Diesel engines were invented earlier, last longer, and produce more energy per liter/gallon. If all this is true, how did gasoline become the standard for most automobiles?

Ok- I'm going to take a shot at this. I hope I can give you at least a partial answer. I can't really speak much to the history of diesel, but I can comment on how gasoline became the standard fuel for most autos.

In one word- Prohibition (1920-1933). Before Prohibition, Ford was the #1 producer of cars and tractors in the US and their engines were cabable of running on alcohol. The great thing about alcohol at that time (1920's) is that farmers were making it from their own crop wastes and using it to run their tractors. Since there were very few filling stations at the time, if someone wanted to drive long distances they merely had to stop at a local farm and purchase some homemade ethyl alcohol from the farmer. Alcohol could also be blended with gasoline. At this time, kerosene was the major petroleum fuel, and gasoline was considered a waste product of refining.

There was tension between Ford and Rockefeller, with Rockefeller wanting gasoline to be the standard fuel for autos. There were many downsides to gasoline over alcohol - lower octane rating, engine knocking, corrosion, harder to get (at the time), and more expensive for farmers. Rockefeller did an end-around the alcohol-gas debate by funding prohibition groups- which had been around for a while,but mainly on the margins of society. He donated $60 million to their cause (today's dollars), which was able to greatly influence the debate. Although ethyl alcohol was still produced and blended with gasoline until 1939, the effects of prohibition coupled with broad legislative efforts across the country that favored gas over alcohol helped to effectively kill off alcohol as a fuel. I'm sure the collapse of the auto industry during the Great Depression also played a role in the changing landscape of the automobile in the US.

This wikipedia article has a good timeline on alcohol as a fuel.

I originally learned about this subject from this book, which includes a history of alcohol as a fuel.

And this website has a more detailed history on the subject.

I know very little about the history of diesel, but I can say that some states (California) have discouraged its use because of pollution from particulate matter and sulfur (and noise, to some extent). Modern diesel engines (especially the ones coming out of Europe these days) have addressed many of these problems, but people's preconceptions and institutional inertia have slowed the more widespread adoption of diesel.

I'm sorry if I went off on a tngent by bringing in alcohol, but I feel that its an integral part of our energy and fuel history. I'm admittedly not an expert on this subject and I hope others out there will correct any mistakes I may have made.

/r/AskHistorians Thread