Diesels bring out split personality in automakers

Once proponents of clean air rules, makers have different agenda

Diesel dilemma
Automakers want to sell more diesels in the United States, but
  • Wary consumers still need to be won over
  • Clean air rules may not be flexible enough, but automakers don't want to seek a rule rollback openly

  • WASHINGTON - It has been called the delicate dance over diesels.

    Automakers are accelerating plans to put more diesel engines into cars and trucks for the U.S. market. But they are running into new clean air rules - rules they supported in the past two years.

    The industry is responding by creating a drumbeat of information about the potential environmental benefits of diesel engines. Automakers also are making subtle calls for regulatory flexibility. But they are stopping short of asking for a rule rollback.

    The automakers' gingerly approach is understandable. They've been trying to shed the "big polluter" label. And they are loath to be called backsliders by environmental groups or be one-upped by competitors.

    The situation soon could get trickier.

    Congress is considering measures to boost corporate average fuel economy. In addition, the Bush administration will study whether to require better fuel efficiency from cars and light trucks.

    Meanwhile, a petroleum industry lawsuit is pending against federal rules requiring oil companies to provide ultra-low-sulfur fuel beginning in 2006.

    Automakers and their allies contend that modern, efficient and clean diesel engines may be necessary to meet higher CAFE standards - and to cut emissions of gases that may contribute to global warming. The argument holds that other technologies, such as hybrid power and fuel cells, are still unproven, costly and risky.

    At the same time, automakers say they must have low-sulfur fuel to build clean diesels.

    Averaging required

    Said DaimlerChrysler spokesman Stuart Schorr, "The industry is working to educate consumers, the media, officials and staff on the status of clean diesels today."

    Greg Martin, a spokesman for General Motors' Washington office, said that if improved fuel economy "is truly, truly a critical priority, maybe we shouldn't eliminate one of the options," which is diesel.

    But Frank O'Donnell, executive director of the environmental group Clean Air Trust, said he's puzzled by the industry hand-wringing, which he attributed mostly to GM.

    He said automakers applauded adoption of the new clean air rules at the end of 1999. Those rules, commonly known as Tier 2, will begin taking effect in 2004. They require sharp cuts in pollutants from each manufacturer's fleet of vehicles,O'Donnell said, but they already provide flexibility.

    An automaker, for example, could build some vehicles that pollute more, such as a diesel emitting up to 0.2 grams per mile of smog-causing nitrogen oxides. But the company also would have to build and sell cleaner vehicles to get its fleet to average .07 grams per mile.

    Greg Dana, vice president of the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, which represents13 automakers, said the industry supported Tier 2 but never said it would not be challenging.

    "It's going to be tough for diesels to meet the standards in Tier 2. We're not sure how tough," he said.

    Despite the regulatory uncertainty, automakers are stepping up predictions about the diesel's future in the United States.

    In a decade, diesel engines could represent up to 10 percent of sales, said Gerhard Schmidt, Ford Motor Co. vice president of research. He is the former senior vice president of powertrain development at BMW AG.

    Ford plans imports

    Schmidt said rising fuel prices will boost U.S. consumers' interest in diesels. But consumers also will learn to value diesels for their performance, just as motorists in Europe do.

    "The Europeans cannot all be crazy. It cannot be only fuel price,'' he said. Schmidt added that diesel engines are expected to represent 40 percent of European new vehicle sales by 2005.

    Ford of Europe Chairman David Thursfield said his company will use its new Dagenham, England, technology center as a launch pad to push diesel engines on American consumers.

    "We will be a powerhouse in diesel technology," Thursfield said. "The technology will migrate to North America, and we will be a part of it. When they see second- and third-generation common-rail diesel engines with particulate traps, Americans will be amazed."

    This move comes as Ford finally catches up with European consumer demand for diesel power. Ford had been lacking in that area.

    In addition to cracking the European diesel market, Ford of Europe intends to develop four-, six- and eight-cylinder diesel engines for export to the United States, Thursfield said.

    Ford of Europe also is developing direct-injection gasoline four-cylinder engines and plans to export them to America as well.

    Ford will unveil its line of common-rail diesels this week at the Frankfurt Motor Show.

    U.S. consumers have accepted diesels in light rucks but have not been receptive to diesels in cars. The common memory is that of a clattery, smoky and slow model from the 1970s gas-crunch era.

    Only Volkswagen sells diesel passenger cars in the United States. The company sold about 13,000 Golfs, Jettas and New Beetles with diesels through July, or about 8 percent of total sales. That number could be doubled if more diesels were available, a spokesman said. But supplies for the U.S. are tight because of the strong demand for diesels in Europe.

    Staff Reporters Mark Rechtin in London and Mary Connelly in Detroit contributed to this report

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