The future of fuel; Diesel, Petrol, Hydrogen, Electric…?

Posted: 28th May, 2011 in Cars
Tags: , , , , , ,

I wonder what will be the popular fuel of choice in 20 years time?

In Europe, 2011, it’s safe to say that diesel is currently most popular.  The ACEA winter report 2008 claims 70% of all new cars purchased in France, Italy and Belgium were diesel.  This trend is continuing to further favour diesel.  So what will be top in 2031 then?

Twenty years ago, 1991, diesels were not nearly as popular as they are now.  They were slow, smelly and uncouth!  The tides did start changing around this period however.  The diesel engine was now turbo charged, relatively high revving, refined, cheap to run and best of all it offered respectable performance.   Any petrol head would still be repulsed by this engine, but for the masses, this was just the thing.

Of course, low fuel consumption equates to low CO2 emissions.  Now the European governments are keen to encourage low consumption of foreign oil, this is achieved by heavily taxing fuel, justified by claims on environmental grounds.  Great, we are saving the environment, less fuel burnt means less CO2 released which means less global warming, (that’s what they want you to think anyway)!

Europe is no doubt a leader in diesel tech, but why?

In the late 80’s through to the mid 90’s when Europe was developing and manufacturing diesels, the rest of the world still loved petrol.  There are some good reasons why America didn’t share the same enthusiasm for reducing CO2 as us Europeans back in the 90s, ultimately it comes down to cost!

North America's most popular automobile of all time

It would appear that the American domestic market is driven by lazy advertisers.  Fashion trends dictate that the bigger the car the better.  The consumer is told they want low cost powerful engines, so thats what is made and thats what they buy, a chicken and egg situation.  The only thing to change that attitude will be fuel cost.

Well in days gone by, North America have had little interest in saving fuel, as they are not completely reliant upon foreign oil- they have their own domestic production.  Another big player in the auto industry, the Japanese, appear to have focussed alot of their attention on American requirements.  The Japs always tend to play it safe, not noted for innovation, they could have implemented Rudolph Diesel’s invention on a mass scale but opted out, it seems they still regard diesel as a dirty, noisy fuel and shy away from using it in their heavily crowded cities.  This leaves the  European market left hankering after frugle little cars that sip as little of the heavily taxed black gold as possible.

Lowering fuel consumption requires expensive research & development as well as increased material and manufacturing costs.  This is what holds back the rest of the world from investing.  In Europe fuel is so expensive the consumer is willing to pay more for their vehicle than an American.  However, recently opinons in the US are shifting, $4 per gallon fuel prices have been hitting the headlines for example.  Take a look at what the likes of GM and Toyota are offering.  GM has a brand image built on the American dream of large trucks, so they can’t go building small town cars, instead they are now offering hybrids as part of their lineup.  Toyota have small eco cars as their foothold and again offer hybrids.

Why do Americans generally not have diesel cars then?  The answer is simple, California!  The state of California has the strictest emissions laws in the world.  That’s right, stricter than ‘green’ Europe.

They require that the following emissions are within a strict defined limit:

  • Carbon monoxide, the highly toxic gas.
  • Hydrocarbons, a large contributor to smog air pollution and disease.
  • NOx, the nastiest of all, acid rain, smog illness and ultimately death.
  • Particulate matter, cause of asthma, cancer and found chucked out of London busses at about the height of a baby in a pram.

Now the state of California is leading the way in emissions regulations.  Diesels are essentially outlawed in California, where limits are set out in three simple classes, low emissions vehicle (LEV), ultra low emissions (ULEV) and super ultra low emissions!… (SULEV).  The majority of diesels are incapable of even meeting LEV, (note that all petrols are SULEV or better).  So in Europe we demand SULEV for our petrol vehicles and then it’s a case of one rule for petrol, another for diesel!  The European governments are essentially making special allowances for dirty diesels.  The only emissions that diesel emit less of, is the harmless gas that plants use to respire, CO2.

So, will Europe eventually come to it’s senses and outlaw diesel like California and the rest of North America?  The alternative is to ignore the problem and keep fooling people into thinking that diesel is a fine alternative to petrol.  In the background Euro 6 standards are being agreed, this will force diesels to be less efficient as they are engineered to battle against all of the emmisions equipment required to clean up their exhaust.  In times gone by, standards have been made and manufactors have responded by failing to achieve the goals, so governments simply move the goal posts!

Ultimately it is down to money, in 20 years time oil will still be lying around and it will be sourced from the same places it is found today, hence, I don’t see any shifts, unless Europe decides to actually be green and then petrol really will be the only sensible solution.

Personally I would hope to see lots more use of electricity and innovative hybridisation and down sizing for the forthcoming 20 years.


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