Are Diesel Truck Engines Doomed?

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For as long as I can remember, truck enthusiasts have been clamoring for a half-ton diesel. Diesel engines offer a lot of advantages over gasoline motors, many of which truck owners find particularly appealing.

Diesel Fuel No. 2
Creative Commons License photo credit: respres

Diesel truck advantages:

  • Diesel is more efficient. Depending on who you ask, diesel engines are about 30% more fuel efficient than a gasoline engine of comparable size.
  • Diesel engines are heavy on torque. Diesel engines provide gobs of torque at very low RPMs – much more than a typical gas motor.
  • Diesel engines run a very long time. Your typical diesel truck engine will run 200k miles minimum before a problem develops. For gasoline engines, 120k miles is a more realistic “no problems” life span.

Of course, it’s not all roses and horsepower with diesels – here’s a few reasons diesels aren’t better than gasoline:

  • Emissions. Diesel engines pump out a lot of NOx (nitrous oxides) and particulate matter a.k.a. soot a.k.a. “black stuff.”
  • Expense. Diesel fuel (at least in the USA) is more expensive than gasoline and the engines themselves usually have higher maintenance costs. Because diesels produce more emissions, they need more expensive emissions equipment…which raises the up-front cost quite a bit.
  • Availability. Finding diesel fuel at your local service station can be a challenge (depending on where you live).

The question before us: Can diesel overcome these challenges?

On the availability question, definitely. Diesel trucks typically have larger than average fuel tanks to help them compensate for fewer diesel stations. Between the extra capacity and the engine’s superior fuel economy, it’s hard to run out of diesel.

On the cost question…possibly, but it depends on the buyer. I believe that consumers are willing to pay more for a diesel if it gives them enough benefits. Diesel engines are wildly popular in heavy duty trucks despite their tremendously higher costs. Ford’s 6.4L PowerStroke is a $9,325 option on the 2010 F350, and they’re selling just fine because big truck buyers need the power and efficiency of a diesel. As far as light-duty trucks are concerned, no one is quite sure. While I personally believe there are hundreds of thousands of people itching to buy a half-ton diesel pickup, Ford, Dodge, GM, and Toyota have all canceled or delayed plans to sell a half-ton truck with a diesel (see Tundra diesel delayed). In other words, the people that make the trucks don’t agree.

On the emissions question…dicey. Large diesel trucks (like the SuperDuty mentioned above) have been exempted from the most restrictive emissions regulations for a long time…but that’s beginning to change. Recently, these large trucks have fallen under the eye of regulators and we’re beginning to see some very strict emissions standards applied. If this trend continues, diesel could be in trouble – especially if regulators start applying gasoline hybrid like emissions standards across the board.

Are diesel truck engines doomed (at least in North America)? Hard to say. The future of diesel was pretty bright two years ago, but with a recent increase in emissions standards, most truck makers have backed off expanding their diesel line-ups (except Mahindra, but that’s another story).

What do you think – is the diesel truck on the decline?

Filed Under: Diesel Tundra


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  1. Brian says:

    Is diesel on the decline? Tough to say. I have noticed in my neck of the woods here in GA that diesel is roughly the same price per gallon as regular unleaded (give or take .08-.10 per gal.). If I had a diesel with 30% better mileage…well, you see my point. Toyota could have a lot to gain if they would introduce a diesel 1/2 ton Tundra ahead of the others. There are many of us who want a diesel for their obvious advantages, but don’t need the capabilities and monster size of a 3/4 or 1 ton truck. Come on Toyota, stop playing with us and give us what we want. If Audi can overcome federal regulations for diesel than so can Toyota. Maybe we should e-mail Mr. Toyoda en mass to get a light duty diesel produced here.

  2. Brian – Here here.

  3. tmac says:

    it will never ever happen, if they made a diesel half ton who would want the gaspot engine anymore …………….

  4. Jeremy the Dark Dork Overlord says:

    That was a literary Merry Go Round. I had an experiance and ended up right where I started, with a touch of dizziness.

    The real odd thing is that if ,AND THAT’S A BIG IF, Diesels are produced enmass the added savings would be offset by the added fuel cost. WAIT, PUT DOWN THE PITCHFORKS. IF a large number of vehicles start consuming diesel the cost of diesel will go up. Simple economics. The key is to not have many on the road and the fuel cost would remain low.

