Future Fuel

What will power our vehicles in the days ahead?

The gas pump has been a common fixture on the American scene for nearly 100 years. Do not expect it to disappear in the immediate future, but look for more diesel pumps to appear at local service stations.

It seems we can’t look at news or read a magazine without being confronted with concerns about our dependence on foreign oil, pollution, or the cost of energy. Today’s vehicles are demonized as being inefficient, polluting, unsafe machines fostered upon us by evil automobile corporations. It isn’t our intent to take sides on these issues or to take a political stance. After all, almost everyone would like to get better fuel economy from their vehicles, have pollution free cars and trucks, and to be totally free from the possibility of injury while driving. What seems to be missing is perspective.

Compared to the vehicles of just 30 years ago, today’s car and trucks are incredibly improved in terms of fuel mileage, pollution, and safety, but these gains did not come without a price. The real cost of vehicles has gone up significantly. There is also the problem of diminishing returns. As evolution of the automobile proceeds, significant advances in fuel economy, pollution reduction, and safety are increasingly smaller and difficult to achieve. They are also increasingly more expensive. Gains cannot be legislated into existence. Gains come from research and development, and that takes time and money.

Sometimes gains can be achieved by technological breakthroughs, such as computer control of fuel systems and engine management, but historically, automotive evolution occurs slowly. Fuel cells have been touted as the automotive power source of the future, but the technology hasn’t yet been fully developed, nor have there been published reports on the real energy efficiency of using hydrogen to power vehicles. For example, what will be the cost of generating pure hydrogen in terms of energy and pollution from hydrogen generation plants? What will it cost to transport and distribute pure hydrogen, and what will be the hazards associated with hydrogen as a fuel? The Los Angeles Times has reported that creation of a hydrogen fuel infrastructure to support fuel cell vehicles will cost $500 billion and take 10-15 years to build. Additionally, there’s the matter of time that it will take to develop an affordable and practical hydrogen-fueled car. That’s estimated at 15 to 20 years. Then there’s the time it will take for such cars to gradually replace America’s population of internal combustion engine vehicles. Add another 10 to 15 years.

If we are to make meaningful progress in the near future, other avenues must be explored. Electric cars have been tried, and while the technology is suitable for small commuter cars that don’t have to travel long distances, the cost of such vehicles, the battery weight, and battery life really doesn’t make electric vehicles a practical alternative. Moreover, where does the electricity to power such vehicles come from? How much foreign oil or coal is used to generate that electricity, and with how much pollution?

Hybrid vehicles have also arrived on the scene. Such cars use a combination of an internal combustion engine, generator, battery, and an electric motor for power. Such vehicles do deliver good fuel economy, largely because they are quite small. Similar sized and weight internal combustion engine vehicles do almost as well. The acceptance of hybrid vehicles to date has been largely due to various governmental incentives.

So, what is the fuel of the future? For most people, gasoline will continue to be the predominant fuel for most American cars and light trucks. Surcharges and penalties may be imposed on car companies, and even car owners, whose vehicles don’t achieve legislated levels of fuel economy, and this will lead many car and truck makers to offer another alternative that can significantly improve fuel economy and reduce pollution. That alternative is diesel.

Before you dismiss the idea of diesel-powered cars (we already have diesel light trucks), consider several things. First, we’re not talking about smoke belching, noisy, smelly diesels here. We’re talking about the new generation of clean, powerful, efficient diesels (see “Diesel Evolution” elsewhere on this site). Second, diesels can get 40 to 60 percent better fuel economy than similar gasoline engines. This would reduce our dependence on foreign oil. Third, modern diesels will emit less pollution than gasoline engines. Fourth, one out of every three cars in western Europe is diesel powered. Fifth, the technology not only exists, it is already in production by American and foreign car companies. American diesel-powered cars are manufactured for sale in Europe. Sixth, ultra-low sulfur diesel fuel has already been mandated in this country by the EPA by 2006. Seventh, diesel engines are more practical in hybrid vehicles than are gasoline engines. Eighth, diesel engines can be built in any size and power to match the transportation needs of various sized vehicles. Buyers wouldn’t be limited to small cars or short travel distances. Ninth, the refining, transportation, storage and distribution infrastructure already exists for diesel. Adding diesel pumps to gas stations would cost far less than a hydrogen distribution system. Tenth, we can manufacture diesel fuel from natural gas and renewable resources to cut our dependence on foreign oil even further (see “Synthetic Diesel” and “The Biodiesel Alternative” elsewhere on this site). Understand we’re not talking about replacing every gasoline-powered car and truck with a diesel. If only 20 percent of our cars and light trucks are diesel powered, the average fuel economy and total pollution of the American vehicle population will be significantly improved.

In the long run, hydrogen may power the vehicles of the world, and sunlight may be used to power the hydrogen generation plants. In the meantime, bridging the technological gap, will be an ever-increasing number of diesel-fueled vehicles. You owe it to yourself to learn more about this fuel of the future. Your perception of diesel will change, and the odds are you’ll be pleasantly surprised.