Renewable Roll Out

As part of a multi-pronged approach to reduce the world's dependence on petroleum fuels, DaimlerChrysler has become the first major automaker in the United States to fill vehicles with a biodiesel blend right off the factory line. It was a decision rooted in both environmental responsibility and consumer demand.
By Dan Emerson | February 01, 2005
In late 2004, U.S. biodiesel producers and distributors received an early Christmas present: DaimlerChrysler announced that each new 2005 Jeep Liberty Common Rail Diesel (CRD) rolling off its assembly line in Toledo, Ohio, would be factory-filled with B5. The automaker's decision came on the heels of the first U.S. biodiesel tax incentive being signed into law and was among several developments in 2004 that suggest light-duty diesel vehicles might emerge in America like never before. U.S. consumers are beginning to demand vehicles with better fuel economy and peppier, cleaner-burning engines. That's pressuring automakers to put diesel cars, pickups and sport utility vehicles on their showroom floors.

Within DaimlerChrysler's North American operation, a single automotive engineer has been widely credited with spearheading the Jeep B5 factory fill. Loren Beard, senior manager of energy programs for DaimlerChrysler North America, worked behind-the-scenes for almost two years to first convince company officials to give biodiesel a try and then determine the right biodiesel blend for the venture. He researched specifications for all factory-filled fuels used by DaimlerChrysler. He also conferred with scientists at Sedamsville, Ohio-based Peter Cremer North America LP, the producer later chosen to supply the biodiesel used in the factory-fill blend. "We had to gather a lot of engineering data," Beard recalled. "[Automakers] are very conservative about these things. There were some horror stories from people using raw vegetable oil as fuel 10 or 15 years ago, but the biodiesel being used today is not the same stuff."

That's a fairly large understatement. Peter Cremer North America was the first biodiesel producer in the world to become a "BQ-9000 accredited producer" under the National Biodiesel Accreditation Program, a cooperative and voluntary fuel quality program that operates as an autonomous committee of the National Biodiesel Board (NBB).

With fuel quality assured, DaimlerChrysler was able to move ahead without concern. After all, using 5 percent biodiesel does not require any mechanical design changes to a basic diesel vehicle. Beard said Chrysler officials are also "looking very hard at the possibility of using B20, not so much in Jeeps but in our Dodge Ram truck," because several thousand of those vehicles are being used in fleets by agencies such as the U.S. National Park Service and U.S. Department of Defense, as well as a number of local governments.

The right time for biodiesel
The widespread acceptance of biodiesel in Europe contributed to DaimlerChrysler's approval of the B5 factory fill. For example, the successful widespread use of B5 in France, partly due to tax incentives that have been in effect for several years, was held up as proof that the fuel can be easily integrated into mainstream use. However, Beard said, the project was driven "purely from Auburn Hills [Michigan]."
It's also worth noting that DaimlerChrysler's North American operation is headed by a German native, Dieter Zetsche, a proponent of biodiesel.

Although it hasn't received much publicity in the United States, DaimlerChrysler has been involved in promoting the use of biodiesel and other alternative fuels on several international fronts-Germany and India in particular. The automaker has supported field trials of "SunDiesel," a biofuel refined from vegetable and plant wastes, developed by German scientists. DaimlerChrysler is also backing a project to test the viability of biodiesel made from jatropha, a plant that grows wild in India. The Indian government wants to find more eco-friendly fuels to alleviate pollution problems in the densely populated country. Diesel engines have been banned in the city of Delhi.

Rather than focusing on biodiesel as a complete remedy to America's petrol-dependence, DaimlerChrysler officials see it as part of a multi-pronged approach, Beard said. "We look at energy use reduction as having a lot of components to it," he said. "Certainly, we need to produce more efficient vehicles, which may include diesel hybrids, eventually. Fuel cell vehicles represent incremental improvements to existing gas engines, but we don't look at any one thing as the silver bullet, or any single sector. We see this vehicle as part of [the solution] ."

Beard said he believes some early efforts with biofuels had been somewhat detrimental to the movement. However, through research and development-and an important relationship with NREL--DaimlerChrysler officials now firmly believe that biodiesel can be used safely in its diesel vehicles when it is properly formulated and blended. "Our philosophy is that a lot of different increments can be [relied upon] to reduce our use of petroleum, and we wanted to do something to help publicize the role of renewable fuels," Beard said. "We're starting to get the message out. We've had positive feedback, but the full story is still not completely understood by the public."

With increasing consumer use of Volkswagen and Mercedes E-Class diesels, the public "will begin to realize these are not the diesels they think of from the early '80s," Beard added.

DaimlerChrysler officials have also been cognizant of the political benefits of supporting biodiesel. "Certainly, in the states with big soybean production, their members in the U.S. Congress appreciate the fact that we're doing something to help that industry," Beard said. "That, in turn, is helpful to us."

Beard says DaimlerChrysler officials anticipate seeing increases in government support for biodiesel, via new and extended state and federal subsidies. "We're seeing press releases about biodiesel plants starting up, here and there," he said. "Based on the projections I've seen, it will be a long time before biodiesel is as big as ethanol, but I think it's the fuel of the future."

Major marketing effort planned
With the new Jeep Libertys rolling off assembly lines starting in November, DaimlerChrysler officials were planning a major marketing effort in the United States to start in February or March, Beard said. "Before we put on the marketing push, we want to make sure each dealer has some" of the diesel vehicles, he explained. Of course, the limited availability of biodiesel fuel in many areas represents a major challenge, Beard noted. "It's a concern for the biodiesel business in general that it is not very readily available at retail," he said. "But we want to do something to help publicize the fact that it is a viable alternative."

