"In my view, climate change is the most severe problem that we are facing today-more serious even than the threat of terrorism." That is what British scientist and government advisor Sir David King wrote in 2004, four years after the government of that country began a "dash to diesel" largely at his recommendation. As part of that "dash," the vehicle-tax scheme in the United Kingdom was changed to heavily favor the purchase of diesel cars.
Seemingly overnight, the market for combustion-ignition vehicles shrank dramatically. Automakers without a government-friendly diesel option, such as Honda, floundered, while diesel-focused automakers flourished. Volkswagen, of course, did very well, thanks to its heavy investment in the TDI engine family and what in retrospect was an obviously suspicious ability to pass emissions tests with flying colors.
Two weeks ago, Sir David King admitted to having known at the time that diesel passenger-car engines produced an elevated level of certain dangerous emissions as compared to gasoline-powered cars. At the time, he felt that the threat of climate change outweighed potential emissions-related health effects, which have been accused by some of contributing to 12,000 additional deaths per year just in the UK. He told a BBC radio program that, "I think we, as it turns out, were wrong."
Now the same British government that used the tax system to punish gasoline-powered cars is using that system to punish the people who bought diesels. London has announced a plan to charge diesel drivers an additional $30 or so per day to enter the city. Other cities across the country, and in Europe as well, are following suit. Paris plans to ban diesel vehicles entirely by 2025, thanks to a series of deadly diesel-related smog events that have shrouded the Eiffel Tower in thick, soupy pollution.
Lawmakers may enact a "cash for diesel clunkers" scheme in Great Britain-or they may not. Already, the resale value of diesel vehicles is plummeting. Much ink is being spilled over what the papers are calling a "monstrous betrayal" of the British motoring public. The repercussions could go on for years to come. The number of additional deaths across the Continent linked to the increased diesel pollution of the past 15 years could turn out to rival the Battle of the Somme in sheer murderous impact.
No matter what happens next, though, here's something you can bank on: Diesel is dead. I called it in these pages some time ago, and it turns out I was right. The emissions numbers were fudged, perhaps across the industry. The health effects were real. A generation of policymakers looked the other way because they were more concerned about polar bears floating on lonely ice caps than they were about the lives of their own constituents.
There will be winners and losers in the European Dash Away From Diesel, the same way there were 15 years ago when the fuel-oil tide was rushing in. The mass-market hybrid technology scorned by the German, French, and Italian automakers will suddenly look a lot more attractive. Some additional attention will be paid to direct gasoline injection, which lowers CO2 emissions at the cost of increased particulates similar to those emitted by diesel engines. The Japanese manufacturers in general will prosper; they kept working on gasoline engines while the Europeans were obsessed with small diesels and as a result they have a wider range of up-to-date options to put in their cars.
Here in the United States, the EPA tends to consider the health of citizens ahead of climate-change concerns, so we don't have much of a tide to turn. But it is almost a certainty that diesel-powered light trucks are going to come under increased scrutiny in the near future. This is bad news for both the "bro-dozer" crowd and those of us who have a legitimate need to tow anything from a race car hauler to a motor yacht, but the truth of the matter is that heavy-duty turbocharged gasoline engines are on their way to being good enough to cover most of those needs.
A diesel-free Europe will also affect Americans in an unexpected fashion: By raising the price of gasoline. There's been a lot of refinery capacity devoted to diesel, and that trend won't reverse course overnight. The overall demand for refined gasoline is going to increase significantly. Somebody will have to pay, and that somebody will most likely include you.
Diesel is dead.
Last but not least, if the proposed £1,000 enticement for Brits to trade away their diesels goes through, there's the matter of junking millions of cars well before their normal end-of-life date. It's good news for automakers, bad news for the environment, good news for the economy, bad news for the owners.
I am personally glad to see the end of diesel. Many years ago, LJK Setright called gasoline "the queen of fuels," and he was right. Gasoline evaporates. It doesn't stain or stink or sting your eyes. It burns easily in the winter and it stays stable in the summer. It does not require additional fluids to control its emissions. You can even wash your hands in it or use it as a solvent; that was its original purpose, although I can't recommend that you do so if you actually like having cancer-free limbs. Gasoline is not perfect, but having benefitted from more than a century as the dominant automotive fuel, it's become pretty damned good.
Perhaps there is a silver lining to all of this. Now is the time for some enterprising engineer to come up with drop-in electric powertrains to replace diesel engines. Some sort of magic box. It's far from impossible; it would be merely difficult, and expensive. Surely there would be buyers for such a device, particularly in the UK where times have been tough for a lot of people. It might be a bit hyperbolic to suggest that such a plan of action could create the long-awaited critical mass of electric cars for a national electric-charging infrastructure, whether in Britain or anywhere else-but it was also hyperbolic to compare CO2 emissions to terror, wasn't it?
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