Friday, October 1, 2010

Clean Diesel Technology

Clean Diesel? Isn't that an oxymoron? If you've ever sat next to a diesel-powered pickup truck at a stop light and had diesel fumes and soot blown in your face from a four inch exhaust pipe, you know what I'm talking about. Traditional diesel engines are about as eco-friendly as a smoke belching coal-fired steam engine from yesteryear.

But diesel technology has advanced considerably in recent years. The latest renditions on Otto's compression ignition engine bear little similarity to the black soot belchers of a decade ago. Common rail high pressure direct injection systems with sophisticated electronic controls have finally tamed the diesel, and made it perfectly acceptable as an alternative to gasoline-powered engines for passenger cars as well as light and medium-duty trucks.

Currently, diesel power-powered cars and light trucks account for less than four percent of the North American vehicle population. The German auto makers are the only ones selling diesel-powered cars in the U.S. Yet in Europe, diesel-powered cars account for nearly 60 percent of the vehicle population.

Why, you ask? Because diesels are up to 30 percent or more fuel efficient than a comparable gasoline engine of the same displacement and horsepower rating. Diesel engines get better mileage because they burn their fuel more efficiently. A diesel engine has a much higher static compression ratio than a gasoline engine, so it achieves more thermal efficiency from the fuel it burns. In other words, it produces less waste heat that goes into the cooling system and out the tailpipe compared to a gasoline-powered engine.

So if we all want better fuel economy, why aren't all the auto makers offering diesel-powered cars? Emission regulations have hampered the sale of diesel-powered cars in the U.S. But now that we have ultra low sulfur diesel fuel available, and new electronic diesel injection technology and after treatment systems, diesels can meet the toughest tailpipe emission standards.
Since 1988, Clean Diesel technology has reduced oxides of nitrogen (NOx) emissions 99 percent, and reduced particulate matter (soot) in the exhaust 98 percent! These are HUGE gains as well as proof of how clean today's diesel engines can actually run.

Green Car of the Year Tour

I recently attended a Clean Diesel event at the Argonne National Laboratory near Chicago, IL. The event was part of the 2010 Green Car of the Year Tour sponsored by the Green Car Journal magazine. The tour included several diesel-powered Volkswagen Jettas TDI models, and the Green Car of the Year winner, the 2010 Audi A3. The Audi A3 gets 42 mpg on the highway with a 2.0L turbodiesel engine, which is 50 percent better than the exact same car with a gasoline engine. All of the vehicles were available for journalists to test drive. My impression? All of the diesel-powered cars started right up, idled smoothly and quietly, and ran great. . . The 2010 clean diesel powered Audi A3 won the Green Car of the Year Award.

If you've never driven one of these state-of-the-art Clean Diesel German cars, I would suggest you do so. You can't tell them from their gasoline -powered counterparts. There's no traditional diesel rattle, no clatter when you step down on the accelerator, no black soot in the exhaust. Just clean, smooth power with lots of low end torque.

A couple of years ago, I also attended an event sponsored by Bosch in Detroit that was promoting their Clean Diesel injection technology. They had a number of European Mercedes and BMW models, some of which were gasoline-powered and some of which were diesel-powered. The badges had been removed from the cars so the journalists couldn't tell which type of engine was powering the vehicle they were driving. I couldn't distinguish any noticeable difference in noise, smell or performance between the diesel-powered cars and the gasoline-powered cars -- which was exactly the point of the demonstration.

Now that Clean Diesel technology is truly available, we will probably see more and more of these vehicles on the road in the years ahead. Proponents of Clean Diesel technology say it can be just as fuel efficient and much more cost effective than hybrid technology.

Argonne Testing Advanced Vehicle Technologies

Argonne is the U.S Dept of Energy's lead laboratory for researching and testing advanced vehicle technologies, including Clean Diesel engines, alternative fuels, hybrid and electric vehicles. The scientists at Argonne are studying and evaluating lots of new technologies to find out how they work, which ones work the best, and what type of fuels offer the best results.This is Argonne's Modular Automotive Technology Testbed (MATT). It is a rolling chassis with interchangeable modules that allow Argonne scientists to test various combinations of powerplants (gasoline or diesel) with hybrid electric drivetrain components on a four wheel chassis dyno.

The German Clean Diesel engines are designed to run on ultra low sulfur diesel fuel, but can also run on B5 (a five percent blend of biodiesel with diesel fuel). Research is being done to determine the suitability of higher biodiesel blends, different types of biofuels, and also diesel-ethanol blends, and diesel-butanol blends (butanol is a different type of alcohol that can also be made from corn, and has less affinity for water, making it better suited for transport through pipelines than ethanol). For more information about butanol, Click Here.

Argonne's scientists are also investigating the possibility of running diesel engines on low octane gasoline as well as other alternative fuels such as natural gas and hydrogen. Agronne's advanced combustion research is looking into the processes that occur inside a diesel combustion chamber when the fuel is injected, mixes with air and ignites. Argonne was the first to document the presence of shock waves that occur during the injection event, which is helping scientists figure out how to optimize combustion efficiency while minimizing the formation of particulate particles (soot).

One of the more advanced fuel projects Argonne is working on is the development of diesel nanofluids. Tiny nanoparticles of metals, oxides, carbides, nitrides or nanotubes are added to diesel fuel to change the way the fuel burns so it will release more heat and energy to improve fuel economy.

Argonne also played a key role in evaluating a number of vehicles that were competing for the Automotive X-prize, the goal of which is to achieve 100 miles per gallon with a production-capable three or four-wheeled car. Is that cool or what?

