DieselGate – why the US drew first blood and how to get out

No matter how many years I blast the message to the world, nothing got people’s attention on the shortcomings of diesel as a fuel better than the wave of excitement on Volkswagens cheatings in the US. To be sure, Volkswagen is not the only cheater here as we know well now. This affair goes far deeper. So deep in fact, that it will shake some of our longest held convictions and may also bring down more than just some managers careers.

But why has the US drawn first blood? Why has the nation of the Ford F-150 pickup truck singled out a European car manufacturer that was the pinnacle of the clean diesel movement?

There are many theories on this and as I find most of them rather short on rationale or common sense, I will skip a few here. But no matter how many conspiracy theories are spun around this very thorny topic, the basic rationale of diesel being a filthy brew burning very dirtily and producing huge amounts of heavy toxins cannot easily be dispelled.

However, one must admit that to some countries or societies it sure was always easier to get rid of the diesel incinerators. Europeans are Diesel addicts. We have built the welfare of our entire societies on the assumption that diesel is a good thing. No place on earth has seen diesel occupying such a large place outside the heavy trucking and high horsepower segment. We Europeans love(d) our diesel vehicles so much, this affair hits us much harder than gasoline guzzling Americans.

Besides, VW got caught in California which is traditionally the place where most green initiatives in America originated and it also has a claim for being home to some of the most virulent green movements of the planet. No politician with aspirations for becoming something important in the Sunshine State can ignore environmentalist causes. No surprise that even “Blow it up” Arnold Schwarzenegger is a real hardcore environmentalist. Many Europeans would blush at the prospect of such a militant green movement.

Moreover, Diesel had it coming for a long time. Current rules for testing new vehicle types are so horribly lopsided, so incredibly mangled and distorted by political intervention that anyone looking a little deeper into the matter must come to asking himself what this disgusting show of lies is about. Exhaust gas regulation clearly does not have the protection of people at its core anymore but rather provides plenty of intentional loopholes for the vehicle manufacturers to swindle through.

The current unsavory show around the change from the ridiculous NEDC to the a little less ridiculous WLTC and additional testing under the RDE is a typical example. There was very high-level political intervention in order to weaken the new procedures to a point to allow vehicle manufacturers more wiggle room. The very objective of the new test was being blunted by those who have been elected in order to protect the public from harm.

And when things turned ugly and the industry got caught with their hands elbow deep in the cheating pot, there is a letter from the president of the automobile association and the European Parliament immediately delays testing the very limits that are supposed to be in force for a little while.

Who is the fool here? The European public is unashamedly lied to and the very institution that is supposed to protect the people in Europe, the European Parliament, gives those criminals a free ride and plays along.

It must be clear to all of us that there is no real way around stopping the use of diesel. As much as I admire the innovative spirit of late 19th century, Rudolf Diesel, as much I am also aware that his great invention has had its time and must now go away.

But there is maybe another reason why the US drew first blood on diesel engines. Any observer of the vehicle industry will have noted that the greatest change from liquid fuels to Natural Gas is currently occurring in North America with China a very interesting second. Cheap shale gas has fueled this transformation as the price differential between diesel and Natural Gas grew to such proportions that vehicle operators could not ignore the cost benefits anymore.

For some years now, LNG and CNG can be fueled at most locations in the US and the network of fueling stations is widening at a rapid clip. Also, big vehicle manufacturers have started developing pure Natural Gas engines as opposed to the retrofits that have been available so far. This makes the gas engine cheaper, better and more efficient further reducing to cost. Plus, they also have addressed the torque problem by offering bigger engines.

I remember an EPA prediction some years ago when it was said that 20% of heavy traffic in the US will have flipped over to Natural Gas by 2020. That’s a very significant portion of the biggest driving nation on the planet.

With all this movement and the fact that diesel has never really been big in the US, it might be easier for Americans to consider picking a fight with diesel manufacturers. They were on the very patient side anyhow, just not as patient as Europeans are.

One thing must be clear. This is not a VW scandal but rather one for all diesel manufacturers. Some other than VW might want to get smug and claim that their wares are not affected but if they are subjected to Real World Testing, they will fail like VW. They might not have fumbled around with specific software to fool the testers but their emissions still exceed the tolerable limits. I wonder why green parties are not yet up in arms against those testing mechanisms.

One effect this all will have is that WLTC and RDE will be applied sooner than planned anyhow and that scrutiny on diesel makers will increase. They can not afford this public gaze as even under the very permissive current regime they are in the ropes. Diesel emissions treatment technology has reached ridiculous levels where in some engines the after-treatment system is much bigger than the engine itself. Those after-treatment systems also need energy to run, so this requires more fuel to begin with pushing real fuel consumption in diesel engines up.

With the price for natural gas engines going down and the price of the diesel guzzlers going up, the penalty for going LNG/CNG will disappear very quickly now, and we might even see gas vehicles become cheaper than diesel vehicles before 2020 as bigger numbers of gas engines and also bespoke development of gas engines will bring costs for those much simpler engines down ever more while diesel will continue to climb.

Oh, did I mention that I said that this would happen in June 2013, almost 3 years before now?

With so much blood on the dance floor, how can we get out of the mess? In the small car league, there is a range of choices and depending on what exactly you do, you will pick one or another. But in heavy transport, there is no real electrical option yet so the only realistic choice is LNG/CNG. LNG is the choice for long distance transport and CNG for the short hoppers.

We must first start to give diesel its real price and move on from a volume based fuel taxation principle to an energy content based one. Diesel contains more energy per volume unit and should, therefore, be higher taxed. This is something that was done in the US under the Obama administration. It would also help to level the field with LNG as its energy content per volume is about 1,6 times lower than that of diesel.

Then we must also start separating regulation for methane based vehicles from propane/butane based vehicles. Methane based vehicles share very little in terms of characteristics with the LPG rollers. Methane is lighter than air so it would not accumulate in subterranean parking lots, but they are still barred from using many of them as just one example.

There should be an incentive for early adopters of gas vehicles which could be lower road pricing. As there will sure be more no diesel zones in European cities, it will be hard for the stinkers to do what they have done in the past anyhow, giving gas a fillip.

It’s time for some field trials. LNG is real cheap now and given some expertise pilot projects could cheaply be organized. Fleet managers in Europe should take note here as their careers are at the stake when someone looks for managers to blame for action not taken. Time to wake up.

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