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Diesel fuel: why aren't there more diesels?

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Note: for details on biodiesel fuel, click here. For an earlier discussion on the pros and cons of diesel fuel, click here.

Diesel engines generally have far higher gas mileage than equivalent gasoline engines. They also tend to last longer, which can make them cheaper in the long, long run. Busses and trucks tend to have diesels because of their massive torque and economy; however, American taxis and fleet cars do not, partly because very few cars are available with diesels.

The U.S. government subsidizes ethanol despite that fuel's terrible economics and impact on the environment as a whole (ethanol takes a great deal of energy to produce). However, biologically created biodiesel can be better for the environment than standard gasoline, and can be a greater boon to farmers, since it is much less energy-intensive to create. It also does not require modifications to diesel engines, as far as research can tell.

So what stands in the way of diesels?

First, in terms of the environment, diesel emissions have a high percentage of particulates per gallon burned - particulates suspected to be carcinogenic. However, we have not seen any research that considers the impact per mile driven and compares it with the impact of gasoline engines. If one vehicle has, say, 1% noxious emissions in its exhaust, and another has 1.5%, which is better for the environment? Clearly the one with 1.5%, if it gets double the gas mileage - but the U.S. government doesn't see it that way. Everything works by proportion, so that a thrifty Toyota Corolla is judged by the same proportion standards as the gas-hog Cadillac - and the even-bigger-hog heavy-duty Yukon gets a break!

In terms of sales, many people are reluctant to pony up the extra thousand (or three thousand) for a diesel, partly because gasoline is relatively cheap, and partly because most people do not keep their cars nearly as long as European drivers do. (In Europe, diesels are very popular, but cars are kept for a long, long time due to their relatively high cost - taxes are one factor, and small markets are another).


Joseph wrote:

Just as there is a fleet average mileage law, there is a (less publicized) fleet average emissions law. Why do you think VW sells those turbo diesels like hotcakes, then "runs out" in the middle of the year? They have used up their quota.

Here in California, it is even worse. There is a strict quota on the number of 1 ton diesels the Big 3 can bring into the state each month. Do you think Dodge is going to cut back on high profit Ram diesels so it can sell diesels in Caravans? Nope.

I know today there was a blurb on the "news" page about raising the CAFE mileage. It had a predictably slanted comment that it would be easy to raise the CAFE mileage if only the feds would force the Big Bad 3 to sell more diesels. Sorry, that isn't the way it works in the real world. Yes, diesels get higher mileage, but the emissions laws are the enemy of CAFE.

Bill Cawthon wrote:

It's not just California. Other states like New York, Massachusetts and Maine also limit diesels. And the EPA is not friendly to them either. The new Freightliner Sprinter, which is only offered with a diesel, cannot be registered in those states for at least another year.

In Europe, it's different. The huge difference between diesel and gasoline prices make diesels the engine of choice for lots of people. In Germany, most police cars are powered by 4- or 5-cylinder diesels with automatic transmissions. That includes those sleek silver-and-green Mercedes E-Class cruisers in use in DC's home state of Baden-Wuerttemberg. The Chrysler Voyager minivan built in Austria has had a diesel option for years and I believe they account for a large percentage of sales. The diesels in development for the Neon and PT Cruiser are destined for the European market.

It's interesting that last year, when gas prices were so high in the midwest, Detroit (which does not have the California restrictions) became one of VWoA's best markets for diesel cars. Area dealers couldn't keep them is stock.

Central Editorials Page | Details on biodiesel fuel, click here.

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