One primary selling point of the new Jeep Liberty is Daimler Chrysler's Common Rail fueling technology, which enables more efficient combustion and lower emissions than conventional diesel engines. It allows the diesel system to inject fuel at a very high pressure, which is independent of the engine speed, thereby preventing particulate emission "spikes" when the engine is idling. "The engine is quieter and vibrates less, and allows the [onboard] computer to control the fuel injection process," Beard said.

Lasting relationship with biodiesel

Steve Howell, the NBB's chief technical officer, has been its lead liaison with the engine-manufacturing sector. Howell has been working on biodiesel issues since 1991. The board held initial meetings with Daimler in 1996, before the European automaker acquired Chrysler. "Things cooled off for a while," Howell said. "About two years ago, the board decided to focus on working cooperatively with engine companies and automakers. We made a concerted effort to work with all of them, looking for that one automaker that would be willing to take leadership and jump out in front of the pack."

The board has contacted all of the major engine manufacturers and automakers and, according to Howell, most of the companies are looking at biodiesel very seriously. Howell considers DaimlerChrysler's Jeep announcement "extremely significant." He said it shows that the engine and auto community realizes that nations will need to gradually shift away from non-renewable, petroleum-based products to others that are renewable and better for the environment.

"In many cases in the alternative fuels world, people have wanted to go 100 percent of the way," Howell said. "Often, such a drastic change takes such an investment of hassle and risk, people have found over time that sometimes it's better to take incremental steps. We can get further down the path a lot faster than if we try make the leap all at one time."

He continued, "Many people have the diesel Oldsmobile experience from 20 years ago in the back of their minds-the perception that diesels are smelly, clunky, don't start or operate well in cold weather. Nearly all of those negative aspects of diesel engines have been overcome. Diesels have a lot more pickup and power and 30 percent better fuel economy."

Another major reduction in emissions from diesel engines is expected by 2006, when new federal air-quality standards take effect. Howell and others note that the car-buying public is not widely aware of one of the major advantages of biodiesel over conventional fuel-its high lubricity. With federal air quality standards mandating the use of ultra-low sulfur diesel, the high lubricity of biodiesel becomes even more attractive. Levels of biodiesel as low as 1 percent or 2 percent will restore the lubricity lost when sulfur has been removed. Lubricity is especially vital during the first 50 to 100 hours of engine operation-the break-in period.

Diesel interest on the rise
There is plenty of evidence that consumer interest in diesel vehicles is on the rise in North America, largely driven by recent gasoline price spikes.

Daimler Chrysler sold out its 2004 U.S. allocation of a diesel-powered Mercedes sedan (the 4,000 E-Class), selling about 1,000 more than it projected, according to Thomas Weber, DaimlerChrysler's head of research. Additionally, since announcing plans to sell 5,000 Jeep Libertys this year in the United States, the automaker has received about five times that many consumer requests for information about the vehicle. The automaker considers information requests to be a reliable gauge of a model's potential sales.

The fuel-economy advantage of diesel engines has led to surging sales of diesel-powered cars in Western Europe, where 46 percent of all new vehicles sold had diesel engines in 2003, according to Automotive Industry Data, a consultancy in Warwick, England.
In the United States, Daimler Chrysler's Mercedes brand sells a diesel E-320 sedan that gets 30 miles per gallon, compared with 24 miles per gallon in the gasoline version. In April, Volkswagen AG began selling a diesel-powered Passat that gets 38 miles per gallon, as well as a diesel Golf, a Jetta sedan and a Touareg sport utility vehicle. Volkswagen is the leading producer of light-duty diesel vehicles in Western Europe, selling about 1.4 million diesel vehicles in the region last year alone, according to Automotive Industry magazine.

According to a survey released late last year by J.D. Power and Associates, more American car buyers would favor clean-diesel technology over gas-electric hybrid technology. When given a choice between gasoline, hybrid or diesel powertrains in their next vehicle, and told that clean-burning diesel would have comparable performance with a gas engine, 51 percent picked gasoline, 27 percent chose clean diesel and 22 percent chose hybrid electric. The higher price of diesel vehicles might be a negative issue for some consumers, Power said, with domestic automakers predicting an average price difference of $2,000 to $4,000.

Still, Howell pointed out, other economic trends bode well for diesels. "With increased fuel costs and pressure on corporate average fuel economy, and the increased fuel efficiency of diesel engines, we will probably see more diesel cars in the United States over time," he said.
DaimlerChrysler, the world's fifth largest automaker (and the third largest in the United States), has the capacity to make 50,000 diesel-powered Liberty models for the United States and Europe this year. If it manufactures that many, about 45,000 of the vehicles will be sold in Europe. The B5 factory-fill project does not include vehicles not sold in the United States, and Beard said company officials have given a clear indication of whether the biodiesel program might eventually be expanded beyond the initial 5,000 vehicles. "There is no real production quota," he said. "Right now, it's safe to say there will be at least 5,000 units in the United States; I don't think there's a cap yet. Depending on how well this goes, there might be considerably more of them."

With growing public awareness of the benefits of diesel engines and biodiesel, biodiesel supporters are cautiously optimistic that DaimlerChrysler's carefully planned Jeep Liberty B5 factory-fill venture will be a stepping stone to bigger things.

"This is a huge breakthrough, a big victory for our technical program," said NBB Executive Director Joe Jobe. "DaimlerChrysler is sticking its neck out by putting a diesel passenger vehicle out on the market, the first one in a very long time. Up to now, diesel passenger vehicles have been very rare in the United States. If you want to buy one, you can't just go to your local dealership and pick one up; you've really got to hunt to find one. I know this because I've been hunting."

Dan Emerson is a freelance writer who lives in Minneapolis. He can be reached at blues@minn.net.
 
 
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