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Survey: Fuel Prices High, But Alt-Fuel Awareness Low

Despite rising oil prices, growing concerns about climate change and uneasiness over dependence on foreign energy, Americans’ awareness and use of alternative fuel technologies is still fairly low, according to a recent Synovate survey.

Synovate, a global market research firm, surveyed more 900 respondents in the US and Canada, as part of an international assessment of 4,500 vehicle owners around the world.

Virtually every automotive manufacturer worldwide is trying to understand consumers’ familiarity with, usage of and preference towards hybrid electric, direct-injection diesel and alternative fuel source vehicles.

—Scott Miller, CEO of Synovate’s global Motoresearch practice

American and Canadian consumers have similar awareness and adoption behaviors toward varying technologies, but demonstrate significantly divergent motivations for considering these vehicles. A majority of Americans surveyed want to reduce dependence on foreign energy while Canadians, along with most respondents across the globe, want cleaner emissions.

Americans responded similarly to consumers around the world when asked which factors keep them from purchasing an alternative fuel vehicle. By far, high vehicle cost is the number one deterrent, while the perception of these vehicles’ limited driving range was the second most claimed reason for rejecting alternative technologies.

In terms of the type of alternative fuel technology preferred, American consumers are most likely to consider hybrid electric vehicles over any other alternative to conventional engines, though only 6% of the respondents surveyed own a hybrid vehicle. Other countries surveyed for this study, including China and Russia, had significantly lower awareness of this technology.

Direct-injection diesel technology has the highest use globally, but is still very low at only 5% among all those surveyed. In the US, this type of engine is the least familiar of the three technologies mentioned in the survey, with 37% of Americans never having heard of direct-injection diesels.

While nearly all North Americans (91%) are familiar with alternative fuel sources such as natural gas, ethanol, methanol or biodiesel, it is not surprising that personal experiences driving these vehicles are virtually nil (2%). One major hurdle may be fueling infrastructures in this country.

Alternative fuel vehicles are typically developed in small, experimental volumes for commercial application, which is why so few retail consumers have seen or even heard of them. This is a serious ‘chicken and egg’ problem for the energy and automotive industries. Manufacturers can’t afford to launch vehicles that are not supported by a refueling infrastructure, and the energy industry can’t afford to build the infrastructure and wait 10 years for enough vehicles to be on the road to make it worth their investment.

...Don’t underestimate the emotional impact of increasing hurricane behavior in the Southeast or other observable changes in the climate that are linked to carbon dioxide emissions and other greenhouse gases. Consumers may drive the demand for change sooner rather than later in this country due to these factors.

—Scott Miller



You know what would increase alternative fuel penetration? Government mandates. Corporations are reactive, not proactive. They won't start

I have the opposite problem than this study found: I know all about alternative fuels, but there aren't any pumps within driving distance, and no way to modify my car to run on alternative fuels.

Ron Fischer

Chicken and egg, fuel and vehicle. This is why plug-in hybrids and EVs were seen as possible: off-peak electricity distribution is well established. But fuel is still cheap and batteries expensive.

An Engineer

Forget Alt-Fuel. The solution is to produce renewable syhthetic oil (using G/F-T, TDP or 4-PD/H). First from waste products, then from algae.

Synthetic oil completely sidesteps the chicken-and-egg problem of all alt-fuels. No need to change the fuel supply chain. No need to change your vehicle.

If alt-fuels ever penetrate the market, they will need to show substantial benefits over existing fuels, including economic benefits. So far all have failed. Don't be holding your breath.


This puzzles me. Diesel tecnology is now in an advanced stage in Europe where is common to find a 160hp car having a fuel economy of 50mpg or more. Why does USA still have't pick this solution. You have also an serious reduction in emissions (even NOx are very similar to a gas car in a modern common rail diesel). If you combine diesel with hybrid tec you could multiply the effects and obtain 80 mpg or more. This aproach is much more secure than having low efficiency cars using a more inefficient fuel like ethanol.

Rafael Seidl

MH -

there have never been significant numbers of diesel cars in the US and virtually none since the 80s. Back then, diesels were indeed underpowered, noisy and smelly. Most Americans associate diesel strictly with 18-wheelers, buses and farm tractors.

The not entirely unreasonable approach of both EPA and CARB is that they are responsible only for air quality and should therefore promote the use of whatever technology that achieves the lowest possible harmful emissions. That means gasoline engines running at an equivalence ratio of 1. CARB has recently tried to include CO2 in the list of harmful gases but was immediately sued by the auto industry because CO2 is tightly linked to fuel economy, which is currently the domain of the federal Dept. of Transport and the IRS (CAFE & gas guzzler tax).

The consequences of this division of responibilities are now evident. The US auto industry has no domestic diesel expertise or manufacturing capacity. US refineries are optimized for gasoline production and only 40% of filling stations sell diesel at all. US politicians, lobbied vigorously by industry, refuse to impose high fuel taxes. Retail prices for both currently average $2.89 per gallon, but the diesel fuel contains 12% more energy.


Vehicle fuel economy becomes an issue only when there is are outside pressures on the system and prices at the pump rise sharply. Unfortunately, this typically leads to calls for energy independence rather than for reduced consumption.

