High-tech Diesel

If your eyes have been locked on hybrid and electric vehicles in the race to design and build the advanced vehicles of the near future, watch out for diesel coming around the outside track. As stubborn concerns about cost and range are putting a drag on electrics, the introduction of advanced-technology diesels is accelerating.

IEEE Spectrum magazine, in this month’s “Top 10 Tech Cars 2012” report, features two such automobiles: Volkswagen’s diesel Passat and the Mercedes-Benz E300 diesel Bluetec hybrid. One-fifth of the VWs sold in the United States last year were diesels.

Meanwhile, Ford Motor Co. CEO Alan Mulally caused a stir last week with a public statement about the high cost of EV batteries. They can run between US $12 000 and $15 000 for a car that might otherwise sell for just $22 000, he said.

The news here is not so much what Mulally said as the fact he said it. It would seem that the highly regarded Ford chief executive is getting cold feet about some of the hybrid and electric vehicles his own company is introducing.

And no wonder. According to a New York Times run-down of pay-back periods for such cars, published on 5 April, the break-even time for the Ford Fiesta with the super fuel economy (SFE) package that lets it go 100 kilometers on only 5.88 liters of fuel is 26.8 years, for the Ford Focus SE SFE 9.0 years, and the Fusion 8.5 years. (Breakeven is the time it would take to pay off the additional cost of the car, as compared with its non-electric version.)

Many of the cars being introduced by other manufacturers fared little or no better. Break-even for Chevrolet’s Volt was estimated at 26.6 years, and Honda’s Civic hybrid at 12.1. Some, to be sure, did much better, among them the Toyota Camry hybrid (6 years), and  the Prius, with an impressively short payback period of just 1.2 years.

But VW’s advanced diesel Jetta does even better than that, with a payback period of 1.1 years. Volkswagen and Daimler pioneered the introduction of high-tech diesels in the U.S. market several years ago, with their development of diesel cars capable of meeting U.S. clean air standards—including California’s, the most exacting of all.

Now, U.S. carmakers and other non-U.S. manufacturers are racing to match them in the American market. Chrysler, General Motors, Audi, and Mazda all plan to introduce diesel models in the next couple of years.

The Diesel Technology Forum, a U.S. trade group, has hailed the ability of such diesel vehicles to comply with California's latest and strictest clean air standards. The forum boasts that NOx emissions from diesel trucks and buses have been cut 99 percent in the last ten years, and particulates emissions by 97 percent, as a result of new technology. With the introduction of the ultra-low-sulfur diesel fuel required by law since 2010, sulfur emissions from diesel trucks and buses are down 97 percent already, the forum claims.

Photo: Volkswagen Jetta TDI

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