    Sorry to burst your bubble Dave, but newer automotive fuels are technology, and while most of what Scott writes about is computer and network related, he also touches on technology. Obviously, Scott recently bought a new hybrid car, and like most of us with knowledge of the Internet, probably put a lot of research into it before he purchased.

    I have to admit that I am intrigued by new technologies, and I thought the burning Saltwater idea was interesting. My biggest question about bio-fuels and things like these is energy exchange, also know as the EROI (Energy Return on Investment). I took a recent environmental science class (required elective) and in my research, I learned about the processing of bio-fuels. For example, ethanol as most know, comes mainly from corn. In some cases, ethanol refineries use fossil fuels (coal or oil gas). If you also take into account the fuel used by farm equipment, fuel used to process fertilizer… What is the exchange? Another thing to consider with corn, did anyone notice the problems with corn prices in Mexico when the US announced that their might be a shortage of corn as more went to ethanol production (more lucrative for the farmer) than to food production.

    Another bio-fuel, Palm Oil, is used in biodiesel in Europe. This sound great until you hear that much of the palm oil is imported from countries such as Malaysia or other countries. These countries razed large tracts of land to plant palm trees. One of the ways they did this was to burn the foliage. This caused lots of smoke pollution and also, the earth lost lots of oxygen producing trees, similar to the complaints of the amazon rain forests being cut down for farm land. Again, is the EROI worth it?

    I hope I don’t come across as a tree hugger, far from it in fact. But I think that people should know what is going into some of the new initiatives that are there just to make environmentalists happy, and to make it look like we are doing something. As Scott said at the end of his article, these fuels are a step in the right direction, but probably more of a transitional solution. I agree that we still have a long way to go.

    Sorry if I offend anyone with my “pontification”.

  3. jbakerjonathan Says:

    Swattz101, you are pointing out the Wizard behind the curtain. Good for you and thank you.

    The hyperbole from the pundits and politicians ignore the complete impact of the touted approach, be it hydrogen, liquid natural gas , liquid propane, bio-diesel, ethanol or even gas-electric hybrids. Each of those approaches has a significant impact on our green house gas emissions. I won’t go into each of them, but suggest that the reader do some research on his own. Let me just say that none of them eliminates the oil industry$$$ (and you can guess why).

    To my mind, the most viable approach with the least polluting footprint is the plug-in electric vehicle. Again, I suggest that the reader do some research, as I have, and he will see the merits of going down this path. No new distribution networks to create (it’s here today), no new technology to research for years to come, a net gain to green house gas reduction, no big hit to our pocketbooks directly, or through our taxes in the form of federal grants to industry and increased cost of food, to name a few positive points.

    I’m not frothing at the mouth over my suggestion; I’ve done my homework and have come to this conclusion. If you will spend the time to research each of the other approaches, and make the comparison with the plug-in electric vehicle, I know you will see the wisdom of this approach.

  4. swattz101 Says:

    Plug-in electric vehicles are great, and another innovation in transportation. I also like some of the public transportation that uses electricity or other alternative means (natural gas to name one). I remember a bus route in Germany where the bus would drive on surface streets, then pull up to a tunnel opening, drop some sort of subway train wheels and raise an electric pole and continue it’s route in the subway tunnels on electric power.

    Sure, electricity is already there, but where do you get it? There are many forms to generate electricity; Nuclear, Hydro-electric, Solar, wind turbines, and yes, coal and other fossil fuels. The question is whether you get more power generation out of it than you put into it?

    As for research, there are new ideas all the time making electricity generation and distribution more efficient. Look at the rolling blackouts in California every summer. Something is needed there, though conservation would be the best idea, along with appliances and electronics that waste less electricity. Also, there are federal grants or tax breaks for using solar panels or wind turbines on your house or business. In some cases, you can feed excess power generated back up to the power companies for credit for times that you don’t generate enough power.

    As mentioned, the best bet is to do the research and come to your own conclusion. Personally, I would love to become completely self sufficient, and have my own personal solar and wind power, but I’ve got a long way to go before I can afford it, even with the government incentives.

  5. Scot Says:

    DaveR: This whole thing is “in my opinion.” That’s what I do.

    I don’t claim expertise in any field except one: Research. And I have many, many interests. I know easily as much about automobiles as I do about computers. I was born with a wrench in my hand. I rebuilt my first car engine at age 16. I have owned over 60 automobiles in my lifetime. I am every bit as avid about automobiles as I am about computers. I am very, very comfortable reading about, thinking about, and writing about automobiles and the engines that drive them.

