As the auto industry moves toward more fuel-efficient, cleaner vehicles, there's a cluster of automotive, environmental and energy experts rooting for the diesel engine.
Perhaps their biggest challenge is to convince drivers that today's diesels aren't the slow, noisy, smelly diesels of the past.
A leading voice in that effort is DaimlerChrysler AG's Chrysler Group, which in January started producing its second diesel vehicle for North America. A diesel version of the Jeep Grand Cherokee will be hitting dealerships soon. It comes after the automaker sold more than it expected of the diesel Jeep Liberty last year, Robert Lee, vice president of powertrain product engineering for DCX, told more than 100 people at the Society of Automotive Engineers World Congress today at Cobo Hall in Detroit. The Liberty diesel was an experiment to see whether consumers would be willing to pay an extra $1,500 for a diesel vehicle.
It worked well enough for Chrysler to release the diesel Grand Cherokee, which costs an extra $3,000 and is expected to save drivers $592 a year on fuel.
Diesels make up less than 0.5% of the cars produced in North America. Diesel car production is expected to increase to 15% by 2015 and 18% by 2020, according to estimates from the University of Michigan’s Transportation Research Institute.
Offering an average of 30% better fuel efficiency than gasoline engines, diesels are a good gasoline alternative for highway driving, compared with a hybrid, which is ideal for stop-and-go city traffic, said Jim Eberhardt, a scientist with the Department of Energy.
But the movement toward diesel won’t be easy, said Jim Williams of the American Petroleum Institute. Ramping up diesel production would take five to 10 years and cost $500 million to $1 billion in infrastructure changes to each oil refinery.
"It is not something you can do quickly or cheaply," Williams said.
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