Much excitement has been generated by the latest generation of Hybrid cars. The Toyota Prius, for example, is a hybrid four-seater that gets 50 MPG and costs only $20,450. We’ve been waiting for hybrids for a long time, and the Prius, with that kind of cost-performance, is a car to be taken seriously. The green generation of automobiles has arrived, and within 20 years, if not much sooner, cars that aren’t green will be collector’s items.
Hybrids, which use a combination of combustion and electric power plants, seem to be the most viable green cars available today. They emit almost no pollution, have high mileage, and use proven, already scaled technologies. In the near future, green cars are expected to be available using fuel cell technology, and over the next twenty years a host of other emerging technologies will compete to create the ultimate green car through advanced hydrogen and methane combustion engines, new hybrid combinations, flywheel systems, etc.
But there is another green car already here, although virtually unheard of in the United States. That car is the Lupo, a small four passenger car produced by Volkswagon that uses a high-technology ultra-clean burning diesel engine and gets 90 MPG. This car was launched throughout Europe in the fall of 1998. Volkswagen pioneered green diesel engines beginning in the early ’90s when they introduced “direct injection” technology, in which fuel and air are pumped directly into cylinders. This innovation decreased fuel consumption of the already fuel-efficient diesels by 15%. Volkswagen engineered not only eye-opening fuel economy into their diesels, but also dramatically lowered emissions.
The black soot coming from old generation diesel engines is caused mostly when excess fuel is pumped into the engine. Direct injection technology controls the air and fuel mixture to the engine, eliminating almost all smoke. Nearly all smoke and invisible pollutants that remain are captured by fitting the diesel engine with a catalyst, making Volkswagen’s engines the cleanest burning diesels in the world. The Lupo complies with all of the European Community’s auto-emissions regulations, some of which are quite strict.
Green diesels are not going to go away. The diesel powered car represents 25% of the European car market, and is expected to get to 33% of that market by 2003. With such a big market at stake, competition is fierce to make diesels even greener. Fiat has developed their own direct injection system called “common rail” that is much cheaper to manufacture. In this system the air and fuel pass down a pressurized center pipe allowing minimal distance to every valve off the main pipe. Fiat is licensing this technology to other car manufacturers even as they build it into their own diesels and work on further advances.
Volkswagen is not standing still, however. They remain the world leader in diesel technology and have announced that they expect to produce a four-seat diesel powered car that can get 190 MPG! Moreover, new filter designs introduced at the Frankfurt Motor Show earlier this year will reduce particle emissions by another 60%, putting diesel engine vehicles within striking distance of complying with ultra-low emissions standards.
With so much good press on diesels, why aren’t they available in the U.S.? Finding U.S. press coverage of the Lupo is difficult because there isn’t much press coverage, period. A skeptical article in USA today did lend some insight into the difficulties Lupo might encounter with a launch in the U.S. According to USA Today Columnist James R. Healey, “the lasting impressions are a beastly backache from the cheap seats and maddening frustration from the mechanical compromises necessary to achieve the car’s remarkable fuel economy.” To be fair, Healey acknowledged that he tested a pre-production model and things may have improved.
If the Lupo isn’t a car suited for the American road or the American consumer, that doesn’t mean green diesels aren’t. Their practicality is compelling. They use diesel fuel, which costs less and is cheaper to produce. Diesel is a fuel that requires less investment at the refining end than gasoline, less additives, and hence a fuel with less earth-impact to produce. Diesel power plants are simpler than gasoline power plants and require less maintenance. Has anyone analyzed the maintenance challenges the new hybrid engines may present as these cars age? Compare this to diesel engines, which run for years with almost no maintenance. And mileage at nearly 100 MPG, with the prospect of mileage at twice that level, is an impressive factor even in America, the land of cheap fossil fuel.
Diesels will compete for market share as the four billion (or more) inhabitants of the developing world start to buy more cars. American and Japanese auto-makers who are expecting to introduce hybrids into the Chinese market, for example, should be prepared to answer, point for point, the pros and cons of hybrid cars vs. diesel cars. Volkswagen and partner Bosch have already made arrangements with Chinese authorities to begin manufacturing the Lupo in Shanghai.
Modern diesel engines have come of age. It was the diesel powered Lupo, not a hybrid car, that won the “100 Kilometers on 3 Litres of Fuel” competition. That a diesel was the first vehicle (clean burning to boot) to fulfill this challenge from European environmentalists, and not a hybrid, says it all.
EMAIL TO THE EDITOR
Sent: Thursday, December 04, 2003 8:05 AM
Subject: 2004 VW Passat Diesel?
Is it true that VW will reintroduce a Passat with a diesel engine in 2004?
If so, do you know which engine and what level of performance can be expected?
In my opinion, the diesel would be a more logical transition to hydrogen than
the hybrids for a number of reasons. What do you think about this?
NOTHING IS MORE DESTRUCTIVE OF
LIFE ON EARTH THAN
THE TOTALLY ANTHROPOCENTRIC
ARROGANCE OF MAN.
From: Justin Kemp [mailto:firstname.lastname@example.org]
Sent: Friday, December 05, 2003 3:32 PM
Subject: Diesels in the USA
I have an old mercedes diesel car… its an ’84 and has 579K mi on it..
runs like new. gets 40mpg.
The reason (partly) why diesels are much less common in the US is
environmental laws. You see the US regulates emmissions by the
particulate emmission… how many particles are emmited per capita of
air mass. The sad truth is that diesels emit “more” than gas cars do.
What you have to look at is -what- is emmited. A diesel emits mostly
water (harmless) and carbon (basic building block of life.. more
harmless) The invisable toxins from a gas engine are far more harmful
Our country has been banboozled by “environmentalist” lobbies that dont
really understand the laws theyre fighting for.
VW is the perdominant proveyor of diesel cars in the us.. Mercedes
Benz has a diesel scheduled for release in the US next year.. But it
will cost 50K +
From: Bob Hemmerlin
Sent: Friday, March 15, 2002 7:39 PM
Subject: VW Lupo TDI
Briefly: My name is Bob Hemmerlin, I live near Seattle, Washington. I am frustrated that the US promotes huge gas guzzling cars and is fighting for foriegn oil. I would love to own a Lupo TDI, but there are loopholes to jump thru. I imported a Velorex 435, an 800 pound 350cc car from Czech Republic. Because it was over 30 years old, there was no problem and it is now licensed and I drive it almost daily. It is however, not a “safe or clean” car . The engine is 2 stroke. I find it interesting that the Velorex can be brought in without a blink, but to bring in a VW Lupo TDI presents some problems. Can you direct me to someone; a conversion company….a loophole company…anyone who can help import a Lupo? Thanks, Bob
It’s interesting how many emails we get from people in the U.S. who want a car like the Lupo. Why aren’t there more non-polluting, ultra high mileage diesel cars available in the U.S.? What about a diesel hybrid; a car with a diesel powered generator running in-wheel electric motors, that would require no transmission? What about a diesel hybrid with a flywheel peaking system? Fuel cell technology seems to be getting all the attention in the U.S., when clean burning high tech diesels could cut U.S. oil consumption just as well, especially considering the hydrogen for fuel cells has to come from somewhere. We are keeping our eyes open and hope to find more stories of innovation involving diesels in the U.S.