Diesel’s Dirty Little Secret

fourwheeldriftAm I the only automotive journalist who is not enamored with the prediction that diesel-powered vehicle sales are about to skyrocket?  I might be, but then again, I might be the only car guy who knows diesel’s dirty little secret. 

Quite honestly, every single time I hear some self-described environmentalist talk about how great diesels are I want to hit them over the head with a binder full of conclusive studies linking diesel emissions to lots of health problems.  Manufacturers and interest groups keep talking about “clean burning diesel.”   Clean diesel is as much an oxymoron as clean sheets at the Playboy Mansion after Hef throws a party.  

Don’t get me wrong – in comparison to GM’s smelly, nasty 350 cubic inch diesel appearing in 1979 Oldsmobiles and Cadillacs, modern diesel engines by BMW, Mercedes and VW have, as Virginia Slims used to say, “come a long way, baby.”   But exactly like Virginia Slims, no matter how much the cigarette is modernized, it’s still an unhealthy product. (Speaking of which, at some point someone will need to explain to me why so many self-defined environmentalists smoke cigarettes at the same moment they’re protesting pollution caused by corporations.)

Seven dollar per gallon prices helped diesel gain popularity in Europe during the last decade. This explains why America is so bullish on the technology.  According to JD Power, the average diesel product sees a 12 mpg real-world improvement in fuel economy than its gasoline-powered counterpart.  When gas passed three-bucks per gallon, people were ready to sell body parts for better fuel economy. Additionally, Americans are conscious of the whole war for oil thing.  Americans are now dead-set on reducing dependence on foreign oil.  Most people boil it down to a simple hypothesis: diesel gets better economy, so switching to diesel vehicles should help wean from foreign oil. Finally people are very into preventing global warming.  Diesel doesn’t produce as much high-ozone layer killing emissions as gasoline, and therefore the fuel is proven to be better for preventing ozone depletion blamed for global warming. So it has become fashionable for environmentalists to conclude: better economy, less foreign oil dependence, no global warming…everyone should go diesel!   The problem is that this is all narrowly focused, half true…or entirely bogus. Diesel fans are putting their pocket books ahead of the environment in a way that greenies often accuse the Bush administration of doing.  Just like many of the Bush administration’s policies, the assumptions are not true, much of the data is ignored, and therefore the whole premise is a house of cards. 

Here’s the basic science:  According to every study done by the EPA and major universities, diesel-fueled vehicles emit higher levels of nitrogen oxides and hydrocarbons than gas vehicles. Most importantly, diesels emit significantly higher levels of carbon-based fine particles (particulate matter – aka: soot) than gas engines.  It is this soot that creates the most immediate health risk to all humans, causing cardiovascular distress, as well as irritation to eyes and sinuses.  In other words, the average gas powered vehicle might be slowly causing global warming, but all diesels are major contributors in giving children around the world asthma right now.

The EPA produces a guide called the Green Vehicle Guide, which ranks vehicles on two criteria: air pollution score and greenhouse gas score.  Based on a scale of 1-to-10, where ten is the cleanest and one is the dirtiest, Volkswagen’s beloved TDI models all scored 1 on air pollution, while scoring 8 on greenhouse gasses.   Jeep’s new diesel Cherokee scored 1 on air and only 4 on greenhouse.  Mercedes diesels scored 1/7.  Many gasoline-powered vehicles from Toyota, Honda and Ford managed ratings of 9.5 or better in air pollution, while still maintaining 7 or higher on greenhouse gasses.  The Honda Insight and Toyota Prius both scored an amazing 9.5/10.

I know what you’re saying: what about Volkswagen’s new common-rail diesel?  Here is some news: it already failed to meet the NOx emissions requirements.  In other words – it still isn’t clean.

What about biodiesel?  Before you start downloading Willie Nelson’s entire works to your I-Pod, take this into consideration:  only  a small number of existing diesel-powered vehicles utilize particulate traps.  Particulate traps are essentially filters that prevent 90-percent of those little irritants from getting out the exhaust pipe.  VWs have particulate traps, yet still they score a 1 in air pollution, so imagine how dirty diesel-powered vehicles are that don’t have these fitted.Most of the vehicles being converted to biodiesel (in some cases, conversion means just filling up with biodiesel,) are older diesels with little or no on-board diagnostic systems to maintain burning efficiency.  Just get behind any car with one of those “powered by biodiesel” stickers and take a big whiff.  I love the smell of nitrogen oxide in the morning…it smells like burning french fries.

