DETROIT - European-style diesel engines may hold overwhelming economic and ecological advantages, a panel of leading executives agreed at Convergence 2000, a biennial meeting between the automotive and electronics industries, held here in mid-October.
While predicting that millions of gasoline-powered cars with advanced 42-volt systems, and at least 1 million 'mild hybrid' vehicles will be on the road by 2010, the executives said advanced diesel's comparatively low cost and high mpg would be tough for gasoline engines to beat.
Delphi Automotive Systems Executive Vice President Don Runkle said his company's recent $1 billion investment in diesel technology is a sign of how seriously the supplier is treating the system.
'They're a guaranteed 35 to 40 percent fuel economy improvement. The modern diesels we've seen running in Europe are indistinguishable from a great-running gasoline engine,' Runkle said.
The panel group that addressed the issue at Convergence 2000 included Runkle; Francois Castaing, former Chrysler executive vice president in charge of vehicle engineering and a member of battery maker Exide Corp.'s board; Hans Gustavsson, senior vice president for Volvo Car; Norio Omori, senior managing director of Denso Corp.; and Franz Wressnigg, group president of Siemens Automotive Systems Group and chairman of Siemens Automotive Corp.
William Powers, Ford's vice president for research, asked his colleagues to say whether they believed there would be more than 1 million vehicles carrying advanced dual-voltage battery systems on the road in 10 years, and whether hybrid vehicles would top the same number.
Castaing was the most optimistic for cars carrying both 42-volt and 14-volt systems, saying there would be 10 million such vehicles.
'Between 1 million and 2 million will be mild hybrid, production, commercially sound vehicles, most equipped with lead/acid batteries,' Castaing said.
Others predicted fewer such vehicles, but Denso's Omori said that to meet fuel economy and global warming targets, hybrid vehicles were 'indispensable' to supplement improvements to engines alone.
'Even though we applied all available technology for the fuel economy requirement, such as diesel direct injection, gasoline direct injection, CVT (continuously variable transmission), we will still be short to meet that regulation,' Omori said of requirements to hold the line on carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gas emissions.
Gustavsson, of Volvo, said the cost of true hybrid cars could be prohibitive to consumers.
'The costs will be a guiding principle. The auto engine and the diesel engine still have much to deliver,' he said.
'Diesel has a great future. The technology is developing very rapidly now. Unfortunately here in the United States, diesel is almost dead, but in Europe diesel has skyrocketed in almost all countries.'
Wressnigg, of Siemens, said diesels are already driveable and comfortable for passenger car use, and will improve dramatically as new electronics such as integrated starter generators are used to allow even smaller engines.
'If you now look to Europe, then you will see that in France we have more than 50 percent of cars diesels; Italy close to 80 percent; in Germany we have dramatically increased diesel penetration,' he said.
Common-rail fuel injection systems, computer-controlled injectors that measure real-time cylinder conditions and other economy boosting, emissions- lowering technology will make diesels a hard target for other engines to catch, panelists said.
'I think we could make the case that if we were to come back to the United States with a diesel and a new fuel, the acceptance in the U.S. would be greater,' Castaing said.