The path of least resistance

I posted on the opening of a handfull of E85 outlets in Pennsylvania yesterday, a posting which attracted the following from Fred in comments:

Corporate "drooling" over the E85 hoax and its marketing to the exclusion of other, better technologies is troubling.

Fred’s a man of few words and strong convictions.  He owns what’s believed to be the only diesel-powered 9-3 Sports Sedan in the USA.  And despite my reportage of E85 events in the US and the way it might sound, I agree with him 100%.

The promotion of E85 in the US by General Motors and Ford is essentially a walk down the path of least resistance.  As alternative fuels are the darling in these times of higher gasoline prices, the General has cranked up its marketing machine to drive the alternative that it’s got some marketshare in: E85.

There’s plenty of evidence out there to suggest that E85, whilst good in the emissions department, is less than efficient in terms of the resources used to produce it.  It also gets you less mileage per tank of gas.

These negative messages are being countered by an environmentally friendly emphasis in concert with a no-foreign-fuels-/-help-our-farmers angle, which is fair enough.

At the end of the day, this is all spin.  Running a modern, clean and efficient diesel engine can also involve renewable organic fuels, uses less fuel per mile and the emissions are nothing like the diesels of old.  The performance from a modern diesel is fantastic (as long as you don’t miss the high revs) and if you’re clever, and game, you can even make your fuel at home.

The problem is that GM doesn’t have a diesel in its lineup that’s capable of meeting the emissions standards that will come into play in the US market for 2007.

For GM, E85 is easier to cater to.  A few hardened engine parts and tougher fuel linings are the basics they need, which is a lot cheaper than developing a whole new diesel engine in a hurry.  Add to this the fact that they’ve already got a whole fleet of E85 vehicles out there and the path of least resistance becomes a greased slippery slope.  GM have been making E85 vehicles for years as doing so, combined with the wonders of chemistry and statistics, allowed them to claim lower total theoretical emissions from vehicles sales.

"Live Green, Go Yellow" is a marketing machine aimed at developing interest in the company, as well as encouraging the maintenance of whatever subsidies and incentives are involved in the whole E85 process.  Corn is only useful as an ethanol source because it’s already there and it tugs at many average an American’s heartstrings to see that the farmers are supported.  Science has shown that it’s fairly inefficient as an ethanol source, but until technologies for using switchgrass and other more efficient sources are perfected, corn provides a fuel that’s handy politically and feels good, despite its drawbacks.

So why would I publicise it and promote it?

Basically as an investment in the future.  If these more efficient ethanol sources can be developed and made viable, then E85 has a future.  Saab have experienced great success in Sweden with the car and whilst that doesn’t automotically translate to success in the US, the Biopower Beast unveiled at the Detroit Auto Show this year – especially if enhanced with an Epsilon II platform and AWD in the next few years – would create quite a bit of interest.

BioD is a great technology now and I wish Saab had an engine it could use in the US to exploit the greater availability of diesel from next year.  But they haven’t got that engine and word is, they won’t anytime soon.

If these E85 technologies can be refined however, Saab’s in a great position to capitalise, which is my main interest in the whole issue.

In a way, I’m a participant on the slippery slide of least resistance too.


By the way, I’m no scientist.  All of the above was written off the top of my head and I’m happy to rewrite any errors that you might like to point out in comments.  I think the basics above are fundamentally correct though.

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  1. I may be wrong, but as a Californian, i’ve read in several local publications that very, VERY few diesels if any will be able to meet California’s up and coming emission control laws. Anybody else verify this? Plus, diesel’s more expensive here as well. (though not by much anymore, granted)

    The word is DC may be ready to give major breaks (read: even more breaks) to ethanol producers and distributors, trying to offset the milage penalty of ETOH, all the while cutting foreign dependence on oil.

    Also, i’m curious what other fuels would be ready to hit the highway so soon? ETOH may just be a transition fuel to buy us some time till something better is developed.

  2. You know, it’s possible to walk and chew gum at the same time. E85 is the short-term strategy. Hydrogen is GM’s long-term strategy.

    The question is whether betting on hydrogen is smart for GM. If hydrogen is too far out, GM gets eaten alive by the Japanese hybrids in the meantime.

  3. Blueler, you’re correct. VW is having to dump a whole bunch of best-selling diesels for MY2007 because of this. They’re rumoured to have something in the pipe that should be ready for ’08.

    Greg, I agree, but I think GM are walking the E85 walk (or chewing the E85 gum, which is perhaps more appropriate given the expectoration at the end of the journey) by default rather than design.

    Hopefully the infrastructure does get up and they can capitalise.

  4. Does anyone know what the actual mileage penalty is for E85 in a Saab?
    These have been out for almost a year, so I figure someone must have some numbers by now.

  5. bleuler, you probably already know that NO diesels are currently for sale in California (and about five other states, including New York) even with the existing emissions laws.

    Next year when the FEDERAL standards change I don’t think a single manufacturer will sell diesels anywhere in the States. As it is only a few manufacturers sell diesels in the States this year (Mercedes and VW are the only two I know of).

    As Swade pointed-out, VW won’t sell diesels in the States in ’07 (the first year of the federal standards) and I believe Mercedes does not have a compliant model either.

    So from what it looks like there will be NO MY2007 diesel passenger cars sold in the United States. 2008 might see the introduction of a new VW engine said to be able to comply. VW is ramping up production on the MY2006 diesel models and will continue to sell them in 2007 (cheaters…).

    As an aside I just saw a rather newish VW Jetta TDi with California plates last weekend. A sticker on the back said “this car runs off used vegetable oil”. I wonder what the emissions of this thing look like to the computer when they go to have it “smogged”.

  6. What really bugs me is CARBs total lack of off-road and marine diesel regulation, then dont forget the prevailing westerlies and the yearly forest fires. So tell me again why LDVs have to jump through an unnecessarily high NOx hoop with the end result being nobody in America can buy/drive a high performance,high mileage vehicle. Thanx CA.
    BTW MB CDIs are supposedly 50 state good for 07, VW & BMW in 08, and after blowin $2Bil with Fiat I cant believe all GM has to show for it is a chromed display case.

  7. apologies if my post came across as too crass. I just reread it and it sounds a bit lawyer-like.

    I personally would jump at the chance to buy a clean burning diesel, but i’m willing to wait if it means there’s a chance the brown cloud above my house gets any lighter.

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