As U.S. environmental regulations tighten and petroleum resources become scarce, vehicle manufacturers are asking a challenging question: Is there a diesel fuel vehicle in the average American's future?

Ford Motor Co. is one of the leaders in trying to educate U.S. legislators and the American public on the cleanliness of new light-vehicle diesel engines.

During the 2002 International Truck and Bus Meeting and Exposition, one of the highlights was a meeting on environmental stewardship. Discussion quickly turned to diesel engines and the role they will play in the future of the global auto industry.

Richard Parry-Jones, group vice president, Ford Product Development and chief technical officer, was the general chair of the Truck and Bus Conference and led off a panel discussion.

"Not only are we seeing more environmental regulation but equally importantly we are seeing more and more environmental responsibility expectations of leaders in the industry," said Parry-Jones.

Nick Scheele, president and chief operating officer of Ford Motor Co. was one of four on a panel comprised of industry leaders.

"I believe the diesel's time is coming here in the U.S. because in the U.S. the diesel should be the powertrain of choice, more so than in Europe," noted Scheele.

In Europe, during the last eight years diesel use has gone from near zero to 40 percent use and is seen in about 80 percent of the luxury vehicle segment. The higher usage is driven largely by lower taxes on diesel, thus lowering prices.

In the U.S. there has to be consumer education and acceptance, conference panelists agreed. If American consumers start using diesel and approach the 40 percent usage mark, the U.S. will see significant fuel savings, said Margo Oge, director of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

"What that will result into is (a) 1.4 million barrel per day of fuel savings," said Oge. "This is twice of what we imported from Iraq last year."

But the issue in America is to educate the consumer, and that will take time. Scheele said Ford is doing its part to help gain U.S. acceptance.

“We have a small fleet [of diesel powered cars], which we're using as a demonstration fleet around Washington and around various of the state capitols,” he said.

However, the panel noted there has to be help from states and fuel suppliers to put together the necessary infrastructure.

Panelist John Horne, chief executive officer of Navistar, noted that the American petroleum industry has to begin producing low-sulfur diesel fuel, which is used by the engines that power the light vehicles in Europe. Right now most fuel in America has a relatively high sulfur content.

John Wall, chief technical officer of Cummins Diesel, said right now they have prototype diesels for light cars and trucks that can nearly meet the stricter California emissions requirements that go into effect in 2004. However he, too, said they cannot meet the standard without national availability of low-sulfur fuel.