How we all killed the diesel engine.

It has been a rather traumatizing month for the poor diesel engine. Some German car makers are in hot water over gassing monkeys, while quietly trying to distract us with the near-future promise of our collective automotive saviour; the electric car. The Geneva motor show is happening now and everyone is going electric while quietly dropping diesel engines from their ranges.

Is it troubling that governments and manufacturers seem to be believing their own hype surrounding electric cars?

The rise of the diesel engine in Europe happened over thirty years ago when CO2 emissions were seen as the greatest environment concern of the day. The turbo charger changed the diesel engine forever. I can remember reading about the BMW E46 330d in Autocar as it was hailed as the first "performance" diesel to hit the market. Jaguar also received praise for its twin turbo-charged S-type, transforming the executive market forever. By their nature, diesels have more torque, better economy and lower CO2 emissions compared to their petrol cousins. Over the years, most manufacturers began strapping one, then two and now three turbos to their diesels giving us immensely powerful cars, while being seen as environmentally sound. All seemed rosy until VW was caught tinkering with electronic cheat devices. All of a sudden, the future of the diesel is looking rather grim. 

Now, from my armchair, I am not going to comment on the morality of VW's action, but I would assert they are not the only guilty party. People were sold on the merits of the diesel with very little emphasis given to the issues of particulate and nitrogen oxide emissions. Experts knew about them but the public were kept in the dark trusting what the marketing told us. Cars boasting amazing range were proven time and time again to never meet their manufacturing claims. Did we want to look any deeper into those claims? There is no such thing as a clean engine and we all know that. No one had to face the truth until that first cheat devise was discovered. 

The bigger issue now is are we doing the same thing all over again? Everyone is jumping on the electric band wagon and holding their breath for the next wage of "clean" electric cars from Porsche, Jaguar, BMW and every other car maker. Pure electric cars are still an unknown curiosity. What will happen to these cars after ten years when the batteries are worn out? On a daily basis, where and how quickly will we be able to charge them? How is all this additional electricity going to be generated and how will it affect global CO2 levels? These are all questions no one has the answers to. Yes, we have claims and promises but not much else. 

Hybrids are a logical stop gap. Petrol cars with electric motors driving one or more axle. In theory, the best of both worlds. You have the option of clean all-electric driving in cities and a petrol engine to carry the load when more consistent performance is needed. As this breed evolves, the petrol engine will be relegated to the role of generator to keep the batteries charged. Mazda announced this week that is going to use its next rotary engine to act in this role. As a company, they are also committed to further refine the traditional petrol engine through homogeneous charge compression ignition (HCCI) technology for commercial use. This engine runs like a petrol engine but functions in part like a diesel. This is a technological breakthrough and some credit should go to the demonized diesel engine. Of all the car companies out there, Mazda is the one that has been quietly working on this problem rather than making bold claims. 

The future is electric. Of that there is no doubt and there is still a lot of life left in the petrol engine too. Is the diesel engine dead? I don't think so but its reign on the top of the automotive ladder is over. I expect we will still see them powering some cars for years to come. Possibly heavier luxury vehicles that can absorb the added expense of making them run cleanly while benefitting from the torque advantages they provide. 

As consumers, we need to stop blaming the diesel engine and take some responsibility for our own buying habits. In this new electric future, we need to be more pro-active and demand transparency from car makers, governments and car testing bodies alike. We can no longer blindly trust manufacturers and perhaps that is not a bad thing. The immediate issues of infrastructural development and electricity generating capacity must be addressed otherwise we may all be left standing at the charging stations reminiscing about how good we had it when we all believed in the illusion of the "clean" diesel.  

 

Diesel engine image sourced from Autocar. (www.autocar.co.uk)