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Is diesel the next alternative fuel?

Marketplace Staff Jun 20, 2006

KAI RYSSDAL: There are other major international sporting events going on in Europe this summer. Not that you can tell by the television coverage. Germany had its soccer win today. But a German team also won the 24 Hours of Le Mans this weekend. The world’s best known auto endurance race. Audi picked up its sixth win Sunday in seven years. Unless you’re a die-hard fan, though, the race really isn’t much to watch. Just lots of cars going round and round a track. But there was something new to hear this year. Audi put something different under the hood. Something that’s not usually associated with car racing: a diesel engine. Dan Neil went to the race. We tracked him down in his hotel room somewhere in Europe.

Hey, Dan!

DAN NEIL: Hey! How you doing, Kai?

RYSSDAL: I’m alright. Listen . . . Diesel? I mean, seriously, really?

NEIL: Yeah, diesel. Not only fast, but quiet, not smokey. Didn’t smell bad or anything.

RYSSDAL: So these are obviously not the same diesel engines we’ve got on buses here in L.A. that are loud and dirty and clankity?

NEIL: No. All of these other LeMans cars are just screaming by and this thing is hushed, it’s quiet. It’s really quite surreal, because you see this incredibly fast car and there’s, like, no sound. This thing could drive through a suburban neighborhood and, you know, no one would call the cops.

So, yes, it’s quiet. It’s really clean. You can’t smell the exhaust. You can get right next to the car, you can hardly smell the exhaust. There’s no black smoke and, naturally, it’s fast. Audi won the poll with this car.

RYSSDAL: You know, race cars use different gas from street cars. Is this different diesel than you can get on the streets over there?

NEIL: An excellent question. I asked … you know, they’re using what’s called Shell V-Power diesel. And I said, well, is this some sort of super-plutonium diesel? And they said, “Well, no, it’s just like European pump diesel with some minor modifications or chemistry.” And I was like, “What are they?” And they said, “We really can’t talk about that right now.”

So, I mean, I think they’ve injected it with kryptonite or something.

RYSSDAL: You and I have talked about alternative fuels a couple of times in the last couple of months. Is this where we’re going here — diesel as an alt-fuel?

NEIL: Well, it’s amazing to me that the manufacturers have such a disparity of opinion. Audi executives will tell you, yeah, they’re doing hybrid. But the word they use is only reluctantly. They believe diesel is a better solution for a couple of reasons: They feel that it’s more attainable technology; They also believe that with diesel you open the door for bio-diesel, which is kind of addressing the source problem of energy. Which is really the critical issue when oil seems to be going away.

So, yeah, I think Audi believes in diesel in the same way that Toyota believes in hybrids.

RYSSDAL: What’s the price point between gas and a gallon of diesel over there? Over here, you’re starting to notice a little bit of parity.

NEIL: It’s also reached parity here, for somewhat different reasons. Over there, there’s constrictions of the refining capacity. Over here there’s a tax structure that kind of puts them on par. Yeah, I noticed as I filled up my Volvo diesel today that the price was about the same as regular gasoline.

RYSSDAL: So, Audi can win with a diesel on the race track. And it spent $100 bajillion to do it. Can it win commercially in the States, in the car market here and how important it is?

NEIL: You know, I really don’t know. The car on the track was amazingly fast. It didn’t win by as much as maybe some people had predicted. Like me, for example. I thought they would win in a walk. But it was a much closer race. And I think that’s kind of a harbinger of the situation in the market. I think it’s going to be a very, very close call for diesel to prevail. But, again, there’s no monolithic solution. And I think that diesel does have a role to play in the portfolio of energy solutions.

But, in the meantime, you can’t argue with a car that wins the 24-Hours of LeMans. That’s just too cool.

RYSSDAL: Dan Neil writes on cars and whatever else he likes for the Los Angeles Times.

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