A Guide to … Vehicle Stability Control


Stability Control has been touted as the most important automotive safety device since the seatbelt.

Governments in North America, Europe and Australia have plans to make the technology compulsory on all new vehicles because studies have shown it can reduce the likelihood of single-vehicle crashes and prevent roll-overs.

It is designed to prevent cars from an unintended skid in a bend. In most cases the technology works without the driver knowing that he or she has had a brush with danger. In essence, Stability Control protects drivers from minor indiscretions, such as when suddenly finding themselves on wet or slippery pavement, or in an unexpectedly tight corner.

However, Stability Control does not (and nor does it promise to) over-rule the laws of physics. If you’re travelling way too fast for a corner or for the conditions, you may still run off the road. Stability Control is an extremely worthwhile technology, but it is important to note that some systems are more effective than others.

Car makers use different names to describe the technology; there are more than 20 acronyms across the industry. Stability Control was originally called ESP, for Electronic Stability Program, a deliberate pun on Extra Sensory Perception because the technology uses sensors to monitor driving conditions and driver behaviour.

Stability Control first appeared on a production car in 1995, on the luxury flagship sedan, the Mercedes-Benz S Class, although the technology was developed on its behalf by electronics company Bosch and appeared on other vehicles soon after. Today, the technology is most commonly called ESC, for Electronic Stability Control, although in recent times it has simply been called Stability Control.

To understand in the simplest terms how Stability Control works we need a brief history lesson. The roots of Stability Control started with anti-lock brakes, or ABS (Anti-lock Braking System). In an emergency stop, ABS systems automatically clamp and release the brakes up to 20 times per second while the driver is applying full brake pedal pressure.

Once again, this often occurs without the driver necessarily knowing that the technology is at work.

The benefit is straightforward: ABS prevents the brakes (and therefore the tyres) from ‘locking’ and gives the driver the ability to steer around an obstacle. It is especially helpful in wet weather braking.

For ABS to work, cars had to be fitted with extra sensors to monitor the speed of each of the four wheels. Engineers eventually found a new use for these sensors and created what became known as Traction Control. This is where the speed of the driven wheels is constantly compared to the speed of the other two wheels.

When one pair of wheels is travelling faster than the other, the system intervenes and applies the brakes and/or automatically cuts engine power until the vehicle’s speed is reduced, and all four wheels are again travelling at the same speed.

For example, in a rear-drive car, if the rear wheels started to spin at a faster rate than the front wheels (which indicate the real speed the vehicle is travelling), then traction control would be activated in milliseconds. The same thing happens if the front wheels spin faster than the rear wheels in a front-drive car (when equipped with Traction Control).

Traction Control is typically most useful at detecting unintended wheelspin when accelerating from a standstill, such as when trying to drive up a steep wet slope, or when accelerating aggressively out of a corner. ABS and Traction Control then became the building blocks for Stability Control. Once these sensors were in place, it was simply a matter of adding a steering wheel sensor, a throttle sensor and a sensor which detects how much pitch or lean the car is experiencing in a corner.

Engineers also found a way to apply the brakes to each individual wheel, to help bring the car under control in the safest and most effective manner possible.

Modern versions of the technology is so good, a race driver in a car without Stability Control would unlikely out-manoeuvre the same car with a well-calibrated Stability Control system, because the system can do what the driver can’t: brake individual wheels. All this requires an incredible amount of computer power.

Stability Control systems constantly monitor and process hundreds of times per second the following information:

  • Vehicle speed (wheel sensors)
  • Steering input (steering wheel sensor)
  • Acceleration (throttle sensor)
  • Braking (brake sensor)
  • Pitch or ‘lean’ of the car (yaw sensor)

Thanks to complex algorithms and thousands of hours of tests and calibrations, engineers develop Stability Control systems to suit each vehicle’s characteristics, such as weight, mass, engine power and tyre grip.

Some cars are programmed for conservative drivers and so the Stability Control system is prone to intervene at the earliest hint of a skid. Some cars, particularly performance vehicles, often have a slightly higher threshold because they have a higher level of grip. Despite the varying levels of effectiveness, Stability Control is still proven to be a life-saver.

Overseas studies of crashes involving cars equipped with Stability Control claim there have been reductions of between 35 and 50 per cent in serious injury single-vehicle collisions.

