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The hard-hit economy has vendors at this year's World of Concrete show talking up the productivity advantages of their newest clean-diesel machines—while talking down the price hikes related to emission regulations.

At its booth inside the Las Vegas Convention Center, Caterpillar on January 23 previewed its small earthmoving line, including the D5K tractor (shown above). 

The approximately $160,000 machine is designed to meet the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's Tier-4-interim regulations, which went into effect this year for machines rated between 75 and 175 horsepower.

Instead of dwelling on the D5's tailpipe scrubbing technology (a diesel particulate filter now rests snugly under the hood, which was raised by about 3 inches to accommodate the hardware), Caterpillar showcased a new blade sensor that will compensate for too much or too little movement of the operator's hand.

Called "Stable Blade," the device uses an inertial sensor mounted behind the cutting edge. As the machine crawls over terrain, the compensator adjusts the blade to keep the ground level, softening the washboard effect of jerky blade movements.

Stable Blade now comes standard on the D3, D4 and D5, and, if desired, users can deactivate it. It also shuts off automatically when laser or GPS controls are switched on.

"What we are trying to do is get to the level of finish grading on a motor grader, in one pass," said Joel Fritts, a Caterpillar marketing representative. "This is something that will help get an operator on a dozer and do finish grading quicker."

The Tier-4-interim rule calls for off-road diesel engines to cut down soot by 90% and nitrogen oxides by 45% over the previous standard. A final round goes into effect in 2014, which will cut down emissions to near-zero levels, along with added costs.

Many contractors are concerned that the Tier-4 rules will harm the secondary market for these machines, in effect rendering them worthless when they normally would have been candidates for auctions or private sales. Heavy-equipment market analyst Manfredi & Associates is currently studying the rule's impact on used prices.

An innovation like Stable Blade, which aims to cut down fine grading time by 30% to 50%, may help soften the blow for heavy equipment buyers who will pay a roughly 4% premium for this year's Tier-4-interim exhaust rule, said Fritts.

"From a customer's standpoint, there's a lot more value in the Stable Blade than there is in the emissions."