Let's Wave Goodbye To The Light-Duty Diesel Truck
The particles are one-fifth the diameter of a human hair. They lodge deep in the lungs and never come back out. Children and the elderly are particularly affected. They cause lung cancer, lower resistance to disease, and make it difficult to breathe. It’s impossible to accurately estimate the deaths that occur as a result of exposure, but the EPA has suggested that it could be between 500 and 8,000 per million people.
Toxic exhaust from diesel engines, in both the form of gases and particulate matter, is a major contributor to health problems. It is also a leading cause of smog, which has led Paris to ban diesel cars on alternate days during high-smog periods and to plan for a comprehensive ban on diesel passenger vehicles in the city by 2020.
For Europe, this is a case of chickens coming home to roost.
After years of CO2-centric policies that all but forced consumers to abandon gasoline-powered cars in favor of diesel alternatives that emitted 10 percent or so less carbon dioxide, cities on the Continent have now been forced to admit that smog is a bigger and deadlier short-term problem than the minor contributions of private automobiles to climate change. Paris, London, and other cities will now be forced to use a combination of draconian measures and funds from the public treasury to the fix the mess they’ve created. It doesn’t help matters that a significant percentage of diesel cars never even met the relatively lax EU standards for emissions in the first place.
Thanks to the EPA and CARB — Christ, I can’t believe I just wrote that, thanks to the EPA and CARB — diesel emissions have been more strictly regulated here than overseas during the past decade. Nor has our government adopted the secular religion of climate change to the degree of our Continental betters. So we don’t have a diesel-car problem, not even in Los Angeles. But there’s one thing we can do improve the air quality situation for our children and seniors, and the benefits will be immediately apparent to nearly every motorist on the American road.
Diesel engines account for a minor percentage of passenger-car sales in this country, but the numbers are very different for medium- and heavy-duty trucks. According to the EPA, 72 percent of the trucks with a gross vehicle weight rating 10,001 and above sold in the United States in 2013 were diesel-powered, up from 69 percent in 2009. If you’re not a “truck person,” then you probably associate the phrase “gross vehicle weight rating 10,001 and above” with a moving van, box truck, or other commercial vehicle. You’d be wrong. The Ford F-250 has a GVWR that just happens to land one pound short of that group at 10,000. The F-350 is comfortably above that, with a GVWR up to 14,000 pounds.
Twenty years ago, the F-250 was an 8,100-pound GVWR truck at the absolute maximum config and F-350s often had a GVWR just over 8,000 pounds. Today’s “full-sized” pickup trucks are monstrous behemoths that often weigh more than twice as much as a Toyota Camry before you put a single pound of weight in the bed. Which is appropriate, because many of these vehicles are purchased solely for personal use in which their beds are filled 99 percent of the time with nothing but air.
Every year, more and more of these poser-pick-’em-ups are ordered with diesel engines. Even the kind of people who are stupid enough to buy an F-350 Crew Cab for the daily drive to the office are smart enough to see that the resale value of diesel trucks far exceeds that of their gas-powered siblings. There’s a perception that diesel trucks last forever, said perception being almost entirely a product of the remarkable durability of the Cummins in-line engine fitted to Dodge Rams. Ask any Navistar PowerStroke owner about diesel reliability. The GM Duramax, as well, hasn’t always been maximally durable. The fact remains, however, that if you buy a diesel engine you’ll see that money back when it’s time to sell.
Having done my fair share of towing race cars with diesel pickups, I can personally attest that a modern turbodiesel engine is very good at towing heavy loads. As an example, the 2003 Dodge Ram with the Cummins diesel could generate 460 lbs-ft of torque, which is spectacular. It also happens to be the amount of torque produced by the Ford EcoBoost 3.5L V6 in the Lincoln Navigator. So if you could tow something with a 2003 RAM diesel, you can now tow it with a Navigator or F-150, chassis and transmission considerations aside. The current Cummins makes more torque, of course, but the point here is that nobody with any serious commercial reason to use a Ram diesel in 2003 considered that vehicle to be short on torque, and it’s now possible to make that same torque with a clean-burning modern gasoline engine.
