Long marketed as a more fuel-efficient and environmentally friendly alternative to unleaded fuel, diesel’s history in the automotive industry is as long as it is complicated. Recent events however, particularly the scandal surrounding Volkswagen’s alleged intentional tampering with the emissions control systems in vehicles across its product line, have cast a dark cloud over diesel fuel and its place in today’s light automobile market.
Diesel’s use in many of the world’s markets is significant. According to the New York Times, diesel accounts for nearly 20 percent of new cars sold globally. One out of every two new cars sold in Europe and India are diesel powered.
This is significant because of what happens when diesel fuel is combusted for power. Because of the lack of fuel refinement and the higher compression levels found in diesel engines, pollution from diesel fuel is actually more significant than what comes from unleaded gasoline. The same Times article reports that emissions from diesel fuel combustion are richer in compounds including nitrogen, hydrocarbons, carbon monoxide, and carbon dioxide.
It is only through significant in-vehicle emissions controls that the output of these pollutants is reduced to acceptable levels. These emissions control systems are significantly more complicated and expensive than those found in vehicles powered by unleaded fuel. This, of course, leads to a higher-priced vehicle.
Given the information about diesel fuel that the Volkswagen scandal brought to light – either inadvertently or intentionally – analysts are now questioning whether it should be used in lighter-duty vehicles, such as cars, in the first place. It is worth noting that when Volkswagen engines were running with the environmental defeats active, these cars were polluting at levels some 40 times the acceptable limits.
It’s as if, almost overnight, the curtain was pulled back on diesel and its secrets were aired for all to see. Every argument made in favor of diesel now has a significant counter-argument, and consumers are left wondering whether the investment they made in a diesel-powered car was actually worth it.
Favorable emissions and economy data has been replaced by off-the-charts pollution levels. Cost per gallon or liter has risen in the US and other markets where diesel is not subsidized heavily by the government. And, as the prevalence and affordability of electric and hybrid cars continues to increase, vehicles that are more efficient than diesel will increase their market share while polluting at a fraction of the amount.
The Volkswagen scandal may have had far further reaching consequences than most once believed. Rather than simply forcing a major auto manufacturer to bear the brunt of the impact, it seems as though the future of an entire fuel industry and vehicle class has been thrown into doubt.