Fuel for Thought

Popular Mechanics September 2005

The future of automotive propulsion may already be here, waiting at your local truck stop.

But that was then. Things are very different now. I recently visited my pal Gale Banks, who helped update me on the state of the modern diesel. Banks is a veteran hot rodder who has several land speed records to his credit. He intends to go after another one with a diesel-powered truck. He explained that the problem with diesels has always been imprecise fuel metering. Oh, the fuel would shoot in there pretty good, but not good enough to keep that cap on top of the stack from popping up and down, with the engine clattering and blowing smoke. But that’s all changed in the past five years, thanks to tremendous breakthroughs in electronic engine management and turbo-chargers. It’s safe to say diesels have changed more in the past 10 years than they did from Rudolph Diesel’s era in the late 1800s up until the 1990s. That’s another thing: How many inventions still bear the name of their creator? Was there a Bob Hamburger or Larry Kleenex?If you happen to have been in a cave for the past 20 years or so and haven’t seen a computer since 1983, you would be shocked at what the modern PC is like. Guess what? Same for diesel engines. I haven’t been out of society for the past couple of decades, but I still thought that diesels were the dirty, smoky, smelly beasts they’d always been, meant for serious, heavy-duty jobs. I really felt that diesels equal truck stops: you know, slipping in that puddle of oil near the pump, getting your hands greasy–and still not being allowed to sit at the lunch counter with the real truckers. A drag.

I recently drove a diesel-engine demonstrator from the Robert Bosch Corp. It’s an early Corvette-bodied chassis built to showcase Bosch’s common-rail diesel. At first, I didn’t even know the engine was a diesel. I started it, and once I really listened, I realized. But it was pretty quiet. Fuel is injected into the engine at 26,000 psi–compared to the, say, 6 psi of a carbureted gasoline engine. So you get a very fine mist that burns much easier. If you’re like me and want high performance, it doesn’t get much higher than 26,000 psi. Combine that technology with the new diesel fuels coming in 2006 and 2007, and I’ll be able to get the equivalent of super high-test gas at my local filling station. Those new diesel fuels, which are already used in Europe, contain much less sulfur than the diesel fuel we have in this country. They are one of the keys to improved diesel performance.

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