Diesel Was Supposed to Be the Future – The Atlantic

Many of the traditional problems consumers associated with the diesel engines that were already common in trucks, school buses, and construction equipment were solved during this time: Previously, diesels loudly clattered, whereas gasoline engines purred and burbled and growled. Diesels also smelled acrid and belched visible black smoke. Modern diesel-engine technology is still dirtier for the direct local environment—contributing to poor air quality and some health problems—but it has become relatively quiet, and it took on an aura of environmental friendliness, a complete inversion of its previous reputation and the key change that made it possible for VW and others to use diesel power as a positive selling point for peppy, cheap-to-run cars.

One more thing added to the proliferation of diesels in the mass passenger-car market: concerns about climate change, which made the efficient physics of the diesel engine even more of an asset. Public policy started (haltingly) to acknowledge that the harmful environmental impact of emissions was not just local, through pollution of the surrounding air, but also global, through the release of gases that contribute to climate change. For some consumers, this changed the moral status of cars and car ownership: Having good fuel economy isn’t just a consumer good, but a civic good. As recently as five years ago, diesel was an environmental priority among many politicians, car companies, scientists, and even environmental activists.

Policy makers, particularly in Europe, moved to incentivize diesel in the ‘90s and ‘00s with tax breaks at the pump, and they tightened regulations that focused on mileage per gallon (or the equivalent European measurement unit, liters per 100 kilometers), which inherently favor Rudolph Diesel’s thermodynamically efficient engines over gasoline-powered ones that use more gallons but spew fewer toxins. In some countries, including France and Spain, taxes were lower on diesel cars than gas ones. The market share of diesel cars in Western Europe went from less than 14 percent in 1990 to half today, after touching a high of 56 percent in 2011. As Bloomberg’s Leonid Bershidsky points out, Japan had a similar rate of diesels at the turn of the millennium, but absent similar policies, those in Japan more or less disappeared over the period that diesel sales in Europe tripled, as Japanese manufacturers pushed into hybrids.  

Diesel’s market share in the U.S., where fuel prices are traditionally much cheaper and thus exert less pressure on demand for efficient engines, is puny by comparison and pretty much always has been. While there are real differences between the North American and European markets, some might argue that the market for diesel in the U.S. was irrationally underserved, and this seems to have been Volkswagen’s assessment when it decided to roll out its big “Clean Diesel” campaign in 2008 to try to get Americans buying TDIs at closer to the rate of Europeans. Americans, however, never came around, and diesel is so tainted now by the various scandals that they likely never will.


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