GM Adds Diesel, But It's No Panacea

Voluntary actions promise more than federal gas mileage mandates, writes Detroit News editors in this OpEd piece.

Published: 18-Jul-2007

General Motors Corp. is responding to consumer demand for more fuel-efficient vehicles by bringing diesel engines to its passenger car and light truck fleets. That's appropriate and far better than the unreasonable mandates being pushed by environmental activists and some members of Congress.

The decision to add six- and eight-cylinder diesel engines to some of the Detroit automaker's cars, crossovers, light trucks and sport utility vehicles in coming years could help the company increase its fleetwide fuel economy numbers and reduce the nation's use of oil.

Diesel engines get as much as 40 percent better mileage than gasoline engines, and new, cleaner diesel fuel helps make them viable to build and sell in America. There's also an increasing demand, according to the American Petroleum Institute.

Highway demand for diesel fuel is up 4.6 percent, compared with 1.4 percent for gasoline. Converting one-third of the U.S. auto fleet to clean diesels would save 1.4 billion barrels of oil a day. Such savings dwarf the claimed advantages of ethanol, which is still hard to find for most consumers.

"Up until about a year ago we had no clue how they (U.S. diesel emissions standards) could ever be met," GM's Vice Chairman Bob Lutz said on the company's auto blog. "The good news is the standard can be met."

The bad news, he says, is that it will be costly. The emissions hardware and control systems needed to meet United States diesel emission standards will add between $2,000 and $2,800 to the price of a vehicle, on top of a premium of between $1,000 and $2,000 already.

Of course, some of that could be offset with tax credits similar to the ones the government has generously doled out for gasoline-electric hybrids. And the costs will decrease as demand increases and is spread over more vehicles and consumers.

Those driving diesels today already are reaping the benefits. Prices for a gallon of diesel are about 60 cents less than gasoline in Metro Detroit, easily saving consumers $10 or more on a fillup. That adds up significantly over a year and offsets the higher price for buying a diesel faster than if buying a hybrid.

GM's Lutz cautions, however, that this isn't the panacea that will solve the nation's oil issues or bring the company in line with fuel efficiency demands of up to an average of 36 miles per gallon, and he's right.

But given the fueling infrastructure that already exists and the better performance on mileage, diesels have to be a bigger part of America's overall solution.

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The Mercedes-Benz powered plane burns 12.5 gallons per hour at its maximum cruise speed of about 170 knots per hour, or at 80 percent power, but can be leaned out to burn just 9.5 gallons per hour at 170 knots, where most twins average about 32 gallons per hour.

Mercedes, GM and even Honda, are betting on a new breed of green diesels. The goal? To leave hybrids in the dust.

Last June, the diesel-powered Audi R10 on display in the Audi exhibit won the world's most prestigious sports-car endurance race, the 24 Hours of LeMans. It became the first non-gasoline powered car in the 74-year history of the legendary French competition to finish first.


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