Friday, April 20, 2007

Where to get your car repaired -- and not get scammed


One of the most common questions I hear is, "Where should I take my car to get it fixed?" My answer is to take it to a repair facility that (1) has a good reputation (ask friends and neighbors where they take their vehicles), that (2) is affiliated with a group such as AAA and/or has ASE certified technicians, and (3) appears to be clean, friendly and competently managed. The shop should also adhere to the Code of Ethics and repair standards put forth by the Motorist Assurance Program (MAP).

Most repair facilities are honest and are NOT trying to take advantage of you. Sure, there are some bad apples in the the repair business, but there are crooks in every kind of business from home repair scam artists to top business executives. From what I have seen, most auto repair problems are due to misunderstandings or miscommunication between the motorist and repair facility (they thought you wanted one thing and you got something else, or they misunderstood your problem), or they misdiagnosed your vehicle and the technician replaced the wrong part(s). In other words, they did not try to rip you off or cheat you. They misunderstood you or did not perform the correct repair.

As long as your vehicle is under warranty, you can return to your new car dealer for free repairs (for parts that are covered under warranty). Almost all new cars and trucks today have a 3 year/36,000 mile bumper-to-bumper warranty that covers ANYTHING that goes wrong. All new vehicles also have a federally mandated emissions warranty that covers the engine computer and catalytic converter for 8 years/80,000 miles (longer in California). The vehicle manufacturers may also offer an extended powertrain warranty that covers major repairs to the engine, transmission and drive axles. Items that may NOT be covered under warranty include common wear items such as filters, brake pads and tires.

Once your vehicle is out of warranty, you can take it anywhere you please for repairs. In fact, you are NOT required to return to the dealer for maintenance or repairs while the vehicle is under warranty (you can take it to ANY repair facility). But the vehicle manufacturer will usually NOT pay for any repairs performed by any unauthorized repair facility -- except in rare emergencies where a vehicle has broken down too far away to be towed to the nearest dealer.

As a rule, independent repair shops are generally less expensive than new car dealers. Franchised repair facilities such as muffler shops (Midas, CarX, Merlin, etc.), tire dealers (Goodyear, Firestone & independents) and retailers (PepBoys, Sears, etc.) are also very competitive with their pricing.

As for repair competency, it can vary a great deal from one repair facility to another. New car dealers have access to the latest factory authorized training and tools, and specialize in the brand(s) of vehicles they sell. But big dealerships are also less personal. You rarely deal directly with a technician. Instead, a service writer talks to you, hears your problem and writes up a repair order. Miscommunication sometimes happens and you do not get the right repairs or service. The service writer is also a salesman who will probably try to talk you into buying additional services you may not need (your 50,000 miles scheduled maintenance, for example, which is nothing more than an oil change, some new filters and a quick inspection of a laundry list of things that should always be checked every time your vehicle is serviced or repaired).

Independent repair shops and specialty repair shops (those who only work on imports or specialize in alignments, brakes, transmissions, air conditioning, electrical, etc.) tend to be small family-owned and run businesses. You are usually on a more personal level with these people, and may even talk face-to-face with the technician who works on your car. Many independent shops are highly skilled and work on ALL makes and models. This requires a much broader range of expertise than a dealership -- and more diagnostic equipment and tools. Some shops, though, are behind on the learning curve and may not be up to speed on the latest technology. Or, they may not have an up-to-date scan tool or other special tools that may be required to service your vehicle. Even so, such a shop may be fine for basic maintenance and repairs.

The kind of repair facility to avoid is one that is NOT concerned about their reputation or repeat customers, and are only out to scam as many people as fast as they can. These shops are not in the repair business for the long haul. They are only in it to make a fast buck. They probably have not been in business very long. They are typically located in "high traffic" areas where they can snag a lot of drive-by customers. They may be located near an expressway where out-of-towners are apt to break down. They usually have high employee turnover and typically hire beginners or less experienced technicians. They often use "scare tactics" to sell parts and services, or try to pressure you into agreeing to major repairs. They are NOT affiliated with any reputable service organizations such as AAA, ASE, their local chamber of commerce or local repair shop organizations. They do not invest any money in training their employees or buying new equipment. The facility itself may or may not be clean and neat (you cannot judge competency and honesty by appearances alone). And they offer no guarantee or a very limited warranty on the work they perform. Avoid these kind of places at all costs!

General Advice for finding an honest and competent repair facility:

Patronize a repair facility that has been recommended to you by friends or family.

If you are satisfied with a repair facility, give them your repeat business. Build a lasting relationship.

Do NOT pick a repair facility at random or based only on advertisements or price specials.

The repair facility should follow the Motorist Assurance Program (MAP) Standards of Service. You can obtain copies of these guidelines from the MAP website at Give the shop a copy if they do not have one.

Always ask for a written repair estimate BEFORE work begins. (This is required by law in many states.)

The final repair bill should NOT exceed the estimate by more than 10 to 20%. (this is also dictated by law in many states, though circumstances may justify a higher final bill.)

Make sure the estimate lists all parts and labor charges. (and ask for an explanation of any items you do not understand or have a question about.)

If you have any doubts about the work performed, ask for your old parts to be returned. (you may need them as evidence if you have been scammed.)

If you have a dispute with a repair facility, take your problem up the chain of command, then contact your Better Business Bureau if you cannot get the matter resolved. Take legal action as a last resort.

Pay your repair bill with a credit card (if allowed) (You can always dispute the charges later when your credit card bill arrives.)

Larry Carley is a well-known automotive technical writer with 27 years of automotive writing experience. He writes for professional automotive trade magazines, and has his own automotive website at