End of the road for small diesels?

IN­TER­VIEW/ The firm that broke this en­gine still be­lieves in the fuel, but not for ev­ery­one, writes Michael Tay­lor

Business Day - Motor News - - MOTOR NEWS -

Diesel power will still be crit­i­cal to meet emis­sion reg­u­la­tions, Volk­swa­gen’s boss says, but he in­sists small diesels are dead in the wa­ter.

With a marked shift away from new diesel cars across Europe, VW brand chair­man Her­bert Diess be­lieves petrol en­gines with 48V mild-hybrid elec­tric boost­ing sys­tems will take over in small cars.

But high-mileage cars and larger, more ex­pen­sive cars and sport util­ity ve­hi­cles will still need diesel power to meet 2020 Euro­pean emis­sions laws and to help coun­tries meet their Paris Ac­cord CO2 obli­ga­tions.

“We don’t be­lieve in small dis­place­ment diesel so the emis­sions are too hard to do with them for the price,” Diess in­sists. “We wouldn’t put so much money into a 1.6l diesel for the fu­ture but we will make it com­pli­ant for as long as we have got it.”

Diess’s over­view of the fu­ture of small cars is that their pow­er­train op­tions will nar­row to mild-hybrid sys­tems.

He says peo­ple who drive less than 25,000km a year will not ben­e­fit from diesel power and nei­ther will they pay for plug-in hy­brids.

“Maybe mild hybrid is in the Polo’s fu­ture. Our ra­tio­nale in the A0 seg­ment is that diesel will dis­ap­pear be­cause it’s get­ting so ex­pen­sive,” Diess says.

“All the emis­sion sys­tems will be so ex­pen­sive and there will be very few cars in the Polo seg­ment [and prob­a­bly in the Golf seg­ment as well] which do enough mileage to com­pen­sate for the ex­tra costs.

“Our ra­tio­nale is that in the next gen­er­a­tion of Golf we will bring in 48V mild-hybrid drive (MHD), which will be on CO2­wise very sim­i­lar to diesels for shorter dis­tances.

“With MHD they get the same CO2- sticker, and if they drive less than 20,000km a year in the real con­sump­tion they are on par with the diesel.

“For the long-dis­tance driver who drives 25,000km or more a year, then diesel still makes sense, but few Polo driv­ers do 25,000km a year.”

The car in­dus­try in gen­eral has been un­der pub­lic and me­dia pres­sure, par­tic­u­larly in Ger­many, over per­ceived ethics around diesel emis­sions, which has re­sulted in lower courts threat­en­ing to im­pose diesel bans in cities such as Stuttgart, Mu­nich and Ham­burg.

But Diess says much of the head has gone out of the diesel de­bate, par­tic­u­larly in the po­lit­i­cal arena in Ger­many, although for­mer Volk­swa­gen Group pow­er­train de­vel­op­ment di­rec­tor Wolf­gang Hatz was re­cently ar­rested in Ger­many over the Diesel­gate scan­dal.

“I think most of the politi­cians also want to avoid [diesel] re­stric­tions in the cities so we have a much more ra­tio­nal dis­cus­sion now,” says Diess.

“I think the diesel dis­cus­sion now is de­pend­ing much more on po­lit­i­cal de­ci­sions than on the in­dus­try. It’s a ques­tion for so­ci­ety and I’m re­ally happy about the dis­cus­sions we are hav­ing in Ger­many….”

While it’s pos­si­ble to make diesel en­gines clean enough to meet in­ter­na­tional emis­sions lim­its for CO2 and NOx, it is ex­pen­sive tech­nol­ogy, with the cost mov­ing on a slid­ing scale de­pend­ing on the lim­its.

“The tech­nol­ogy is there to make it clean and its fu­ture is the same as elec­tric cars — they de­pend on so­ci­ety and politi­cians. It’s not a tech­ni­cal prob­lem. It’s a po­lit­i­cal one.

“Ev­ery tech­nol­ogy has ad­van­tages and dis­ad­van­tages. The diesel ad­van­tage is of be­ing ef­fi­cient for the cus­tomer and also has the abil­ity to be clean and help with CO2 emis­sions.

“Ga­so­line en­gines are less ef­fi­cient but they are cleaner. How­ever, they also have pros and cons.

“Even elec­tric cars have the prob­lem of how to pro­duce the en­ergy — is it clean en­ergy or not? Then we come to the ques­tion of how to pro­duce the bat­tery,” he says.

Diess re­fuses to be drawn on when the car in­dus­try will build its last diesel en­gine for a pas­sen­ger car, in­sist­ing it is up to politi­cians and point­ing out that be­fore 2035, most coun­tries will change their gov­ern­ments five or six times.

“The re­main­ing life­span of diesel will de­pend a lot on reg­u­la­tions. If peo­ple come to the con­clu­sion that the tax in­cen­tive on diesel [0.20 cents a litre in Ger­many] should be re­moved, and gov­ern­ment would re­move that, it would change rapidly.

“So far in Ger­many over the last two or three weeks we re­ceived a lot of com­mit­ment to the diesel from the politi­cians. The politi­cians are re­stat­ing that we need the diesel, it’s clean tech­nol­ogy now.”

WHEN DIESEL FIN­ISHES … IT’S NOTH­ING TO DO WITH CUS­TOMERS OR CAR MAK­ERS BUT IT’S GOV­ERN­MENT POL­ICY

Even if cars older than EU6 are banned or retro­fit­ted with Se­lec­tive Cat­a­lyst Re­duc­tion (SCR) sys­tems, Diess doubts they would make any dif­fer­ence to ur­ban air pol­lu­tion, which is seen as diesel’s Achilles heel. “I still think you have to see that cars have only a lit­tle con­tri­bu­tion to what happens in the cities” he says.

“Even if you get all the diesels out of the city we will not achieve the lim­its. The emis­sions are com­ing from so many dif­fer­ent sources that the cars are less than 20%.

“It needs a much more com­pre­hen­sive so­lu­tion than just ban­ning diesels. I think this is fi­nally be­com­ing more un­der­stood,” Diess says.

In­sist­ing there is no ra­tio­nal rea­son the car in­dus­try couldn’t still be sell­ing diesel-pow­ered cars in 2035, Diess re­it­er­ates that diesel’s fu­ture is po­lit­i­cal.

“When diesel fin­ishes is kind of guess­ing and it’s a de­ci­sion of pol­i­tics. It’s noth­ing to do with cus­tomers or car mak­ers but it’s gov­ern­ment pol­icy.

“In China it will be elec­tric be­cause they de­cided they would do it. In coun­tries such as the US, if you ap­ply the same emis­sions leg­is­la­tion to diesel and if you don’t have these tax schemes then diesel re­mains strong in lor­ries and trans­port.

“If you change the rules, then diesel will stop. In Europe we have dif­fer­ent rules and diesel is much cheaper than ga­so­line.”

In­ter­est­ingly, Diess’s com­ments come at a time when more diesel de­riv­a­tives are ar­riv­ing in SA. Re­cently VW launched the Golf GTD, the diesel equiv­a­lent of the GTi and Mini is fi­nally bring­ing a diesel ver­sion of the Mini in the form of the Coun­try­man D.

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