The average lifespan of a diesel vehicle is an amazing 29 years.  Unless some magic technology that cleans-up diesel emissions comes along before the predicted boom in diesel sales, we’ll be breathing in bad pollution for 30-plus more years.And this doesn’t include those Ford, Dodge and GM trucks!  In the US, those are classified as trucks, and therefore don’t even have to meet the minimum air quality standards applied to cars. 

Speaking of diesel trucks – how about noise pollution?  I drove from Olympia, WA to Sonoma, CA in a Cummins diesel-powered Dodge 2500 to pick-up a 1960 Triumph TR3.  After each leg I had an Excedrin headache.  Sure the Dodge had plenty of torque to get through the mountains with a car trailer, but no matter what the conditions were, it only could return 10 mpg.Part of the problem with diesels is that people believe too much of what car dealers are telling them.  JD Powers reported that consumers expected to pay only $2800 more for a diesel vehicle over a gas counterpart, yet get 21 mpg more in return.  In actuality, diesels run just around $1000 more, but deliver only 12 mpg additional than gas counterparts.  Furthermore, consumers also generally don’t expect diesel maintenance to cost more, which it most certainly does.

Today diesel is roughly 25 cents more expensive than gas on a per-gallon basis.  This basically means that the average driver (of around 10,000 miles per year) saves less than $300 in fuel costs.  It also means having less choice of where to fill-up, and that by the time one breaks-even on the extra cost of the diesel engine, the warranty is up and higher maintenance costs start chewing into further fuel spending benefits.

Stopping global warming and ending dependence on foreign oil are both noble goals worth fighting for.  The problems are that diesels simply trade a long-term environmental-related health danger for a very real near-term health issue, and do it for no real long-term political, economic or oil supply benefit.  All diesel, including biodiesel, use significant quantities of oil.  And even if the whole world went biodiesel, not only would foreign oil sources still be necessary, it would be years before biodiesel processing and distribution would be able to meet demand.

The last time I went-off on alternative-power vehicles (last time it was to dispel the myth that gas-electric hybrids were new…Ferdinand Porsche invented one in 1901,) I received hate mail from people accusing me of being paid-off by the oil lobby or the American manufacturers.  I’m expecting more hate mail from this.  The plain truth, though, is that alternative fuel vehicle research and development is currently worse-off than the early years of automobiles when steam and electric cars were viable and widespread.

I’ll give Audi the most kudos for trying to make the most out of diesel.  They conquered Le Mans with the R10 – the first diesel to do so.  The victory also tackles generations of perception that low-revving diesel engines are incompatible with sports and racing cars.  If any company will address the inherent emissions problems, it will be Audi. Unless consumers press for real change, Audi, as well as the other more lazy companies will have no reason to shoot high.  When it comes to future technology planning, the modern, greedy, risk-averse automakers have been using their putters from the tee on the R+D par-five. 

If pressed, automakers might find different technologies (steam, hydrogen, hydrogen-electric hybrid…) work better than current planned offerings.  Until then automakers will continue to brainwash people into ignoring the dirty, stinky realities of diesel.


2 Responses to Diesel’s Dirty Little Secret

  1. tom vars says:

    great article would you be interested in more info on the fitch fuel catalyst the only fuel catalyst to be certified by the EPA as a aftermarket emmission control and fuel saveing device, not an aditive but a true in line system that was developed by the co inventer of the catalytic converter we have on our cars now be more than happy to let you know about it thanks tom vars, fuel technology systems dunedin fla

  2. How does running a car off waste veggie oil consume more petroleum? How does burning canola create NOX? I don’t quite understand that logic.

    If anything, I see alternative fuels such as these actually *extending* the useful life of petroleum, not replacing it. Every time I read an opinion piece like this I am tempted to ask the writer: “What are YOU doing to reduce greenhouse gasses, and dependance on foreign oil?


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