This is one of the reasons that the European New Car Assessment Program (ENCAP) and the Australian New Car Assessment Program (ANCAP) recently decided that only vehicles with Stability Control could be awarded a Five Star safety rating.

As with its European affiliate, ANCAP is an independent body that crash tests vehicles to higher standards than those imposed by Governments. It is intended to be a consumer guide to car safety and most top-selling models are tested.

ANCAP is supported by Australian and New Zealand automobile clubs, the State government road and transport authorities of NSW, Victoria, South Australia, Queensland, Tasmania, Western Australia, the New Zealand Government, the Victorian TAC, NRMA Insurance and the FIA Foundation.

When checking the safety rating of a new vehicle on the ANCAP website be sure to check if a vehicle has Stability Control (some older Five Star ratings didn’t require the technology).

Most importantly, though, when you’re looking to buy your next car, check with the vehicle manufacturer that the exact model you are buying has Stability Control.

If you’re in the market to rent a car in Australia or New Zealand DriveNow provides the most comprehensive breakdown of features for Car Rental fleets to ensure you have all the information required when selecting a vehicle.

Today Stability Control is rapildy becoming a standard across mid-range as well as luxury cars, but on more affordable vehicles the technology may be standard on some variants and optional or not available on others.

About NRMA Insurance
NRMA Insurance is a provider of insurance products, including car insurance and home insurance in NSW, ACT & TAS.

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What is ANCAP and how does it work?



They say it’s wrong to judge a book by its cover, but there’s another cliché that should ring true: don’t judge a car by the number of airbags.

Almost all new cars on sale in Australia today have airbags but, despite these worthwhile safety features, crash protection varies markedly from model to model.

Of course, all cars must meet a minimum crash safety standard set by the Federal Government, but the emphasis there is the word “minimum”. The regulations regarding crash protection have not been revised in more than a decade.

This is part of the reason the Australian New Car Assessment Program (ANCAP) was established.

Funded by the motoring clubs and state government authorities in Australia and New Zealand, ANCAP aims to improve vehicle safety by independently testing, assessing and then rating the safety of new cars.

The idea was a world first. ANCAP was established in 1992. Euro NCAP, which follows the same procedures and protocols, was established in 1997. ANCAP has no power to approve – or ban – vehicles from sale. But it has become a priceless consumer guide that could save your life.

Before ANCAP, and its associated authority, Euro NCAP, trying to compare the safety of like vehicles was pure guesswork. Rather than simply saying a car “passes” the minimum Federal Government regulations, ANCAP gives car buyers more detail on how each vehicle’s crash worthiness compares.

For those who want to know the finer points of difference, ANCAP scores the cars out of 35 points and the data can be found on the ANCAP website, But generally, most people judge a car by ANCAP’s simple star rating, from one to five.

Originally, ANCAP said a car with a one star rating was deemed as having an “unacceptable” risk of injury, the safety of two star cars were regarded as “poor”, three stars cars were regarded as “marginal”, four stars were “acceptable” and five stars were “good”. But following pressure from the car industry ANCAP dropped the names and retained only the star ratings.

ANCAP has not been without its controversy. Car makers initially opposed ANCAP’s findings and methods. The manufacturers said they tested cars for the real world, that it was unfair to judge a car based on one test, and that the ANCAP tests were too severe.

One of the claims made by some car makers during this debate in the late 1990s was that designing a car to achieve a high score could make the car too rigid for lower speed crashes, and potentially cause injuries. This was found not to be the case. Indeed, cars as small as the Fiat 500 are now capable of achieving a five-star rating.

Further, subsequent studies have shown that cars with four stars or above have significantly lower deaths and serious injuries. Over the past 10 years resistance to ANCAP has subsided, as the safety of each manufacturer’s cars has improved. Indeed, some of the most vocal opponents of ANCAP now use the five star results in their advertising and promotional material.

There is no doubt that ANCAP and its affiliates have markedly improved the safety of new vehicles, more so than any government agency or regulation. Indeed, government regulations are only just beginning to catch up to ANCAP.

ANCAP announced that from the beginning of 2008 only cars with stability control would be eligible for a five star safety rating.  The Federal Government recently announced this technology will be compulsory on all new passenger cars introduced from November 2011 onwards, and all other new passenger cars have until November 2013 to have the technology fitted as standard.

