DETROIT -- It's been a bad few years for the image of diesel engines.
Ever since the Volkswagen emissions scandal erupted in 2015, the idea of so-called clean diesel has taken a pounding, with a steady diet of new allegations accusing more automakers of trying to cheat emissions testing. Now, VW, which paid billions to settle civil and criminal claims, is aggressively switching its focus from diesel, an engine type it used to champion, to electrification.
The overall effect has been predictions that the end will come for diesel in Europe, where it has long been a key piece of the automotive puzzle. According to Forbes, diesel sales in Germany fell in January to 33.3 percent of the market from 45.1 percent just a year earlier.
But even as diesel faces an existential crisis in Europe, experts say the engine will continue to play a role in the U.S. for years to come. One reason? Americans love trucks.
"In the U.S. we're all about the diesel pickup truck. There's really nothing better for torque, there's really nothing better for towing ... there's really nothing better in the tank for fuel economy," said Kelley Blue Book analyst Rebecca Lindland, who refers to the trio as the "three T's."
Lindland, who noted that diesel promises up to 30 percent better fuel economy than gas, said she believes Europe will continue to offer opportunities for diesel in station wagons and SUVs for the near future because "what we do with the pickups, they do with station wagons and SUVs."
Some automakers in the U.S. are banking on diesel technology. Ford and General Motors both plan diesel engine options for the 2019 F-150 and Chevrolet Silverado, and Fiat Chrysler is likely to announce a diesel option for the Ram 1500 later this year. Diesel is even featured on the 2018 Chevy Cruze sedan, which promises 702 miles on a tank.
Diesel is only a small piece of the U.S. market (low single digits, per Lindland), but that market is growing. An IHS Markit report from last year showed a steady increase in diesel production over the next several years. IHS attributed most of that to light trucks, but it also showed an increase in diesel cars. That report shows diesel peaking at more than 1.5 million vehicles by about 2020 from fewer than 600,000 vehicles in 2000.
Diesel passenger car production dropped off in the U.S. in 2015 and 2016 as the VW scandal was hitting, but IHS expects those numbers to now increase or at least plateau through 2025.
But diesel emissions are still considered problematic.
According to the Union of Concerned Scientists, "diesel-powered vehicles and equipment account for nearly half of all nitrogen oxides and more than two-thirds of all particulate matter emissions from U.S. transportation sources." The organization says particulate matter is an irritant, which can contribute to premature death.
The emissions scandal undercut much of the work that went into improving the image of the technology.
"Diesel was always kind of a dirty word, and they worked really hard to clean it up," Lindland said, noting that for VW, especially, the scandal damaged the company's competitive advantage.
"The word diesel (connotes) pollution, fair or unfair," Lindland said.
That belief is hitting diesel as well as gas both in Europe and in other key markets, such as China, where the push is on to boost electric vehicle adoption.
Mike Fiske, senior analyst for global powertrain for IHS, said during a presentation last year that the firm's analysts predict the end for diesel in Europe could come as early as 2035.
But he said that "diesel for America isn't going away."
Diesel certainly has its defenders.
Allen Schaeffer, executive director of the Diesel Technology Forum, a trade group, said diesel remains a viable technology for the same reasons it was before the VW scandal broke.
"It provides consumers a proven fuel-efficient choice that doesn't force them to sacrifice vehicle type or performance. The greatest number of new market entrants are in the larger vehicle space -- medium- and full-size pickups and crossovers and SUVs. This makes sense because the larger vehicles are ones where the fuel efficiency opportunity for diesels is the greatest. It is also encouraging since these are the fastest-growing segments for vehicle sales as compared to cars," he said in response to a Free Press inquiry.
But diesel is certainly under stress, both from the change in attitudes and in advances in vehicle electrification. Lindland suggested, for instance, that if Tesla is successful in launching its electric semi, diesel's days are truly numbered.
In addition, a court case being watched this week in Germany could have serious implications for diesel's future in Europe. Reuters reports that Germany's federal administrative court -- "the court of last resort for such matters" -- will rule on whether cities in the country can ban what are considered heavily polluting cars.
The news service also noted that "Paris, Madrid, Mexico City and Athens have said they plan to ban diesel vehicles from city centers by 2025, while the mayor of Copenhagen wants to ban new diesel cars from entering the city as soon as next year. France and Britain will ban new petrol and diesel cars by 2040 in a shift to electric vehicles."
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