In Europe, the EU commission takes a more balanced view, permitting substantially higher emissions from diesels than from gasoline engines, because the former are more fuel efficient. In addition, diesel taxes are lower, originally to placate the farming and haulage industries - and now, the many diesel vehicle owners.

If European carmakers (particularly VW and DCX) want to popularize diesels in the US, they must (a) deliver affordable, attractive vehicles and (B) educate US consumers about the state of the art with a suitable marketing campaign.

Although US emissions limits are extremely strict, it looks like Honda, VW and DCX will finally be able to meet them with diesels in the next 1-3 years. If so, Toyota may join the fray. Initial purchase price will be an issue, due to the advanced technology involved plus high German labor rates and a strong Euro. Initial quality is currently a competitive advantage for the Japanese.

I suspect that many US consumers will by now have heard that diesels are very popular in Europe and more fuel efficient than gasoline engines. However, this means exactly nothing to them until they can actually buy and operate such vehicles in the US.


The fuel price not expensive enough, enough said.

If you combine diesel with hybrid tec you could multiply the effects and obtain 80 mpg or more.
You just described a PNGV vehicle.

Isn't it a pity the Republicans killed the PNGV program in 2001?


Hybrid drivetrain significantly improves fuel efficiency of gasoline-engined vehicle, however, vehicle with diesel engine will benefit from hybrid drivetrain only marginally. In fact, it is exactly the reason why European carmakers are trying to discredit hybrid technology.

CARB and EPA moved to exactly the same emission standards for gasoline and diesel powered cars. So, if anyone will offer clean end still affordable diesel car - you are wellcome.


Fuel prices high? In the US? That makes me laugh. By historical standards they may be high. Not even 3 $ costs a gallon. Here in Europe, we pay the double and it is still way to cheap.

allen zheng

It would probably take until $5+ a gallon for 1-3 months to make the consumers switch over to alternative energy/hybrids/conventional high efficiency cars/car pooling.

allen zheng

However, the energy companies would eat some of their profits to keep this from happening. They know this senario. It may come as "free gas cards" or a check of some sort.


About diesel hybrids. In the case of the Citroen C4 it's expected to have an average 25% gain in efficiency. When you multiply by millions of cars every % counts.

Please read this:



Rafael. You state that diesel has 12% more energy than gasoline. I know this issue has come up before, but I still have not seen anything that seems definitive on whether or not diesel requires more oil than gasoline to refine a gallon. Any thoughts you might have on this matter would be appreciated.


The "how much oil does it take to make diesel vs. gasoline" question is not all that straightforward. It depends on the quality of the oil, and the extra effort you're willing to--or have to--put into it.

Crude oil is a jumble of hundreds of complex, different hydrocarbon molecules of different lengths and weights (along with other stuff, like sulfur). What we refer to as diesel, gasoline, propane, and so on are combinations of different types of those molecules that are contained with the oil, with different numbers of carbon atoms. Nor is all crude the same. There are more than 150 named varieties of crude and different grades of crude, all with different chemical properties.

(The International Crude Oil Handbook will describe them all.)

For example, gasoline is typically a mixture of alkanes and cycloalkanes with 5-12 carbon atoms. Diesel consists of alkanes with 12 or more carbon atoms. Naptha--an intermediate product that will be processed more to produce gasoline--is a mix of 5 to 9 carbon-atom alkanes.

All of these--there are about 8 categories of basic products coming out of a barrel of crude--not only have different sizes, they have different boiling ranges.

The first approach to petroleum refining was basically to boil the oil, let it vaporize, and separate out the different size and weight fractions into their basic product categories.

The "lighter" fractions have fewer carbon atoms.

What you get--your yield--depends on what you start with in your crude oil. The reason light, sweet crude is in such demand is that it produces a lot of gasoline. That's also the reason light sweet crude costs more on the world market. As we are faced with heavier, more sour (more sulfur) oil, the processing steps to get to a product such as gasoline increase.

That "crude" fractionation is only the first step. Following that, refiners need to remove impurities, and then also begin working with the different fractions to create other products. Think of a barrel of crude almost as a set of "natural" products that are mixed together in the barrel and then are pulled apart by fractional distillation. Those fractions can be used as a kit of parts, though, to build other products.

Looked at a different way, a good gasoline yield from a barrel of oil without further processing would probably be about 40%. In a market like the US, where gasoline is dominant, that either means that you need to refine more than two barrels of crude to get a barrel of gasoline (expensive!) or you need to convert some of the other fractions into gasoline.

You can crack longer chains into smaller ones, combine smaller ones into larger ones, or rearrange the pieces to make a different product.

The different sets of equipment and processes to do that are quite expensive--so it's not particularly easy to turn quickly in a new direction. Take Europe as an example. With the boom in the diesel market over there over the past years, the European refiners have too little diesel and too much gasoline in their production mix. Correspondingly, they're putting in the equipment that will allow them to produce more diesel per barrel. For the moment, they export the surplus. (And when they do switch the mix over to more diesel, that will mean less gasoline on the market.)


I think the PNGV program may have been shelved more because it provided an immediate improvement in fuel economy, without giving up much in passenger comfort nor performance.

If you get people to believe that the solution is many years in the future, oil companies can continue to take billions in profits. The whole point of the program was to show it could be done and they did that.

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