How ANCAP testing compares…

Australian government regulations require passenger cars to be crash tested into an offset barrier at 56km/h and light commercial vehicles to be crash tested into a full frontal barrier at 48km/h. ANCAP crash tests all vehicles at 64km/h into an offset barrier.

ANCAP also tests side impact protection and cars with side and/or curtain airbags typically do well. Cars without side and/or curtain airbags typically show life-threatening injuries. In the side impact test, a 950kg sled designed to simulate another vehicle strikes the driver’s side at 50km/h. To qualify for the full five star rating, the car also has to pass a side pole test where the car is pushed sideways into a rigid pole at 29km/h.

Recent results have included pedestrian tests. These are a series of tests carried out to replicate crashes involving child and adult pedestrians where impacts occur at 40km/h.
Contributed by NRMA Insurance

About NRMA Insurance
NRMA Insuranceis a provider of insurance products, including car insurance and home insurance in NSW, ACT & TAS.

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A Guide to… Petrol or Diesel?


Petrol or diesel? It’s a common question when people look to update their car.

Unfortunately, the answer isn’t straightforward. It depends on individual needs – and what sort of impact you want to make on the environment and public health.

Typically, diesel engines make more sense in trucks and in vehicles used for towing, because of the pulling power of the engine at low revs. Diesel engines can also deliver better economy, especially on the open road, so they are often well suited to motorists who do a lot of country driving.

But in most cases diesel-powered cars cost more to buy than the same car with a petrol engine. On a popular European hatchback, for example, the petrol version is $30,000 and the diesel version is $33,000 – a 10 per cent premium.

Will you get that money back in fuel-cost savings? That depends on the price of the fuel and how far you drive each year. The price of unleaded fuel rises and falls more sharply – and more often – because there is more demand. More than three quarters of all vehicles on the road run on unleaded.

Diesel, meanwhile, is mostly bought by big fleet operators and mining and industry contractors, who buy in bulk. In fact, only about 25 per cent of diesel sold in Australia is pumped through retail service stations. Less demand equals less competition, and less price fluctuation. In 2008 diesel was up to 40 cents per litre dearer than petrol, which made diesel a much less attractive option for the average motorist.

However in the first half of 2009 prices of both fuels have generally been on par, which meant diesel drivers were able to drive the same dollars further, putting them well in front. But this period of uncharacteristically cheap diesel was expected to be short-lived because the Global Financial Crisis had reduced demand in the mining and industry sectors, and this led to an oversupply of diesel.

With all of the above in mind, there is yet another factor to consider in the petrol versus diesel debate: emissions. Burning a litre of diesel creates 17 per cent more CO2 than burning a litre of petrol (2.7kg versus 2.3kg). But a litre of diesel can give a 25 to 30 per cent longer driving range than a petrol-powered car. This means that, on balance, diesel engines typically produce fewer greenhouse gas emissions than petrol engines.

Sounds straightforward doesn’t it? Unfortunately we’re not done yet.diesel fuel cap

In recent times, we’ve been focussed on fuel economy and carbon dioxide emissions and patted ourselves on the back for knowing what the numbers mean (in both cases, low numbers are good). But this is only scratching the surface. If we dig a little deeper, there are more harmful emissions we should start to take more notice of.

Both petrol and diesel fuels produce emissions that are harmful to our health, but diesel is a more serious pollutant. Both fuels produce similar amounts of hydrocarbons, toxic air pollutants and carbon monoxide, but diesel produces significantly more oxides of nitrogen (NOx) and particulate matter.

One example: the Mini Cooper diesel has a fuel economy rating of 3.9L/100km, the same as the petrol-powered Toyota Prius hybrid. But the Mini emits 56 times more oxides of nitrogen than does the Mini (0.003 versus 0.168).

The Federal Government’s Green Vehicle Guide says diesels are marked down because “their contribution to air pollution is generally higher than that of comparative petrol or LPG vehicles”. “Of most concern are particulate matter and nitrogen oxides (NOx) which can cause a range of adverse health effects. These emissions are generally higher in diesel vehicles compared with petrol or gas vehicles.”

