Auto Service World
Feature   April 1, 2008   by J. D. Ney, Assistant Editor

Welcome To Diesel Version 2.0

Now with the ability to challenge hybrids

This past month marks the 150th birthday of Rudolph Diesel, who invented the engine that bears his name. He unveiled his new device at the 1900 World’s Fair, initially demonstrating that it could run on peanut oil. Unfortunately, diesel engines came to mean smoke and soot for many, especially those who prattled about in early-80s Jettas. But according to some new research from multiple firms, changing economies and new technologies are starting to alter some of those perceptions. Some 100 years after his invention made its debut, Rudolph’s vision may finally be coming to fruition, with the introduction of lower-sulphur fuel and biodiesel, and the development of sophisticated, quiet and efficient engines based on his original ideas. In fact, the case for diesel is being so well made, that industry experts say the old smelly, smoky, dirty diesel will outpace that enviro-darling: the hybrid. In fact, not just outpace it, lap it several times over.

Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised with the notion of the diesel lapping the competition. Any fan of motor-sport would likely be familiar with the success diesel powertrains are having on the race track, with the Audi TDI car in the American LeMans series being the poster child of that particu- lar revolution. Their results have been stellar, and I can personally attest that I’ve never seen a car clear through corners two and three at Mosport near Peterburough, Ontario faster. While no one would argue that the ALMS Audi is fuel efficient, or even environmentally friendly, it is impressive nonetheless. And given that the environmental claims of the hybrid ilk are constantly called into question, success on the race track and on the emissions report for the new street-legal clean diesels is having an unquestionable impact.

Looking into the numbers

A report from J. D. Power and Associates recently showed that as consumers become more realistic about the fuel efficiency capabilities of hybrid vehicles, the percentage of new-vehicle shoppers who are considering a hybrid has declined, according to the company’s 2007 Alternative Powertrain Study. Now in its second year, the Alternative Powertrain Study examines the reasons why consumers consider or avoid alternative powertrain vehicles. The study found that 50 per cent of new-vehicle shoppers are considering a hybrid — down from 57 per cent in the 2006 study. While a general decline can be observed across all age groups, in particular younger vehicle shoppers, those 16 to 25 years old, appear less interested in the powertrain technology, with 60 per cent considering a hybrid in 2007, down from 73 per cent in 2006.

The average additional price hybrid considerers are willing to pay for this powertrain is $2,396, with the expectation of receiving an improvement of 18.5 miles per gallon (MPG) over a traditional vehicle of similar size.

“In the 2006 study, we found consumers often overestimated the fuel efficiency of hybrid-electric vehicles, and the decrease in consideration of hybrids in 2007 may be a result of their more realistic understanding of the actual fuel economy capabilities,” said Mike Marshall, director of automotive emerging technologies at J. D. Power and Associates.

That said, the hybrid crowd will

obviously put up a market share fight. In fact, research into hybrid and electric vehicles is reaching an all time high, with most companies in the automotive industry working towards developing their own versions of hybrid electric vehicles (HEVs). What’s more, manufacturers of hybrids are growing increasingly aware of the research and development (R&D) expenses and the high unit costs of components that require the often irreconcilably high retail prices.

As was noted within the J. D. Powers and Associates research, it is this additional cost that is more often than not swaying potential buyers away from a hybrid purchase. However, automakers hope that eventual economies of scale and public acceptance will generate profits for the electric vehicle divisions. Even worse for them, once pitted against the improved diesel engines, vehicle manufacturers need to decrease the price of hybrid vehicles further to close the cost gap between hybrid and diesel powertrains. High-efficiency

diesel vehicles have demonstrated fuel economies and CO2 emission figures similar to that provided by gasoline HEVs. While the market penetration remains muted in North America, it should be noted that diesel engines account for about 45.0 per cent of all newly registered cars in Europe.

So, while all of the advertising and environmentalist capital is thoroughly invested in the hybrid craze, consumers remain skeptical and unconvinced. There is no doubt though, they have bought the need for the change part of the equation and are looking to get into one of these “alternative powertrains.” Much to the chagrin of the hybrid set, however, the solution many are finding is by no means a new invention. It is in fact the extremely old diesel.

“While hybrid sales are steadily increasing, they continue to face competition for market share against an increasing offering of other alternative powertrains and fuels options,” says Marshall.

The J. D. Power study found that consumer consideration for purchasing clean diesel vehicles, which were newly introduced to the market in 2007, is at 23 per cent. In 2006, only 12 per cent of shoppers considered purchasing diesel vehicles. On average, considerers of this powertrain are willing to pay an additional $1,491 for the clean diesel option and expect an average additional fuel economy of 15 mpg.

“As the automotive industry steadily offers more alternative powertrain/fuel options to consumers, buyer preferences will continue to shift the market in the coming years,” says Marshall.

Still Some Hurdles For Diesel

Despite the positive research though, diesel engines have a checkered history in light North American vehicles. Today, they are largely relegated to heavier, full-size light trucks, such as DOT class 2 and 3 pickups. They have always enjoyed good fuel economy (both in the city and on the highway), high torque delivery and long durability compared to gasoline engines. However, higher purchase costs, excessive noise levels, heavy weight and unfavorable exhaust emissions have detracted from their wide acceptance over the years. So, while the diesel outlook is improving, (research firm Frost & Sullivan expects clean diesels to capture up to 10 per cent of North American light vehicle powertrain sales by 2015, around three to four times the penetration of 2004) there are still some obstacles to overcome.

“A key challenge for the automotive light diesel engine industry is to survive the tightening emissions regulatory requirements with affordable products that continue to last well and deliver the expected good fuel economy,” notes Frost & Sullivan senior consultant, Larry Rinek.

By 2009, U. S. automotive diesels (under EPA tier 2, bin 5) are required to have tailpipe emissions just as clean as spark-ignited gasoline engines. That is almost zero emissions levels for both types of engines. That scenario requires near-heroic efforts for diesel engine designers involving elaborate and costly after-treatments, and potential use of alternative lower-temperature combustion technologies. The fundamental diesel emissions problem is high generation of smog-forming NOx, plus a heavy dose of particulate matter (such as fine carbon soot).

According to Frost and Sullivan, clean automotive diesels are threatened by ever-tightening U. S. EPA exhaust emissions regulations, the toughest on earth. Companies participating in this market need to help find a way for diesel engines to survive and offer practical technology solutions.

“Some Tier 1 suppliers of key diesel engine systems, such as electronically controlled Direct Injection (DI) fuel systems — the most expensive purchased portion of diesel
engines today, have much at stake in providing emissions-compliant solutions that will enable survival of these engines, and continued DI system sales worth billions of dollars per year,” explains Rinek

The Tier 1 system suppliers are working hard to help diesel engine builders minimize engine-out emissions (with various DI techniques, such as higher common-rail injection pressures and more injection events per cycle, combustion chamber/piston bowl modifications and exhaust gas recirculation [EGR] technology), as well as reduced tailpipe-out emissions via effective exhaust after-treatments downstream of the engine. The above strategies, plus alternative combustion schemes could help the automotive diesel industry to survive and prosper in North America, at least according to the research experts.

While the number of diesel equipped vehicles you see today might seem insignificant, and some in the aftermarket might even claim that the diesel resurgence is a fad, remember that there were also those who said diesel engines could never be clean and quiet, and even fewer thought it could ever power a successful race car. Given the gusto with which some manufacturers are pursuing the diesel market, and after looking at the projected numbers from two top research firms, it may be time to ensure your technicians are up to spec on the brave new diesel world.

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