DaimlerChrysler boss Dieter Zetsche’s speech at the Detroit Motor Show a couple of months ago was made with absolute conviction. The US car market wants the diesel engine. And, in M-B Speak, that means BlueTec, writes Oliver Dixon.

Welcome to brand-land, which is what, above all else, BlueTec is. US consumers like brands. It is significant that Zetsche mentioned BlueTec more than diesel during the course of his speech. Applying a brand to a commodity is a sharp move; diesel, to the US car buyer, is a word redolent with baggage – it’s not a word endowed with much by way of positives. BlueTec has nothing by way of baggage. It sounds good phonetically, it looks good in the signage – all told, BlueTec is a positive thing, and Stuttgart has played a smart hand.

What though, of the mechanics? BlueTec comes in a variety of shades. It is not a single entity but a group of technologies. In Merc-speak, a modular system. And at this point, Zetsche’s bullishness is due closer inspection.

BlueTec v.1  – due in the US c. autumn ‘06 – is essentially a diesel engine with an integral DeNOx absorber. Hence, it’s a closed system, not dependant upon after-treatment. Per current legislation, it achieves compliance in 45 states, the notable exceptions being California and New York. Both of which are big markets.

But for BlueTec v.1 to operate successfully – at its cleanest –demands low sulphur diesel. Although the EPA has mandated that 15-ppm fuel is to be available from 2006 onwards, there are mutterings as to whether the oil companies will manage this. M-B is betting hard that it will. If everything falls into place, then M-B has a product. If not then it has a problem. One solved by BlueTec V.2.

Which is more involved. In addition to the DeNOx absorber and particulate trap, it involves a Selective Catalytic Reduction (SCR) after treatment.
Nothing new here. SCR is the de facto standard for European CV EU IV emission compliance, with around an 82 per cent +7.5 tonne market share. But one issue yet to be resolved is policing. If the urea tank runs dry, the engine will still function and emissions output soar. Until OBD is mandated the decision as to top up the second tank is one of individual conscience.

With two exceptions, NAFTA’s truck industry is owned by European OEMs. Hardly surprising, therefore, that when 07 compliance was being debated, the European-owned manufacturers lobbied hard for the adoption of SCR by the EPA. Which, in turn, was having none of it, citing amongst other concerns the policing problems as above. As such, EGR became the EPA’s choice for the 2007 solution.

Which means that DaimlerChrysler – already having lobbied unsuccessfully for SCR adoption through its US truck brands must now do the same for its Mercedes-Benz and, ultimately Chrysler car brands. Will the EPA play ball this time?

In response M-B argues – reasonably enough – that AdBlue refills need only happen during scheduled servicing. Fair enough during the vehicle’s first life, but get it away from the dealer network, and regular AdBlue refills may become a memory, and the air thick with NOx. It is not only the US dealer networks that will have to carry AdBlue, but just about every other retail lube ‘n tyre outlet in the land. Cue questions of infrastructure, and a wholesale re-education of the US motorist. A conservative organisation, the EPA may regard this scenario with angst.

But let us assume that the EPA accepts SCR as an acceptable route to compliance. It already seems to be wavering in this direction for the 2010 CV protocol, and so this may be a reasonable assumption. Does this give DaimlerChrysler a marked advantage in the US passenger car market?

The result may be quite the opposite. SCR isn’t rocket science. It marks acceptance that a diesel engine can get no cleaner without after-treatment, a fact that immediately calls into question the value of doing any pre-treatment. Most diesel engines would, with the addition of an SCR unit, become compliant, irrespective of how filthy they may be without one.

No. In fact, it’s very good news for Ford and GM, and even better news for the Japanese. Although Zetsche didn’t give any indication as to potential US diesel adoption, his DC colleagues were more candid, predicting a 15 per cent share within a decade.

Ford and GM are both light on funds. The Japanese have ceded leadership to Europe on the diesel front. SCR presents both with a golden opportunity; let DC drive diesel acceptance in the biggest auto market on earth, and then hop the bandwagon with a simple after-treatment solution.

But will diesel find a happy home in the US? It’s perhaps instructive to return to Zetsche, where he, in turn quotes the EPA’s Margo Oge:

“If we had a light duty vehicle population that was one third diesels, that could save up to 1.4 million barrels of oil per day in the US, the amount of oil the US currently imports from Saudi Arabia. If we made these vehicles diesel hybrids, the oil savings would about double or up to two times the amount of oil Saudi Arabia ships to the US every day.”

Woo-hoo: geopolitics. So it seems that everyone within the US has a vested interest in seeing the diesel engine succeed, and, increasingly, the argument for its adoption falls outside of simple questions of vehicle performance. DaimlerChrysler has a head start, with a branded, technologically-proven solution and a quite obvious will to drive the same into the consciousness of the US car buyer. In doing so, it is taking a risk. The acceptance of a simple, non-captive technology would offer both a lifeline to both Ford and GM, as well as more firepower to Toyota et al. DaimlerChrysler may yet prove to be the OEM that bought diesel to the American public. It remains to be seen if it becomes the OEM to profit from doing so.

Oliver Dixon

click chart to enlarge

click chart to enlarge