The NSW Department of Environment and Climate Change says particulate matter can “cause or aggravate: cardiac and respiratory disease, acute bronchitis in adults and children, reduced lung function and asthma attacks”.

It can also cause premature death for people with pre-existing heart and lung conditions. Oxides of nitrogen can restrict lung function and increase the chance of respiratory infections. Basically, unleaded fuel might be worse for the planet, but diesel fuel is worse for our health.

A June 2005 report by the Bureau of Transport and Regional Economics put the annual death toll from vehicle exhaust pollution at between 900 and 2000 people – more than the national road toll. “Diesel exhaust has been linked in numerous scientific studies to cancer, the exacerbation of asthma and other respiratory diseases,” the report says.

This is why the quality of diesel fuel itself has been forced to improve over the past decade and car makers have been forced to introduce particulate filters on diesel vehicles. Even more stringent restrictions are due in 2014.

Oddly, however, the next step in emissions standards, known as “Euro V” and due to come into effect in September 2009, will mean that diesel engines in passenger cars will be allowed to emit 180mg/km, while petrol-powered cars will only be allowed to emit 60mg/km.

To help meet these targets, there is a new generation of so-called “clean” diesel engines that run on a new generation of diesel fuel. The sulphur content of diesel dropped from 500 parts per million to 50ppm in 2006 and was due to fall again to 10ppm in 2009 (to bring Australia into line with European regulations), although this deadline has been extended.

Car ExhaustBut some experts are already beginning to question the effectiveness of the “cleaner” diesel, the new generation of particulate filters, and the way emissions are measured. Britain’s Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs says ultra-fine particles may still be dangerous because they can dissolve in the lungs. Further, current vehicle emission and air quality measuring procedures are based on weight rather than surface area.

Ultra-fine particle emissions weigh very little but have a relatively enormous surface area when compared with larger coarse particles. A billion ultra-fine particles can weigh the same as one coarse particle, yet have 1000 times the surface area.

While this debate continues, sales of diesel cars are still growing in Australia. In the first six months of 2009, one in four of all new vehicles was powered by a diesel engine. A decade ago, diesel-powered vehicles accounted for one in 10.

But is this a good thing? Toyota, the world’s biggest car maker, believes petrol-electric hybrid power will ultimately replace diesel power because the emission restrictions on diesel vehicles will be so strict that they may be regulated and priced out of existence.

The theory is that by the time you take into account the cost of urea injection, which has to be filled up by the dealer between service intervals, the soot trap or particulate filter that has to be burned off by the dealers, as well as a NOx reduction catalyst and the cost of direct injection, a petrol-electric hybrid drivetrain would cost about the same or less than a diesel-powered car – and produce fewer emissions.

Furthermore, new technology petrol engines are starting to deliver diesel-like economy but with super-low NOx emissions. Europe’s biggest car maker Volkswagen is investing in small capacity turbocharged petrol engines, for example. Others are due to follow suit.

Other European brands, such as Mercedes-Benz and Peugeot, believe so-called “clean” diesel engines matched with hybrid electric motors are the way to go.

The final word goes to one seasoned motor industry insider: “When you have a fuel-burning car, you are always going to emit some form of poison from the tailpipe. It then becomes a case of choosing your poison”.

About NRMA Insurance
NRMA Insurance is a provider of insurance products, including car insurance and home insurance in NSW, ACT & TAS.

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They don’t build ’em like they used to… A Guide to Old Car Safety


They don’t build ’em like they used to. That’s how old cars are generally described. Tough as nails, made of steel. New cars just fall apart in a crash, so the saying goes.

But contrary to perception, there is a very good reason new cars deform more readily in a crash: it can save your life.

Consider this: when an old car has a front end crash, the structure won’t be crushed as much as a modern car’s would, which means the occupants experience a more sudden rate of deceleration, and potentially more life threatening injuries.

The front end of a modern car is designed to collapse in a crash, to help absorb some of the impact. This slows the rate of deceleration on the occupants inside the car and, hopefully, helps prevent life threatening injuries.

The dramatic improvement in the crash safety of cars over the past 30 years or more is just one of the reasons young novice drivers are over-represented in fatal crashes. Our most inexperienced drivers are often in the oldest and less safe cars on the road, which lack the latest safety aids such as seatbelt pre-tensioners, airbags, anti-lock brakes and stability control.

