I will leave to others the details of the auto bailout. Whether it's extra special super-secret let's-not-call-it-bankruptcy debt refinancing or loans or tax credits, I don't have much to contribute. My only question for the Big Three now is: Where are the diesels?
I know what you're thinking. Dirty diesel? Surely, I must be joking.
It thus bears repeating that diesel fuel was - until the advent of hybrids - the sine qua non of fuel efficiency. A 1990 diesel-powered Volkswagen Jetta can go 39 highway miles on a gallon of the sticky stuff. It takes a Prius to get that kind of mileage out of a similarly sized car that burns gasoline.
Of course, diesel engines were also the sine qua non of foul clouds of odoriferous soot, which was a problem. That never bothered Europeans, who have a long history of embracing diesel cars - to this day American car makers introduce diesel models there and not here. It also helps that European fuel taxes don't discriminate against diesel, as they do in the US, which is why diesel is so much more expensive here.
But "clean diesel" has at last arrived. And unlike it's linguistic sibling "clean coal", clean diesel is very clean and very real. It actually refers both to the fuel and the engine. First came Ultra Low Sulfur Diesel fuel thanks to EPA rules initiated during the Clinton Administration. Removing the sulfur, which interferes with various chemical reactions, allows for catalytic converter-like systems that can take out just about everything else: nitrogen oxides, soot, hydrocarbons and carbon monoxides. And to top it all off, clean diesels actually have lower carbon emissions than even hybrids. Popular Mechanics tested a European Prius against a (smaller) VW Polo clean diesel. At 5% fewer greenhouse emissions and over 70mpg on the highway (yes, miles not kilometers), the Polo was impressive to say the least.
And what happens when you throw a clean diesel engine into a hybrid electric motor? You get scads of fuel efficiency goodness. The problem right now is that diesel-electric hybrids are too expensive. Treehugger recounts the tragic tale of the VW Golf diesel hybrid: announced in Febrary 2008 and withdrawn two months later.
Meanwhile European automakers are showing off their clean diesel wares. At the recent Los Angeles auto show, there were diesel press conferences and new model showcases from Volkswagen, BMW and Mercedes. And as for US carmakers presumably poised to exploit this growing market? Quiet, was the watchword apparently.
In fairness, GM did show a concept version of the Volt built for Opel, its European division. This car, called the Flexstreme, works the same way as the Volt, except a small diesel engine charges the battery instead of the Volt's gas engine. Given the Opel badge, the possibility exists that GM will once again deny American drivers the diesel option, but according to Green Car Congress, GM plans to release a version of the Flexstreme under its Saturn line.
All this to say that if US car companies wanted to immediately improve their fuel efficiency, it wouldn't take years of innovation - just the right kind of incentives. Thanks to the EPA for forcing industry to clean up diesel's act, there's a market for the taking. Sure there are issues to work out, but we're on the verge of trying to save the auto industry. Perhaps the bailout legislation could give things a push. The US car companies, having once dismissed hybrids as a fad, might then want to consider taking advantage of the coming diesel revolution. You know, maybe they could sell some cars.
[Updated 10:45pm Sunday] And if you need more evidence, just check out this rave review from Sunday's NYT of the new clean diesel VW Jetta. Ulrich, the reviewer, managed to get 48mpg during 150 miles of highway driving just by sticking to 60mph (he claims over 50mpg is possible if you hypermile). Either way, that beats the Prius - on the highway at least...