And the winner is...diesel?

Talk all you want about ethanol and hydrogen, the car industry seems to have already picked its "alternative" fuel.

Is diesel the answer to more stringent emission standards?

Apparently it is, at least from the perspective of automakers.

Ford India announced Wednesday that it is launching a diesel version of the Ford Fiesta, the latest in a string of similar announcements in the industry.

"(This car) will dramatically change customers' perceptions about the traditional diesel vehicle. The car is designed to deliver responsive acceleration, outstanding fuel economy, and reduced emissions consistent with future norms," Scott McCormack, vice president of Ford India, said in a statement.

While environmentalists, consumers and politicians continued to discuss ethanol, hydrogen and electricity, the auto industry, it seems, had already decided and has been making plans for its short-term answer to the energy problem.

It's been sitting under our noses at the highway pump the whole time.

In the past month, several major car companies have announced that they are either beefing up their diesel-engine lines or partnering on technology to develop better diesel engines for both commercial trucks and cars. Some are even thinking diesel-electric hybrids.

Honda announced an Accord that will get 62.8 miles per gallon for the U.S. market by 2010. Peugeot announced earlier this month that it has a hybrid diesel-electric car in the works that should get about 70 mpg, according to reports.

Toyota has said that it will make an announcement this July concerning its much-anticipated collaboration on diesel technology with Isuzu.

DaimlerChrysler is partnering with Fiat to improve its diesel engines for light-duty commercial trucks, and then possibly move on to low-emission diesel vehicles for cars. p>

Audi has said it hopes its win with a diesel-powered race car at Le Mans, will help change the perception of diesel among consumers, especially in the U.S. where old diesel engines fell out of favor as emissions standards rose.

With an infrastructure already in place due to commercial trucks never leaving the diesel fold, diesel seems like an obvious solution to help fulfill automakers' immediate needs--to sell more vehicles while meeting emissions standards and consumer demand to save on fuel.

Today's diesel engines and diesel fuel itself have come a long way. Advances in turbocharging and fuel injection have boosted performance. New kinds of particle traps and low sulfur diesel fuel have reduced the emissions and soot-producing byproducts.

Whether car companies will be able to overcome the association with diesel as the sooty diesel engine trucks and cars of the 1970s and 1980s is another matter.

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