Crash statistics show that you are up to 10 times more likely to die if you are in a 1970s car than a modern vehicle.

Of course, not everyone can afford a new car with the latest safety features. But there are steps you
can take to make your older car as safe as possible
. A lot of the following will sound like common sense, but it’s surprising how many of the basics are forgotten or overlooked.

  • Tyres are more important than most people give them credit for. We tend to buy tyres on price but given that they are the only point of contact between you and the road they deserve more attention. When replacing tyres, try to get the best you can afford, and avoid retreads if at all possible. Don’t drive on tyres with an illegal tread depth, not just because your car could be defected by police, but because you could crash and kill or injure yourself or someone else. Wet weather grip is severely diminished when tyres are going bald because the tread can’t “pump” the water between tyre and the road. Regularly check that your tyres are correctly inflated.
  • Good maintenance is also key, and you want to ensure the brake pad material is no more than half worn. If so, prepare to replace them, as the second half of the pad wears faster than the first half.
  • If the car bounces over potholes or takes a while to recover after driving over speed humps, chances are the shock absorbers need replacing. Worn shock absorbers can cause wheel bounce (which means the tyre can lose contact with the road) and increase emergency braking distances.
  • In old cars in particular, check the seatbelts are not frayed or faded, as they may tear in a severe impact.
  • Also get a mechanic to check under the car for structural rust, which can make the car less safe in a crash.
  • Perhaps most important of all is to adjust your driving style so that you reduce the risk of crashing in the first place. Allow for greater distances between you and the car in front, and take corners more slowly than you would in a modern car.

Ideally, you don’t want to crash in an old car because there is less to protect you. There is a hard plastic horn pad in the middle of the steering wheel where an airbag ought to be. And solid roof pillars where side airbags ought to be.

It’s often said in jest but, really, you should drive as if there is a steel spike in the steering wheel. That ought to help you concentrate.

About NRMA Insurance

NRMA Insurance is a provider of insurance products, including car insurance and home insurance in NSW, ACT & TAS.

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What makes a Hybrid tick and where do we go from here?


A Guide to … Hybrid Cars… what makes a Hybrid tick and where do we go from here? NRMA offer some insight on this and what we can expect

We are witnessing what the industry calls the gradual electrification of the motor car.

That is, petrol engines are going to get smaller and electric motors will get bigger as battery technology and public recharge points improve … Until, eventually, the petrol engine can disappear from some city cars altogether.

The first stepping stone on this path is the hybrid car. For those who aren’t familiar with how they work it’s simpler than all the tech talk makes it out to be.

For starters they don’t need to be plugged in to electricity and, for the time being at least, they are fueled and serviced just like a normal car.  If you opened the bonnet on today’s hybrid car you’d see a petrol engine under the bonnet and an electric motor next to it.

In essence they are called hybrids because they merge two sources of power: petrol and electricity.

toyota-priusIn the most popular example of the technology, the Toyota Prius, the electric motor can move the car from rest up to, say, about 40km/h and then the petrol engine automatically cuts in and takes over at cruising speeds.

The electric motor is powered by an onboard battery pack which is automatically recharged when the car coasts downhill or when the brakes are applied. No external electricity necessary. Pretty clever.

Typically you can get up to 800km or even 900km between refills. But there are as many critics of hybrid cars as there are fans. The downsides are that, for now, they’re relatively expensive to buy.

And on a dollar per kilometre basis they don’t make purely financial sense once you take into account the significant price premium for the car.

But, without the lessons learned from hybrid cars – and the people prepared to pay a premium for them – we wouldn’t be as advanced on battery and electric motor technology as we are today.

The Toyota Prius passed the 1 million milestone in 2008 after 10 years of sales – and the efficiency of the electric motor and battery technology has improved with each new model.

We will continue to see hybrid versions of more cars, including in two years, the humble Camry.

This will occur as we inch towards the next stepping stone: plug-in hybrids. Plug-in hybrids are the same as regular hybrids but they have the ability to be recharged for a few hours to provide a longer petrol-free driving range.

For example, if you drove a standard Prius in Eco mode and turned the air-conditioning off and the road was flat and you had no traffic lights, you may get one or two kilometres before the petrol engine would kick in.