Of course, most pickup-truck buyers look at torque numbers the way Mustang owners look at horsepower figures: as a way to keep score, not as a tool to be used for a particular purpose. An F-350 might do just fine pulling a horse trailer with an EcoBoost V6, but no self-respecting F-350 buyer will give up his diesel unless he is forced to do so. This is doubly true for the folks in Texas and elsewhere who drive diesel crew-cabs as commuting vehicles. The practicalities are irrelevant. What matters is having the most powerful powerplant, particularly if it is perceived to share parts or origin with the “big rigs.” Anybody who has ever had to listen to some otaku drone on about the role that Ayrton Senna supposedly played in the development of the original NSX will have no difficulty understanding why all the major truck brands have had a “heavy-duty” name associated with them, whether it’s Cummins, Navistar, or Allison.
This being the United States of America, with all that implies, I would never suggest that we restrict the purchase of pickup trucks to commercial entities. You should be free to buy what you like. You don’t need a race license to buy a GT350R, and I wasn’t asked to show proof of a WERA enduro registration to buy my first 600cc sportbike back in 1994. Given that modern turbocharged gas engines can match recent-production diesels for power and flexibility, however, I can’t help but wonder if we could do something to restrict diesel engines to the vehicles and entities that truly need them.
There’s ample precedent for this. You can fly a Cessna 172 with an entry-level license, but you’re going to need a multi-engine rating if you want to fly a King Air. It’s possible to walk into a gun shop and buy a bolt-action rifle without drama in most parts of the country, but you’ll need to go through Class III licensing if you want to own a true machine gun like an M60. In each case, the purpose of such licensing is twofold: both to ensure that hazardous machinery is operated by more-qualified people, and to ensure that the barriers to entry discourage the casual or occasional participant.
The easiest way to do this would be to restrict the operation or ownership of a diesel pickup to holders of a commercial truck license. Do you want to “roll coal” in downtown Houston traffic? Fine, but you’re going to need a CDL and a DOT physical and a logbook and all that other good stuff. Otherwise, Sir, can I interest you in an F-150 Raptor for your jacked-up urban hijinks? Announce the requirement now and phase it in over ten years. Five years from now, you’ll need a CDL to buy a new diesel truck. Ten years from now, you’ll need a CDL to drive one. That gives any current owner of a diesel truck ten years to deal with the lessened resale value of their vehicle. In the short-term, diesel trucks will surge in value, the same way AR-15s jump in price any time Mr. Obama gets on television and starts wringing his hands about any mass shooting that can’t be attributed to religious extremism, so everybody will come out just fine financially.
There will be several consequences to this legislation. Fewer people will frivolously operate diesel vehicles. That’s good for kids and old people. The air will smell better and cleaner. Truck manufacturers will be able to redirect their development money to high-efficiency gasoline engines that pollute less while delivering similar pulling power. If we’re lucky, pickup-truck designers will stop drawing their vehicles around the massive size and weight of modern diesels, which will save everybody money and weight and fuel.
If we’re really lucky, the lack of readily available “bro-dozers” will encourage their would-be purchasers to consider other transportation choices. When it comes to environmental impact, there’s simply no worse personal vehicle out there than the average full-size truck. A Mustang GT requires half the steel and uses two-thirds of the fuel. Even if you took all six occupants out of an F-250 Crew Cab 4×4 and gave them each a fully dressed Harley-Davidson Electra-Glide, you’d be saving resources and helping the planet. Lowering the average height of vehicles in traffic will also lower aggressive behavior between drivers; it will certainly save a few lives.
Some people would still go out and get their CDL just so they can roll coal to work, but as with everything else in human societies there’s a bit of critical mass effect at work here. If you’re driving an F-250 to work in the year 2025, surrounded by stylish coupes and snorting sports cars, you’ll be an outlier. Very few people truly want to be outliers, which is why “Bike Night” at my local Quaker Steak attracts a thousand riders every Wednesday night, but I’m still the only motorcyclist I ever see on my morning commute. If your neighbors are driving F-250s, your natural impulse will be to get an F-350. If you’re the only diesel truck left on your street, chances are you won’t buy another one to replace it. You’ll let your CDL lapse and get something more interesting to drive.
Those of us who still need pickup trucks for commercial purposes or towing can buy boosted gas trucks. That way, when you’re on the way to a race and some kid waves at you, you’ll be able to wave back with a clear conscience. And he’ll be able to breathe deeply without inhaling the poison you need to keep your self-image alive.
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