Detroit - A fresh mandate from Washington for carmakers to sharply increase fuel efficiency
has given an unexpected boost to a historically unpopular alternative in the United States - diesel.
The fanfare at the North American International Auto Show include petrol-electric "hybrids" to futuristic technologies like fuel cells, all geared to fight soaring pump prices and conquer what President George W Bush has termed America's "addiction" to oil.
But diesel was also making a new pitch as a here-and-now option to make engines run more economically and pollute less.
Diesel, a conventional combustion approach long favoured by Europeans, has been perennially stalled in the United States because of unacceptably high tailpipe emissions.
An oil-based product, diesel is widely available in Europe where petrol is more expensive. But only a fraction of consumer vehicles outside of some luxury models, pickups and
big trucks, use it on American roads.
"American consumers still have a negative impression of
diesel," Takeo Fukui, chief executive of Honda Motor Co, told
reporters at the show on Sunday.
But Fukui also said Honda's new line of "clean diesel" cars
due to roll out in the US in 2009 would make money from day
one. The new system will clear the same emissions regulations
as petrol in the United States, Fukui said.
Advanced technology has spawned a cleaner burning diesel
fuel and Honda and other foreign automakers are using the
Detroit show to broaden its appeal for the US market.
The backdrop of a new US law requiring a 40% jump in fuel efficiency by 2020 and tougher diesel emissions regulations coming on line at the end of the decade are driving
executives to rethink and improve diesel technology.
Cleaner diesel filters out more pollutants and for the first time meets smog pollution laws in all states, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists. Clean diesel also
delivers power and gets better mileage than petrol. But the
technology costs more to produce than petrol engines.
"It is a major step forward in fuel saving and we are going
across the board to promote technology," said Dieter Zetsche,
chief executive of Daimler AG and Mercedes.
"Modern diesel engines provide tremendous torque and a very
smooth run and a boost of 20 to 30 percent in fuel efficiency.
Those are very strong arguments for this technology," he said.
Thomas Weber, the head of research and product development
at Mercedes and Daimler, said: "Diesel has become accepted."
Automakers are expanding their diesel products globally.
"There is a trend toward diesel in emerging markets," said
Phil Popham, managing director of Britain's Land Rover, a unit
of Ford Motor Co.
Ford is hoping for an efficiency bounce with its
turbocharged "Ecoboost" petrol engine, whose fuel injection
technology is borrowed from the diesel concept.
BMW AG is introducing two diesel sedans for the US market
beginning next fall. Mercedes has offered clean diesel vehicles
in the US market and Audi and Volkswagen, have fuller diesel
plans. Land Rover introduced a concept SUV that runs on clean
One of the top developments at the show came on Sunday when
Toyota Motor Corp President Katsuaki Watanabe said the Japanese
automaker will launch a diesel-powered Tundra pickup truck and
Sequoia SUV in the United States soon - an about-face to its
hybrid-centered product strategy. But Watanabe cited a need to
help meet new US fuel standards.
Toyota sets the standard for hybrid production and will
likely surpass General Motors Corp as the top global vehicle
sales leader when final 2007 sales numbers are in.