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Clean diesel — it’s not just for trucks

The first 2012 Passat owner, Matt Duchesne, receives his all-new clean-diesel-powered Volkswagen from Mike Gabbani, general sales manager at Stevens Creek Volkswagen, in San Jose, Calif.

“All That’s Trucking” blog by Deborah Lockridge, Editor in Chief

Who would have thought that you’d find a roundup of 2012 diesel cars on a website called the Practical Environmentalist?

But that’s just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the increased interest I’m seeing in today’s generation of clean diesel cars. This week, former Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta and a group of auto suppliers urged the Obama administration to treat diesel and highly fuel efficiency gasoline engines on a “level playing field” with electric vehicles as they being to implement new fuel-efficiency standards for cars.

A couple weeks ago, the website reported that clean diesels are poised for growth in the U.S. So far this year, diesel sales are up more than 30% over 2010 — when they were up 40% over 2009 levels.

“Not so long ago, the U.S. vehicle market was all but diesel-free, thanks in part to California’s strict air standards that prohibit high nitrogen oxide emitters,” the website notes. “But with the debut of the Volkswagen Jetta TDI in 2008 and subsequent releases from Mercedes, BMW and Audi, diesel’s fortunes here are beginning to change. Far from the bulky, smog-billowing V6s of the 1970s and 1980s, the new generation of clean diesel vehicles are smaller, turbocharged, fuel efficient, and most importantly, their smog emissions are sharply lower-meaning that they are now legal in all 50 states.”

Also last month, Volkswagen’s 2012 Passat TDI clean diesel was named by Green Car Journal as one of five finalists for the 2012 Green Car of the Year Award, which will be presented at the Los Angeles Auto Show later this month. It joins electric, natural gas and hybrid cars on the list. Whether or not it wins, Volkswagen is planning to product the vehicles at its new factory in Chattanooga, Tenn., potentially as much as 30% when at full production.

Earlier this year, U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said that “If one-third of all vehicles in the USA were already clean diesel vehicles today, we would be saving 1.4 million barrels of oil every day. That is equivalent to the amount of oil we currently import from Saudi Arabia.”

By 2015, as many as 10% of new cars and trucks sold in the U.S. might have diesel engines, predicted Peter Marks, chairman, president and CEO for Bosch’s North and South American operations.

Clean diesel delivers

A group called the U.S. Coalition for Advanced Diesel Cars Secretary Mineta this week unveiled a white paper detailing his support for technology neutral policies that do not favor one technology over another through consumer incentives, federal subsidies, testing standards or technology-specific credits.

Recent policies, he said, have favored electric vehicles but have failed to help gain wide-spread acceptance from consumers or enhance the likelihood of significant growth of electrics in the United States.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and the Environmental Protection Agency are expected this month to unveil a proposed regulation to hike fuel efficiency standards to 54.5 mpg by 2025.

The white paper explains that when you compare the emissions and energy consumption of different vehicle technologies, it is important to assess them throughout their entire life cycle. You can’t consider only the energy consumed by the vehicle, but also the energy used upstream to make such energy available to the vehicle, called a “well-to-wheel” analysis. In the case of electric vehicles and plug-in hybrids, efficiency and emissions of power generation and power distribution must be considered.

With this methodology, high-efficiency gasoline and diesel engines and electric vehicles perform comparably with regard to energy consumption and greenhouse gases emissions.

The U.S. Market

Clean diesel vehicles have only been available in the U.S. market since 2009, notes the white paper, yet when given a powertrain option, consumers are choosing the diesel version at a significantly higher percentage than they are the hybrid version.

Car makers have been making announcements about their plans to offer more and more diesel vehicles in the U.S. market in the coming model years.

Switching from a gasoline engine to an advanced diesel engine (turbocharged with exhaust after treatment) will improve fuel economy up to 30% and reduce GHG emissions as much as 25%, at an additional cost of $1,500 – $2,000 per vehicle, says the Mineta white paper. In the last 20 years, turbochargers have overcome one of the traditional drawbacks of diesel engines – sluggish engine response – and have greatly improved the driving experience.

In Europe, turbo diesel engines have achieved a light vehicle market share of 50%, vs. less than 5% in the United States.

Nancy Sutley, chair of the Council on Environmental Quality, last week gave the
keynote dinner address at the annual meeting of the Diesel Technology Forum in Crystal City, Va., noting that “The diesel industry has succeeded in innovative efforts to improve fuel efficiency and dramatically reduce emissions. This continued commitment and progress is helping companies and communities save money and reduce pollution, and propelling the clean energy jobs and industries that will power our economy in the 21st century.”

Sutley also issued a challenge to the diesel industry to continue its efforts to further improve its technology and we are continuing our long-standing commitment to this important effort.

60 mpg

It sounds like Sutley won’t have anything to worry about, if you listen to developers at Bosch Diesel Systems. They are predicting a compact-class diesel-powered passenger car by 2015 that could get 60 mpg.

Bosch says this next generation of diesel cars will be fitted with a slew of additional products, all of which will combine to increase the efficiency of the powertrain, including:

* A start-stop system to automatically switch the engine on and off when the vehicle comes to a stop, for instance at lights or in traffic jams

* Thermal management to get the engine quickly up to the optimal operating temperature and keep it there

* A highly efficient alternator that uses brake energy as one source for charging the battery.

Overall, it seems like it should be a good thing, because as consumers learn to think of diesel as a “green,” fuel-efficient energy source instead of the source of black smoke belching from truck stacks, it can only help the trucking industry – just as long as car makers stay away from ads like the one from BMW in this year’s Superbowl, which touted its clean diesel solution by implying that every other diesel vehicle on the road, including trucks, is belching thick black smoke.

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