    I want my truck to run on methane, I produce enough of that in my first waking hour to fuel my truck all day. I guess then the cost of bean burritos would get jacked up.

  5. Brian says:

    Jeremy: Would the cost of diesel go up, or would the call to produce more inexpensive, renewable biodiesel go up and help reduce our carbon footprint while meeting power demands? Any diesel produced by Toyota, or anyone, should be B100 compatible (or at least B20 at an absolute minimum). Just my $.02.

  6. Jason W. says:

    @Brian: with the exception of Ford, 3/4 and 1 ton trucks are built with the same bodies as their 1/2 ton siblings, they’re hardly “monster sized”. Even the SuperDuty, dimensionally, isn’t appreciably different in size than the F150. The only real difference in size is if you opt for the dually package on a 1 ton and then it’s only added width on the ouside of the bed to cover the extra set of wheels. I can certainly understand someone not needing or wanting the capacity and price of an HD truck, but size really has nothing to do with it really, unless you just don’t want a fullsize truck in the first place.

  7. Zac P says:

    There’s a lot of technology already in production to reduce or eliminate NOx emissions, diesel is getting cleaner and cleaner and diesel powered engines can be just as clean as gas engines. Combined with the better fuel efficiency, they can actually be better environmentally than gas engines. I don’t think diesels are going away any sooner than gas engines are.

  8. mk says:

    For me, the gas trucks are pricey enough topping 30K buying price and have plenty of power for 90% of the market share. Diesel engines will never increase much, if any, in popularity especially in any 1/2 ton truck simply because the cost, my guess, is about 6K more to get just an upgraded diesel engine over the already powerful beast of the 5.7L tundra. Diesel engines in 1/2 ton trucks will not sell a lot of simply because of the initial cost upfront of around 6K more to upgrade just the engine unless the price of an optional diesel 1/2 ton truck engine is under 2k. Personally, I was having a hard time deciding to spend an extra 1200 bucks just to upgrade my 2010 tundra from a 4.6L to a 5.7L. My 2 cents worth.

  9. Jeremy the Dark Dork Overlord says:

    where ever the fuel comes from will incur a price increase. Best case is that it would be a short term, 2 to 4 year, increase until the infrastructure caught up with demand.

  10. Lots of great comments – thank you all. Looking forward to reading more.

  11. MPGomatic says:

    The three negatives stated – Emissions, Fuel Expense, and Availability – aren’t the problem they once were. Advanced exhaust systems have met the current emissions regulations. Diesel fuel has been less expensive than regular unleaded for a good portion of this year and availability isn’t an issue anymore. The global recession has lessened the demand for diesel fuel around the world and this has resulted in lower prices here in the States. More domestic diesel fuel production capacity is coming on, as well.

    Ford and GM have been reluctant to push diesel for a number of reasons, including a lack of coherent domestic energy policy and the corporations’ internal capabilities.

    Chrysler, through the Daimler years, pushed diesel slowly, with brief stints in the Liberty CRD and Grand Cherokee CRD. Now that they’re in the hands of Fiat (which has the in house expertise), watch for smaller displacement clean diesels to sneak into the mix.

    Mahindra has a wild card. Watch for Volkswagen to follow suit, should they re-enter the American pickup truck market.

  12. MPGomatic – Thanks for commenting. I’ve read about the VW truck, and it makes sense for them to get involved if they really want to be the biggest manufacturer in the world. It will be interesting to see what happens. One of the disadvantages listed wasn’t actually fuel costs – it was overall costs. Diesels are MUCH more expensive than gas motors, especially in big pickups. I believe that consumers will pay more because they understand they’ll be getting more…but I seem to be in the minority.

  13. mk says:

    I think 381 hp and 401 lbs. of torque on the 5.7L tundra gas engine is more than enough to pull just about anything under 10,000 lbs. It would be the suspension on towing anything over lets say 7-8K that would be in need of help. Why would a diesel engine be more in any 1/2 ton truck when it is not needed? Diesels have their place in towing over 8K or so consistently in day to day operations due to their low rpms and high torque, but that is for the minority (I’m guessing 10-15% of all pickup owners). Until they build a diesel comparably priced to a gas engine, they will not be taking over 1/2 of the sales anytime soon.

