What’s the future like for diesel cars?

Diesel cars have never been popular in North America or Japan, or a big part of the Chinese market. But it’s in about half of the new vehicles sold in Europe.

  • Emissions Testing At DEKRA Facility

Will diesel die in 2016?

Not likely, despite the Volkswagen emissions-test scandal. But its move toward the endangered species list will be one of this year’s major “green” car stories.

The Volkswagen scandal was just the start of diesel’s troubles, like what happens when you start poking around a damp spot on a wall and discover severe rot and a writhing nest of carpenter ants.

Diesel cars have never been popular in North America or Japan, or a big part of the Chinese market. But it’s in about half of the new vehicles sold in Europe. Automakers there view it as key to meeting at least the next few years of increasingly tough carbon-dioxide emission standards. And they’ve been pushing hard to make it more acceptable here.

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The scandal obviously undermines that effort, much to the delight of our local, less-diesel-dependent, manufacturers.

Volkswagen and its luxury subsidiary Audi claim the scandal hasn’t hurt their North American sales, but they don’t break out diesel cars numbers, and Volkswagen has offered generous discounts on its products.

The core problem, the rot behind the wet spot, is in Europe. Volkswagen’s transgression has opened the industry to scrutiny. The sight hasn’t been pretty. For every carmaker, the gap between fuel consumption measured in tests, and real-world results, is wide and expanding.

The discrepancy isn’t due to blatant Volkswagen-style skulduggery. Instead, it’s a combination of increasingly exploiting loopholes and “flexibilities” in the testing procedure, deploying technology that benefits cars’ scores in the tests but not on the road, and adding increasing amounts of equipment, such as air-conditioning, that is switched off during the test.

The U.K.-based advocacy group Transport & Environment reports real-world fuel consumption was eight per cent above the laboratory results in 2001, 31 per cent in 2012 and 40 per cent in 2014. If the system were to continue unchanged, the number would grow to 50 per cent by 2020.

The discrepancy for diesel-powered cars is five percentage points greater than for those that run on gasoline. That gap, too, would grow if the current system continued.

Most crucial for diesel is revelations about emissions of nitrogen-oxide, a threat to human health. They’re four times higher in the real world than in the laboratory — despite “clean diesel,” which, in most models, includes spraying ammonia from the tank in the trunk into the exhaust gas.

The European Union will start real-world testing of fuel consumption and emissions in September 2017. It also proposes Europe-wide, independent supervision of the tests, instead of leaving that chore to individual countries that often turn a blind eye to loopholes.

The member states recently agreed carmakers must cut real-world nitrogen-oxide emissions from their current level, about 400 per cent above test results, down to 110 per cent, by September 2019, and to 50 per cent by January 2021.

The European Automobile Manufacturers Association argues the new standard “will be extremely difficult for automobile manufacturers to reach in a short space of time,” and warns it will kill “a substantial number of diesel models.”

Carmakers will battle for easier rules, arguing, in part, that since diesel spews less carbon dioxide than gasoline, the new standard is bad for climate change. But with public anger over the Volkswagen scandal still fresh, Europe’s politicians are, for now, hanging tough.

With diesel cars so hard-pressed on its home turf, how can it survive here?

Freelance writer Peter Gorrie is a regular contributor to Toronto Star Wheels. To reach him, email and put his name in the subject line.

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