by David Johnson
President & CEO, Achates Power, Inc.
When it comes to fuel economy, the United States is behind. Some say, way behind. In Europe, for example, consumers have been buying fuel-efficient, diesel-powered vehicles for decades. While diesel sales are growing here— increasing by 26% from 2011—they are still far short of European sales. In fact, diesel cars account for nearly 55% of passenger vehicle sales in Europe. So, why the big difference?
Availability: Diesels are widely available in Europe and much of the rest of the world. Most every car for sale in Europe is available with a diesel engine option. The customer can choose. For most of the last decade, there have been few diesel engines offered in U.S. cars. As a result, most U.S. consumers don’t know how good diesels are and the few who do know, usually can’t find the car they want with a diesel engine because they just aren’t being offered by most manufacturers.
Regulations: U.S. emissions regulations were developed on the basis of gasoline engine emissions characteristics. In Europe, emissions regulations were developed separately for diesel engines and gasoline engines. Both U.S. and European emissions regulations for both gas and diesel engines reach the same near-zero emissions requirement, but the implementation schedule of European emissions regulations allowed sufficient time for manufacturers to develop the emissions solutions while U.S. regulations didn’t. This put diesels at a disadvantage in the U.S.
Pump Fuel Prices: U.S. fuel prices have contributed to slow demand for fuel-efficient diesel engines. Since the average price of fuel (both gasoline and diesel) is much lower in the U.S. than in Europe, American car buyers are less concerned about fuel economy.
Government Actions: What the government does affects what manufacturers and customers do. Electric vehicles, hybrid vehicles, natural gas vehicles and fuel cell vehicles all receive substantial and preferential ongoing government support. Generous tax incentives—such as the $7,500 federal tax credit for electric vehicles, HOV lane access, special benefits in the CAFE calculations and government subsidized loans—each move the marketplace and disadvantage diesel-powered products. As Volkswagen recently announced, “it’s time for the U.S. government to include clean diesel in its ‘all of the above strategy’ for greening U.S. roads”.
Despite all of that, conditions are improving and so the time is right for the U.S. to play catch up. Availability is up—new diesel car and light truck models are being introduced, one after another, with a 2014 line-up that includes the Audi A6, A8 and Q5; BMW 328d; Chevy Cruze Diesel; Jeep Grand Cherokee EcoDiesel; and Ram 1500 EcoDiesel. Additionally, the most challenging CAFE legislation in decades can be more easily met with highly practical and cost-effective diesel engine technologies rather than very expensive electrification technologies. The few diesel-powered vehicles available for sale in the U.S. will soon pass the multitude of expensive electrified vehicle sales in combined market share. It’s already happening. In August, diesel sales increased nearly 42% from the year before.
With more diesels available, U.S. consumers will have more options to test drive and buy a diesel over gasoline, hybrid and electric vehicle options. So their perceptions of diesels are bound to change. For example, diesel cars from the 1960s were awful (but efficient) products. The combination of turbochargers and high pressure common rail direct fuel injection (found in all current diesel cars) and great low-end torque (inherent in the diesel combustion process) provide an excellent driving experience. The vision of diesel engines belching black smoke is also a thing of the past. Thanks to ultra-low sulfur diesel fuel and exhaust aftertreatment technologies, diesel-powered cars now meet the same emissions standards as gasoline-powered vehicles.
While some things may never change, it’s clear that we need the cleanest, most efficient and most cost-effective engines in our vehicles. Today, that means the few diesels that are being offered. Soon, there will be more, including innovative technologies—like the Achates Power opposed-piston, two-stroke diesel engine—that will take us to the next-level of performance: cleaner, more efficient and still more cost effective.
Achates Power was just named a semi-finalist in the Securing America’s Future Energy (SAFE) “Energy Security Prize”. The competition recognizes the top three U.S. organizations that are developing technologies to significantly reduce long-term U.S. oil consumption. To learn more or to vote as part of the public voting period, which continues through October 11, 2013, click here.