Have Diesel Cars Lost their Lustre?
Four of Europe’s largest markets recorded double-digit declines in diesel car sales.
Talk about smoking deals. Diesel cars are beginning to languish on dealer lots as consumers shun oil-burners in formerly diesel-mad Europe.
Whether it can be pinned on Volkswagen’s “Dieselgate” fiasco, World Health Organization warnings or the pleas of a certain 16-year-old Swedish activist, diesel car sales have been declining on a continent where diesel exhaust has long been a familiar fragrance.
Diesel-car market share dropped to just 29 per cent across the European Union according to the latest figures from the European Automobile Manufacturers Association. Four of Europe’s largest markets recorded double-digit declines, with Spanish diesel sales dropping by 34.7 per cent, Italian demand shrinking 24.5 per cent, UK sales down 20.8 per cent and demand in France slipping 12.6 per cent.
Diesel engines typically powered more than half of the EU’s private vehicles for many years, but they began to lose their lustre after gasoline engines adopted some of diesel’s best technology.
“Diesel share in Europe peaked in 2011, well before the VW Dieselgate issue,” points out Al Bedwell, global powertrain director at LMC Automotive, a leading source of auto industry market intelligence based in Oxford, England.
“Slow diesel decline set in as a result of improved performance and efficiency in the gasoline sector, due primarily to the widespread implementation of turbocharging, downsizing, higher injection pressures and other technologies,” he says.
Bedwell acknowledges the 2015 admission that Volkswagen devised emissions-test cheating technology to conceal the fact that its diesel engines released up to 40 times as much pollution as U.S. Environmental Protection Agency standards allow did impact sales. But he also suggests the death of diesel may be exaggerated.
Sales of diesel cars in Germany ticked up 9.6 percent for a 30.9 percent market share this fall, largely due to a stubborn preference for diesel by luxury-brand and SUV buyers. Gasoline vehicles captured 58 per cent of the market while hybrid and electric vehicles made up the remaining 11 per cent of auto sales there.
Despite threats of doing so, there have been few legislative changes introduced in Germany and elsewhere that have accelerated the trend away from diesel cars, Bedwell says.
“They usually target older diesel cars, which are seen as higher polluters,” he says. “Fiscal measures, in particular a desire in many countries to equalize the pump price of diesel and gasoline fuel, have been phased in and these have reduced the financial case for diesel cars.”
Diesel’s decline hasn’t been uniform across the EU. Drivers in the poorer economies of eastern Europe continue to embrace diesel models because they’re relatively affordable, especially as used-vehicle buys. Countries such as Poland, Bulgaria and the Baltic states have seen only minor drops in diesel car registrations.
Still, the threat of diesel bans in big European city centres has fed into nervousness about buying diesel cars, with consumers worried about plunging trade-in values if such bans are implemented.
Here in Canada diesel power has never appealed to a large number of car owners, although the fuel has enjoyed a cult-like following among some.
George Iny, president of the Automobile Protection Association, says Canadian diesel drivers love their vehicles for their long range and fuel economy compared to gasoline vehicles, as well as the performance provided by diesel’s abundant torque.
“They now know diesel isn’t an environmental or ‘green’ play, but still appreciate the other virtues. I foresee diesel as a significant minority choice in the pickup and luxury SUV segments. That’s partly for image or reputational reasons, as diesel is perceived to be more robust – even though it’s not anymore,” he says.
Iny contends “clean” diesel with exhaust after-treatment is more expensive to maintain and more failure prone than simpler diesel engines produced in the past. There are plenty of Volkswagen TDI and other turbodiesel-engine owners that have reported problems with high-pressure fuel pumps and fuel injectors, faulty turbochargers, intercooler icing and clogged particulate filters. Diesel exhaust fluid (DEF) tank heaters commonly fail and the repair cost can be punishingly high.
Iny says automakers in North America do not have to reduce carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions to the extent they do in Europe. The EU has mandated a reduction in CO2 fleet emissions to an average of 95 grams per kilometre in 2021, down from 120.4 g/km last year, with steep fines if automakers miss their targets. It’s a big reason why European automakers continue to embrace diesel powertrains at least in the short term.
“Government here has decided that diesel is yesterday’s news and has picked electric vehicles and plug-in hybrids as the technology winners,” says Iny. Ironically, Europe’s steadfast support of diesel as a green fuel saw air quality in many large European cities deteriorate over the past 25 years, while it improved in North America.
In 2012 the World Health Organization determined diesel exhaust is a carcinogen in the same deadly class as asbestos, based partly on a U.S. study that examined lung-cancer deaths among miners working in environments containing diesel fumes. The declaration opened a floodgate of damning evidence against diesel.
The European Environment Agency estimated that nitrogen dioxide (NO2) from diesel fumes had caused about 71,000 premature deaths across the continent annually. In 2017 the U.K. government grudgingly admitted that a 2001 CO2 reduction initiative that cut diesel fuel prices to encourage motorists to buy diesel cars was a massive mistake.
VW’s Dieselgate scandal heightened awareness that European emissions testing was in dire need of an update. The Worldwide Harmonised Light Vehicle Test Procedure (WLTP), developed by the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe, became the new protocol to measure fuel consumption, CO2 and pollutant emissions by better aligning laboratory testing with “real world” vehicle usage.
Bedwell says the newest emissions targets may assuage diesel health concerns to some extent, although those who were infuriated by Dieselgate will likely never go back to the oily fuel.
“The message that the latest generation of diesel is indeed very clean is seeping into the public consciousness, but many who turned away from diesel will not revert. The future of diesel may not be determined purely by its technical ability, but by personal prejudice.”
Regardless, auto manufacturers continue to support diesel as a way to meet tightening carbon dioxide targets to address global warming.
“Diesel is required for future CO2 compliance for many original equipment manufacturers,” says Bedwell. “In Germany some OEMs are subsidizing the retrofitting of selective catalytic reduction (SCR) exhaust emission equipment to bolster confidence in the diesel sector.”
At the same time, Volkswagen is betting big on electric vehicles to scrub its reputation clean of diesel stink. It is spending $12.2 billion (USD) to develop new electric models and a further $8.9 billion on gas-electric hybrid powertrains over the next five years. Its ID3 battery-powered compact hatchback will go on sale in Europe next summer, followed by the ID4, VW’s first full-electric crossover, which may arrive in North America as early as next fall.
There’s no question that the upheaval in the automotive sector will result in higher costs for consumers. However, Iny suggests that while clean diesel technology is getting more expensive, the price of alternative powertrains is competitive.
“Toyota’s basic non-plug-in hybrid with old-school NiMh or limited-capacity lithium batteries now costs about the same as a diesel fitted with the latest emissions technologies and a turbocharger. And diesel is at a cost disadvantage compared to gas,” he says.
“Diesel never really took off here for personal-use passenger vehicles and won’t during the transition to electric vehicles. Even modern cleaner diesels pose greater public health costs than gasoline vehicles because of their higher emissions of particulates,” says Iny.
While diesel automobiles may be down and almost out in North America, European motorists will share the road with clean diesels for several more years until there’s a full range of electric vehicles for every budget offered by car makers.