“With the cleaner fuel, manufacturers will have the greatest possibility they’ve had in quite a long while for bringing new models into the market,” Schaeffer says. “This clean fuel is spurring new interest in diesel.”
To be sure, advanced diesel engines and the turbochargers that typically accompany them will cost more than conventional gasoline engines. But they’ll probably cost less than the extra batteries, motor, and other components in hybrids.
An additional benefit of diesel engines is that they can burn biodiesel, which can be derived from crops such as soybeans, using less energy than is needed to create another currently popular biofuel: ethanol from corn.
Farther down the road may be hybrid diesel cars, which could potentially get fuel economies of 50 to 70 miles per gallon, according to Kassel. Already, hybrid diesels are a boon for companies such as UPS, since their delivery vehicles are used for the stop-and-go urban driving that hybrids do best (see “Heavy Duty Hybrids”).
Nevertheless, the initial higher costs may deter American consumers, say experts. Diesel hybrids may have more of a chance in Europe, where diesel consumer vehicles have been popular for years, now constituting about half of the sales of such vehicles, whereas just a few percent of cars, SUVs, and light-and medium-duty trucks sold in the United States are diesels. In Europe, the popularity of diesels is in large part due to tax incentives, Kassel says, but also because their historically lower sulfur levels in fuel have allowed better exhaust treatments.
Bill Van Amburg, senior vice president of Weststart-Calstart, a not-for-profit organization that supports cleaner, more efficient vehicle technologies, says the improved emissions controls made possible by the new fuel are just part of advances in diesel vehicles in recent years, transforming them from noisy, dirty vehicles to quiet, clean, high-performance vehicles. These changes, which include advanced computer controls, are also making it possible to optimize engines “on the fly” to burn a variety of fuels.
One European concept car, says Van Amburg, can run on five different fuels, including gasoline, ethanol, and propane, without sacrificing efficiency or performance. Now that concerns about fuel prices, energy security, and global warming are all on the rise, Van Amburg says we will abandon the “mono-fuel” system dominated by gasoline for a “poly-fuel” system, including clean diesel, in which consumers can choose the fuels that make the most sense to them.