However, when driving normally, you typically get a few hundred metres of petrol free driving depending on how hard you push the accelerator.

But, with a plug-in hybrid, you could get, say, up to 20km of petrol-free driving.

For a lot of people this is enough to get them to work and back without using a drop of petrol.

Plug-in hybrids are still a few years away from showrooms, but the technology is relatively straightforward as it effectively relies on larger battery capacity.

When full electric vehicles go on sale in the next few years, this will focus the emissions debate on how electricity is created.

Contrary to perception, cars are not the biggest polluters. According to data compiled by the Federal Government, the national fleet of passenger cars emits about 8 per cent of Australia’s greenhouse gas emissions, coal fired power stations account for 50 per cent of Australia’s greenhouse gas emissions.


What can Ethanol and Biodiesel Deliver for Australia today?


A Guide to … Ethanol and Biodiesel….NRMA unravels some of the mysteries of Ethanol fuel alternatives and changes we’ll see at the Australian Fuel Pump

Ethanol-blended fuel is being touted as an antidote to rising petrol prices and diminishing oil supplies. While it has its merits in some applications it is by no means a magic solution to the car world’s energy woes.

Most ethanol produced in Australia is derived from the waste of sugar cane, corn and grain crops. There are also studies underway to try to make ethanol from municipal waste which, if successful, could reduce the amount of landfill. For now though, ethanol is derived from grain based crops.

Because of ethanol’s high alcohol content it can be used as a fuel in most modern car engines. In Australia, many petrol stations now offer fuel that is a blend of 10 per cent ethanol and 90 per cent regular unleaded (E10). Indeed, the NSW government has mandated that E10 will replace regular unleaded by 2010.

Many motorists are initially attracted to E10’s cheaper price, but is it a false economy? Ethanol has 34 per cent less energy than unleaded petrol. While the octane rating of E10 is similar to premium unleaded (94 to 95 octane) it does not have the same energy density. In other words, you have to burn more to get the same amount of energy as regular fuel.

So that means a tankful of E10 petrol will not get you as far as a tankful of regular petrol, which in many cases negates the modest cost saving.

Generally speaking, most cars that run on regular unleaded can run on E10, but if in doubt contact a mechanic or check with a dealer that services your brand of car.

car-fuel-alternativesA small number of E85 outlets have begun to appear in Australia. As the name implies, this is fuel with an 85 per cent blend of ethanol and 15 per cent regular unleaded. Car engines must be modified and specifically designed to run on this fuel. To date only Saab has engines which can run on E85 in Australia. More are expected to follow.

The Australian V8 Supercar motorsport championship also switched to E85 in 2009 and the teams anticipate the race cars will be required to make two extra pit stops (from six to eight) to complete the distance in the famous Bathurst 1000 race in October.

Ethanol-blended fuels don’t like starting in cold weather (below 11 degrees Celsius) and in Sweden where E85 is popular, fuel companies produce E75 during winter.

Australia was the 10th biggest producer of ethanol in the world last year, largely thanks to the Federal Government’s Ethanol Production Grants. The program commenced on 18 September 2002 and is available to ethanol producers until 30 June 2011.

Ethanol Production Grants are paid to ethanol producers at a rate of 38.143 cents per litre. To claim the grant, ethanol must be produced entirely in Australia from biomass feedstock, which is to be used in, or as, a transport fuel in Australia.

In the same way ethanol is being blended with unleaded petrol to reduce the cost and dependence on oil supplies, vegetable oils are being blended with diesel to create bio-diesel.

In Australia, some oil companies offer diesel blended with 2 per cent vegetable oils (B2) and most diesel engines can run on this mix unaffected. Be sure to check with the manufacturer of your vehicle if in doubt, as biodiesel could affect any warranty claims regarding the engine and fuel system.

Indeed, the NSW Government has mandated all diesel fuel will be B2 biodiesel by the end of 2012.

A small number of outlets offer B5 (5 per cent bio-diesel) while B20 (20 per cent bio-diesel) is available to commercial operators by special arrangement. B2 diesel is not harmful to most diesel engines, but B5 and B20 is not suitable for some of the latest generation diesel engines from Europe.

Because of the chemical makeup of biodiesel, and the potential for separation over time of the mixture, biodiesel may not be suitable for vehicles that are used infrequently and sit idle for some months.