    Other interests include: Photography, music (I play guitar), literature, baseball, woodworking, landscaping, etc. Whenever there’s something especially interesting and technical about any of the fields of interest I follow, I’m likely to write about it. Take it as fair warning.

    That said, none of these other topics are likely to take over what I write about here. You control the Scot Finnie channel. Don’t like it or don’t like me? Don’t read my stuff. You and I will both survive.

  6. jwbjerke Says:

    New critics on hybrid vehicles – the blind!

    http://www.pantagraph.com/articles/2007/10/04/news/doc47039c28b359f637223253.txt

  7. gerryg Says:

    As American consumers we unfortunately don’t have much control over the environment anymore. Driving hybrid or alternative fuel vehicles is good, and going with solar or wind power for regular electricity is great, and we can design our homes and offices and equipment to be much more efficient which is awesome, but we’re now victims of corporate America moving jobs, manufacturing, and therefore money out of our hands. The rest of the world is now growing it’s economy as fast as possible, and there’s a lot more of them than there are of us. China, India, and other countries are building more coal-fired and poorly filtered power plants, inefficient automobiles, and poorly designed buildings than America could even dream about having. If we want to feel good about saving the environment, we still need to get a few more miles per gallon than we already do, but we need to convince the rest of the world to be efficient and carbon-pollution free as possible. Having a fuel-efficient vehicle is unlikely to offset one’s extra computers and large screen TV, depending on how the electricity is generated to power it. But, politically, it’s still best to try to wean ourselves off of oil that comes from foreign powers and interests. We just have to be careful not to focus too much on one area and not the other areas and bigger picture.

    BTW, love the blog! Looking forward to it as a permanent fixture.

  8. David12846 Says:

    All I can say is, I LOVE MY DIESEL VW. It’s a ’98 Jetta. I’ve only had Diesel automobiles since 1978. My only previous car was a gas engine (’69 American Rambler). All my diesels have been driven 300,000+ miles (I drive 50 miles one-way to work 5 days a week). All my Diesels gave me at least 48 miles per gallon. They are (have been so far) simple engines, with not much to go wrong. I live in Eastern Upstate NY. It gets cold here. My diesel has a block heater. I plug it in during the winter to keep the engine warm. I want a warm car within a mile or two down the road. The noisy clatter of the diesel engine doesn’t bother me. I wonder, however, which engine (Diesel or Gasoline) puts out more pollution if they both went 48 miles (my one gallon of diesel compared to 2 gallons of gasoline for a gas engine that gets 24 mpg). For the past year or two, new VW Diesels can NOT be registered in NYS unless they meet California emissions. I understand the California emission standards reduces the mpg to about 32 miles per gallon. Being accustomed to 48-50 per gallon, 32 is atrocious! Since diesel is refined less than gasoline, one would think diesel fuel would be cheaper than gasoline too.

  9. Teffy Says:

    Diet and Global Warming – a truly inconvenient truth

    To fight global warming, it is easy to insist the government implement new laws and policies. It is also relatively easy (albeit expensive) to change to a more fuel-efficient car. None of these affect one’s personal life in any significant way, however.

    If one takes the threat of global warming seriously, the most powerful personal step you can take may well be choosing a vegetarian diet. As pointed out in the Baltimore Sun (July 19, 2007):

    We’re getting “greener”: Recycling, energy-saving light bulbs and fuel-efficient hybrid cars are now a part of our culture and economy. But most people are neglecting one of the most important steps toward stopping global warming: adopting a vegetarian diet.

    It is not just animal advocates making the connection between what we choose to eat and the future of the Earth. In November of 2006, the United Nations issued a press release that stated:

    Which causes more greenhouse gas emissions, rearing cattle or driving cars?

    Surprise!

    According to a new report published by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, the livestock sector generates more greenhouse gas emissions as measured in CO2 equivalent – 18 percent – than transport. It is also a major source of land and water degradation.

    Says Henning Steinfeld, Chief of FAO’s Livestock Information and Policy Branch and senior author of the report: “Livestock are one of the most significant contributors to today’s most serious environmental problems. Urgent action is required to remedy the situation.”

    This conclusion is backed up by research at the University of Chicago….

    Above is an excerpt from:
    http://www.veganoutreach.org/globalwarming.html
    and the online article contains links not included above.

    An article by the United Nations on the point:
    http://www.un.org/apps/news/story.asp?NewsID=20772

    And one from EarthSave:
    http://earthsave.org/globalwarming.htm

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