IT’S NOT YET COUGHING UP BLOOD, BUT THE DIESEL CAR DOESN’T LOOK HEALTHY LATELY. COMPRESSION-IGNITION INTERNAL COMBUSTION WAS INVENTED IN EUROPE, WHICH HAS ALWAYS BEEN THE PLACE WHERE IT WAS MOST WELCOME AND MOST POPULAR.
But now, even in countries where diesel was warmly embraced, it’s being given the cold shoulder. Even Italy. Unlike other major markets in Europe, such as Germany, France, Spain and the UK, Italians kept buying diesel passenger cars after the VW Dieselgate scandal broke in late 2015. That’s beginning to change.
The decline in diesel’s share of the Italian market through the early months of 2018 is small; less than two percent. But the nation’s best car monthly, Quattroruote, believes this is the beginning of the end. All the signs point in the same downward direction, the magazine notes in a solid piece of market analysis.
Demand for second-hand hybrids is rising in Italy, pushing their prices upwards. New hybrid sales are soaring, up 32 percent to the end of the first quarter. Although EV sales are tiny compared with hybrids, pure battery-powered plug-ins are surging too, up 72 percent in 2018.
Scandalous behaviour doesn’t bring the kind of backlash in Italy it does in other places, as former PM Silvio Berlusconi’s long political career proved. But, according to Quattroruote, Italian car buyers are beginning to take notice of what some of their big-city politicians are saying. Virginia Raggi, the mayor of Rome, announced plans in February to ban diesels from the centre of the Eternal City from 2024. Milan aims to do the same by 2030.
Such proposals are proliferating Europe-wide. Paris has a plan to ban diesel. London, which already has congestion charging in its centre, recently introduced an extra charge for older, dirtier diesels to drive in the heart of the city. And courts in Germany early this year upheld the right of cities to impose bans on diesels, including the hometown of Mercedes-Benz and Porsche, Stuttgart.
All these moves are aimed at cutting the levels of health-harming NOX (oxides of nitrogen) emitted by diesels in densely populated areas. Dieselgate is chiefly about Volkswagen’s decision to cheat on NOX emissions standards.
At the same time, industry leaders like Mercedes-Benz boss Dieter Zetsche, keep insisting that diesel is vital if car makers are to meet lower CO2 emissions targets set by governments. Reducing CO2 is important, as it’s a major cause of global warming.
Europeans are being told that diesel is a pollution problem … and a pollution solution. Both happen to be true, but buyers are confused. Thanks to Dieselgate, they’re also suspicious. Naturally enough, they’re steering clear.
Meanwhile, affordable internal combustion technologies that will make diesels obsolete for light-duty applications are nearing market readiness. Mazda’s Skyactiv-X engine is the outstanding example. It burns petrol, so its NOX emissions are low, yet it operates with dieselrivalling efficiency and low CO2 levels. This engine will be introduced in the new Mazda 3, due to launch in 2019.
Put it all together and the prognosis for diesel in cars doesn’t look good. It’s hard to see it recovering, easy to imagine it wasting away. Wonder when the funeral will be?
The future of diesel cars may be bleak, but the fuel is not going to disappear any time soon. No emergent technology looks ready to take the place of diesel in long-distance trucks, some railway locomotives, ships or conventional submarines.