  14. Art64 says:

    No it is not doomed. Mahindra is just about to launch their diesel powered vehicles here in the U.S. This will pave the way for other manufacturers to offer diesel engines on their vehicles.

  15. mk – I think the advantages of a diesel half-ton are driveability and fuel economy. Diesels pull and haul better than gas motors, and assuming gas prices increase alongside diesel prices, the fuel economy benefit will offset a significant portion of the additional costs. I agree that most truck owners will stick with gas, but if only 10% of light truck buyers opt for diesel, that’s 200,000 units. I think the market is bigger than 1 in 10…but what do I know. Thanks for commenting as always.

  16. Art64 – I think you’re right. This is how it usually works when change occurs – someone does something that the status quo thinks is “crazy,” and the result is a paradigm shift.

  17. Billy says:

    I would really like to see a diesel, possibly heavy-half or 3/4 ton Tundra for overland camping. The combination would give the fuel mileage and payload to haul a slide-in pop-up truck camper and an off-road trailer. What a combination!

  18. Billy – That was the original plan…we’ll see if they revive it.

  19. Diesels “can” be more polluting, but stock, they are actually cleaner than gasoline engines. It’s those guys with the Super Chips that re-program them to make them blow that soot!

  20. Jason says:

    headache rack – I think it’s a toss up, but I would agree untreated diesel exhaust is slightly less poisonous than untreated gasoline exhaust. Diesels generate a lot more NOx compounds, but relatively little carbon monoxide. Gas generates a lot of carbon monoxide, but very little NOx. The funny thing is, NOx aren’t nearly as dangerous to humans as carbon monoxide, yet because diesels generate a fair amount of particulate matter in their exhaust, U.S. emissions regulations are tilted against diesels.

  21. Jason…is it NOx or CO that contributes to Global Warming? I was always under the impression that diesel exhaust was cleaner, and that’s why there are tax credits for diesel suv’s and cars. I don’t know the answer to the question, but I agree the regulations are tilted against Diesel trucks…I just don’t know if it’s warranted or not.

    Thanks for the insights.

  22. Jason says:

    headache – CO is more of a greenhouse gas than NOx, but CO2 is supposed to trump them both. NOx are heavy, so they fall to the ground almost immediately and never really get up into the atmosphere. NOx usually go hand-in-hand with diesel exhaust particulate (soot), and the common person sees thick black smoke as “really bad” for the environment…even though invisible CO is much more dangerous. According to my college environmental science professor, NOx are regulated unfairly because they’re very visible. I don’t know if this is true, but there’s very much an anti-diesel bias in a lot of environmental circles.

  23. Jason,

    One of my pet peeves (not diesel related) is when they outlaw “puffers” in the winter time meaning it’s against the law to let your car idle when it’s less than 20 degrees outside in Colorado. Apparently it’s bad on the environment. I wonder if they don’t realize that cars at idle are still emitting pollutants above 20 degrees! When you said the black smoke is seen as “really bad” because it’s visible…it made me think of that stupid law in Colorado. They think that if you can see the exhaust, it’s more harmful to the environment apparently. Maybe there’s another reason that makes more sense…but I don’t know.

  24. Jason says:

    headache rack – I’m pretty sure it’s a Colorado law because of the inversion that develops in the Denver area during the colder months. I think air quality is important, and on that basis alone I think diesel could be worse. However, when you factor in the fact that diesels are more efficient and will ultimately burn less fuel to go the same distances as a gas engine, the rules don’t make sense.

  25. tires says:

    I would say diesle is on the decline however I do not think this trend will last forever.

  26. Randy says:

    I own a 2007 toyota tundra w/5.7 it was the second one sold at my dealer and i love it, but when i tow my boat or my snowmoblie trailer the gas mileage sucks!!!! On the highway it gets 14 maybe 15 if i drive it like a old fart city 11-12 miles to the gallon when i tow something / anyting 7-8 that hurts. @ 4.00 a gallon its a good thing it’s paid for and runs great because buying gas is like making payments i’d hate to doing both again. O by the way i traded in a 2002 F250 Diesel for the Tundra. Towing with the F250 i got about 14-15 miles to the gallon???

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