A case for ‘clean diesel’: It deserves a chance in the USA.

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Although I respect the position that diesel engines have yet to enter the US market in a big way, and whether this technology will triumph with the American consumer is still to be seen, all major car companies have shown signs of promoting “clean diesel” in the US. This phenomenon may in fact be fueled by the slowing growth of gasoline-hybrid technologies nationally and diesel’s success in Europe. Consider this: while US CAFÉ calls for 27mpg at present, Europe stands at 43mpg and Japan at 50mpg. To some extent, meeting the 35mpg standard proposed in the new energy legislation currently before Congress will mean converting many high torque vehicles to diesel – this would include pickup trucks, SUVs, large minivans and some larger family sedans.

Over the years, we’ve seen all kinds of “Year of…” come and go. But I think most will agree that if anything, 2007 has been the “Year of Energy and Environment” globally – and particularly in the US. While public and private initiatives, like the Google.org’s RE<C, have focused on electricity production for stationary applications, there is a need for a long-term sustainable development plan regarding energy for mobile applications, i.e. transportation. To this point, the question is not so much “what technologies will eventually win,” but more “how must they be staggered to be acceptable socially and developed sustainably in the long run.” At the same time, we have to consider how to ensure that the industries engaged in the sector continue to push the envelope in their technical and business processes to accomplish better, faster and cheaper vehicles sooner.

As innovators (not to be confused with inventors) discuss mobility solutions, the careful among them are paying a lot of attention to making sure we don’t find ourselves in the kind of pipe-dreams that were envisaged when nuclear power was first harnessed several decades ago. Yes, there was the promise of so much electricity that one would not even need to monitor how much we consumed, but we forgot to account properly for the cost of infrastructure, build-out and maintenance. What was missing in that “revolution” was a careful pathway that guided breakthrough innovations into familiar terrains where ideas could be tested and configured for mass adoption.

In our discussions on high fuel-economy vehicles, the same logic applies. At some point, we all may be driving hydrogen fueled, fuel-cell vehicles or all-electric vehicles. But until the innovations around capturing, storing and transporting the fuel are in place or the universal grid architecture is built, should we continue to rely on old technologies that pollute our earth and cost us dearly at the pump? Even the most optimistic among us believes it will take 10 to 20 years for such an infrastructure to be put in place in any commercially-viable way.

So what do we do to move from today’s low fuel economy situation to a scenario where renewable or clean energy is abundantly available for transportation needs? I propose we set environmental emission standards that require the use of “best available technologies,” as well as aim to promote fuels and related technologies that are readily available and do not endanger the long-term development path. In my humble opinion, “clean diesel” provides one such path, given the maturity of the technology (over 5 years of on-road experience on millions of vehicles), the cost of adoption (little to none if the refineries adopt a shift in favor of diesel) and the benefits (high fuel economy with lower emissions than similar gasoline-fueled vehicles). Certainly, every auto analyst or journalist knows that vehicles take a few years to get introduced in a new market, and hence “clean diesels” will start arriving in the US only next year (though Mercedes has already launched its cars in CA and a few other states). In anticipation, work needs to be done to educate the public on how to evaluate the cost-benefit trade-offs when deciding on their next purchases: gasoline vs. hybrid vs. clean diesel. If not via the media, quite honestly, how is an average US consumer to know that “clean diesels” have, on average, 20 to 30 percent better fuel economy than gasoline engines while providing better torque and performance and lower emissions?

The data is clear that standard gasoline hybrids do not improve gas mileage significantly for highway driving – which is the type of driving that most Americans do. In light of this fact, shouldn’t consumers be encouraged to take an analytical approach to deciding whether a Prius hybrid, a Lexus hybrid or a Honda or Jetta TDI “clean diesel” is most appropriate for their investment in the clean-transportation sector?

Unlike other alternative fuel industries, the clean-diesel industry has not asked for government subsidies. Rather, it seeks support via grass-roots efforts to ensure a fair consideration by the consumer.

I most certainly agree with industry pundits who believe that as long as gas prices remain high, there will continue to be a demand for higher-priced renewable fuels/technologies – which in the long run may provide a space for these technologies to develop scale efforts. But as Mario Molina, Nobel laureate in Chemistry, once remarked to me: “there is only one experiment to run with this earth.” We are better off applying the precautionary principle and cutting our emissions now than waiting until tomorrow. Continue to work for tomorrow, but also take action now.

So while high fuel prices continue to allow new technologies to develop and reach sustainability via economies of scale, we should embrace technologies – such as clean diesel – that are readily available and will inarguably improve our carbon footprint over the next five to 15 years. Myriad scientific studies debate the pros and cons of “clean diesel” technologies. It’s time now, when clean diesels are slated to hit the market in the next year or two, to bring this debate to the public, allowing consumers to weigh in and make educated decisions. If we fail in this regard, how can we expect consumers to understand the difference between the clunky, dirty diesels of yesteryears and the clean, fuel efficient ones of today. And can we afford that opportunity lost?

p.s. my thanks to Kenan Sahin, CEO of TIAX, LLC for reminding me why nuclear failed its promise a few decades ago.

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