The American diesel is kicking ash.
Low-sulfur fuel that started flowing through the nation's pipelines in June, combined with a new emissions system for light-duty vehicles, is about to make the smoke and stink of diesel engines obsolete.
Starting in January, all diesel-powered pickups from the Big 3, as well as the few European diesel-powered cars sold in the United States, will have a particulate filter in the exhaust system.
That filter traps the tiny pieces of ash that make the soot or black smoke that has been the bane of diesel engines. The new fuel, which lowers the sulfur content of diesel from 550 parts per million to around 15 ppm, will nearly eliminate the traditional smell of diesel exhaust.
And as the diesel engine cleans up its act, its appeal in the United States could broaden widely, says Joe Kubsh, executive director of the Manufacturers of Emission Controls Association, a trade organization in Washington.
In January you could be driving behind a diesel-powered vehicle and not even know it.
"(The) inside of the tailpipe is shiny clean. There's no more black stuff to scrub off bumper fascia," says Tim Jackson, senior vice president of global technology for Tenneco Inc. "The black soot we associate with diesels is gone. And there's no smoke when you step on the accelerator."
Tenneco has contracts to supply diesel particulate filters to all three Detroit automakers and International Truck and Engine Corp. Other suppliers making such filters include Faurecia and ArvinMeritor Inc.
Diesel particulate filters first appeared in Europe in 2000. About 2.5 million cars equipped with filters are in use in Europe, says Kubsh.
The first filters had to be taken off and cleaned at around 80,000 miles. But the filters coming in January for U.S. diesels are designed to last the life of the vehicle without any extraordinary maintenance.
The driver won't even know it is there, Jackson says.
Unlike a catalytic converter, which cleans the exhaust on a gasoline-powered car, the long, cylindrical filter doesn't just sit in the exhaust system.
The filter has a sensor that measures back pressure, or the force required to push the exhaust gases out of the engine and through to the tailpipes.