After a run and walking into town I noticed that I had a gritty taste in my mouth, as if I could taste particulates in the air. I thought back to my first day in the UK and my conversation with the private hire driver, Ian. The car he drove had a diesel engine and contrary to the negative preconceptions we have of diesel engines in the US, it was a quiet and smooth ride. Ian told me that diesel engines were becoming more and more common in the UK. An article I later found from the Guardian validated that claim since there were more diesel-powered cars sold than unleaded gasoline in the UK in July 2010 at 50.6% of the market. Diesel engines are stigmatised in the US due to the antiquated stereotypes of much earlier models; however, in the UK efficient diesel engines have been gaining an increasing amount the market share because of rising fuel costs.
Today in the Financial Times, there was an interesting article covering the consequences of the sanctions on Iran on oil prices. The article, somewhat facetiously, worried for Americans gearing up for summer road trips in ‘gas guzzling SUVs’ in a climate of rising oil prices (speculated to rise above $4 a gallon). It also mentioned that the US national average for a gallon of unleaded is $3.49 and that the equivalent of a gallon in the UK would be $8 (justifying their condescension on American SUVs). In 2008 there was a similar rise in oil prices and this was the first original increase in diesel engine use in the UK. European Voice, an independent EU news source, stated that an innovative Bosch diesel engine had the potential to reduce pollution up to 20% and fuel consumption up to 3%. Overall, diesel engines are 15% to 20% more fuel efficient than regular gasoline engines (The Guardian). Diesel engines not only achieve more miles to the gallon, but they also supposedly last longer. Based on the correlated timing of the rise in diesel engines and the rise in fuel prices, English drivers made the switch to diesel for its long-term fuel savings.
Although diesel engines have higher fuel efficiency, they are typically more expensive to initially purchase and at times diesel fuel is more costly than petrol. The Guardian argues that British people’s willingness to pay these costs upfront for a saving in the long run, coupled with the fact that in 2010, alternative energy vehicles had 1.4% of the market share signifies opportunities to further promote hybrid and alternative energy cars. This trend is encouraging, in that it will incite automobile manufacturers to introduce more sustainable vehicles.
Even though diesel engines fall in the category of more efficiency than regular gas engines, they also have their disadvantages. Diesel engines pollute less CO2 but more nitrogen oxide gasses and particulate matter than unleaded engines, despite improvements from the original models. Nitrogen gasses lead to smog, acid rain, and depletion of the ozone. Less harmful but equally unpleasant, particulate matter is most likely what coated my mouth with a grimy taste and causes smog and respiratory problems. Therefore diesel may be more efficient, but as far as pollution it simply trades one evil for another.
Diesel brings to mind the likes of Willy Nelson and his bio-diesel coach or massive trucks. While diesel engines are often used in the US for trucks, their higher torque capacity could be useful to anyone looking to use their vehicle to tow trailers. There is also Willy Nelson’s sustainable option of using bio-diesel made from recycled frying oil. However the US took the path on unleaded gasoline and currently lacks the infrastructure and gas price pressure to encourage consumers to consider diesel. Perhaps this is for the best because even for all of their efficiency and reduced CO2 emissions, diesel engines have their drawbacks of increased purchase cost and different pollutants. Thus diesel seems to be only a slightly better alternate to unleaded petrol and attention should be focused on more sustainable alternative fuels.
“Diesel Engine.” Just the Basics. US Department of Energy-Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy, Aug. 2003. Web. 22 Feb. 2012. <http://www1.eere.energy.gov/vehiclesandfuels/pdfs/basics/jtb_diesel_engine.pdf>.
Mallinder, Lorraine. “Less Polluting, but Diesel Is Far from Being Clean.” European Voice.com. European Voice, 24 Mar. 2005. Web. 22 Feb. 2012. <http://www.europeanvoice.com/article/imported/less-polluting-but-diesel-is-far-from-being-clean/51957.aspx>.
Wray, Richard. “Diesel Car Sales Overtake Petrol in UK for First Time.” The Guardian. Guardian News and Media, 05 Aug. 2010. Web. 22 Feb. 2012. <http://www.guardian.co.uk/business/2010/aug/05/diesel-car-sales-overtake-petrol/print>.