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Audi Diesel wins LeMans, changes perceptions?

The winner: No.8 Audi Sport Team Joest R10. Photo: Bertrand COUSSEAUWhy are diesels currently less than 1% of the vehicles sold in the US and about 40% of the vehicles sold in the EU? One oft-cited reason is the horrible memories we all have of choking as the neighborhood diesel noisily and slowly clanked by.

All that may be changing. This weekend, the Audi A10 became the first diesel powered car to win the 24hr LeMans race. With a particulate filter installed, mind you.

Events like this may serve as a watershed moment for the engine design. When your Audi brochure arrives with a checkered flag and champagne on the cover, you may forget that old Mercedes that just wouldn’t die.

And that could be a good thing for the environment, with the usual positives and negative impacts. Diesel does contain more energy than gas, so mileage is higher, especially where the engine’s high torque is useful. Although burning the fuel emits 14% more CO2 per gallon, the 30% increase in fuel economy means switching to diesel can drop your carbon footprint at least 10%. Of course the drawbacks for diesel are numerous, including a lot of ancillary air quality issues. Diesel has emissions issues: higher NOx and particulate matter are the main problems to be solved.

Perhaps even more exciting is the push this could mean for biofuels, something widely considered as one of the stabilization wedges of climate change. As a biofuel, biodiesel has a higher net energy balance than ethanol and is much closer to economical production today. Its drawback is of course the low number of passenger vehicles capable of burning it. Changing perceptions could mean more enthusiasm for biodiesel among mainstream consumers.

A challenge for the LeMans teams for next year — win it on B100!

UPDATE: Jeff correctly points out that diesels are high-torque not low-torque. Hence usefulness is trucking, etc. Obviously, our esteemed editor is away in Europe drinking Chianti.

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