The Future of Diesel: Fact v. Fiction, Part 1

03.05.18 | Blog | By:

“Diesel is dead.” “Ban dirty diesel.” These headlines have become all too familiar in the wake of the Volkswagen global diesel emissions cheating scandal. While these kinds of phrases may make for good headlines, they do not offer not much more.

In fact the opposite is true, diesel is continuing to improve and evolve to meet the customer and societal demands of the future across many sectors, and that includes passenger vehicles.

Those quick to conclude that diesel has no future, or that the future is all electric, fail to recognize that no single powertrain dominates today’s markets. Neither will there be one solution for the future.  Consumer choice – whether for a car owner or 18-wheeler driver – demands a multitude of options.  Deloitte, in its 2018 Automotive Survey, found that 80 percent of respondents wanted a gas or diesel for their next car, up from 75 percent last year. The U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) in its 2018 Annual Energy Outlook suggests that, over the next ten years, sales of light duty cars and trucks will grow by 4 times and, by 2050, diesel passenger vehicles will still capture more than 2 percent of the U.S. market.

Today’s energy, fuels and transportation sectors are a hotbed of change. According to the EIA’s latest projections, U.S refiners are set to fuel an upswing in the global economy. Today’s record-low diesel prices are expected to grow faster than gasoline as the global economy begins to take off, because the machinery behind modern economies around the world requires diesel technology to deliver prosperity.

Diesel technology continues to evolve so as to offer key industries the best in terms of efficient, low-emission, cost-effective powerful and reliable engines. The newest diesel engines are super clean, hitting near-zero emissions with selective catalytic reduction (SCR) systems that continue to be more efficient, in smaller packages at lower cost. Heavy-duty diesel engine and truck makers working with the Department of Energy Super Truck Program have pushed the envelope of thermal efficiency beyond the 50 percent milestone with greater aspirations for the next 3 years.

Today’s diesel emissions performance is scrutinized by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the California Air Resources Board like never before. These entities prescribe stringent standards for passenger cars, heavy-duty vehicles and more. All diesel engines must prove how they stand up to real-world settings, and random test cycles and conditions. Every newly approved diesel engine or vehicle offers further validation that diesel has met the new and higher bar for clean.

Another sign that the fuel sector is confident and preparing for more diesels on the road? Ultra-low-sulfur diesel fuel availability continues to grow and according to the Fuels Institute more than half of all retail fuel stations across the country now have a diesel pump and some regions more than two-thirds do. Renewable diesel fuel also continues to spread, and it’s this sustainable fuel that gives diesel engines the best chance of competing in a low-carbon future. Most of today’s diesel engines can run on high-quality blends of biodiesel with little modification, as well as next-generation, drop-in renewable diesel fuels which offer even further benefits.

Diesel Choices still Important in the Light-Duty Sector

In the United States, 2018 brings a fresh wave of new light-duty diesel product announcements from manufacturers. Ford, Kia, Mazda, General Motors, Fiat Chrysler, Daimler and BMW all recognize the continued place that the diesel powertrain (and the internal combustion engine) have in the future of the automotive industry. Their announcements come in the most popular vehicle segments for consumers – fuel-thirsty SUVs and pickups. These two segments alone account for nearly 40 percent of total U.S. auto sales.

Ford’s addition of a diesel option to the F-150 pickup truck is particularly poignant – the F-150 represents the best-selling truck in America for more than 40 years, and the best-selling vehicle of any kind in the United States for more than 35 years. By adding diesel to this truck’s powertrain lineup, Ford signals to all their confidence in diesel technology for the future.

And this isn’t just an American phenomenon. Auto manufacturers around the globe continue to share their support for and interest in diesel powertrains. Just a few of the many quotes to note:

  • Dieter Zetsche, CEO, Daimler AG: “The fact is, it’s more worthwhile to improve modern diesel engines than to ban them. We need diesel if we are to achieve our climate targets through less CO2 in road traffic. …Banning diesels would be a disservice to our targets.” Source
  • Dan Nicholson, Vice President of Global Propulsion Systems, General Motors: “Diesels present an opportunity for growth for Chevrolet because they combine fuel economy and high torque output for acceleration. Diesels are one of the lowest cost ways to reduce carbon dioxide emissions.” Source
  • Harald Krueger, CEO, BMW: “Diesel is absolutely necessary to reach climate goals in the medium-term.” Source
  • Steven Armstrong, EMEA President, Ford: “Our job is to offer the information to make a good decision, help them understand the facts behind the different powertrain vehicle options that there are, and to give them a choice of vehicle types and powertrains to meet the use case that they’ve got.” Source
  • Masahiro Moro, CEO, Mazda North America: “I don’t intend to change American consumer mindset to diesel. We would like to provide a choice for customers who really appreciate those technologies.” Source

Part 2 of this series focuses on diesel in the heavy-duty sector and concludes with thoughts about diesel’s future.

Allen Schaeffer is Executive Director of the Diesel Technology Forum.