The Diesel Dilemma

This blog routinely encourages zoom lens thinking – zooming out to understand matters in context and zooming in to focus on that which is actionable. This essay on diesel engines and environmental emissions is a good example of zooming. C.H.

Over the last few weeks, much has been written about Volkswagen and falsified diesel engine emissions testing. In short, certain Volkswagen vehicles emit much more of certain pollutants than are allowed under EPA regulations. The same vehicles pass the corresponding EPA testing due to a deliberate deception on Volkswagen’s part.

What Happened

Volkswagen has announced that it installed software in its 2.0 liter TDI diesel engine that allows the engine to temporarily suppress engine performance while being tested, in order to meet certain EPA environmental emissions tests. The result is that the engine emits excessive (illegal) amounts of nitrogen oxides (NOx) under ordinary driving conditions.

There are about 11 million vehicles affected, most of them in Europe. However, there is a half million or so in the U.S. Regulators and litigators are in top gear around the world. Volkswagen, of course, is in crisis mode, trying to determine what to do about this self – inflicted disaster. [1] There is plenty of coverage of that drama elsewhere. This essay zooms out to provide some context as to how this may affect smaller manufacturing firms over the coming months and years.

Diesel Engines

Diesel engines are remarkable machines. Compared to gasoline engines, they burn less fuel to operate, which translates into lower carbon dioxide emissions per mile. This is because diesels burn fuel under considerably more severe conditions than do gasoline engines. More severe conditions need more robust (heavier, more expensive) engine parts. Under severe combustion conditions, nitrogen from the air also reacts with oxygen from the air to form nitrogen oxides (NOx), a serious air pollutant. Severe combustion conditions also result in the reduction of some of the fuel all the way to elemental carbon – meaning black soot.

Diesel engines are generally preferred for heavy loads – larger trucks and railway locomotives – here in the U.S. due to their favorable torque curve (pulling power), durability (robust construction). In Europe, diesels are also favored for automobiles, due in part to their favorable fuel economy (hence lower CO2 emissions). Many European governments offer significant incentives for buyers to choose diesels. In fact, over half of the cars in Western Europe have diesel engines.

Prime Minister Valls

Last November (2014), Manual Valls, the Prime Minister of France, announced: [2]

“In France, we have long favored the diesel engine. This was a mistake, and we will progressively undo that, intelligently and pragmatically”

France’s concern is particulate carbon and NOx pollution, especially in cities, Paris in particular. Zoom out from present day France to 2050, when the world is projected to have about two billion more people than in does today. Most of those two billion are expected to live in cities. An additional billion or so are expected to rise above abject poverty. They, too, are expected to relocate to cities.

The CAFE Standards

In 2011, the U.S. established Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards, which require automobile manufacturers to improve the fuel consumption efficiency of their fleet of products sold in the U.S. on a schedule culminating in 2025. In brief, the CAFE standards require 2025 models to go about half again as far on a gallon of fuel as does a comparable 2015 model. To be clear: consider a 2015 model with an EPA mileage rating of 26 miles per gallon. The corresponding 2025 model will typically be required to test at about 39 miles per gallon.

The Diesel Dilemma

Consider the situation in the Boardroom of an international automobile manufacturer discussing compliance with the CAFE standards. Because of their favorable fuel consumption efficiency, diesels have been part of every manufacturer’s product line strategy.

Volkswagen’s situation makes it clear that it is difficult to produce diesel automobiles that meet today’s fuel economy requirements and emissions standards while offering driving performance that people will actually buy, let alone more stringent requirements in the coming years. Volkswagen does not lack good engineers — VW does include Audi and Porsche. What VW did suggests desperation. And the consequences of what they did will cost them billions, if not tens of billions of dollars. The public perception hit their brand will take may be even worse.

What should manufacturers do about their product line over the next ten model years? Double down on diesel technology, in view of Volkswagen’s disaster, M. Valls’ announcement and the 2025 CAFE requirements? Or do something else – something that can be realistically expected to be in full compliance and in high volume production within ten years?

Tesla Model SIn my view, the only real option for any serious manufacturer is to make electric vehicles a major part of the product line as quickly as possible. Since EVs don’t have tailpipes, they don’t have emissions concerns. Tesla has demonstrated that EVs can offer uncompromised driving performance. And Tesla has made the patents behind their technology available for free to any serious manufacturer.

Tesla has also established 500+ EV recharging stations around the world, with more opening almost daily. There are a lot more commercial and residential recharging facilities And Tesla has taken giga-strides toward producing the necessary batteries.

Yes, there are other possibilities. Toyota, for instance, prefers hydrogen fuel cell powered vehicles. Great, but volume manufacturing of suitable fuel cell diaphragms has been problematic in the past. And when and where will the hydrogen refilling facilities materialize? Hybrids are also part of the mix. But, given adequate EV range and a critical mass of recharging stations, what is the advantage?

To ice the cake, both Google and Apple are known to be developing automobiles. I think it unlikely that these well-heeled entries, or other new entries, will be concerned with patching up yesterday’s technologies. Volkswagen’s problem could well precipitate a wave of disruption that capsizes an entire global industry.

Thoughtful comments are always appreciated.

…  Chuck Harrington (

P.S: Contact me when your organization is serious about pursuing Sustainability … CH

This blog and associated website ( are intended as a resource for smaller manufacturers in the pursuit of Sustainability. While editorial focus is on smaller manufacturers, all interested readers are welcome. New blog posts are published weekly.

[1] The September 26th – November 2nd 2015 issue of The Economist devotes several articles – and its cover — to the Volkswagen matter and its consequences.

[2] Thomson Reuters, France to rank cars for pollution, wants to phase out diesel fuel, 28 November 2014. Available to print out at:


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