The Frontal Cortex

The Diesel Engine

I’m excited by Nissan’s announcement that the next generation Maxima will come up with a cleaner burning diesel engine:

Nissan Motor will offer its flagship Maxima sedan with a cleaner-burning diesel engine in the United States by 2010, the company’s chief executive, Carlos Ghosn, said on Wednesday, offering new details of a plan intended to resonate with environmentally conscious consumers.

Modern diesel technology, already widespread in Europe, is slowly making its way to the United States. The new engines are a far cry from the coughing, stinking diesel engines of the past, and have lower greenhouse gas emissions and better fuel economy than gasoline engines.

Hybrids get all the hype, but diesels are a much more economical way to save gas and reduce emissions. The diesel engine is also a testament to the benefits of strict environmental regulation coupled with high gas prices. There’s a reason the modern diesel engine was pioneered in Europe: the European car companies were forced to innovate. While GM is still dragging its heels and pouring its R&D dollars into building Cadillacs with 500 horsepower, foreign automakers are one step ahead of the curve, having spent the last few decades designing fuel-efficient engines. Meanwhile, the Big Three automakers (which are quickly becoming the not-so-Big Two) spent the last few decades giving us ever bigger trucks and SUV’s. They’ve all but abandoned the small car market to imports.

Far sighted companies recognize that, sometimes, governmental regulation and targeted taxation is a requirement for innovation. It generates the incentives that drive R&D forward. This is why we need a carbon tax and stricter fuel efficiency regulations. As Thomas Friedman noted in his recent article:

Jeffrey Immelt, the chairman of General Electric, has worked for G.E. for 25 years. In that time, he told me, he has seen seven generations of innovation in G.E.’s medical equipment business — in devices like M.R.I.s or CT scans — because health care market incentives drove the innovation. In power, it’s just the opposite. “Today, on the power side,” he said, “we’re still selling the same basic coal-fired power plants we had when I arrived. They’re a little cleaner and more efficient now, but basically the same.”

The one clean power area where G.E. is now into a third generation is wind turbines, “thanks to the European Union,” Immelt said. Countries like Denmark, Spain and Germany imposed standards for wind power on their utilities and offered sustained subsidies, creating a big market for wind-turbine manufacturers in Europe in the 1980s, when America abandoned wind because the price of oil fell. “We grew our wind business in Europe,” Immelt said.

As things stand now in America, Immelt said, “the market does not work in energy.” The multibillion-dollar scale of investment that a company like G.E. is being asked to make in order to develop new clean-power technologies or that a utility is being asked to make in order to build coal sequestration facilities or nuclear plants is not going to happen at scale — unless they know that coal and oil are going to be priced high enough for long enough that new investments will not be undercut in a few years by falling fossil fuel prices. “Carbon has to have a value,” Immelt emphasized. “Today in the U.S. and China it has no value.”


  1. #1 Mark
    April 19, 2007

    Yep, I like diesels. I read an article in Popular Science about the Smart car, a very small two-seater. They touted the fuel economy but broke 40 mpg only occasionally. My 2001 VW diesel regularly gets 50 mpg and I don’t think it has ever dropped below about 48 mpg.

  2. #2 Ted
    April 19, 2007

    There is significant difference when comparing the European market to the US.

    1. Geographical distances traveled within national borders
    2. Subsidized oil prices from the Saudis for the US (which is linked to reciprocating defense and arm sales).
    3. Congestion and traffic patterns within heavily congested urban and suburban centers.

    All these things push the European market to smaller cars, and alternative fuels/technologies. Their density just doesn’t handle American sized cars, although with the European expanding girth, we may be looking at roomier cars there as well (but maybe not larger or heavier cars).

    The fundamental culture in many European countries is also different — people in their mid-20s to mid-40s have generally a social view that cooperation with each other has a very high value vs the US concentration on individualism. In my view, that is associated with general European views on education — that one of the goals of education is to focus the individual on social improvements.

  3. #3 Andy Cunningham
    April 19, 2007

    I just switched from a V8 to a diesel engined vehicle for my daily drive. The Land Rover Td5 engine is still late 1990’s technology, so it’s not quite as refined as some of the best engines from Mercedes and BMW. But it’s smooth, quiet, powerful enough, and at 23mpg (UK gallons!) instead of 15 a lot more economical.

    It’s an amazingly clean engine: when it was introduced it met EuroII emissions specs without a catalyser. The latest versions have a cat to reduce NOx emissions from tiny to almost non-existent to meet EuroIII regulations.

    About the only thing I’m putting into the atmosphere is plant food (CO2). And that, despite what we’re lead to believe, is a naturally occurring atmospheric gas that was at vastly higher levels at the time of the dinosaurs, and not a pollutant.

  4. #4 Ken Hirsch
    April 19, 2007

    “Subsidized oil prices from the Saudis for the US (which is linked to reciprocating defense and arm sales).”

    I’ve never heard of anything like this and it doesn’t seem to make sense. As far as I know, the oil that’s imported into the U.S. is bought on the same world markets. Two of the biggest importers are BP and Shell–not even U.S. companies.

    Also, we get more petroleum from each of Canada, Mexico, and Venezuela than from Saudi Arabia.

  5. #5 Mark
    April 19, 2007

    To my knowledge, the higher gasoline prices in Europe are because of higher tax rates on gasoline than in the US, not because of higher crude oil prices.

  6. #6 Mark
    April 19, 2007

    I might add that other car makers, including Honda, are talking about bringing diesel engines to the US market. I believe they would see extremely well.

  7. #7 Ted
    April 19, 2007

    Ken Hirsch:

    You’re right; that is wrong, I phrased it poorly and conflated with some conspiracy stuff. I just meant that we had a unique, off the books relationship with the GCC countries.

    last few paragraphs:

    Meanwhile, individual GCC countries are busy consolidating their own defense agreements with the United States for arms sales, prepositioning and exercises. Because there is no clear understanding among GCC elites on the defense role their militaries could play, there is continual grumbling over purchases of expensive equipment that “is not likely to be used by locals” and which is adding to domestic economic pressures.

    If it’s not likely to be used by locals, who gets to use it? We do. So they’re buying military equipment for themselves, that we will use. A nice little shuffle.

  8. #8 Jay
    April 19, 2007

    I suppose you can jab Cadillac and GM for making 500-hp cars, but it’s worth noting that Germany is the center of the horsepower race. BMW, Mercedes and Audi make Cadillac look like Honda.

  9. #9 valhar2000
    April 20, 2007

    Jay is right; the most efficient engines are the ones produced by the French, Renault and Citroen-Peugeot. Citroen is developing a diesel-electric hybrid drivetrain that should hit the 100 mpg mark if they can make it work.

  10. #10 Daniel
    April 20, 2007

    In Europe, there is a tiny car called the “SmartCar.” It was featured in the movie, “The DaVinci Code.” I believe it gets 60 miles per gallon, because it is very small. It is being introduced in the US in 2007, I believe. When gas hits 4 dollars per gallon, I plan to buy one.

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