Commentary: A New Argument for Diesel

Photo by Randy Stern
Photo by Randy Stern

In 2007, I wrote a commentary on this blog exploring the notion of expanding diesel engines in this country. Some changes were made, but there is still stagnation in terms of market growth.

Recently, Automotive News had their own commentary comparing diesel sales in Europe in comparison to the USA. While they state that passenger car diesel sales are running around 50% across the pond, USA sales were quoted at 1%. I wished I had access to complete sales figures to show whether this is correct or not, but I seriously doubt the 1% figure is indeed true.

Since 2007, diesel fueled offerings had expanded. It was not a huge expansion, but it showed that certain brands and auto makers are willing to invest in offering products with diesel engines. Currently, Volkswagen, Audi, BMW, Mercedes-Benz, Jeep, Porsche and Chevrolet offer diesel as an option on their passenger cars, SUVs and crossovers. It was recently announced that Jaguar and Land Rover will add diesel engine offerings to their lineups for 2016. For trucks and light commercial vehicles, Ford, Chevrolet, GMC and Ram are offering more diesels than before. Nissan will join the diesel fray in a few months with its Titan XD.

While product is the key to grow these offerings to the public, one must argue the worthiness of diesel. There also needs to be arguments on how to expand the awareness of diesel as an alternative towards meeting the upcoming Corporate Average Fuel Economy standards being implemented through 2025. There also needs to be a looks at how diesel actually makes more sense than other alternative fuel and propulsion offerings vying to meet these CAFE standards.

First off, I gave away my idea of what works to meet CAFE, emissions and other standards being imposed in this country by 2025. Diesel may not be the cleanest alternative, but efforts has been made to meet Bin-5 standards set for 2008 to ensure cleaner exhaust emissions towards 50-state diesel engine sales in passenger cars and crossovers.

The fuel itself is readily available. That argument is a bit tricky to convince the Hybrid-electric advocates as such. While hybrids and extended range electric vehicles can fuel up with regular or premium gasoline, one would wonder whether their systems are truly effective in the long run. While the battery packs have proven durability, one would wonder of the kind of extended durability beyond certain odometer readings and through second- or third-hand ownership. It is a moot argument, since it does take education to help owners of older diesels and hybrids the nuances of maintenance of either vehicles, plus the specific care they will need at higher mileage points.

Diesel offers the antithesis for electric cars. If one owns an electric car, and needs to go long distances – where is the infrastructure to support rapid charging in places "along the way?" Though Tesla continues to build their Supercharger network to support their vehicles on longer journeys across the USA, the charging system is proprietary in both port technology and availability to Tesla owners only. This does not work for owners of the Nissan Leaf, Kia Soul EV, Chevrolet Volt and so forth.

One could summarize that the edge comes out for diesel so far. I would argue so, but one point must be made – the standing of diesel engines for this country could never have been better.

The key to this is the use of Ultra Low Sulfur Diesel fuel. It took this country years to finally get as close as possible to meet European standards with this fuel. It has resulted in the expansion of diesel engine offerings in this country, along with further work in cleaner tailpipe emissions to attract buyers to these engines. However, there needs to be match based on the Parts Per Million standard between Euro V and North American ULSD benchmarks. Euro V is at 10ppm, while it is 15ppm here. Both are an improvement over past fuel standards, but there is still not an equitable agreement towards a singular global standard. North American ULSD should match Euro V to meet global emissions and operational standards. The drawback of doing so is that North American petroleum companies would have to raise pump prices to offset the cost of improving the fuel.

Have you seen the price of diesel lately? For the original commentary in 2007, I reported at a nearby gas station that diesel was at $2.89 a gallon, while regular unleaded was $3.39 a gallon. It would be the last time that diesel was price less than regular gasoline. Since then, diesel has since skyrocketed to over $4.00 a gallon – as recent as just over a year ago. With the price of gas, diesel also saw a significant drop to levels below 2007. When I was testing the 2015 Volkswagen Jetta TDI SE for Why This Ride?, I saw $2.49 a gallon for diesel at a gas station far west of the Twin Cities. Current pump prices are averaging $2.69-2.89 a gallon throughout Minnesota and Wisconsin.

Lower diesel prices, plus a slightly expanded availability of reliable, cleaner diesel-fueled vehicles, are a sign that we should reconsider this as an alternative fuel worthy of consumption. There needs to be a two-fold approach to gaining diesel acceptance and expansion in this country. One is to further expand offerings in passenger cars, crossover/SUVs, vans, midsized and half-ton full-sized pickups. Second is to get diesel fuel to meet the 10ppm global standard, along with continual meeting of Bin-5 emissions controls. Meeting the latest CAFE standards should always be the goal when understanding how providing the option for a diesel engine would help meet these government impositions.

Simply put – diesel works. We need more of them out on the road. End of story.

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