High-tech Diesel

Could advanced diesel cars and diesel hybids edge out more conventional electrified vehicles?

2 min read
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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We Need More Than Just Electric Vehicles

To decarbonize road transport we need to complement EVs with bikes, rail, city planning, and alternative energy

11 min read
A worker works on the frame of a car on an assembly line.

China has more EVs than any other country—but it also gets most of its electricity from coal.

VCG/Getty Images

EVs have finally come of age. The total cost of purchasing and driving one—the cost of ownership—has fallen nearly to parity with a typical gasoline-fueled car. Scientists and engineers have extended the range of EVs by cramming ever more energy into their batteries, and vehicle-charging networks have expanded in many countries. In the United States, for example, there are more than 49,000 public charging stations, and it is now possible to drive an EV from New York to California using public charging networks.

With all this, consumers and policymakers alike are hopeful that society will soon greatly reduce its carbon emissions by replacing today’s cars with electric vehicles. Indeed, adopting electric vehicles will go a long way in helping to improve environmental outcomes. But EVs come with important weaknesses, and so people shouldn’t count on them alone to do the job, even for the transportation sector.

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