- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 10, 2006

The diesel industry has one word for motorists who want to relieve their pain at the gas pump: diesel.

But this is not the noisy, smoky diesel engine of the 1970s. Today’s “clean diesel” systems feature cleaner fuel, better emission controls and advanced fuel injection and turbocharger technology.

In other words, less pollution, more power and improved mileage.

“Do not compare today’s technology to Daddy’s technology,” Klaus-Peter Schindler, manager of research and development for Volkswagen AG, told an audience of auto makers, parts manufacturers and reporters yesterday at Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Stadium.

The event — sponsored by the Diesel Technology Forum, an industry nonprofit, and the Washington Automotive Press Association — transformed a stadium parking lot into a test course where participants could try out new diesel technology for themselves by taking one of more than 20 high-performance vehicles for a spin.

Speakers, including representatives from Mercedes-Benz, BMW and Volkswagen, used high gasoline prices to make the case for diesel-engine vehicles, which get 20 percent to 40 percent better mileage than comparable gas-engine vehicles.

“We really feel that diesel is the best solution for the dependence of [the] U.S. on foreign oils,” said Rudi Thom, director of development for Mercedes-Benz passenger cars.

American ownership of diesel passenger vehicles climbed by 80 percent between 2000 and 2005, according to R.L. Polk & Co., a provider of automotive information. The industry expects the trend to continue: By 2015, J.D. Power and Associates predicts, sales of diesel vehicles will nearly triple from 3.6 percent to 10 percent of sales.

Still, diesel’s popularity here is nothing like it is in Europe, where more than 60 percent of all vehicles on the road have diesel engines.

“The U.S. market … is only beginning to accept clean diesel vehicles,” said Norm Johnson, spokesman for Robert Bosch Corp., which manufacturers fuel-injection systems and other diesel technology.

The industry attributes the disparity to several factors, led by America’s tougher regulation of diesel-fuel emissions. Starting in October, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is requiring a 95 percent reduction in diesel fuel sulfur levels.

Moreover, Europeans often pay double what Americans pay for gasoline and are therefore more concerned about fuel economy.

In the United States, a gallon of diesel fuel currently costs about a penny less than gasoline, according to Energy Information Administration figures from Monday.

The EPA estimates that the new emissions regulations will push up the price of diesel by another 4 to 6 cents a gallon.

“Diesel has changed a great deal and I think the test now is to convince the public of that,” said Greg Henderson, president of the Society of Automotive Engineers International.

Unlike gasoline engines, which rely on spark plugs to ignite fuel, diesel engines ignite fuel through air compression. Because compression engines produce more torque, the vast majority of tractor-trailers use diesel fuel.

Filters known as particulate traps reduce soot and other diesel emissions by as much as 90 percent.

Newer, clean diesel vehicles — those using ultra-low-sulfur diesel fuel — also use oxidation converters that change smog-forming emissions into benign substances.

Still, diesel’s proponents acknowledge that the industry faces a public relations challenge when it comes to reversing negative perceptions of diesel vehicles.

But, “because of the ever-increasing fuel costs, it’s really going to happen here in the U.S.,” said Richard Judge, a chief diesel systems engineer for Delphi Corp.

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