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Wednesday, Oct. 25, 2000

Trucks try to clean up act with eco-friendly engines


By SETSUKO KAMIYA and AKEMI NAKAMURA
Staff writers

Japan's truck makers -- long battered by the nation's prolonged economic slump -- may finally be headed toward recovery as sales in the first nine months of this year rose 2.4 percent over the same period last year.

But they will need to overcome the additional hurdle of pollution control to ensure any hope of success.

At the upcoming 34th Tokyo Motor Show in Makuhari, Chiba Prefecture, four Japanese truck makers plan to display up-to-date technology to reduce emissions of particulate matter and nitrogen dioxides, major causes of air pollution, from their diesel-powered trucks.

The five-day show, which opens Oct. 31, will focus on commercial vehicles this time, with seven other Japanese and two foreign automakers exhibiting the latest commercial vehicles.

Diesel trucks have been strongly associated with air pollution ever since the Kobe District Court recognized in January for the first time that health problems can be attributed to particulate matter from the exhaust of diesel automobiles.

After the ruling was made, the Tokyo Metropolitan Government decided to introduce a regulation in 2003 that will require diesel trucks registered in the metropolis to use particle filters that reduce exhaust emissions.

By phasing in the regulation, the metro government plans to ban all diesel trucks without filters from the streets of Tokyo by April 2006. Other urban areas are considering similar regulations.

The measures are forcing truck and bus makers to develop engines and devices capable of reducing the amount of nitrogen dioxide and particulate.

During the motor show, the truck makers will present advanced emissions-cutting products and technologies they hope to introduce to the market in the near future.

Hino Motors Ltd.'s booth will feature a hybrid truck powered by a diesel engine and two electric motors. The system, combined with a government regulation that requires fuel makers to reduce sulfur content in light fuel to one-tenth the current level by 2004, will cut nitrogen dioxide and particulate by 80 percent from the 1998 environment standard.

Isuzu Motors Ltd. will display two types of diesel particulate filters, plus a catalyst system and the Exhaust Gas Recirculation System designed to reduce nitrogen dioxide emissions. The system will mix part of exhaust gas with fresh air in cylinders in a diesel engine.

Mitsubishi Motors Corp. will also show a diesel-electric hybrid bus that can cut nitrogen dioxide emissions by 50 percent to 70 percent from its present model's level and particulate by 80 percent to 90 percent.

Meanwhile, Nissan Diesel Motor Co., one of the first automakers to introduce condensed natural gas engine trucks into the market, will highlight a truck and bus featuring hybrid engines powered by condensed natural gas -- the cleanest fuel currently available for vehicles -- and an electric motor.

However, the truck makers say that their effort alone will not be sufficient to have these technologies introduced to the market.

Nissan Diesel spokesman Yasuyuki Okumura said that while the automaker will try to improve fuel-efficiency of vehicles running on condensed natural gas, the number of fuel stations that supply the fuel must be increased to make such vehicles popular and affordable.

"We believe there is a strong potential demand for CNG-powered vehicles," he said. "Automakers are working really hard, but users and the government must also work together to really move things forward."

Tighter environmental regulations on diesel vehicles are also a major concern for businesses that rely heavily on trucks and buses.

Kazuyuki Goto, a spokesman for a major Tokyo-based tour bus operator Hato Bus Co., said introducing more environment-friendly vehicles is an additional burden to the firm's finances, already strained by declining numbers of riders and the recent rise in crude oil prices.

Because vehicles featuring new technologies will be more expensive than current ones, Goto said, "The cost of vehicles and fuel is really a matter of life and death" for the firm, which owns a fleet of 153 buses.

Koji Watanabe, a spokesman for Nippon Express Co., a major trucking firm, said more financial support from the government is necessary to introduce more eco-friendly vehicles.

Of the firm's 12,000 2-ton or larger trucks, only 700 use cleaner energies such as liquid petroleum gas and CNG. The company plans to introduce another 500 such trucks by the end of fiscal 2000, Watanabe said.

Akihiro Takada, general manager of Hino Motors' public relations, said strict emission control on diesel vehicles is a good opportunity for truck makers to increase sales.

As of the end of March 1999, there were 4.81 million diesel-powered cars, 6.32 million diesel trucks and 235,000 diesel buses registered in Japan.

The average life of a diesel engine is around 10 years, but the new regulations may prompt truck owners to switch to new, cleaner-emission vehicles earlier than planned.

"I think as consumers become aware of the environmental problems, companies will come to introduce cleaner vehicles," Takada said.



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